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Searching for David Bowie in London

Posted on Friday, July 16th, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Author: Sarah Jaffe

Somewhere in London it stopped seeming like a coincidence anymore and started to feel like something I should pay attention to.

“China Girl” haunted my steps from my arrival. It showed up on shuffle on my iPod and as background music in coffee shops and bars and one lovely little left-wing bookstore, reminding me of a boy who pressed his finger to my lips (and nothing else) as he argued with me that no, really, it’s an ANTI-racist song. Because the girl tells Bowie “oh baby, just you shut your mouth.”

(And in the version on the Reality Tour record he sneers in her voice “oh baby, just shut the f*ck up.”)

I was in London to see friends, to escape the day job, to lose myself in a city I didn’t know and yes, to write. Because that’s always part of my plan, wherever I go. I didn’t go there looking for the ghost of David Bowie or some long-lost god of Glam Rock. But they were there waiting for me, regardless.  And each replay of “China Girl” made me, the American abroad, laugh at myself until I finally embraced it, told the story of the old crush and in doing so let it go, and went exploring by myself to the tune of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

*****
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Back for a few weeks and Bowie hadn’t quite let go of his grip on me; I strolled into a used-book-and-record store in small-town New Hampshire and found someone’s Bowie collection left abandoned for me to find. And while I was thrilled part of me hurt for whomever let this much goodness go. Who abandons Young Americans, “Heroes”, Scary Monsters, Station to Station in great condition for someone else to find?

I put the records on my credit card and took them back to my hotel room (second hotel room in three weeks) and spread them out on the bed and looked at slim cocaine-redhead-Bowie face and wondered what secrets the angles of his cheekbones hold. I felt like Christian Bale worshipping the photo of Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Todd Haynes’ take on the Bowie myth, but for me Bowie has never been about sex. Not really.

*****

I walked into a record store—THE record store, really—with a new friend and between rows of vinyl I wasn’t going to buy and have to fit into my bags to get home, I decided that what I really wanted was some reading to go with the music in my ears, and taking a Bowie book with me on my cross-England train ride the next day was just what I needed. And so picked up Marc Spitz’s shiny new biography of the man (god) and carried it onto the train to lose myself in details I didn’t know and thoughts of songs I did.

So I learned that David Bowie is my father’s age and knew that he is in some way a father I’ve adopted. A father who never lived through Columbia ‘68 but instead was on a stage wailing as revolution rocked campuses across the world. Already a star.

I have grown up in his image even having resisted it for years, since the stern father-lover-villain of Labyrinth, the ultimate creepy older man wearing his virility in silver spandex (and perhaps of all things that’s what really scared me then about Bowie, that so-obvious sexuality, that bulge in those pants so often obsessed over).

80s Bowie was the first one I heard, and for years I’d mix up “Let’s Dance” with “Dance Magic Dance” from Labyrinth, if you want to talk embarrassing admissions. Outside tour Bowie was the first and only that I saw play live, and even more embarrassing is that I went to see Nine Inch Nails and didn’t appreciate Bowie in his disco-ball jacket. Earthling Bowie was the first one I embraced, in the arms of the first boy to really touch me, a Bowie lover with fluid sexuality that he couldn’t quite handle, with me or with his uncontrollable, embarrassing crushes on boys. A poor substitute for Bowie but one nevertheless who left me flushed with desire and semi-successful pursuit and with a love for Bowie that has transcended every boy I’ve been with. Certainly the ones who could never share a piece of the Thin White Duke or the longhaired befrocked queen of Hunky Dory. The alien. The Earthling. But it’s glam rock Bowie that I always come back to, that I look for everywhere, whether it’s a sweep of glitter eye makeup or a kiss I shouldn’t give.

So in London of course it was 80s Bowie that led me looking for Ziggy Stardust, from being afraid of desires to feeling them awaken to letting them go again. Because Bowie demanded more of me, required my attention to a lyric or a particular otherworldly crack and wail. I could give him that part of me and sleep with pretty boys who never got it. I kissed tattooed rockabilly boys and sweet nerdy boys and dangerous boys with hard muscle under that skin and watched some of them fall apart and each time went back to Bowie. Each time something or someone crumbled out from under me, left me alone again, he was there.

They never got what I drew from him. And I could never explain it to them, why it wasn’t about sex the way Jagger was about sex, Elvis was about sex. It was about monsters and magic. It was about  me. Or maybe I didn’t want to share.

*****

And standing in the liquor store line with my mother back in the States, buying wine that we would drink later and cry over, it came on again, “China Girl,” and by now the only thing those piano plonks reminded me of is the fact that they kept appearing to remind me of things. Suddenly I didn’t want to tell that story anymore.

Instead I laughed and told my mother another bad-date story and wondered what the soundtrack to my next bad date will be.

*****

I am never looking for Bowie-the-man because if I were to do that the streets of New York would be where I would find him, uptown Bowie with the beautiful wife who has grown more masculine, more comfortably father-figure now than ever before.  I like the idea of Bowie the man but what I wanted from London was the glam-rock god (or ghost), like a glitter shot to keep me going.

In the comic Phonogram: Rue Britannia Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie created a goddess of Britpop and so in their hometown and Bowie’s I wondered what the goddess of glam rock would look like. Would she have Bolan’s curls or Bowie’s mullet and why, after all, were there no glam rock queens? For a gender-bending moment there were no women until Siouxsie Sioux and her goth-glam.

No place in glam rock for my curves that don’t allow me any sort of androgyny. No, from miles away you see Girl all over the shape of my walk, as I wandered down a London street and turn onto the little half-street now choked with outdoor tables and vines like a particularly bourgeois jungle. I didn’t look like a Bowie disciple except for the faint shimmer in my military-inspired jacket but I was there just the same, to pay tribute and find inspiration in an old red phone booth moved around the corner from where it was on that record cover so as not to disturb pricey dinners.

The inspiration to make myself again.

*****
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Almost time to leave London and I gave in completely to Bowie, strolled the streets of London tracing landmarks that struck me from the book with the wrenching beauty of “Five Years,” the swagger of “Ziggy Stardust,” the gender-bending “Lady Stardust” and the reassuring heartbreak of “Rock’n'roll Suicide” echoing in my ears. Taking distorted pictures of street signs and that red phone booth with a pink plastic camera that makes everything look slightly alien, magic, strange.

I sat in a Starbucks because I was not going to spend a ridiculous amount of money on food when I wasn’t hungry to be near a myth of David Bowie. (Somehow eating at all is too earthy an activity for Bowie anyway, even the thick sweet chai I drank instead is too much but cocaine-thin is another thing I’m not and never will be.)  I’ve walked and touched and thought and I’ll go back soon to that lovely city that liked me the way New York does, the way New Orleans did, because it’s been opening its arms to lost freaks and wandering children for hundreds of years.

I was within sight of the spot where rock stars sat and thinking about my love for populist-themed yet exclusive punk rock and pop idols who gleefully declared themselves superstars but who reached and spoke to millions. Both are themselves populist impulses—you must get big to reach those who haven’t yet escaped to the city, the ones who can’t stroll by the right hangout and find their new family hiding there. Those who can’t get on a plane to go looking for traces of the magic that glam rock left behind.

And yet to be a rocker of any stripe, any kind of artist at all, you need some barriers up to keep others from claiming too much of you. You need, despite all the giving and sharing that art and rock’n’roll require, to be a bit of a loner at heart.

*****

No, I didn’t find Bowie waiting for me around a corner with a red mullet and a wink, but that’s OK.  As I get older he’s less about the god anyway, though I still looked for a dusting of glitter in London alleys and communed with yuppified fallen temples (and wanted to purge them like some tattooed female American Jesus throwing out the moneylenders).

No, now it’s something else. Or maybe it always was. Maybe I saw more of Ziggy in the mirror as I slid on that striped jacket and slicked on red lipgloss, silver shadow, went out for one last night in town. Bowie taught me to redefine, to change, to keep pushing, and maybe somewhere in these songs, in the traces he’s left, he can teach me to be happy with what I have as well.

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  1. The Dame is one of my holy trinity of heroes alongside Kubrick and Caine. Although my fondest incarnation of him is actually an impression in a comedy show Stella Street. He’s played as earnest and gentle and it always cracks me up.

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