Group Therapy: Remembering Davie Bowie

Colette Arrand lives in Athens, Georgia, where she is a student at the University of Georgia. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Toast, The Establishment, Autostraddle, The Offing, and elsewhere.

Tara Campbell is a D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. She volunteers with 826DC, the Washington Writers Conference/Books Alive, and the Writer’s Center. Tara also appears at local reading series such as The Inner Loop and the lowercase. Her work has appeared in publications such as Barrelhouse, Punchnel’s, Toasted Cake Podcast, Luna Station Quarterly, the Master’s Review and Queen Mob’s Teahouse.

Killian Czuba is the Barrelhouse art director. She publishes books, makes comics, podcasts, has an MFA from Pacific in Fiction, and is a tattoo artist in Portland, Oregon.

Arielle Greenberg is the author of four books of poetry, including the forthcoming Come Along with Me to the Pasture Now (Agape Editions, 2017) and two books of creative nonfiction, including Locally Made Panties (Ricochet Editions, 2016). In her younger days, she did a riot grrl zine and was a college radio DJ. Now that she’s exceedingly old, she lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in the MFA at Oregon State University-Cascades.

Marissa Landrigan’s creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals, including The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Guernica, Orion, The Rumpus, and others. She writes a monthly column for Paste online called “Breaking Vegetarian,” holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University, and is currently an Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Kevin Maloney is the author of Cult of Loretta (Lazy Fascist Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, PANK, and Monkeybicycle. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his girlfriend and daughter.

Daniel Nester is the author of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press 2015). He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection The Unfinished World and Other Stories. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband and daughter and two cats.


Barrelhouse: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about David Bowie?

Tara Campbell (TC): Courage, Creativity, Freedom

Amber Sparks (AS): Alien. Outsider. King of the beautiful weirdos.

Arielle Greenberg (AG): Ok, I’ll just say it: ANDROGYNY, and the glamorous and radical possibilities thereof.

Daniel Nester (DN): Someone who’s been around all my music-listening life, and feel I’m only now really discovering.

Colette Arrand (CA): Nostalgia. Uncertainty. Longing. The body in all its permutations.

Kevin Maloney (KM): Pop music as glam theater. Also, a wildly underappreciated producer--Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life and Lou Reed’s Transformer are two of the greatest albums of all time.

Killian Czuba (KC): Transformation, creation, belonging.

Marissa Landrigan (ML): Outer space. As in: this man is an alien, not of this world, and he was beautiful because of that.

DN: He’s just been around for so long, and in so many different iterations and I’ve received him in so many different ways. My aunt had a copy of Ziggy Stardust, which I would listen to when I was 8, 9 years old. And, of all the tracks, I would listen to “Rock and Roll Suicide” was my favorite. Looking back, I wonder why did I play that song and not “Moonage Daydream” or “Suffragette City”? My best guess is it was just guitar and voice, and at least on the surface resembled the music I’d hear in church and Catholic school. The nuns would strap on an acoustic guitar and have us sing songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

AG: I grew up in the 70s, and all that glam rock stuff was extremely exciting and scary and exotic to me at the time. I found KISS truly frightening, and avoided the KISS dolls that were sold next to the Barbies at the toy store. But while I never intentionally listened to David Bowie, I loved the Bowie songs that made it across the transom to me somehow.

“Ziggy Stardust” was just so weird and smart and intelligent, a meta-song about rock stardom, which is a subgenre with which I’ve always obsessed.

In high school, I went with some of my fellow weirdos to one of those stoner planetarium shows, and they played “Space Oddity,” and even though I wasn’t high, it made me weep. It still does. It’s a beautiful song, and it’s great how it riffs off another avant-garde cultural landmark of the time, Kubrick’s “2001.”

AG: I went to my Junior Prom with a guy I'd been pursuing, who was really good-looking and smart but kind of nerdy and square. I was a total good girl in many ways, but I was also a burgeoning hippie/punk. We went to prom stone-cold sober and did absolutely nothing remotely dirty or naughty. We even went to the sanctioned after-party, which was a dance party offered as an alternative to the stretch limo or the hotel room kegger. At the after-party, my boyfriend put in a request to the schocky DJ. This was surprising in its own right: he was shy and not much of a dancer. The song he requested was Bowie’s "Young Americans," which shocked and delighted me: what a wild, smart, unexpected prom song choice! I don’t think I was very familiar with it at the time, but I knew it was cool, and I’ve loved it ever since. (In a later, related incident, I ran into him at the public library, where he had just taken out some albums by The Jam and The Clash. Once again I felt like, "Hey, you've been holding out on me!”)

Like many others of my generation, I rediscovered “The Man Who Sold the World” through Kurt Cobain’s heart-breaking cover on Nirvana’s episode MTV Unplugged.

Nearly every time I hear a Bowie song I haven’t heard for awhile, I think, “Oh my god. That’s gorgeous. That’s so original. That’s brilliant.”

DN: I didn’t buy all of his albums growing up. I think the first I bought was “Let’s Dance,” and it got so much radio airplay I didn’t even need to play it. Tracks like “Modern Love” and “China Girl” were played on the AOR stations and MTV wall to wall. Lester Bangs has a quote from one of Elvis's producers when he found out about the King’s death: ''It's like someone just came up and told me there aren't going to be any more cheeseburgers in the world.'' That’s sort of how I feel right now.

ML: I’m probably negatively affecting my pop culture credibility by admitting that my first exposure to David Bowie was via Labyrinth, but it’s true. I found him as the Goblin King mystifying and electric: the giant hair, the ruffled shirts, the tighter-than-tight pants. Whether it costs me cool points or not, the truth is “Magic Dance” is catchy and wonderful, and I danced around my house singing it for weeks: “What babe? The babe with the power. What power?” I sang it long enough and loud enough and probably with enough incorrect lyrics to drive my parents crazy. Crazy enough that one night my dad said, “You know what? You wanna hear some David Bowie?” He took me upstairs to the den where we kept the record player. My parents loved playing records for me, and had already begun my musical education, so this wasn’t entirely unusual. But I was still firmly committed to Michael Jackson and Madonna until my dad put on “Heroes.”

I wish I had the ability to explain -- to even fully re-live -- the way that song hit me the first time I heard it. I loved the basic rock rhythm at the beginning, the slight background distortion, but most of all I loved the way the song grew, a gradual build of sonic electricity and vocal desperation so subtle I hardly noticed it until Bowie is practically sobbing under the lyrics, until tears welled up in my eyes, until I wished I could swim like dolphins could swim. At the end of the six-minute track, I remember my dad laughing softly at the expression on my face.

Later that week, when I asked for more Bowie, my dad put on “Pin-ups” and thus began this sprawling web of London punk and rock: Bowie was my introduction to Pink Floyd, and The Who, and The Kinks, with whom I spent many months. Though I already listened to and appreciated a lot of the music from my parent’s record collection, this particular leg of the journey was different. I remember it as the first time I realized how woven and connected musicians could be -- how Bowie and The Stooges worked together and against each other and on each other -- the first time I understood music as a moment in cultural time. It’s because of Bowie that I learned to listen to the bands around and before a band I loved.

DN: I saw Bowie once in concert, on the Glass Spider tour. It took place at Veteran’s Stadium, and it was packed. Bowie’s hair was huge--like his character in Labyrinth, or maybe Farrah Fawcett. I think they put him up on a crane? The set list, as I look at it now, was very of its time, Bowie’s time, post Serious Moonlight tour--it didn’t include many hits. It was like seeing a broadway show in a football stadium, and I remember being a little disappointed, but I felt like I learned something, which was you don’t have to please people for the sake of pleasing people.

AS: Of course I knew Bowie from my childhood, that guy on the radio, Let’s Dance, Labyrinth, etc. But I didn’t know BOWIE until high school, when I discovered Outside and it was this magic thing, this moment - I went out and bought all the other albums I could find (a difficult thing, back then, pre-internet) and out of all the “discoveries” I’d made up until that point, none was more important to me. I watched The Man Who Fell to Earth and though, jesus, I’ve found my people. These aliens living among us. I think he was such a role model for art kids, for weird kids, for kids who didn’t quite fit in - you felt, if Bowie can do whatever the fuck he wants to and make it cool - androgyny, sex, death, channeling these other characters, aliens, serial killers, spacemen, etc - then there was hope for you and whatever your own inner vision was.

AG: There is much to be said, obviously, about Bowie’s importance as a role model for gender nonconforming people, queer people, pansexual people, all of us freaks. I’ve always thought that “awwwwww---wham baam thank you ma’am!” of “Suffragette City” was so fucking hot! But I also find the lyrics of “Rebel Rebel” supremely inspiring in terms of sex positive anti-slut-shaming: “You tore your dress / your face is a mess / hot tramp / I love you so.” The idea that this person could be such a filthy punk rocker and badass and that this could be a source of pride, a statement; that this is what made them lovable and desirable: I always really appreciated that sentiment.   

ML: I found Bowie unbelievably sexy. As a young teenager, I’d listen to “Rebel, Rebel” and “Suffragette City” and dance alone in my room and feel so much more embodied -- so  much more conscious of my physical body, and so much more comfortable in it. That was such a turn on. So much of what I admired physically in Bowie I loved because it felt strong and feminine, it felt the way I wanted to feel in my body.

DN: I commuted to college my freshman year, and drove around South Jersey in a primer-covered Chevy van. Sometimes I’d just sleep in there after parties. One night I stayed in a golf course groundskeeper’s warehouse, a shack where my friend worked. My friend’s boss was a Davie Bowie impersonator, and on this particular evening, he had gone to a Bowie show dressed in full Ziggy Stardust costume. We passed a bottle of whiskey around as he sang songs on acoustic guitar. He got on the evening news.

AG: It wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered his song “Kooks.” It’s an incredibly tender, thoughtful  song about parenting, and not just parenting, but parenting as a bohemian, as an artist. Who writes rock songs about that?! There are hardly any rock songs about having kids at all--it’s not exactly the sexiest subject. There are some, and they’re mostly about songs written for or about the children, but they’re not about parenting, per se. “Kooks” actually contains a parenting philosophy: “and if the homework brings you down / we’ll throw it on the fire / and take the car downtown.” As an artist with young children who is somewhat “alternative” in my lifestyle, I find this song so deeply comforting and delightful I can’t even tell you.

DN: Over the years, I have thought about my sexuality in ways other than straight or heterosexual, and I have thought of myself as something other than simply male, or not-male. The first occasions--when I was, say, 13, 14 years old--were frightening to me--it was unknown to me then exactly what it meant or would mean if I was not-male, not-straight. Was I OK? Faulty? Sinful? Crazy? This is years before I would learn that gender is an invention and sexuality is on a spectrum and not on some A/B switch. Seeing and hearing Bowie over the years, inhabiting his different guises and roles, rocking Studio 54 with Halston and Liza, or singing on Soul Train, completely elastic and fierce and womanly and male all at once, reassured me it was not only OK, but admirable and preferable, to live as a not-normal person. For queer people, Bowie’s been nothing short of a guiding light, a patron saint. My Facebook feed is filled with testimonials and it’s lovely.

CA: I don’t really want to talk about David Bowie in terms of what he meant to me, but I suppose that’s as good a place as any to start. Like a lot of people my age, I imagine, Bowie’s music was introduced to me by my parents, specifically my mom, who played “Young Americans” and “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” on a loop, along with the Bowie-produced “Lust For Life” and “Walk On the Wild Side.” His image was there, too, in the form of Jareth the Goblin King, whose image was the culmination of Bowie’s most androgynous looks, distilled through Jim Henson, and broadcast directly to the subconscious of a generation of children who grew up weird in ways quiet, loud, and profound. It’s a rare day when I don’t engage with David Bowie’s work somehow—his music remains in constant rotation in my little one-bedroom house, and images of him crop up on my social media feeds all the time. I don’t want to overstate or understate his importance to me as a person, because I didn’t know the man and what you read about a person isn’t always the most encouraging. As an artist, though, he and others created a space with their bodies and music where it was safe to explore gender beyond what I was designated at birth, and his inhuman work ethic is something I regularly fail to measure up to.

TC:  When I woke up this morning to the news of David Bowie’s death, I was surprised by how much it affected me. I was a casual fan, not a hard-core follower, and yet I was completely at a loss. His death seemed like an impossibility. I’d watched the Blackstar video a couple of weeks ago, and it had left me mystified and mesmerized and disturbed and utterly in awe of his vision. Watching that video was like feeling a fine sand sift through my fingers and not being able to stop plunging my hand in for another fistful. It was confounding and hypnotic, awakening a desire to understand something that was not created to be defined. This was still the work of a brilliant, vibrant, incredibly creative visionary; and he had just released a new album. It seemed impossible that he wasn’t with us anymore; that he was a mere mortal who was now dead--or as one of my friends prefers to think of it, that the alien had gone back to his home planet.

AS: That was my first thought, that he’d gone back to his home planet. That’s how I prefer to think about it - how he made his exit. It was perfect. I’d been listening to Blackstar nonstop, had watched Lazarus and Blackstar, both videos, and had been in awe of how continually Bowie has been able to reinvent himself, even as he got to an age where most musicians get comfortable and rich and keep churning out the same old stuff, if they produce at all. Bowie never got comfortable. And never got complacent. And then, to find out he died - I went back and listened again to Blackstar, watched Lazarus, broke down crying - I can’t believe he was anything but an alien, to be able to produce his own death in such a beautiful, affirming way. To give his fans that last gift was incredible - I can’t think of any other artist who’s done something like that. And it’s such consummate Bowie - the absolute integrity of the music and the vision, while always so generous of spirit. Bowie was very good to his fans, always. And so private, too. He kept that sense of mystery - and yet seemed so accesible, somehow. I suppose this is why I felt I knew him, even when I did not. And was so destroyed, personally, by his loss.

TC: My Facebook feed has been an almost non-stop stream of links to songs I’d forgotten about, periods and looks I’d forgotten about. Oh, right, Space Oddity. And Cat People (Putting out the Fire). And Changes. And Dancing in the Streets, Under Pressure, China Girl, Let’s Dance. I’d never thought of myself as a fan, and yet the number of songs that made my pulse quicken with familiarity, and the grief I felt that the man who made them was gone, made me realize that the ultimate changeling had indeed been transforming me as well, morphing me into a fan all these decades without my even knowing it. The man lived a thousand lives in one, and was an incredible pioneer in expanding our attitudes toward sexual expression and gender identity. His sensuality and his experimentation with different personas challenged and disturbed many people, to all of our benefit. Even if you weren’t a fan of one of his periods, he was able to morph into different modes in a way that felt organic, which meant that a wide swath of people were able to connect with him.

TC: Most comforting quote of the day: "If you're sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie." Simon Pegg

Scratch that, HERE’s the most comforting quote of the day: "I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring." - David Bowie

KM: In 2006 I went through an incredibly painful divorce. I lost all sense of who I was and what made me happy, and fell into a deep depression marked by chain smoking and heavy drinking. Around the same time, after watching Elton John’s performance of “Crocodile Rock” on an old episode of The Muppets with my four-year-old daughter, I became fascinated by 70s glam rock. T-Rex, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and, most importantly, David Bowie. One day I picked up an old acoustic guitar and started writing original songs. I didn’t know how to sing, so I imitated Bowie’s crooning style from Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust. I even faked a British accent. I recorded half a dozen songs on an old Dell PC using a free program called Audacity.

But the music wasn’t enough. One evening when my daughter was spending the night at her mom’s house, I went to the pharmacy and spent $20 on women’s makeup. I put on mascara and eyeliner and fire engine red lipstick. I wore fishnet stockings and a sailor’s cap. The result was an alter ego I named Captain Clio. Captain Clio and the Prawns of Love. Through some prodding, my buddy Nick convinced me to perform in public. I performed exactly three times. At first just a couple songs, then an eight song set. At this last performance, I ended with a cover of Bowie's "Rock & Roll Suicide." It was the closest I’ll ever come to being a rock star.

Oddly, the result of my experiment in androgyny was feeling more at home with my masculinity. Feeling more comfortable in my skin in general. I owe it all to Bowie. As much as he was one of the great songwriters on par with the Beatles and Dylan, he was, maybe more importantly, the ultimate Changeling. The symbol of death and rebirth. A phoenix for all lost souls who want to be something other than what they are.

KC: In 2001--appropriately (insert Space Oddity pun here)--I was 13 years old. I’d seen Labyrinth when I was about seven, but didn’t have much exposure to David Bowie aside from that. And then my best friend and I discovered glam rock and punk and mods, and David Bowie was our shining butterfly knight. Thirteen years old and jamming to 60’s Bowie while we sloppily applied electric blue eyeshadow and splattered bleach on our black pants in a poorly ventilated bathroom and dreamed about riding sea-green Vespas through the streets. Like with so many people, he showed me I could be a fabulous girl (or boy, or both, and whenever I felt like it) and crush on whomever I wanted. I had pictures of him taped to my bedroom mirror. My friends and I spent our babysitting money buying Bowie records at The Vinyl Resting Place in St John’s.

Velvet Goldmine was my favorite song back then, and around age 15, I discovered the film. I highly recommend it, by the way. Bowie, himself, wasn’t involved with the project, but it’s a fictionalized biography of his life mixed with the coming-of-age story of a young Englishman. God, I wanted a glittering purple tailcoat very, very badly.

Bowie’s been a constant in my life: a forever love that seemed to transcend time and space. He was just always around. In the air, you know? Always standing by me, in any of his many shapes.

When the video for Blackstar came out, I was knocked down flat by it. It was only a month or two ago, but I had to go directly to my bed to be alone and revel in what I had seen. I told my husband: “See? This is art. This is what I want to make.”  And then to listen and watch again, last night, today, knowing that it was a’s amazing. It’s heartbreaking and existential and optimistic and terrifying. How many people get the chance to prophecy their own death like that? And how rich of a feeling to look at someone’s art in a certain light (before he passed) and then to go back to it later and see a whole new story in it? It was beautiful both times. What insane, artistic, literary power. I cried so much last night. I cried like I haven’t in years.

I think Kevin (KM) nailed it above when he called him a phoenix. That’s what he was: a mythical creature, a being of regeneration and transformation. And that’s why, as heartbroken as I am, it feels like he can’t possibly be dead. He’ll never really be dead.

I feel like there’s some deep secret about all of this that I’m still trying to find words for. I want to hold on to all of your hands and just have you feel it.

ML: One of the reasons I think Bowie will never really die is that his regeneration and transformation continues: modern Bowie covers that extend and reimagine his songs in new cultural contexts feels like a part of him, somehow. Love it or hate it, Jessica Lange’s American Horror Story cover of “Life on Mars” is version of Bowie; Chris Hadfield’s International Space Station cover of “Space Oddity” was its own cultural phenomenon. Seu Jorge’s “The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions” were a surprise even to Bowie, who wrote that he “would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with.” These covers both are Bowie and aren’t, which could also be said of Bowie himself, as he played character after character in life, too. Bowie was also a consummate collaborator -- “I’m Afraid of Americans,” with Trent Reznor, is a song that belongs to both musicians and that neither could’ve written alone -- and I can imagine musicians will continue to cover, remix, and reappropriate his work and identities for decades to come (which I think Bowie would have loved and wanted).

CA: Thinking about it and, again, having seen picture after picture after picture of Bowie, the idea of reinventing onseself over and over again doesn’t feel as important to me as his music. He was an artist—like Prince and Madonna and Beyonce and others—whose career could be tracked in stages and given eras—Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, and so on—but each of these, even late-90s mid-life crisis Bowie, was a mask, something he played with and discarded rather easily as far as his art is concerned, even if culture never quite let him forget Ziggy or the Duke. You can’t call what he did there “evolution” or “rebirth,” really so much as a costume change. And while, yes, myself and other queer kids found strength and inspiration in his various looks and personae, I think a lot of us realize that what Bowie and others in the glam rock scene were doing was taking gay culture and transgender culture and casting it for the largest possible audience. I don’t think anybody would have cared one way or another about how he dressed or presented himself were it not for how good his music was, which it undeniably was. And maybe it’s because it’s entirely possible to love David Bowie at his most flamboyant and still be a homophobe or a transphobe that what I’ve lost myself in, time and time again, is his sound rather than his vision. Lou Reed’s Transformer has been mentioned a few times now, and a lot of Reed’s music and Bowie’s Berlin-era music had transgender women as their muses (the podcast One From the Vaults talks in detail about Reed’s girlfriend Rachel, if you’re interested). As I mentioned eariler, these songs were always a fact of my life, no matter what fad genre I was engaging with at the time, and they resonated with me powerfully without really knowing why, a weirdness and alienation that was hard to put a finger on but which was nevertheless mine. I could and did secret away these tiny pieces of art that were about me in a very real way and engage with them in the near total isolation that earbuds offer a person. I don’t like to think of art in sentimental terms like “gift,” but if Bowie and his ilk were giving us one, that’s it.

ML: Something else I’ve always appreciated about Bowie was his love for words, the ways he played with language. What a writer he was! There’s a BBC documentary where Bowie talks about Burroughs’ cut-up technique and how he uses it to write, and hearing some of his weird and wonderful lyrics come together still gets me tingly with excitement over what language can accomplish. In the interview, Bowie says what he loves about cut-up writing is how two or three disassociated ideas, when put together, create an awkward relationship that’s revealing and provocative. Disassociated ideas, awkward relationships, but still, connection and creation and revelation. That sounds like Bowie to me.

KM: My ex-wife just sent me a Facebook message that our 13-year-old daughter is creating a Minecraft homage to David Bowie. So yeah… the weird magic of Bowie spans space/time/generations. In the future, robots will write essays on the lyrics to “Oh You Pretty Things.”