A few months back, I ran into an old acquaintance at a mutual friend’s party. Emboldened by the Bacardi she had liberated from the host, she gestured at my forearm:
“You have a David Bowie tattoo! Why do you have a David Bowie tattoo?”
I was taken aback. It wasn’t a question that sought an answer; it was more like a stern condemnation of my competence, and perhaps a challenge to my sanity. Laughing it off, I reached for my drink and dodged the question.
I could only avoid this inquisition temporarily. Soon enough friends, family, bosses, and professors would ask about the man on my arm. When I explained it was David Bowie, they again would ask the question, “Why?” I unsatisfactorily answered, “Yeah, I like David Bowie.” Their faces would inevitably turn quizzical, using a slight scowl to express “Why on Earth would you do that? I mean, I like grilled cheese but I’m not about to get a sandwich permanently etched onto my skin.”
I guess I have some explaining to do.
Growing up, I had pretty sturdy plans for my adult life. Though my immediate family wasn’t particularly religious, some of my extended family members were. From an early age, I wanted to be like them: righteous, compassionate, and close to God. I used my awkward middle school years to develop an Evangelical identity, and by my freshman year of high school I had found a community of like-minded kids equally devoted to Christ through my church’s youth group. It didn’t hurt that the girl I had a crush on was also at every church function.
It felt so right. I knew I would spend the rest of my life growing with God’s guidance, and wanted nothing more than to grow up to be a minister. But, as Bowie sang, “Every time I thought I’d got it made/ It seemed the taste was not so sweet.” Neither my plan to become a minister nor my identity as a Christian would last.
I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. I knew that this meant that all of the lymph nodes above my diaphragm were growing at an unhealthy rate, and this was why strange lumps had appeared on my neck. I knew this meant that I would need chemotherapy. I knew this meant that I had cancer.
Even knowing this, I wasn’t equipped to deal with it. After being diagnosed over the phone, I scoffed and went to my room to play a Star Wars computer game for a few hours. It didn’t feel real: 15-year-olds don’t get cancer, or at any rate, people aren’t informed about their disease over the phone. If House taught me anything, it’s that diagnoses happen in a hospital and are set to a dramatic orchestral score. There was no way that I met any of the criteria required for cancer. This couldn’t be the same thing.
This naïveté didn’t last long. I was in school when my long hair started falling out strand by strand, then rather suddenly, clump by clump. Soon, I didn’t have the capacity to go to school at all, even on days when I wasn’t undergoing chemo. The nausea was constant, as was the pain. I watched my body deteriorate until walking down the hall would wear me out. Routine excessive vomiting had eroded the enamel of my teeth.
Though I was in constant prayer, nobody seemed to be answering my requests for a slight respite from the agony. Matthew 17:20 had taught me that if I had a mustard seed’s worth of faith, I could move mountains. Mark 11:24 promised that I would receive whatever I asked in prayer. John 14:14 similarly asserted that whatever I ask in God’s name will be done. I didn’t want to doubt Christ, and I didn’t want to question my faith, but I couldn’t help wondering: What is the hold-up here, God?
And just like that, my faith in the efficacy of prayer dissolved. I became consumed with frightening doubt.
My hero-worship of David Bowie began somewhere towards the end of my chemotherapy days. Before his death, Christopher Hitchens used to say that one of the worst things about cancer was the boredom. Though Hitch managed to produce an immense quantity of essays while receiving treatment, I couldn’t read or watch TV without throwing up from the vertigo.
So, having nothing else to do, I used my days in the oncology building to educate myself about my rock ’n roll forefathers. One day I would listen to Aerosmith, then move on to The Who, then The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Kiss. But when I got to Bowie, I didn’t want to move on. Aladdin Sane and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust resonated differently with me, so I added Outside, ‘Hours…’, and Heroes to my hospital playlist rather than jumping to a new artist.
As bleomycin and vinblastine pumped through my veins, my iPod pumped Bowie’s liberating heresy through my head. Fiercely, he dared me to accept my doubts:
“The Gods forgot they made me / So I forgot them, too.”
Kittenishly, he asserted his superiority:
“Till there was Rock, you only had God.”
Bowie’s myth soon engulfed my waning Christian identity (“It’s a God-eat-God world”). His collaborations were legendary: he co-produced the best Iggy Pop and Lou Reed albums and performed with Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, Trent Reznor, and Bing Crosby. John Lennon even performed backup vocals on Fame. I religiously consumed films in which he appeared; my favorite was The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie played a tragic extraterrestrial sent to Earth to save his planet from drought.
Bowie didn’t only play saviors, though. He performed miracles, too. Legend has it that for a time he subsisted only on milk, red peppers, and an ungodly amount of cocaine.
As a reward for my submission and piety, chance remade me in Bowie’s image. To cope with the constant nausea, I was given scopolamine transdermal patches. Strangely, the eye on the side of my body where I kept the patch would dilate and for several months I had mismatched pupils like Bowie. My suffering brought me closer to my new God.
Bowie routinely made headlines due to his outlandish appearance and exploitation of his feminine features. He wore bright costumes and otherworldly makeup while exuding the confidence a liberated human peacock unfettered by the dictates of male gender roles. This rebellion was exhilarating: I had always viewed my feminine features as something to be ashamed of, but he flaunted his with elegance. Though he used his personas to challenge the heterosexist mindset of the ’70s, Bowie’s unapologetic aesthetic inspired confidence in this millennial metrosexual.
Beyond the fashion and fantastic legends, Bowie provided me with a spiritual, albeit wholly secular, message of empowerment. He sang, “Revolution comes in the strangest way”: change happens suddenly, terrifyingly, strangely. I learned this the hard way.
You can go from healthy to cancerous in an instant; a lifetime of faith can be eroded with a slight push. Going from the complete certainty of dogma to the insecurity of secularism induced its own vertigo. What will I become, I wondered and asked alongside Bowie, “What will I be believing?” Here, he instructed me: Bowie saw conversions as instigating greatness, beauty, and versatility rather than terrifying immobility. Personal revolution is petrifying, but it doesn’t have to be. Bowie taught me to “believe the strangest things and love the alien.” Rather than resist change, I could “turn and face the strange.”
Boldly, I resolved to “never look back, walk tall, act fine.” He embodies this maxim through his constant, violent reincarnation: with each new album, the “same old thing in brand new drag” reemerges as a new persona. It was this quality I wanted to immortalize on my body. Time may change me, but my Bowie tattoo is permanent.
He once said of rockers:
“We’ve taken over from the false prophets of Jesus’ time: spreading a phony religion and getting paid for it. We’ll all go to hell.”
I don’t believe there’s a hell to go to, but Bowie is selling himself short here. If extolling the virtues of the bizarre, self-acceptance, critical inquiry, and subversion of pointless norms comprises a :phony religion,: then why would we want a “real” one? In following the “false prophet,” I’ve realized, “The Church of Man, love, is such a holy place to be.”
After a decade-long hiatus, my prophet has returned with The Next Day. His new sermon consolidates his past motifs of mortality, androgyny, ostracism, change, and the extraterrestrial-as-metaphor, to name a few. These stories provide immeasurable comfort and guidance to developing outsiders, those launched far from the orbit of “normal.” The weird, androgynous, heathens need “someone to claim us, someone to follow.” Thankfully, we have David Bowie.