David Bowie: Memoir of When Sex Was for Fun

The last-known photo of David Bowie, shared this past Friday on his 69th birthday and the day that Blackstar, his last album, was released. Photo is by his personal photographer, Jimmy King.

Dear Friend and Reader:

For a few days now, we’ve had the opportunity to grieve the loss of David Bowie, one of those rockers who seemed for all the world like a personal friend — and like someone destined to live forever. For me that has meant appreciating what I learned from someone I consider one of my most significant teachers of life and art.

And of sex. David Bowie had so blended into the landscape of culture that we forget when this gender-morphing, bisexual, polyamorous, potentially extraterrestrial glam rock star was shocking to the sensibilities of the Western world. I am sure when encountering so much as a photo of this seemingly bizarre weirdo, a good few people were assured that the end was near. They were right.

Cover art for Heroes, co-written with Brian Eno. Photo by Masayoshi Sukita. Here are outtakes from that photo shoot.

Among the many things we can thank David Bowie for was taking his hammer and chisel to the concept of normal. When he was done, it had (at least for the moment) been sculpted down to size, the better to clear space for everyone else.

If Jane’s Addiction got to make hay out of the idea that nothing’s shocking, they have plenty to thank Bowie for, as does nearly every artist who knew about his work.

Every kid who has ever dared to be different does as well, even though they may be hearing about him for the first time now that he’s gone. Bowie was a bold advocate for young people getting to be who they actually are, and to actually live our lives.

In the song “Young Americans,” recorded in 1974, he asks, “We live for just these twenty years / Do we have to die for the fifty more?”

As for those walking dead adults he’s referencing, he had earlier cautioned them: “And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds / They’re immune to your consultations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”

He knew just how to use his shock value for humor, style, beauty, fashion and for art. Yet that was not the point. The point was advocating the right to exist. That above all else is why David Bowie was our friend. Standing up for young people, who are bestowed with exceedingly little power in our society, he became a reference point of trust and of respect for kids who felt the most outcast. He was the ultimate spokesperson for, “They may think you’re a deviant but that doesn’t make you one.”

The first recorded interview we have with him was from the BBC in 1964, when at age 17 he was heading up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. I’m not kidding. Somehow he got on TV with that, politely demanding an end to the insults and accusations that the world was projecting onto guys who liked to grow their hair.

We forget, here in the days of the LGBT movement demanding transgender bathrooms in McDonald’s, that not long ago men could be beaten and arrested for wearing clothing considered inappropriate for their sex.

We forget that people much braver than today’s activists had to clear those brambles and build that long road with their bare hands, and their blood, sweat and tears.

There was a time when coming out, or being found out, was not a point of pride like it is in so many families today. When he said, “You got your mother in a whirl, she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” that was actually liberating.

More than anything, David Bowie emanated sex. Not sexy. Not sex appeal. Not sexualization. Not porno. Not sex as a marketing tool. Bowie was about sex, the real thing, expressed boldly and unabashedly and notably, with no regard for gender norms, the ultimate social prison.

Today his early work is a time capsule from the days when sex was for fun, rebellion and creative expression. He is a reminder that those days in fact existed and that we can find our way to such a place again. What seems to be progress (mostly of the LGBT movement) has not been progress in all ways, or for everyone. Today society seems to have sexually polarized in three directions: monoculture, hookup culture and rape culture.

The vast experiment that was queer has been rendered solemn and homely, clad in white gowns and tuxedos without the slightest hint of irony. Marriage, hospital visitation and death benefits have been sanctified by the Supreme Court not just as a right under equal protection but a rarified fundamental right — as well they should be.

But the party isn’t nearly as fun. The culture of repression is so obsessive today that most young people I know have to be blotto before taking off their clothes. Anti-queer abstinence indoctrination is still taught in schools. LGBT activists, having won the Golden Globe of their Supreme Court victory, might turn their attention to that atrocity.

Becoming a pickup artist is now trained like karate, the better to hack the code of our frigid social environment (i.e., so you can get a date). Kids are still made to sign the abstinence pledge and wear purity rings.

Rape is a serious problem, but rape cultists, whose practical definition of sex is rape, present a much more insidious situation, leading young people to wonder if merely having sexual desire makes them a perpetrator or pervert. Today many young men and boys are afraid to make any overture to girls or young women, afraid that they will be misunderstood and classified as rapists.

Many of what are today called helicopter parents — the late Baby Boomers who tripped, boogied and fucked to David Bowie’s songs — are appalled at the notion of their young sons and daughters having sex. Many are too terrified to even have an honest conversation with their kids, much less to stand up against puritanical school administrators who still teach abstinence, and whose balls are in the vise of a few fundamentalist Christian parents.

It is my observation that the canonization of homosexual marriage has arrived in a parallel delivery with much else being deemed abnormal, immoral and dangerous. Queer is now considered OK because you can seal the deal with monogamous marriage.

Today we need David Bowie more than ever, to remind us that it’s OK to be different, and to feel good. It’s OK to be horny and frisky and creative all in the same gesture. It’s OK to play and to experiment just because you want to, just for fun. It’s just fine to be sexy and have that be about sex and not about power. Most of all, it’s OK to offend your parents and their version of God or secular morality if that’s what it takes for you to be who you are.

It was Bowie who arrived like his fictional Starman and indeed blew our minds — though for most of us that was long ago and far away. He helped open that sacred window to the unknown. Have you left yours open, even just a little, or was it long ago painted over and sealed shut, so you might never smell the fresh air from that garden again?

Here’s the thing: Sex actually does need advocates. The moral guilt trip today is so thick many people still feel ashamed of the least desire. As a writer, I do my best; but I think my polemics on the subject (while vaguely informative) are not nearly as useful as David’s get-it-on rock and roll.

Most of what people — younger and older — now need is permission to feel as weird as they think they are, which is unlikely to be so weird after all. It’s just that one can feel strange when exposed to heat and sunshine when you’ve been locked in a cold, dark room for decades. Maybe it took guts for David to say what he did, and to be who he was, but really, I think for him it was the obvious and only thing to do.

In a sense he took the revolution and made it personal. There was plenty of dancing, so it was a revolution that Emma Goldman would have been down with for sure. I don’t know what it will take to get past the calcified hip and smug we are confronted with nearly everywhere today, but there must be something. I think it would help if people relaxed a little about having to convince everyone how supposedly pure they are.

That’s going to require taking a risk. It’s easier for young people to take that risk, because they have less to lose. Yes, you’re being told that that one thing you post to Instagram could end up preventing you from being chairman of the board of some corporation in 30 years. But is that really true, and do you really care?

Well, you still may. You might think you have to protect your priceless image at all costs. But I can tell you that the moment when you decide you don’t care is a beautiful one. The moment when you decide that you are who you are whatever anyone might think is bold and astonishing, coming from the inside out. It’s as good as your first orgasm, because the two are directly related — they are about giving up self-control long enough to have some fun, to experience yourself as alive in the moment, and to plant the seeds for the next phase of who you’re becoming.

Drawing by Anna Galvao.

Sex sometimes makes babies, but it’s procreative every other way as well. When you open up your sexual aperture, you open up your potential, your creative flow and your desire to live. If we’re wondering why so many people today seem like zombies (and why zombie and vampire films are the rage), and why so many people are drugged on suicide-inducing antidepressants, maybe it’s because there’s so much pressure to be pristine and uptight.

Maybe, as my teacher Joe Trusso is fond of saying, the opposite of depression is expression.

•     •     •I was not aware of David Bowie’s deeply troubled early home life until I started researching him this week, to write about him for the first time. His life as a child was as messed up as any kid’s is today, with what he described alternately as madness and as “emotional and spiritual mutilation.”

His chart (whichever data you use — there are two times) has the intensity of a serial killer. It speaks of isolation, violation, deception and an environment where trust was nearly impossible. He was surrounded not just by muggles but by aggressive and toxic ones.

But he was a gentle, graceful spirit. He was observant. He was creative and curious about that fact, and by some miracle he was able to keep that flow going. If we’re looking for a possible explanation, I would say that he was well on the way to weaving that thing called soul when he arrived here.

I am not sure if doing this is a choice. There are some people who seem to use these devastating experiences and the lack of contact that they need to become some of society’s most important and helpful teachers. Many, many others are hardened and become immune to empathy, passing the cruelty forward.

Whatever data you use, judging just from Bowie’s chart, he could have gone either way. But I think that, as evidenced by dropping his family name (Jones) at age 17, he was taking over the process of forming his own identity and his own reality. He claimed himself, and he made a life of doing so.

That’s something that everyone who actually grows up must do, sooner or later. At a certain point, one must actually stop worrying about what ‘they’ will think. This is best taught by example, and David Bowie was just exactly the role model.

I would add that no matter how many times he morphed his persona, or reinvented or renamed himself (apparently one of his favorite hobbies), he was still the person who he was at the core of his being: someone who chose to live, to love and to work right until the end of his days.

With love,

Planet Waves Weekly Horoscope — Jan. 14, 2016, #1083 | By Len Wallick

Aries (March 20-April 19) — In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker — restless and eager to leave the confines of his home planet — complains to C3PO that, “If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet farthest from it.” He says this at a crucial point in his life when he is yearning to claim his own identity and assert himself, in spite of not knowing the full truth about who he is. The current astrology suggests you find yourself at a similar juncture. Unless, of course, you have already matured (like Obi Wan Kenobi) and are looking for closure regarding older responsibilities and unfinished business — which would allow you to move on and become an initiate again, but at a higher level. Either way, what you are looking for is probably just around the corner, even if it seems long ago or far away. Yet, passivity won’t get you there; teach what you would learn, to orient and advance yourself past your current proficiencies. — by Len Wallick.

Taurus (April 19-May 20) — What you or others have come to think of as your predilections now deserve to be thought of as having become something more. It was not without cause or merit that you have long favored quality over quantity. It is not a sign of decadence if your partialities have developed into devotions. There is no character flaw if your heartfelt inclinations have advanced into dedication. More than most people, your biases are informed by virtue, and it’s high time that you became secure enough in your standards to stand up for them. For in a world where cold discipline is over-valued and cynically manipulated, your warmer and more passionate style will now serve to liberate you from a mad and maddening crowd. — by Len Wallick.

Gemini (May 20-June 21) — Pay attention to what reflections are passing through your mind, no matter how idle they may seem. Take pains to note details about people passing through your life, in spite of how insignificant your interactions with them might be. Yours is an exceptional perspective right now. Though it may sometimes seem as if the world has passed you by, nothing could be further from the truth. While you may sometimes feel isolated, your lot may in fact represent an enhanced connection with ways of knowing that has long been neglected by our kind. Even if your mind tells you that you are falling behind, your heart knows the ways in which you are, in fact, far ahead in connecting dots and adding things up. — by Len Wallick.

Cancer (June 21-July 22) — Don’t rely on the talking heads of television to tell you what’s going on in the world; they have an agenda that is not in your best interest. Neither should you depend on authority figures in your life to set your private priorities for you, for their motivations do not take your unique nature into account. While it may seem arbitrary and even impulsive for you to do so, try experimenting with declaring your independence regarding how you meet your emotional needs, and address your personal issues of comfort and security. Once you have reclaimed your inner spaces, then proceed to let them serve as a template by which you evaluate external events. Don’t be surprised if the world looks better as a result. — by Len Wallick.

Leo (July 22-Aug. 23) — If you can see your way clear to make it so, the coming weeks would be a good time to call a moratorium on additional commitments. That would mean, at least in part, learning how to rein in your magnanimous nature. Take a cue from wise parents who teach patience to their children by showing patience in the face of strident requests and urgent demands. In other words, there are alternatives to saying “no” available to you. If it comes down to there being no other way to keep more from being heaped onto your full plate, however, you will almost certainly find that a clear and rational declaration of boundaries will be met with acceptance and respect so you can catch up. — by Len Wallick.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sep. 22) — The real world is not perfect or permanent; there is give and take. Sometimes the world gives, as do you. Other times, the world takes — just as you do. In the long run, things even out, but you need not wait for that. The short-term alternative is a recognition that you can return what the world gives and recover from what the world takes on a schedule that suits your needs. In this way, both creative and crucial times can be experienced with equanimity. So long as you do not default to discouragement, you are currently in a position to make the most of all that is both given and taken, so as to actually come out ahead at least as often as you break even. And that, as Martha Stewart might say to you, is a good thing. — by Len Wallick.

Libra (Sep. 22-Oct. 23) — As you know so well, balance is rarely conferred as a matter of course. Rather, equilibrium is usually attained. You also know that some degree of oscillation on either side of balance is not only something to be expected, but something to be desired. It is the rigid and unyielding that will ultimately fatigue and break. Being supple and adaptive, on the other hand, allows for correction and recovery even if it does not always maintain an even keel. In the case of your own personal conduct, however, you might want to refrain from bending rules set by your own conscience. There may someday be a time when situational ethics is appropriate for you, but that time is almost certainly not the present. — by Len Wallick.

Scorpio (Oct. 23-Nov. 22) — Whether you call it “influence,” “juice” or “power,” chances are you either have access to or possession of a substantial amount of it for the foreseeable future. Therefore, if you are feeling impotent, hapless, helpless or hopeless right now, try on the idea that your subjective perceptions are somehow masking the reality of your leverage in the world. Consider the possibility that any crisis you are experiencing now is, at least in part, implicitly brought on by a lack of confidence in your own talents and skills. Not so long ago you had sound reasons to believe in yourself. Do your best to go there again. Those reasons are still valid, and you are, if anything, more vital now than ever. — by Len Wallick.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 22) — While you may not have access to the same technology employed by the fictional Doctor Who, it appears as though you have come into some of the same facility with regard to time and making it work for you. But first you must change your perception of what time is. Thanks to the work of Albert Einstein, you can make a good start. It was Einstein who realized (and apparently proved) that space and time are the same thing. Therefore, begin by organizing the spaces that are yours alone. Get places such as your desk, the interior of your car, and your private residence under control. If Einstein was correct, time should then begin coming under control for you as well. — by Len Wallick.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 20) — You have made a lot of progress in knowing your own mind, and acting as your own person. Yet, you should still be aware of the extent to which you remain highly impressionable, and how that need not be a weakness. Indeed, your willingness to be influenced at this time in your life is a great asset, which you will not always have to the extent you do now. The key to remaining your own person is developing your ability to consciously pick and choose from among the many persuasions vying to steer you. That means being stronger under pressure, and less vulnerable to flattery. In the end, you will be better off influenced by those who hasten to support you than those who endeavor to persuade you. — by Len Wallick.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 19) — The weight of being fully and consciously aware of what’s right and wrong as a natural instinct is something that many can successfully avoid, deny or ignore. But not you. Not for long anyway, and certainly not without nearly immediate consequences. If there are any crosses you must bear, always knowing better is almost certainly one of them. All things considered, it’s not such a bad cross even at its heaviest. There are far worse things than being constantly present with your conscience. The main problem that comes with being conscientious is the eventual realization that some of what you have been conditioned to accept is unconscionable. When that happens, remember that it’s always better to be true to yourself than to your conditioning. — by Len Wallick.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20) — Just as you have finally mastered seeing your own responsibilities through to completion, along comes another challenge: seeing through the nonsense that gets a pass from so many because it’s what they want to believe. The nature of this challenge for you is largely to test the boundaries of your perception, while willingly risking your ego. You have relatively little trouble (compared to many others) releasing attachments to previously untested beliefs, but accepting that your own insights have limits will be more difficult. It means taking some chances. On the one hand, you will need to indulge some speculative alternatives to conventional wisdom. On the other hand, you will have to do so with a sure and certain knowledge that sometimes you will be proven wrong — and be obliged to admit it. — by Len Wallick.

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