When news of David Bowie’s death broke this morning, I found out not through social media or a news outlet—I woke up to more than 20 personal messages offering condolences, making sure I was OK. (The first thing I had to do was figure out what terrible thing had happened.) My Reader colleague Kevin Warwick even brought me a doughnut, knowing I’d need sweets to ease the emotional pain. Whether because I’ve told them myself or just because of how I live my life, everyone around me knows how much Bowie means to me. Maybe they just never really knew why.
I first heard the Starman’s music as a baby. During the first year of my life I spent most of my time with my dad, who took care of me while my mom finished school to become an occupational therapist. Most of my musical taste can be traced back to those days with my dad swinging me around our Palos Hills apartment, singing songs by the Beatles, the Violent Femmes, and of course David Bowie. I’ll always remember my dad belting out “Changes” and turning and pretending to look into a mirror when Bowie sang “As I turn myself to face me.” (To this day my dad will delightedly explain that that’s what Bowie does in the video—how cool is he?)
It wasn’t until my angsty teen years that Bowie became more to me than just an old guy my dad liked. I remember being 14 years old, on vacation with my family in our cabin up north with a friend. As my friend and I stretched out on a bed in our room, I tried to explain to her the depression I was feeling, the lack of inspiration to do anything worthwhile. I felt like I didn’t have any friends, and I was missing so many days of school that I was nearly kicked out. A year before, a friend had committed suicide, and I still wasn’t sure how to deal with how that made me feel. Maybe it was the same pit that all teens fall into, but I fell deep.
My friend thrived on music, so when I poured out my heart, that was the comfort she offered. “You’ll like this,” she said, handing me a burned copy of Hunky Dory covered in her own permanent-marker doodles. I threw the CD into my Walkman, went down to the side of the lake, and listened. Immediately I recognized a few songs my dad had played for me, but now I really heard them. I sat by that lake for hours, just pressing repeat on “Life on Mars,” “Oh, You Pretty Things,” and “Queen Bitch.” It was a transcendent moment. Yes, there would be times in the future when I would be confused and depressed and alienated. But now I had someone to turn to who felt all those things—and instead of wallowing in his room, he turned them into brilliant creativity.
From that point on, when people asked me what kind of music I listened to, I would simply respond “David Bowie.” In college I wrote a ten-page paper on Bowie and his personas for an arts criticism class; looking into the Starman in an academic context made him seem even more extraordinary. Not only did he consistently put out music, but he consistently put out new and different music, never afraid to change his sound or image entirely. There’s not one artist who comes even close to maintaining the creative range that Bowie had. I got an A on that paper and decided, Hey, maybe this writing thing really is for me.
After I graduated from college, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” became my anthem. The song was musically dynamic and emotional. The lyrics tell the story of someone unsure of where her life is going, wandering aimlessly, but then Bowie utters the most reassuring words: “Oh no love! You’re not alone!” The first time I really listened to this song, at my most broke and most jobless and probably most mentally unstable, I burst into tears. Even while I was physically and emotionally alone, I still had Bowie and his music—listening to him always grounded me (or sent me out to space, whichever I needed most at the time).
Seeing “David Bowie Is” at the MCA was a hugely moving experience for me; it was the closest I ever got to the rock star who’d become so much a part of me. In the exhibit’s mock recording studio, staring at the handwritten lyrics to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” I teared up—and at that moment I knew that I was going to permanently ink myself with Bowie’s handwriting to make him a literal part of me. A few months later, when I had the money and the time to get the tattoo, I had to postpone it; I’d been diagnosed with cancer.
What should have been the hardest time of my life came relatively easy. Besides the physical pain, the hardest part of going through cancer and chemotherapy is the transformation your body goes through. You get thin, you lose your hair, you’re taught to put on clownish amounts of makeup to make yourself look well. It was what Bowie had been training me for my entire life. Losing all the weight was my Thin White Duke phase, my crazy wigs and outfits were my Ziggy Stardust phase, and the caked-on makeup was my Aladdin Sane phase. And all the while I had Bowie’s voice in my head: “You’re not alone.”
A month after I was officially declared cancer free, I finally got Bowie’s words—in his handwriting—tattooed on my arm. That was three months ago. Now here I am today, dealing with the fact that I’ve lost my hero to the same disease that he helped me beat, just days after listening to his last album. I heard a sense of finality in that record, but I never could have guessed how final it really was. I said in my review that it’s an album that will be remembered when he’s dead and gone; little did I know how right I would be. As I deal with the loss, I’ll take comfort in something Bowie once said: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”