What I learned from David Bowie


I wanted to write this while it was still fresh, while it was still rattling around in my head, before it fades and turns into one more thing I meant to do, but didn’t.  I wanted to write about what David Bowie has meant to me over the years, as a person, and as a maker.  I will preface this by saying that I don’t have any sort of claim to Bowie or his music; I never met him, I never saw him live.  But his music was (and is) special to me.  Indeed, one of his gifts to the world was creating a body of work that has so many different points of entry, and meant so much, in so many different ways, to so many people.  This post is an attempt to reconcile - for as much my own sake as anyone else’s - what an impact it has had on me throughout my life.

The first Bowie album I ever had was Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, which I picked up more or less randomly while visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with my dad when I was fourteen.  “He seems famous, I should probably listen to him,” was, I think, my line of thinking.  Also, I remember there being way more copies of Scary Monsters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gift shop (yes, I know) than any other Bowie CD, so maybe that was the best one?  Anyway, what was this?  Some guy singing about being bored, and a lady yelling at him (or maybe me) in Japanese.  It was weird, but it was awesome, and it was the first time I had ever heard anything like it.  

Scary Monsters was the first music that felt like mine.  Growing up in Houston, about the only thing my friends and I listened to was whatever was on the “official” classic rock station.  Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Aerosmith, ACDC.  All fine (I guess), but it always felt like it was music that was just sort of handed to us, and that we were then expected to like automatically.  But there was no sense of discovery, no joy of finding something that you hadn’t even known had previously existed.  But Scary Monsters was different, and Bowie was different.  It was a thing I had found, basically on accident.  Like finding an extra-special rock on your way home, I could keep it to myself like treasure, or, if I wanted, I could share it with friends (I didn’t, and the feeling was mutual).  But it was mine.  Until then, I had grown up being told that This Is What Music Is, and It Is Great, and You Should Like It.  Bowie was the opposite of that.  

Somehow Bowie’s music just has this perfect balance of sorrow and joy, although really balance isn’t even the right word, since that would imply there being one thing, then the other, alternating.  Maybe dichotomy is a better word:  these two things existing simultaneously; music that is both aching and uplifting at the same time.

There are so many moments in my life, good and bad, that David Bowie’s music has been a part of- so many times when it was just the exact, right thing, whatever the occasion:  blasting The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust at parties in college until the cops showed up.  Playing that same album the next day while we attempted to mop up half-dried beer.  Being married to a wonderful woman whose first crush was David Bowie as the Goblin King in The Labrynth.  “Five Years” somehow being the exact, perfect, only song to play while driving away for the last time from woodworking school in Maine, even though I had to pull over halfway through because I basically just lost it - it had been a difficult, life-changing year, and I remember being sad to leave, but excited to come home. Two years later, in California, as I was finishing up what ended up being the most intense (and labor intensive) year of my life, I couldn’t seem to play the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars live album loud enough. (I was nearing the end of working 80-90 hour weeks for the better part of a year, and I was physically and emotionally running on fumes. The of excitement and sadness and exhaustion captured in that recording was somehow a perfect reflection of my state of being at that point.) Fast forward a few years to washing dishes in my kitchen, my newborn son playing in his chair, Station to Station playing at the correct volume (too loud) on the stereo.

David Bowie taught me that it is ok to be different.  That it is ok to do your own thing.  That it is ok to sometimes feel disconnected from the rest of the human race.  That there can be joy in isolation.  That part of being a human means not knowing what it means to be a human. That you don’t have to just blindly accept what is put in front of you, and that you can instead build your own reality as you see fit.

I have been designing and building furniture for most of my life.  And I can say without hesitation that David Bowie has had a bigger influence on me and my career than any designer or woodworker, living or parted, ever has.  David Bowie taught me that it is ok to make the thing you want to make, and to make it in your own way, without prescribing to some sort of pre-ordained aesthetic, either that you have set for yourself or set by others, and that it will still, no matter what, end up being a thing that was made by you, in your voice.  He taught me that it is ok to acknowledge and respect your influences, and to use them to create something new. He taught me to not to worry about how an individual piece might fit in with a larger body of work, but instead to let each piece be its own expression, with its own internal logic.  In other words, it is fine if the thing you are making doesn’t outwardly match the thing that came before it.  None of that matters.  The through-line is you, as a creator, and the fact that you can’t ever be truly separated from the things you make.

Like millions of people around the world, I am deeply saddened by David Bowie’s seemingly-sudden departure.  In a way it feels like losing a friend - sad that you will miss them, but at the same time incredibly grateful for all the good times that they were a part of.  I guess what I am trying to say with all of this is that I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing, were it not for David Bowie.

Thank you, Mr. Bowie.