David Bowie ended the 1970s in April 1983 — drove a stake through their Angel Flight hearts like some sort of dance friendly Van Helsing. Let’s Dance wasn’t Bowie’s first album in the decade — that honor belongs to 1980’s brilliant Scary Monsters — but it was his first album of the decade. Suntanned, perfect blond coif, bright suits with padded shoulders, but more than anything the new Bowie embodied the boom-boom-bap rhythm that typifies ’80s pop. Try listening to “Modern Love” without dancing like Molly Ringwald, I dare you.
Let’s Dance was huge, the new Bowie a superstar. I was giddy. My beloved Bowie embraced by the masses, and seemingly among my peers only Hal the Drummer and I knew that he wasn’t a new artist.
“Hey, Jim. You like Bowie?”
“Yeah, his new album is cool but I prefer the Berlin trilogy.”
“Do what now?”
This is the classic music snob move. Whatever band one is asked about, always cite the older stuff that was much better. When met with a quizzical look respond either with a look of pity or one of disgust, then walk away sadly. The only exception to this move is The Beatles, where one always prefers their later work rather than that early boy band drivel. (Full disclosure: Rubber Soul onward truly are the crown jewels of The Beatles’ catalog.)
The latest Bowie incarnation wasn’t satisfied with mere radio play. The Thin White Duke returned to theaters that April, too. Just two weeks after Let’s Dance dropped The Hunger opened — Bowie, vampires, and Susan Sarandon, who replaced Bo Derek atop my celebrity crush list after the thirtieth time I watched Janet Weiss (Weisssssss) in bra and panties jiggling through Frank N. Furter’s castle.
I took Sherri to see The Hunger on opening weekend, courtesy of that fat Hardee’s money that was rolling in. We sat there in the Royal Cinema, next to the Rose’s and the Bi-Lo with its rooftop fiberglass cow; just down the road from the outlet store in an old mill hill house where my father used to buy my three dollar pants that weren’t up to the standards of The Untouchables and Chuck the Magnificent. We sat there, Sherri and I, the girl who loved me, who thought I was funny, handsome, talented.
We sat in the darkness, waiting for the smart, handsome, talented Halloween Jack, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy. And there he was — thirty feet tall — suavely making his way through a Manhattan punk club. There he was again, behind bars, shirtless, singing in his rich baritone —
White on white translucent black capes
Back on the back
Bela Legosi’s dead…
It wasn’t Bowie but an imposter, a fraud.
The bats have left the bell tower
The victims have been bled.
I was supposed to hate the imposter on principle, but he was so damned good. The music was dark, unfamiliar; the singer hypnotic. And he had really cool hair.
Bowie had cool hair, too, though I still preferred the Ziggy ‘do. To this day I can’t tell you whether The Hunger is laughably bad or brilliant. Mention the title to me and I am immediately off into a Bauhaus earworm. As I write this I’m listening to Let’s Dance, but “Bela Legosi Is Dead” is rattling through my brain. I feel like a radio stuck between two stations.
I left the theater feeling thirty feet tall myself — too big for a town with plastic cows on the grocery store roof. In my mind I was already gone. I was living in Manhattan in my converted loft with exposed brick walls, sulking through the clubs and art galleries and making love to icy women with severe haircuts.
Back to school the following Monday, back to painted cinder block walls and brightly colored lockers; back to The Untouchables and their Izod and duck shoe boyfriends. Back to Big Mac storming the halls as if they were Normandy Beach, bellowing, “The Good Book says there’s a time and place for everything, but it doesn’t say it’s right now and it doesn’t say it’s at Boiling Springs High School.”
“I hate this place,” I said to my English class neighbor.
“Boiling Springs. Spartanburg. All of it.”
“I am as soon as I graduate.”
“Where you going to go?”
“I don’t know. New York maybe. Somewhere with some culture.”
“If you’ll look in the middle of your book,” Miss Foster said in that loud, slow enunciation that teachers use to politely tell you to shut up. She was holding the teacher’s edition of our English book open, facing us.
“Hopper, ‘Nighthawks,'” I said.
“Excuse me, Mr. Stafford?”
“That painting — it’s Edward Hopper.”
She looked at me as if I had the answer written on my shoe, which I didn’t at that particular time. I wrote the answers to every English test on my shoes. A casual cross of the legs and there you have it: instant cheat sheet. Miss Foster either never caught me or never cared, but for whatever reason she refused to believe that I knew the title of the painting that she was showing us, much less who the artist was.
She tipped the book slightly toward me. A tumbleweed blew across the room. Neither of us cast shadows. In the distance a coyote howled. Miss Foster slowly turned the page.
“Robert Motherwell, ‘Elegy to the Spanish Republic.'”
She squinted. I heard a Morricone whistle.
“Mark Rothko, ‘Red.'”
She flipped again and again.
“Wyeth. ‘Christina’s World.’ Picasso, ‘Guernica.’ Salvador Dali, ‘The Persistence of Memory.'”
We went through the entire glossy center of the book and I didn’t miss a single painting. Her expression brightened from suspicion to hope and perhaps a bit of pride. I’m reaching them, her face seemed to say.
“Anyway, I’m getting my hair cut like Bowie’s,” I said to my neighbor.
“That’s going to look cool.”
The secret to my Raymond Babbitt/A Beautiful Mind recitation was pretty pedestrian. I’d been sitting in that god damned classroom for eight months, bored out of my mind. I made my way through The Lord of the Rings while Miss Foster blathered about phonemes and morphemes. I read Vonnegut while she lectured on velar fricatives and glottal stops. And on those days that I didn’t have a book to read I turned to the center of my English textbook and studied the paintings reproduced there. Her first instinct about me was right: I was an idiot who lacked motivation. I just happened to have the dozen pages that she wanted to talk about that day memorized, but she didn’t need to know that.
“Jim, that was really good,” she said. In retrospect I think she sincerely meant it, but at the time it seemed more like she was rewarding me for shitting on the newspaper rather than the carpet. “These paintings must inspire you. Art must inspire, am I right?”
“That’s what our next assignment is. I want y’all to write a three page essay about a time you were inspired by art.”
Now this was an English assignment that I could get behind — not a schwa or gerund in sight. I spent the rest of the class, study hall, and geometry drafting true tales of a life Bowie inspired. I went back seven whole years and recapped that fateful night in Chicago when Ziggy Stardust slithered from the television. I wrote about isolation, loneliness, feeling like an outcast and an alien and Bowie somehow making that all okay.
Writing that essay was the first time that I experienced The Hum while writing. The Hum hit me often while drawing. The room would darken but for paper and line, the only sound a sort of electrical buzz rattling around my head. My body felt sort of detached — not really floating, not really euphoria, but almost. Time was meaningless during The Hum. An hour would pass in a few minutes.
I learned many years later that The Hum is nothing more than the brain making dominant use of the right hemisphere. Language, reasoning, and analytical thought live on the other side of the tracks in the left hemisphere — all the fun stuff is over on the right. When we get over there we stop thinking in words, thus the hum. Because I’m left-handed I can get there relatively easily, what with the right brain controlling the left side of the body.
The truth behind The Hum disappointed me. I thought it was some sort of gesture from a non-existent God, a sort of “sorry about the nose, chin and hairline” consolation prize. For years I considered its presence both a gift and an obligation. The ability to achieve The Hum when making art meant something, I assumed, and not to do something with that ability was betraying some purpose buried deeply in my DNA.
In another century I may have been right. I might have been mistaken for a visionary, soothsayer, something. How much religious ecstasy over the centuries was really The Hum, I wonder; regardless, in this era I was simply a selfish, delusional, self-important fool who didn’t know that life on the right side of the brain is readily explainable and nothing special. This modern world can be cruel. There’s something beautiful in the ignorance of bliss.
Anyway, The Hum hit me while writing for the first time during my tenth grade essay on how David Bowie changed my short life. I hadn’t worked so hard on a school assignment since being separated from my “smart class” peers in the seventh grade. All of which leads me to the final cut on the b-side of this story: I earned a “C” on that paper, no better no worse than my usual half-assed effort.
“Hey, Jim. When are you going to get that Bowie haircut?” my “A” paper neighbor asked me.
“That’s going to be rad. I can’t wait to see it.”
That kid is an English teacher now, and I’ve spent the last fifteen months writing variations on that Bowie piece over and over, still hoping for a better grade.
Related “Why It Matters” pieces: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/just-for-one-day/, which retells that first peek of Bowie on a cold Chicago night.