or: Everything I Know About Science Fiction Worldbuilding I Learned From David Bowie
Words, even Bowie’s own strange elliptical cryptic lyrical vocabulary, will never be sufficient to describe or define the shock and loss I felt when I woke up to learn that he was gone. As so many others have said so much more eloquently, I thought you had to be human to be mortal. And more importantly, I thought that David Bowie would always be around because in my world, he always had been. Of course, not only by virtue of being born terminal but in every crucial way that counts, the man born David Jones was as human as they come. It’s just that he realized from an early age that being human also meant that we all carried a little alien DNA inside.
I admit that when I was a young suburban Texas kid seeing him for the first time singing alongside Bing Crosby on a televised Christmas special, he was a mystery to me, an out-of-place ethereal character in this old-fashioned setting, where even Bing asked him about his holiday rituals back home as if he were an off-world visitor. And a few years later, when I caught his insanely inspired performances on Saturday Night Live, with the puppet bodies and the architectural cross-dressing, singing songs about transgendered folk heroes and carnivorous TV sets, I’ll confess that my tiny young mind was a little bit afraid of the guy.
But a few years later, now a high school student just beginning to explore the significance of being a left-leaning, freak-admiring outsider in a world of preppies, rednecks, jocks and homecoming queens, I was more than ready when my friend Jim “Seamus” Moran turned me and my friends onto the exquisitely weird musical wonders of this boundary-pushing, genre-straddling, soul-weird superstar in the years just prior to the release of “Let’s Dance.” Sure, I knew “Changes” was a great pop song and thanks to Pink Floyd I had a rough idea of what a “concept album” was, but even the brilliant navel-gazing of The Wall couldn’t prepare me for the science fiction drenched plunge into the fully realized worlds of Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, Aladdin Sane, or the Thin White Duke.
Ziggy lit my inspirational fuse from the cover image on down, opening with his blearily apocalyptic promise that the world he was living in, maybe one dimension over from our own, had just five years left to exist, and everyone on the planet had to figure out how to wrestle with that knowledge. Ziggy wouldn’t be the last time Bowie played around with the image of an alien savior quite possibly too pure for this Earth, but it would be the only time he’d really lay it out in a series of interrelated songs that were brilliantly accessible pop rock while also serving as lovingly sketched micro-short stories about a fantastic and tragic reality he seemed to be perceiving within the confines of our much more mundane one.
Around the time we were assigned to read Orwell’s bleak, despairing, joyless “1984” (in the actual year 1984 no less), I had my limited edition picture disc of “Diamond Dogs” in frequent rotation on my cheap plastic turntable. Knowing that the songs had evolved from a planned stage musical adaptation of the book, I marveled at the way he exploded my notions of dystopia with characters, settings and ideas that had more dimensions in a few lines than Orwell’s characters gained over 200-plus pages. Could the glittering Diamond Dogs even co-exist alongside the gray-faced Winston Smiths of Oceania? While Winston sat in his drab flat drinking Victory gin or stood with his co-workers for the Two-Minutes Hate, could an eye-patched punk pirate really be sliding down a rope like some swaggering vigilante from his penthouse squat atop the Chase Manhattan building?
I sure wanted to think so. The songs became the soundtrack for the drug-fueled story ideas my friends and I concocted on long stoned wandering nights in a world that was as drab as Orwell’s even if the lawns were lush and green. They were an escape into fantasy as fully realized and satisfying as Planet of the Apes or Star Wars had been a few years earlier. More so, because there was so much left to the imagination, and ours were literally exploding with ideas. Listening to Bowie was like experiencing cyberpunk before the subgenre even existed. We wanted to take that cross-country journey with Aladdin Sane and meet a man who “looked a lot like Che Guevara” in a burned-out war-torn Detroit. We wanted to head to an anarchic New York or London to see Ziggy play live, then flee in terror across Northern Europe from the ever-looming threat of the Thin White Duke, always just one train car behind us.
So as much as I’ve ever been moved by Bob Dylan’s next-wave hobo troubadour stylings, or Tom Waits ragged vagabond Americana, or the Rolling Stones distillation of rock star excess, no musician, no songwriter, and few other artists in general, have ever had quite so much influence on what I write, why I write it, and how it feels-and sounds-in my head when I’m trying to squeeze it out, as David Bowie.
I’m not the first one to say it, and it’s just a weak paraphrase of a quote we all read on the day, but if David Bowie wasn’t strange enough to somehow exist forever, at least he was here at all. For that I will always be grateful.