On David Bowie’s Life of Resistance

David Bowie's life shows us that the boundaries imposed by a dominant culture are more fluid than mainstream society allows – and that resistance is not futile.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

— Mary Oliver

David Bowie has often been called a chameleon in the media, but that misses the point of his life. If a chameleon changes his outward appearance to hide and escape danger, the singer, pop star, actor, painter, and music producer spent his life changing and reinventing himself from the inside out in spite of danger, ridicule, failure, even the inevitability of aging.

He writes in “Changes”: “Time may change me, but I can’t trace time” — and time did change him. Bowie was born David Jones in Brixton, England on 8 January 1947. One reason he changed his name as he started his music career was so he wouldn’t be confused with the then more famous Davy Jones of the Monkeys, the irony of which we only now see.

If the Monkeys were a carefully crafted media hype for easy public consumption, Bowie resisted mainstream anything at each venture of his life — at least until what he had created became the mainstream. As soon as everyone caught up to his style, he reinvented himself. It may be that nobody under the age of 30 or 40 has even heard of the Monkeys, while every generation, Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, has some claim on Bowie’s musical legacy. He wrote anthems for all our generations, but especially the Gen Xers, born roughly in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, and who came of age during his most influential years.

Bowie was not an instant success. He moved from band to band for almost five years in the mid-’60s, working with different blues and R&B sounds until he finally decided to break every mold and released his 1969 Space Oddity, with the iconic title song about a Major Tom, an astronaut drifting through space.

It was Bowie’s persona that may be as remembered as much as his music. Through each phase of his career he created dramatic characters. After Space Oddity, and its instant success, Bowie spent three years experimenting with new sounds and collaborations before emerging in 1972 with his next album, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Ziggy Stardust wasn’t just an album title, but a character that Bowie began to inhabit on and off stage.

Ziggy Stardust is often called the beginning of Bowie’s androgynous image, although his real gift to the conversation isn’t the elimination of gender, but its full expression in non-binary ways. He didn’t just resist gender norms, but any fixation on sexual orientation. In the ’70s Bowie declared himself gay, even as he married Angie and began co-parenting their child. In one widely circulated photograph with his first wife, she and Bowie are shown pushing both a baby carriage and gender boundaries. The photograph defied labels. Drag and family values collide in a spectacular way.

David and Angie Bowie (1970)

In the ’80s Bowie declared himself bi-sexual, and later said that he had been a closet heterosexual all along, motivated to resist any gender stereotypes. He eventually said he regretted declaring any sexual orientation or category.

In 1992 he married for a second time, the Somali born supermodel Iman, who, while being best known for her international commercial beauty, is also an accomplished linguist fluent in five languages, actress, entrepreneur and devoted mother. Bowie’s relationship with Iman was a powerful, enduring, and playful one. Bowie recalled he was naming their future children the night they met. The connection “was absolutely immediate”, he said. Iman recalls that it took her some time before she fell for him. When Bowie died on 10 January, she said, “the struggle is real, but so is God.” I love Iman’s inference that the word God may be understood as a verb — to struggle is to be with God.

If and to the dehumanizing and soul-crushing forces of consumer culture is a part of ministering to the world (and it is!) Bowie’s life of resistance is an example to note. His was a life of resistance, to musical categories, gender stereotypes, sexual categories, even political and religious boxes — all he seemed to view as soul crushing aspects of modern life and love.

The characters he created, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, (here he is the Goblin King in the later film, Labyrinth) would often consume Bowie on and off stage. His acting in more than 20 films was often brilliant, although he refused to define himself as an actor. He resisted being defined as anything, in the end, other than a pop star –which I think was always said with a tinge of irony. Each time Bowie pushed the genre of pop in a new direction, like his friend Andy Warhol, he changed the game and went in a new direction: Never a chameleon, always the risk taker; Never attaching to any fixed point — he kept moving the center to the next place.

Bowie’s resistance to rigid categories was a hallmark of his life, and he was the singular influential rock star in my coming of age story. His music has followed me through my life and may be the only pop music I ever listen to nowadays. His anthem “Changes” set a tone for my 20s, and “Heroes” for my 30s. Bowie has always been a singular music hero of mine.

We all have our singular rock star that shaped our rebellious teen years. Depending on when you came of age, it may have been Freddie Mercury or Elvis; Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain; Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin. If you had just one artist in your desert island jukebox, who would it be?

One difference between Bowie and all the other rock legends I mention is that he didn’t die from his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, but of old age, surrounded by his family, loved by friends, and not just adored by fans but respected. To survive, Bowie had to step back from the bleeding edge of pop culture that he had a part in creating. His story is therefore one of how to push your values and vision to the very edge of survivability, resisting at each step the consumerist forces at work, and having the wisdom to step back from the edge.

Resistance can be pushed too far. Known throughout the early ’70s as a rocker who could withstand massive amounts of cocaine, during his dark days of drug abuse, even his politics moved to an extreme of near admiration for fascism and English nationalism. He regretted these periods for the rest of his life, he said, admitting that he was so strung out in interviews of the time that he often didn’t know what he was saying. He later found redemption for his early extreme views in years devoted to peace work, especially for Tibet.

I’ve never been a celebrity rock star, but it seems like a lifestyle in which you’re going to have to choose, at some point, between change or death. Bowie, as he did so many times, chose change. He dropped everything at the height of stardom in 1976 to retire to a private chalet in Switzerland to clean up and reconfigure his life. He was about to turn 30, which may not have been a coincidence.

This is certainly a lesson from his life, this life of resistance. Each phase of our life needs to be mindfully engaged. The experimentation and risk in our 20s can kill us in our 30s. The unfulfilled dreams of our 30s might crush our souls if we don’t learn to let go of them in our 40s. In our 40s, if we haven’t moved into adulthood, we risk being man-boys or Peter Pans — never able to adjust to this beautiful progression of life we call age. If we are going to survive life, body and soul, each decade of our life can be looked at as a new chapter moving through the lessons we have been given.

And so, in Switzerland for a year, and then in Berlin for another two, Bowie reconfigured his personal life. He intentionally began studying classical literature and music and took up painting. He moved from creating wild personas and cocaine-fueled spectacles to painting, reading, and a re-emerging interest in Buddhism. He cleaned up and recovered.

I’ve wondered if his Buddhism was a saving influence in his life. He never talked much about his religious views, but Buddhism was his primary religious affiliation. “I was within a month of having my head shaved, taking my vows, and becoming a monk,” Bowie said about that period of his life. He was torn, however, and so sought the counsel of a Buddhist teacher, usually assumed to be Chögyam Trungpa. The teacher replied to the famous young seeker that he should remain a musician, for that was how he could be of the most benefit to the world.

Whatever the spiritual lifelines he had during his period of recovery, Bowie returned to his career with a maturity that helped him to collaborate with and even mentor musicians who shaped music for decades to come: Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, and others. His later albums continued to push genres, from techno to jazz.

I could say so much more about Bowie’s life, and skipping some of his most focused and productive years seems almost criminal, but this isn’t a biography or discography, and it is enough to say that he continued to innovate and experiment with bending music, fashion and artistic genres. Following a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 57, fans noticed that Bowie slowed down his production. Through his 60s he settled into semi-retirement and a relatively conventional life of studio work, philanthropy, collecting art, inspiring new generations of musicians, and parenting his and Iman’s daughter.

Unlike other rock ‘n’ roll icons who continued to milk it for all it’s worth — we see you Mick Jaggar! — Bowie seemed to crave a less public life. He went to work at his studio, played music, collaborated with friends. Maybe there are some lessons there for all of us, that there’s a time to step back and inspire others through mentorship instead of living life on the edge of rock stardom.

But he did have one final set to sing.

His final gift to music is his album Blackstar, written as he was dying in this final year of his life. Album producer Tony Visconti said Bowie had planned the album to be his swan song, and a “parting gift” for his fans before his death. “Something happened on the day he died,” the title song goes.

Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside

Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried

How many times does an angel fall?

How many people lie instead of talking tall?

He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd.

I was moved by Bowie’s death in a way that surprised me. It wasn’t grief, or a feeling of loss, but a knowing that something has changed, again. It was an awareness of the influence Bowie had on me and my generation. His life shows us that the boundaries imposed by a dominant culture are more fluid than mainstream society allows – and that resistance is not futile.

The poet Mary Oliver once asked, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

These words echoed as I reflected on the meaning of loss and death. Bowie’s life was wild, but also precious in the gifts it contained. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” Oliver writes, but

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Even with Bowie’s full and almost long life, we are reminded that everything does die at last, and always too soon.

Rev. Bret Lortie has served the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois, as its senior minister since 2013. Before entering seminary in 2002, he was the managing editor for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists —a magazine that reports on peace, arms control, human rights, and global security issues. He is the co-editor of the book, Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism.