The Man Who Fell to Earth
I was watching a recording of a football game Sunday night after a day spent with friends role-playing in 19th Century Scotland when I saw the first “Oh, no! Not Bowie” go by on twitter. So at least I didn’t hear the news of David Bowie’s death while I was laying half-asleep while the clock radio played news before I had to get up for work. Which is, unfortunately, how I heard about Alan Rickman. This hasn’t been a great week, obviously. But I saw one reaction this morning that helped:
Yes, let’s all be bold and creative and weird as hell.
It wouldn’t be correct to say the David Bowie was my hero, though in many important ways he was. He was also so much more. I wish that I had been bold enough during the height of his Glam Rock period to have been a Bowie fan. Make no mistake, I liked his work a lot. The first song I remember liking by Bowie was “Starman” which didn’t become much of a hit in the U.S. in 1972, but how could I not like it, since it seemed to have a sci fi theme?
Then I saw him on TV. Back the the 70s there were a lot of musical/comedy variety shows on prime time, and Bowie appeared on one of those. I don’t remember what song he sang. What I do remember was that he was dressed in something that flashed and glittered, and that his hair was in a style I had never seen on any human before, and he had face paint. When I try to visualize it, the colors keep changing, which means this was before we got out first color TV (which happened when I was 15 years old).
I was mesmerized. I had no idea a man could look like that, dress like that, and move like that while singing. I had seen men in movies and TV in weird costumes, and even in certain kinds of drag, but nothing like this. And then my dad growled, “Who is that cocksucking freak? What are you watching?”
Throughout my childhood, any time that my dad was really, really angry at me—angry enough that he’d grab something club-like to beat me with rather than just slap or punch me around—one of the things he called me was “cocksucker.” And for most of those years I had no idea what the word meant. From his tone of voice and actions while calling me that, I knew that it was a horrible, awful, vile thing—but that was it. By the time of this TV incident, I knew what the word meant, and I knew that literally it was true about me. But I also knew that my dad wasn’t the only person who thought it was the most awful thing a boy could be. I knew with absolute certainty that if any family member, or any of the people at church or school found out it was true about me, that my life would be over. Probably literally.
And Dad had just called this singer on TV (that I was finding so fascinating) a cocksucker. I knew, immediately, that I could never, ever let dad know that I thought David Bowie’s music was good—let alone admit to my fascination with how he looked! I don’t know exactly what I said in answer to Dad. I probably said the name of the variety show we were watching, and I know I said something about not liking the freaky guy at all, and hoped they got to someone else, soon.
A couple of years later, I saw a story in a magazine about a new movie coming soon, The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on a sci fi novel by the same name, starring David Bowie. I owned a paperback copy of the book, and had read it and enjoyed it. Immediately, seeing some photos of Bowie in makeup for the film as an alien who comes to Earth, I realized he was perfect for the role. I dug out the book and re-read it, imagining the alien looking and talking like Bowie. I went from simply liking the book to loving it.
The movie wasn’t a big hit, so never made it to the theatre in the small town where we lived. But I kept imagining it, based on the novel and those pictures, for years.
In the 80s, when I was in my twenties, Bowie’s music videos were among my favorites. And then the movie Labyrinth came out, and I and a bunch of my sci fi nerd friends went to see it in the theatre. I bought the soundtrack album. It was around the time, some months later, when I bought my own copy of Labyrinth on videotape when I realized that I could safely purchase regular Bowie albums. I hadn’t lived with or even near my dad since just before my 16th birthday, but that initial fear of being recognized as queer if I bought any Bowie music lingered. It didn’t help when Bowie described himself as gay in an interview in 1978 (something he later didn’t exactly renounce, but did say wasn’t accurate). Ironically, I owned lots of Queen and Elton John music in my teens, and it never occurred to me that anyone would infer anything about my sexuality from those.
Anyway, I picked of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and listened to it so often, I wore out the cassette tape. I started acquiring some of his other albums on disc, both the older ones and the albums from the 80s.
Eventually I also finally saw The Man Who Fell to Earth. Although by that time, I had been imagining how the movie went so vividly, that I thought I had managed to see it somehow. The actual film didn’t live up to my imagination in many ways. Except Bowie himself. He was magical and ethereal and totally believable as the alien trying to pass as a human.
And by the time I was buying Bowie and admitting I liked him, I was also in the process of coming out. Which is appropriate. Knowing Bowie existed—both the singer who gave me “The Width of a Circle,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” “Space Oddity,” and “Suffragette City” and the actor who played the Man Who Fell to Earth—kept alive the idea that maybe a freak like me could have a happy and full life during those dark closeted years. He was one of people who saved my life.
Alan Rickman didn’t come into my awareness until my late twenties, when I saw Die Hard for the first time in theatres. He was awesome, of course, as he was in every role I saw him in, afterward. So he didn’t have the same impact on my formative years as Bowie did. But his work touched my adult life in profound ways, as well.
I don’t like thinking of the world without either of them.