In my youth, I was not a David Bowie fan. I preferred grunge to glam. My tastes during the ‘70s inclined toward California singer-songwriters (Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt), grizzled bluesmen (Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters), straight-up rockers (Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, The Who), and of course, always, Bob Dylan. I looked askance at prog rock and avant garde and the disco scene, all of which influenced—and were influenced by—David Bowie.
Yet. . . my high school rock band, Thunderbolt, loved playing Bowie’s hard-rocking classic, “Rebel Rebel,” with its three easy chords, and as a Dylan fanatic, I recognized that like my idol, Bowie was a master of shifting personas. Although none of his famous characters—from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke— held much appeal for me, I respected Bowie’s ability to create and inhabit them gracefully. In doing so, he reminded me of Dylan’s wisdom: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Or, as Bowie himself put it, imploringly: Turn and face the strange changes. Much later I learned the Jewish version of this manifesto, in which, upon waking, one recites a blessing thanking the Creator for restoring our souls daily, and thus granting us the opportunity to remake ourselves anew each day.
Current brain research—and my own anecdotal experience—indicates that most of our musical preferences are determined in our adolescence (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/opinion/24hajdu.html). It is, therefore, much to my surprise that as I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself drawn to some of the glam and art rock bands that I scorned in my youth: the Talking Heads, Queen, Roxie Music.
And. . . David Bowie, whose death last week grieved me more deeply than I would have expected. I think I’ve learned to hear themes in their music that I missed the first time around: questioning and experimentation and, above all, courage. Looking back, I deeply admire their daring. Indeed, reflecting on my own past, I now suspect that much of the antipathy I bore toward this music as a teen was born out of my own not-so-subtle anti-gay prejudice. As a straight suburban high school kid in the ‘70s, I inherited—and perpetuated—the prevailing bigotries of the time. Only with the benefit of hindsight have I come to see these artists as the revolutionaries that they were. David Bowie’s sexual orientation was complicated, and he spent most of his life in heterosexual marriages—but he was, nonetheless, the first major rock artist to publicly describe himself as gay. That act—which I, sadly, undoubtedly mocked in my adolescence—now strikes me as truly heroic.
This week, in the aftermath of his death, I have read countless testimonies from LGBT adults for whom David Bowie was, literally, a life saver—a beacon of hope and pride in an otherwise brutally anti-gay time. But his influence as a kind of exemplar for all sorts of "misfits" extended far beyond the LGBT community. A few days ago, I came across a tribute to Bowie on a frum website, in which a born-secular, turned-Hasidic woman wrote about how Bowie’s “weirdness” inspired her to come out—as an ultra-Orthodox Jew! Our sacred tradition teaches us to love the Other as ourselves, since we have, ourselves, been Other in the land of Egypt—and beyond. David Bowie taught that, too, with his array of personas. With his life.
This week is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, in which our Torah portion, Beshallach, includes the Song at the Red Sea. It is, therefore, a fitting season to remind ourselves of the psalmist’s words offered for daily recitation in our morning liturgy: Shiru l’Adonai shir chadash—Sing a new song unto the Holy One! God asks us to constantly renew ourselves and our communities. David Bowie did just that. May his memory be for a blessing.