He was the King of Outsiders.
To any of us, to all of us, to everyone who believed life was full of exclamation points and question marks and not just periods and the dull ellipses of the dreamless, he was our King, our guide, our Bodhisattva. He was not just a name but also a noun, not just a noun but also an adjective, not just an adjective, but also the one we all had in common. Each of us loved him, or was loved by someone who loved him, or fell in love, hopelessly or horrendously or even, rarely, happily, with someone who loved him.
It began in seventh or eighth grade with the feeling that you might be a little different.
You sensed that these weren’t the best years of your life. You believed that somewhere out there, a great city, shimmering with golden lights and stinking with subways smelling of piss, where every corner held an over-lit diner where coffee could be snorted at sunrise after an evening of inconceivable and unnatural urban bliss; and this glittering prize, this city, where you belonged, was just waiting for you.
And in the hallways of your school, colored aqua-green and Wonder Bread-yellow, in the hallways of this shoebox of shame and staggering incivility where you were forced to live eight hours a day, these jocks didn’t know your secret; those meat-headed bullies didn’t know your secret; those satin-wrapped, peasant-blouse’d foxes who never returned your glances didn’t know your secret; none of them knew your secret: one day you would be someone.
Faces scarred by acne, bodies and brains terrified by wave after wave of testosterone, we withstood gym shower horrors and bit our thumbs until we broke the skin to prevent heretical shouts in social studies class, and still, everyone told us these were the best years of our lives. But we knew, first deep down and then as close to the skin as the first fawny, tawny wires of secret hair, that they were wrong. We looked for our King, and along the way, found some boys and some girls, also looking, also heretics, also certain that we were being told lies. We needed Breaking Bad but got The Brady Bunch. Who was going to take us to our Kingdom, our future, where we would be fucked and famous and fulfilled and carry pens and paintbrushes and guitars into the 1980s and beyond?
David Bowie will always be the King of Outsiders.
And then one day, out of the corner of your eye, maybe a shock of orange on a stranger’s locker, maybe a rooster red rumor on a T-shirt, there he was. He had been waiting for you. He was beckoning you.
The city lies outside your door. These sounds, these flames of hair and soaring chords and sullen sprays of keyboards, will take you there. We will be heroes. Yes, you too.
He made us realize there were enough of us to make a Kingdom, and he would lead us across the moat, the Middle School moat and the Middle Neck Road moat and the middle America Moat, you, too, can join me in the Kingdom of Outsiders, where we will all be Princes.
But I will be your King.
Even if you didn’t care for his music, which was full of rich, sassy headlines ripped from all the hip broadsides, you still knew he was The King of the Outsiders, you still knew he was the up-all-night sun who smiled at us all, who would always be the constant touchstone and common ground for every Prince in the Kingdom. Let others step into elevators with strangers and speak of sports and the weather, we could stand or slouch or sashay into any room in the world, and we would recognize another Prince, and we could speak of our Saint. There may have been others you loved more but no one you loved more often, and no one you loved more when you most needed someone to love.
A long, long time ago, when Gerald Ford was president, maybe even before that when I first spied the louche beauty of Lance Loud, I began asking for directions to the Kingdom of Outsiders. The first time I saw his face, I knew I had found the Map.
He was the King of Outsiders. He will always be the King. We, who believed life was full of question marks and exclamation points, will always be his subjects.
I perceived his music as brilliant confabulations of his extraordinary influences; personally, I could never hear a minute of his work without thinking of The Move, and Harmonia, Cluster, Neu!, and La Dusseldorf, and Barrett, Pere Ubu, the Swans, and the whole library of extraordinary outsiders, full of invention, harmony, and attitude, he integrated into his music. Nor did I hold these most gentle, wise, and luminously assimilated appropriations against him, not in the slightest way; for multiple generations, he was our greatest musical concierge.
From his beautiful, mod-ish early singles in 1964 and ’65, reflecting Georgie Fame’s hopping r’n’b and the Small Faces’ hopped-up rock, to the luscious, lithe Barrett and Bolan-isms of the early ’70s, which led to his creation of his most famous characters—characters that weren’t just his alter ego, but the alter ego of the entire work-in-progress that was the age of rock—he always had his nose to the ground and his head in the heavens, sniffing out the edge of the underground and bringing it to the surface.
More, perhaps, than any other figure, he bridged every aspect of our electric age, from the cocked hips of Elvis to the earnest stomps of Arcade Fire, from the rising-from-the-ashes reinventions of mid-’70s German minimalist art rock to the big bang baby bruiser bashing of New York’s proto-punks, post-punks and neo-funkists. He drank it all in, he shared it all with us. He never xeroxed, as others did, but absorbed, and filtered it all through his own movable persona, constant only in its’ love of beauty, love of the strange, and hunger for invention, reinvention, and adventure. He had an absolute vision that the rawest parts of rock could be seen as art and the artiest parts could be bought to the masses.
More, perhaps, than any other figure, Bowie bridged every aspect of our electric age.
At any and all times, the life was bigger than the music, though the life never drew attention to itself, and he didn’t need to make himself accessible. This was a miraculous magic act, how he skirted the fangs and talons of the tabloids yet for over 40 years assumed a place in Mount Olympus, and pulling this off must have been another factor in the great art work that was his life. As many, including myself, will tell you, if you needed to find him, he found you, and if you needed his music, you found it.
I met him a few times over the years, professionally, politely.
He took a small interest in the avant-pop band I was in, Hugo Largo; and in the early 1990s, myself and his guitarist, the endlessly talented and endlessly kind Reeves Gabrels, hatched a cunning plan to have him collaborate with Glenn Branca (this, sadly, never came to fruition; I think it anticipated the stunning Scott Walker/Sunn O))) project that emerged two decades later).
In each encounter, Bowie was brilliant, brilliantine’d, cool and continental, and he seemed like a extraordinary man impersonating an ordinary man, and both of you were in on the joke that he could never be an ordinary man.
He had the soft, adamant manners and delightful superficiality of an ambassador, and each of these times we spoke about Neu!, because it seemed as if he had a keen, salesman’s sense of saying the right words to make you believe he actually cared about you. Although he was both slighter and smaller in “real life,” those incredible, essential mismatched eyes startled in person as they never did in any pictures.
When I heard the news so very early this morning, I did not think of these brief encounters with the coolest of cool customers; nor, frankly, did I recall the music, which you will be hearing so much of over the next few days. Instead, I instantly thought of his face on a T-shirt, glimpsed in an echoing and awful school hallway 40 years ago. I recalled how this sight was instantly a beacon of hope, a path to the possible, and knowing his name was a passport to other lands in the Kingdom of Outsiders. I recalled that from that first moment, just the idea of Bowie was a gold-and-rust-colored torch lighting the way out of the dismal sameness that we somehow suspected was not inevitable.
Just the idea of Bowie told us that we were not alone.