I found David Bowie at the Valparaiso Public Library in 1993, when I checked out Hunky Dory on LP. A library- I know- my destiny. Listening to “Kooks” for the first time, a song Bowie wrote for his son, Duncan, I promptly accepted Bowie’s invitation to live in his “lovers’ story.” Kooks is a lavishly goofy, kind-hearted song, and as an outsider child, I heard it as an anthem of chosen family.
Three years ago today, I woke up and saw the news of Bowie’s death, so I took a day off work to cry and listen to Black Star by myself for the first time. The extraordinary generosity of his final musical effort should have felt like a balm, but I haven’t been able to listen to it all the way through since. That day I listened to it over and over and over again, “Where the hell did Monday go?” It went to grief. At dinner with Louis, I couldn’t say his name louder than a whisper or I would sob.
And that’s because, when I was a weird 5th grader, David Bowie became my friend- or maybe more a fairy godfather. He was the person who helped me reconcile that I was a baby queer eccentric, and that was “awful nice, really quite out of sight.” It did not feel that way most days growing up in suburban Indiana. Shout out to the Hoosier weirdos. David Bowie affirmed my identity- and finding even that smallest, most remote connection made me stronger, happier, and empowered to love and accept myself.
I borrowed all the Bowie my public library had on vinyl, tapes, and cd. I rented Labyrinth from Blockbuster and made an illegal vhs copy because I couldn’t find a one at the local KMart or the Walden Books at the Mall. I checked out The Man Who Fell to Earth, and decided it was just ok. I bought my own cds when he released new albums, and I have these vivid memories of listening to “Earthling” on my discman right at the end of the era of physical media.
My AOL Instant Messenger screen name was LinzOnMars (because). When Napster happened, it was like I found David Bowie all over again- with the internet as a resource, I finally had a real handle on his complete discography, and I could read ABOUT Bowie. It was incredible. I moved not just through all the Bowie I had missed but into the works of his favorite collaborators and lovers.
Velvet Goldmine was released in 1998, and I watched it dozens of times during the summer after sophomore year of high school. I had a whole new crisis of identity wondering if I was more of an Iggy Pop. I wasn’t. And then I drifted into new musical obsessions, though he was always my core canon. The artist I always named when asked if I could just listen to one musician for the rest of my life was the obvious and honest choice- David Bowie.
I started collecting Bowie on vinyl in my twenties. I was in Macon, Georgia in 2008, depressed on a work trip, when I found my copy of Station to Station. On dates to the Book Nook, Louis and I would check for records, and we found Scary Monsters one afternoon. I am not a completionist, a failing in a collections librarian, but I am a sentimentalist. All of our used Bowie is my favorite- someone else loved this record and shared it with me.
In library school in 2009, I set up an ebay alert for his Read poster, and snagged one with wrinkles and pinholes in the corners that has lived in all my subsequent offices and always gives me the reassurance that he’s watching over my work. When he released The Next Day in 2013, I was about to turn 30. Louis and I had just gotten married, made our first dance to “Heroes.” I was convinced Bowie was going to just live forever and keep making good music, great art. This is a wild thought- think how bad Bob Dylan is now. Think how much new music from Bowie’s contemporaries sucks. He stayed good at it.
Bowie never disappointed me until he died and I was confronted by the childishness of my expectations.
Since then, I’ve taken pains to honor what I think of as Bowie’s influence in my life. It took me four months to figure out what tattoo I wanted to get- because I was always going to get a Bowie tattoo, but then it turned into a memorial tattoo. I got his hands from the cover of Heroes on my left arm in April of 2016.
Recently, after reading that compelling essay that circulated so much about burnout, I began to write this post. It was an effort to work through the ways that Bowie’s passing had provided an impetus for me to become a better, more engaged librarian (or maybe to be more myself as a librarian). David Bowie’s death certainly moved me to be more productive- memento mori is a hell of a drug. But more recently Bowie had become a lens through which I considered that the pace I set in some of that work, particularly professional development, wasn’t fully sustainable for me. Perhaps Bowie said put it best when he sang “changes are takin’ / The pace I’m goin’ through.”
What is David Bowie’s career if not a lesson in adjustments, some drastic and some incremental? Adjustments aimed not at course correcting, but at experimentation. And if the Thin White Duke is the king of burnout, we can still come out the other side.
Three years since he left, I am finally at a point where I feel comfortable reflecting on the powerful alchemy Bowie has worked my life. Because he was prolific and brilliant, I still find things of his I didn’t know about, and I suspect this is his lingering grace- the delivered promise of his immortal contributions. I find David Bowie when I need him most.
Here on this painful anniversary, as I think ahead and consider the fact that “pretty soon now you’re gonna grow older,” it is a kindness to consider Bowie as an nontraditional work role model, demonstrating that changes and adjustments are positive. If I am tired, perhaps burned out or just fatigued from having come so far, it’s alright. I can grieve and accept that, just as I can grieve and accept Bowie’s passing. I can embrace both too as opportunities for transformation and reinvention. That can be a way to honor his influence and myself.