‘Here I am, not quite dying’
Illustration from Black Hole by Charles Burns
In 2013, when xenophobic racists in the Dutch media launched a meticulously coordinated attack against me in the form of vile accusations from many different sides, leading even to questions in the House of Parliament, I sat hidden in a small London hotel room. It felt safe there, it was like a warm womb. On television I saw a documentary on David Bowie, who had just launched a new album, The Next Day.
I bawled my eyes out.
On The Next Day Bowie sang ‘Here I am, not quite dying’. When I had dug myself out from the grave the racists had put me in, after wandering through London and subsequently through Tokyo for a few weeks, where I had encountered a green snake in a graveyard, who told me everything would be alright and that I needed to get my act together, that particular line felt like it was written for me especially.
My girlfriend felt the same way. “This song is about you”, she said. “This is what you are going to tell those motherfuckers.”
Bowie’s death has millions of people mourning, among them my ten year old son, who was just discovering the riches in his immense oeuvre (he texted me today: “Daddy, has David Bowie passed away?” followed by four crying smileys). Bowie is one of the biggest influences on Western culture of all time. But to me personally, and I know to many, many other people personally as well, people who have, at some point in their life, felt alienated or estranged, he showed the way through life’s jungle. Or rather, he had hewn out the path for us.
Bowie is the saint of the outsiders, the weirdos, the people who don’t fit in.
Bowie has saved my life on different occasions. In 2013, when I was convinced everybody was against me and I was worthless, evil even. When I just wanted to stop existing, driven to insanity by the racist vultures.
Bowie in drag
And years before that he saved my life when I was fifteen and so depressed I felt like there was a mountain on me, or that I was drowning in a wild sea. That there was no use fighting.
Bowie was the only person in the whole wide world who understood me. He was the man who made it acceptable for me, even cool, to be different.
I think I became aware of Bowie when I was about ten years old. I saw the video of ‘Boys keep swinging‘ on television. Bowie in drag, coming up on a catwalk as three different ladies, looking defiantly in the camera, then wiping off his lipstick and pulling off his wig while guitars were screaming like rabid banshees. It was the weirdest thing I had ever seen at the time. It was also the most liberating thing I had ever seen.
I grew up in conservative surroundings, even in the progressive seventies and eighties. I lived in a rural town, everybody was the same. You couldn’t be different. If you were different, you would best keep that concealed. Amsterdam was far, far away. Bowie taught me that if you are different, you better be different in an aggressive way. You better put your being different in everybody’s face.
And so I did. I was never going to be good at soccer, I was always going to be losing the fights boys picked with me, I was always going to be a weird kid, a geek, a boy who was seldom there, always dreaming, extremely, ridiculously shy. So I could as well celebrate my weirdness. Just as Bowie did. It even became an obsession for me to not be like the others.
Illustration from Black Hole by Charles Burns
The kids at school called me ‘Bowie Homo’ but I couldn’t care less. They were Neanderthals to me. They knew nothing, they were quite proud of knowing nothing. They were very intolerant of kids who knew things when the only thing worth knowing was soccer. ‘Gotta make way for the homo superior!’
I was quite alone in my admiration of Bowie until a new girl arrived who was into all those punk and new wave bands that followed the trail Bowie left through pop culture. With her I went to the concert Bowie gave in Rotterdam as part of his Serious Moonlight Tour. It was so amazing. It was my first time alone outside of my town, without my parents, with just this girl, and Bowie was omnipresent. He came from open windows everywhere, he looked at me from every corner, everybody seemed to revere him. It was like a religious experience, I felt part of a bigger whole for the first time in my life. I met people who were way, way weirder than me and totally unashamed of it.
The 25th of June, 1983, a sun-drenched day in Rotterdam; I had never been so happy before.
And it wasn’t just that. Bowie completely formed me as person. He taught me about George Orwell, Jacques Brel, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Lou Reed in his turn taught me about Delmore Schwarz. Bowie introduced me to Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Bauhaus, German Expressionism, the French magazine Harakiri, the comics of Mark Beyer, all those things I discovered through Bowie. Even my obsession with Japan began with Bowie.
I never met him in person, but I spent a lot of time of time chatting with him on his website, DavidBowie.com, as pioneering as everything else he has done. He was there virtually every night, posting messages on the Bowie message board under the moniker ‘Sailor’, making surprise appearances in the Bowie chat room.
We talked about comics, art, films, about silly stuff. He fooled around a lot. I even quarreled with him once about an interview he had done together with his wife Iman. I criticized him for having censored the draft article proposed by the interviewer, he got angry. “Do you know how many fucking interview requests I get?” he wrote to me, publicly. All the other fans jumped on me to rip me apart. The next day Bowie asked me, snarkily, but obviously feeling bad about it: “How does it feel to be famous, Peter?” and everybody cheered.
Still one of my most cherished memories.
He would regularly butt in on conversations we as fans had with each other. We grew so accustomed to his presence that sometimes we would take him for granted. At one such occasion he asked me and the girl I was chatting with: “What am I, chopped liver?”
His website made it possible for fans to get as close to their idol as they ever could. It made it possible for him to hear the opinions of others than the people surrounding him, probably professionally agreeing with everything he said and did. He did not always like our opinions. But he kept uploading new stuff for us to judge. I remember him talking about us in an interview. “They are a cheeky bunch”, he said.
Then it stopped. I guess sometime around the early 2000s, which he called, if I remember correctly, ‘the Zeroes’, after a song of his. I think he also suggested the Naughties. After 9/11 the political discussions on his message board, and there were many, turned grim. There was a rift, especially between the hardliner American fans and the European lefties. Sailor didn’t turn up so often anymore and then the Bowie community started to disintegrate.
I still have all the cd’s Bowie had recorded until then, all signed by him and dedicated to me. ‘For Peter from David’. A present from him, to me. One of my most valuable possessions, you’ll understand.
Thank you Sailor, for everything. For making life goddamn beautiful. For giving us weirdos a home. For making us feel good about ourselves.
op 11 01 2016 at 21:53 schreef Dennis:
I’m not a Bowie fan, I only know him from his role in Labyrinth and his old stuff that they play on the radio like “Major Tom”. But you managed to make me feel the connection that you had with him.
op 11 01 2016 at 22:43 schreef Max Molovich:
Nooit geweten dat dat citaat over jou persoonlijk ging. Zal wel uit Peter & The Wolf zijn, dacht ik altijd. Mooi, persoonlijk stuk.
op 12 01 2016 at 17:49 schreef leo schmit:
Being young during the 60’s/70’s, I felt unease with upcoming Bowie, Reed, Roxy M, Iggi, Warhol and so on during late 70’s and early 80’s , but later I came to appreciate them in their own way (except Warhol). Instead of choosing extravagance I escaped from everything in those days. I now realize Bowie has meant so much for so many people living on the ‘weird side of life’, while I was happily tramping in the woods and shovelling muck on farms.
My prediction under current and future circumstances is that, regretfully, the ‘weird side of life’ is looking at some hard time ahead. But there always will be a come back
op 12 01 2016 at 21:28 schreef Sasha Berkman:
Great piece indeed!
I love the love it spreads
op 12 01 2016 at 22:22 schreef Sasha Berkman:
Deze kwam net voorbij op mijn facebook. David Bowie en Marc Bolan unplugged.
op 12 01 2016 at 22:40 schreef Kapitein Kloefkapper:
op 12 01 2016 at 23:06 schreef Mercedes San Fernando Ruelda:
You have the right to grieve. A lot. Having been as close as possible to a pop star of his caliber, his passing away must be a source of pain. Especially as he was so opposite to what you fight here in your other pieces.
op 12 01 2016 at 23:31 schreef Peter:
The fuck?! ‘Never gave in to Jihad DESPITE Muslim Wife’?!
op 13 01 2016 at 00:11 schreef Jan:
Peter, je kunt hem niet verliezen, voor jou blijft ie groeien.
Indrukwekkend verhaal, dank.
op 13 01 2016 at 00:20 schreef Jan:
Om ook hier wat te vertellen over David Bowie, en hoe ik hem ken.
Hij is als niksbetekenend artiest begonnen, zijn allereerste plaatopnames zeggen me ook niks. Maar daarna een wereldhit gemaakt met Space Oddity, en terecht want het is een fascinerend nummer dat enorm tot de verbeelding spreekt. Zowel de muziek als de tekst.
Na dat grote succes wist hij misschien niet hoe nu verder, wie zal het zeggen. Hij is geestelijk ingestort, is opgenomen geweest in een psychiatrische inrichting.
Hij kwam weer terug met de elpee The Man Who Sold The World.
Die plaat gaat ook over zijn gekte, en is voor mij een van de meest-zeggende dingen die hij gedaan heeft, nog steeds heb ik die lp.
De plaat was excentrisch, grappig nu ik het tik, dwz dat het gaatje uit het midden was. Elke keer dat ik ‘m op de draaitafel leg moet ik m op de goede manier aanschuiven, ik heb het gat uitgeboord.
Bijna een halve eeuw later luister ik nog steeds naar de teksten.
Hij is nooit gestopt met steeds nieuwe grenzen opzoeken.
Day after day
They send my friends away
To mansions cold and grey
To the far side of town
Where the thin men stalk the streets
While the sane stay underground
op 14 01 2016 at 23:01 schreef Sasha Berkman:
The Jean Genie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGQo6zpVzt8
op 15 01 2016 at 21:55 schreef Roland:
Mooie cover van Sound and vision: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyO5MRTbL2s