Monday, January 11, 2016

Oh! You Pretty Thing

"Can you do Bowie for my 5th period class?"

Paris Goodrum, my high school drama teacher, loved my David Bowie. It emerged from a class assignment in lip syncing. Paris stressed that he wanted something more than just mouthing lyrics. He wanted performance, and this I took seriously.

This was 1975, Lawrence, Indiana, as far from Swinging London as you could get. The majority of students were pretty conservative. Theatricality was fine if you were Robert Plant or Ted Nugent. Bowie was entirely a different flavor.

I rehearsed endlessly in my basement bedroom. Since my hair was long, I went with the Ziggy Stardust look. My father made fun of me when he wasn't rolling his eyes. (And he was a rock club owner! Oh, Dad.) I forged ahead regardless.

Just before drama class, I prepped in the men's room. Applied rouge, lipstick, and eye shadow. Covered my face in glitter. Wore a frilly blue shirt with bright red suspenders and denim shorts. Yellow knee socks and platform shoes. Feather necklace and hoop bracelets. Naturally, there were stares on my walk back to class. But I felt empowered.

My classmates laughed and hooted when I stood before them. Paris told them to zip it. I began to lip sync to "Future Legend," standing still, eyes unblinking. Then I tore into "Diamond Dogs," affecting Bowie's moves while improvising a few of my own. The class loved it, Paris especially.

I did my Bowie for a couple of Paris' classes. He'd turn to his students and say, "Now THAT'S how you do it!" This gave me a weird, brief popularity, as well as feeding rumors about my sexuality.

A few months later, the drama department put on a revue for the entire school. Paris requested my Bowie. I accepted, but instead of reprising Ziggy/Dogs, I cut my hair short, as Bowie had done, and eschewed the glitter and flash. I dressed in a blue denim jumpsuit, slicked back my hair, and synced to "Young Americans."

It was a subtler performance, which the students didn't like. They wanted early, wilder Bowie. Paris felt a bit let down, but years later when I bumped into him, he mentioned my Bowie with a smile.

David Bowie wasn't a rock star or a celebrity -- he was a cultural force. His work inspired countless people, even rednecks like me. He gave hope to gay teens at a truly closeted time; he played with gender before it became a sociological category.

His music and style changed and evolved, not always successfully. He made music videos years before MTV. He collaborated with greats from rock, soul, and techno. He was the shit.

Goodbye, David, and thank you.