We Can Be Heroes

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Yesterday morning, I woke in the pre-dawn with the song, “Heroes” inexplicably pinging through my head. All through my shampoo and conditioner, “Heroes.” Blow-dry: “Heroes.” My teenaged son called to me from the hallway. “Mom,” he said using a tone of voice that sounded urgent on the level of “Wolves have broken through the walls” to “What do you mean you didn’t wash my favorite hoodie?”

I stopped the blow-dryer. “What is it, honey?” I asked.
“Mom,” he said again. “Bowie died.”
It took a moment for it to register. It was that incomprehensible to me, like saying the sun had gone missing or there were no such things as hands anymore. When it finally registered, it registered as a punch. I ran to check the news feed, and there was the confirmation. And suddenly, Monday felt sideways and surreal. Wrong. And so very sad.

For as long as I could remember, Bowie had been a necessary part of my life. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Jareth the Goblin King. And those songs! They were songs that made it okay to be a freak, a weirdo, an outsider. Songs that seemed to recognize your loneliness, your yearning—the very unnameable searching of your soul. Underneath the experimentation, Bowie’s songs were achingly romantic. Songs in search of connection and, possibly, redemption but songs which seemed to accept that any answer would be ambiguous at best. Some of the songs snarled. Some howled. But all of them were vulnerable and true. They made it okay for us to be vulnerable and true, too. To feel that whatever strange creature lurked in the depths of you, it was okay to let it out to strut its hour upon the stage.

How could there be a world without a David Bowie in it?

GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR TOM
I’m fourteen and listening to Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars through headphones in my cramped bedroom with the Sears butterfly bedspread and the wall full of preening peacock rock stars. Fourteen is a strange, lonely, and confusing place. I am suspended between worlds—woman/child, sex/fear, here/there, Wham-Bam-Thank You-Ma’am and Oh-No-Not-Me. Bowie gets it. Listening to “Space Oddity” is like jacking myself into a larger universe where a space alien love god rock star offers me a hand. “Welcome,” he says without speaking. “We’d better get you a proper hat.” I begin to fall in love with Bowie the changeling and his far-out magical kingdom. He is, if not a cure for loneliness, at least a validation that my inner turmoil, odd questions, and giddy, hopeful dreams are seen. I can feel them pulsing like a heartbeat through these hauntingly beautiful songs. And I know, there is Life on Mars.

TURN AND FACE THE STRANGE
It’s my best friend, Eleanor, who cements my Bowie love. She adores him, and we bond over our shared affection for Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Tim Curry. We spend our weekends dressing up and going to Rocky Horror {And she’s hooked to the silver screen}, even though we are underage by a mile. But listening to Bowie puts a swagger in our fledgling Rebel, Rebel steps. Makes us feel cool, though we are the farthest thing from cool there is. My hairdresser has cut my red-gold hair into an approximation of Bowie’s on the cover of Diamond Dogs, a haircut so awful on me that I wear a hat for three full months. In Eleanor’s room, where we reek of Love’s Baby Soft and Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, we spin records that seem to make it possible for us not to have to talk about our lives—her mother running off and abandoning her for a man she met in AA, my father, newly liberated and dancing with the men he’d wanted to love all along. The songs make everything okay, though. The songs see us. Love us. Even though the lyrics are fragmented and Dadaist, we get them in our guts where such understanding lives. We think Bowie is beautiful in a suit or a dress. We love the way his crazy, thrilling voice with its impossible range can be sexual and snarling one minute and yearning and soulful the next. Like it’s part earth, part space. Major Tom looking down on us from his unseen orbit. The Voice that Fell to Earth.

“Faaame, makes a man think things over,” we snarl into hairbrushes as we swipe her mother’s Avon lipstick, forgotten in a bathroom drawer, over mouths that hurt from holding so much back. Years later, we drive recklessly down country roads. We are joyful, feral things with the radio blasting. {“Turn and face the strange, Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!”} We stick our hands out car windows and let the wind bless our palms with hymns of freedom. We believe we can cup our unformed futures in our fists, squeeze them into shape, and toss them back out like youthful kisses. We are young. We believe they will be waiting for us at the next stop down the road. {Look at that sky, life’s begun/Nights are warm and the days are young.}

DRIVE-IN SATURDAY
My brother and I are sitting in a cow pasture outside town. It’s cold. People who think it doesn’t get cold in Texas have never sat in a cow pasture on the plains of North Texas in January. My brother is home from college in Waco where he also works in a record store called Sgt. Pepper’s. He sends me all sorts of records—British imports, Stan Ridgeway, Brian Eno. Bowie. We’re parked across the road from a small airstrip. Occasionally, a toy-like aircraft wobbles down toward the bright white lights of the thin strip of runway. Behind me, an inquisitive cow pokes her wet nose through the fence. My brother and I smoke a joint and listen to music through his new Bose car speakers, which he has installed himself. “Ashes to Ashes” comes on, and my brother and I try to outdo each other with our best Bowie impersonations. {Ashes to ashes/funk to funky/we know Major Tom’s a junkie.} This is how we talk, my brother and I, in song lyrics. It is how we say, “I see you. Do you see me?” This is part of Bowie’s genius. He seems to say with a wink and a smile, “Yes, you can do this. You can be this. Whatever weird creature lives inside of you, let it out. I grant you permission.”

I don’t know what else my brother and I talk about—or don’t—on this night. We have our own Scary Monsters, each of us, and we’re not sharing. I only remember the music and the two of us watching the night sky blink with landing planes, and for a moment, we are close as close can be, bound together by strange, hopeful threads of lyric and melody spun by a magician Starman.

WHO CAN I BE NOW?
1983. New Orleans. I’m a raw, fragile thing. Nineteen years old with a face fucked-up by a car accident. If I’d felt slightly like a space alien before, I now feel solidly like a space alien freak. I’m a teenager walking the rain-slicked bricks of the French Quarter alone with a pocket full of Tarot-card luck. {Let’s Dance. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.} Bowie is everywhere. On MTV. Blasting out of tourist shops and Bourbon Street bars. Pulsing through speakers in the New Wave dance clubs where I want to stay on the floor till I’m sweaty and exhausted, till I might dance myself into someone who feels pretty. Someone tells me Bowie has a fake eye just like mine. No, I tell them. He just has a dilated pupil. Same difference, they say. {Oh Baby, just you shut your mouth.} But I like that Bowie and I share a weirdo eye. If he can make weirdo eye-ism cool, maybe there’s hope. Yeah. Maybe there’s hope.

SPEED OF LIFE
A last memory. I see Bowie once in real life. It happens a few years ago, here in New York City. His daughter and my son attend the same middle school, and we parents have converged on an NYU concert hall for the kids’ spring concert. Afterward, as I wait in the lobby among streams of excited children while I search for my own, a strikingly beautiful couple comes around the corner. The inside of my head fights to make sense of it: There’s David Bowie and Iman. You are ten feet, nine feet, eight feet from David Bowie and Iman. It’s a bit like standing next to something too bright, a false intimacy created from all those years with all of those albums. I don’t want to stare, don’t want to be that person. We are all parents here. It’s sacred territory. And the truth is, I don’t know him. I only know the music. And really, what more do I need? So I turn my head, and they walk past, out into the gentle spring night of a New York that glows a little brighter for it. A city sprinkled with their stardust.

And then they are gone.

WE CAN BE HEROES
After I’d processed the news yesterday, I emailed Maureen Johnson, another Bowie mega-fan. “I feel like you’re the only other person I know who is as sad about this as I am,” I wrote. Within the hour, she had written back, “I’m weirdly not sad. It’s like he’s just so permanent that this is just something new he’s doing.”

It was perfectly Maureen and just plain perfect. Yes. Bowie the Artist will never go away as long as there are outsiders. Dreamers. Human yearning. Slightly lost teenage girls in bedrooms with headphones who rely on lyrics to speak for them. Last night, I sat with my husband, Barry, as our son, Josh, scrolled through his Facebook timeline reading tributes to Bowie from his rock camp friends. One, a diehard fan, had posted a profile pic of himself in full Aladdin Sane lightning bolt makeup. These teens, this whole new generation of Young Americans, feels just as connected to Bowie as I did. Well, ain’t that close to love?

We always have the music, and my God, what music: “Five Years.” “Sons of the Silent Age.” “Sound and Vision.” “Moonage Daydream.” “Silly Boy Blue.” “Heroes.” “The Man Who Sold the World.” All of it a visionary soundtrack of permission granted to dream big, to reach higher by digging deep down inside those unconscious, real places. Permission granted to be who you are and who you might yet become, forever and ever. Yes. You can do that. And that. And also that. We can be heroes.

David Bowie proved it.

* Monday evening, in a funk, I called my friends, pianist/singer-songwriter/musical director Bill Zeffiro, and recording engineer, Chip Fabrizi, two good friends with whom I often hang out and record music. I asked if maybe we could get together at PPI, Chip’s studio in Soho, just to sing a Bowie song. “Heroes” had been in my head all day, so that’s what we laid down. RIP, Mr. Jones. Thanks for the music. Here’s a little something back. *

 

17 thoughts on “We Can Be Heroes

  1. I’ve been trying to put into words how I’ve been feeling about this. Not sad. Maureen said it perfectly. I really can’t see how the world would ever not feel him here. He’s too permanent. He lived a life that was so full that I cannot imagine that as he passed he was anything other than at peace, satisfied with a life so fully lived. What a man. What an experience. What a life. Thanks for posting this. 🙂

  2. I love this writing. You singing this song just elevates my state of being as the snow falls lightly here in Kingston NY…I feel so lucky that you are my friend…you bring it right on home. I’m not a Bowie scholar but I like the songs that I know…and this is one of them. Thank you for sharing all of this…xoxo Rob

  3. While I can’t claim to know every song David sang, I will forever be grateful for Let’s Dance. In the midst of my teenage years, a time where finding my identity seemed both pivotal and impossible, I had that song to to assist me. I learned of life, love, sadness, and loyalty all within its lyrics. Let us all put on our red shoes and dance the blues in his memory.

  4. Nothing I’ve read, seen, or heard since I learned of Bowie’s death has touched me as deeply as your words, your story, and your heartfelt sadness singing “Heroes”. Thank you, dear Libba.

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