In the darkness of early morning in the outskirts of Atlanta, GA in 1987, my mother would groggily wake up from her massive bedroom, put on her silk nightie, and walk up to my room to get me ready for school. I was already an insomniac that generally never slept until 4am, so even at 10 years old getting me up became quite a task, …. but she and I developed a pattern after I became obsessed with a certain movie.
She’d knock at first, and generally this would have no effect. Then she’d call out my name, and this also would have no result. Finally, she’d open up the door, walk into my room and head over to the boombox on my bedside desk that encased my favorite cassette tape.
She’d press play, and this song would come on. It was the same song that I would rewind every night, and it was the same song I would hear every morning for 1.5 years.
A male voice would jump through the speakers in a jovial manner singing:
“You remind me of the babe (what babe?)
Babe with the power (what power?)
Power of voodoo (who do?)
You do (do what?)
Remind me of the babe”
I’d flip out of bed automatically in joy, often to the shock of my mother, who was still a bit slow, still delirious with attempting to wake herself up. Meanwhile, i’d dance in my pajamas to the shower, and I would start my day.
The man who was singing this song I knew only as “Jareth, The Goblin King”, but to others his name was David Bowie.
My fascination with David Bowie was only specific to this character, which was a part of my favorite movie at the time, “Labyrinth”. He was the villain in this movie, but I did not see him as such. I was in love with him. I desperately prayed to him every night to kidnap me from the doldrums of my southern suburban childhood hell, out into the weird and wonderful fantasy world that he dominated.
At that time his voice was an escape. It would prove to be again, 5 years later during my budding teenage years. As a busboy and dishwasher for “The Black Eyed Pea” out in Merchant’s Walk Plaza in Marietta, GA in the 90’s, I became obsessed with a movie called “Cool World” animated by the infamous Ralph Bakshi. On the CD, which introduced me to techno, a sound that would enrapture me for many years, David Bowie had a track called “Real Cool World” that I would play over and over again in the muggy dish pit of the restaurant. Late at night I would play this soundtrack, and David Bowie would croon over the soapwater-drenched broken speakers, while I scrubbed crusted southern food from various plates and dishes.
His voice was an escape for me as a child, and his voice was an escape for me as a teenager.. but I’d never really know until years later about who he was, and just how important he was to my queer self growing up.
David Bowie (AKA: David Robert Jones) was born on January 8th, 1947 in Brixton, South London, U.K. to modest upbringings. His mother Peggy was a waitress, and his father was a charity worker. As a child he was known to be incredibly artistic. He was also known as a rebellious fighter. He was obsessed with music as a child, especially Jazz and Motown, and at the age of 15, he became a part of his first band, named “The Konrads”.
One of the members of “The Konrads” and “George and the Dragons” was George Underwood, who, in an altercation with David over a girl, punched in him the eye. This injury would leave David in the hospital for months, giving him a permanent depth perception issues and one dilated pupil . Despite this altercation, George and David remained good friends (and George later on went to create the artwork for Bowie’s first albums).
David Bowie was always defiant, and had a very strong understanding of the sound that he wanted. He floated through various bands until ultimately becoming the lead for himself. Quite a changeling as a child, he would prove to be more so as a teenager and young adult. He adapted, and forcefully beaconed himself as a pioneer of the counterculture era of London in the late 60’s.
Even though David Bowie wasn’t necessarily the first one to experiment with gender-breaking norms in music, he certainly was the most popular. Riding on the waves of gender ambiguity, David Bowie developed personas that crossed the barriers of heteronormativity, which was incredibly taboo at that time. Often wearing dresses and makeup, David would take to the streets and stage with his gender-fluid persona, which often caused him great trouble, even once to the point of being held at gunpoint.
David and his many gender-bending personas in the 70’s including “Ziggy Stardust” and “The Thin White Duke” were often more popular than himself. Living in the shadow of these various presences actually caused him psychological harm. He mentioned that his personas “wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour.. My whole personality was affected and it became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity”.
So even though David Bowie wasn’t gay himself (even though on the radio as one persona he said he was), these personalities were. This opens quite a complicated dialogue about queerness and how it relates to persona .vs. the person itself. Was he capitalizing on mainstream media with faux homosexuality? Possibly. Was it making a difference for the gay community despite his real heterosexuality? Absolutely.
Always on the tip of cutting edge, David Bowie continually morphed through the movements of music. Post persona, David moved from Glam Rock to The New Romantic Era, forging a name for himself, still with a gender ambiguous pansexual quality.
It was here, as a fascinated child, that I met him… long haired, clad in makeup as the king of Goblin City. He was, despite his villainous nature in the movie “Labyrinth”, the protagonist to my gender-bending youth to young adulthood.
As a kid so desperate to leave my suburban life.. and as a teenager so desperate to be my gender-bending self… I found myself with the help of David Bowie. I become the person I wanted to be. David Bowie was with me when I shaved off my eyebrows, and cat walked the runway of Pope High School in Marietta, GA with 4 foot foam-stacked platforms and lipstick. David Bowie was with me when my parents put me in lockdown in their home for being gay and a gender nonconformist. David Bowie was with me as I threw garbage bags of clothes and tchotchkes out a 6th floor window into a pickup truck when I ran away to Athens, GA.
David Bowie was was with me, when I returned to Atlanta as a teen and would ride the MARTA subway to school in “raver drag” from Lenox, to 5 pts, to Inman Park.
David Bowie without a doubt was a legend to all that listened to him, but he was beyond Davy Jones, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, or even Jareth, the Goblin King… He was the patron-saint of gender-benders, guiding us through our life to find ourselves without fear or hesitation.