“I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, “Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.” David Bowie
Like so many kids in their early teens, I felt out of place and at odds with myself when I grew up: I lacked the masculinity expected of me from my environment, being a skinny sensitive introverted boy who liked to play “house” with my stepsisters — making doll’s dresses and staging mock weddings.
I made a beautiful bride.
At the time, unlike the other boys, I also showed no signs of reaching puberty and resorted to using a black marker pen to draw chest hair on my chest… and everywhere else my “shame” had to be covered.
My self-expression led to ridicule and apart from spending time with the few friends I had, I mostly kept myself to myself.
It was September 1987. I was 12 years old and growing up in Pretoria — a highly conservative and religious city, in South Africa. My step parents restricted my “television time” to 2 hours a week and classical music was the only music I was allowed to listen to. They “meant well”.
That spring, hidden in a box and covered with dust, I found a cassette tape of Elvis Presley’s 1968 Las Vegas comeback concert. When I heard the King’s music for the first time, Heartbreak Hotel, Jailhouse Rock, Wooden Heart, Teddy Bear, Are You Lonesome Tonight… a hunger, which I wasn’t even aware of, stirred inside me. I wanted to know more about this man! This music! And the outrage it caused.
Two problems: First, my stepdad’s stuff was out of bounds, so getting caught with the tape meant big trouble. Second, “Rock & Roll was the devil’s creation”, and listening to it was as good as bringing Satan himself into our home. (Goodness knows why my stepdad held onto that tape…)
My safe haven and key to escaping home life was our local library. I saved my pocket money and took a bus trip to the library every Saturday — at the great expense of 50 cents a trip. Fortunately, being an “academic”, my stepmom encouraged those library visits: “If the boy keeps himself busy with books, at least he is learning something and stays out of trouble.”
Little did she know. The library gave me access to an entire archive of books and vinyl records of the “devil’s music”. A whole new world opened up to me — not just Elvis but also Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ritchie Valens, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and many more.
Like the teenagers of the 1950’s, Rock & Roll revolutionised me albeit in 1987. And once my lust for 50s Rocks & Roll was exhausted, with a lot of catching up to do, I headed for the next three decades.
The Complete Encyclopaedia of Rock & Roll became an essential point of reference that introduced me to Brit Pop, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young… and David Bowie!
“The boy” found himself in the good company of artists, poets, rebels, free-thinkers and creative geniuses.
When I saw the news of David Bowie’s passing, while running on a treadmill in Central London, 6am in the morning, I flush of sadness fell over me.
I remembered my younger self — a barefooted 12 year old boy completely overwhelmed by his isolation in an unkind environment — sitting on the library floor in his khaki shorts and yellow checked shirt, staring at a picture of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album cover: flash across his face, flaming red hair, pale skin, ruby lips, eye shadow and a humble subtle bow of his head: Undiscovered greatness.
He was sexy. Weird. Man-woman. Crazy. Clever. Poetic. Dark. Alien. Familiar. Exotic. Enigmatic. Mysterious. Angry. Kind. Provocative. Wicked. Amazing.
A man in lycra? Sequin? Glitter? Make up? Wigs? Extravagant and beautiful? Boys can do that?
“Thank God!” I thought. “There is hope for me. There are others like me. I can escape this place.”
Until yesterday, 11 January 2016, the day the world learned that the Star Man has returned to where he belongs, I did not realise the impact of that first image of David Bowie I laid eyes on, had on me. It was the first sign of a glimmer of hope.
That image opened the door for me to a journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance and self-expression that I hope never ends.
Of course, there is his music, his acting and his tremendous and impeccable sense of style. How could anyone ever ignore these Bowie trademarks? “Fame, makes a man take things over. Fame, lets him loose, hard to swallow…”
He will be remembered and admired for so many things and rightfully so. There is no measure to his monumental artistic accomplishments and contributions.
For me David Bowie was a lifeline — the man who gave space to oddity and who showed the world, in the multitude of all his exquisite manifestations, the importance and power of owning who you are.
“And the shame was on the other side. Oh we can beat them, forever and ever. Then we could be Heroes, just for one day…” Heroes, Dawid Bowie