November 8, 2016
Buying caviar with food stamps
by Jason Heller
David Bowie came from another world. Or, at least, listening to his music seems to launch us far beyond the confines of this one.
More terrestrially, it can transport us beyond the circumstances of our everyday existence — from poverty to dukedom, from the suburban to the surreal. His music was a space of endless possibility. A master mythologist, Bowie embodied the idea of constant self-reinvention. He was the very personification of story.
To celebrate the release of Melville House’s David Bowie: The Last Interview, music journalist, novelist, and lifelong Bowie devotee Jason Heller has written here about the role that Bowie’s storytelling has played in his life, and his development as a writer.
Jason’s Bowie-inspired book, Strange Stars, is in progress and forthcoming from Melville House. In it, he tells the wild, loud, weird, and totally unexpected story of science fiction’s massive influence on popular music, particularly during the boom enjoyed by both in the 1970s.
—Ryan Harrington, editor
As a kid, I was poor, and I loved David Bowie.
This was the eighties. Greed was the ideal. Too bad for me, I had nothing to be greedy about. My family consisted of a single mom who worked her ass off as a waitress, and dealt a little drugs on the side, plus a little brother who was already well on his way to becoming a dope-smoking juvenile delinquent. I was the good kid — all I did was shoplift.
To get by, we relied on food stamps, big bricks of noxious government cheese, and the kindness of friends’ couches on which to crash when we got evicted from yet another shitty, reeking-of-piss apartment. Which was often.
Kids like me in the eighties did not listen to David Bowie. At least not any of the kids I knew. Bowie was impeccable. Fashionable. High-end. I wore hand-me-down velour shirts and grubby jeans that look like they hadn’t been washed in weeks. Probably because they hadn’t.
When you’re poor, society tells you you’re lazy and dirty. After a while, that gaslights you. You believe it. It made as much sense for me to listen to Bowie as it did to try to buy caviar with food stamps.
I liked Bowie anyway. While everyone around me rocked out to Def Leppard, Mom and Little Brother included, I was getting lost in the fantastic, unreachable worlds of Ziggy Stardust and Let’s Dance. His image on these albums varies radically. During the Ziggy era, Bowie favored shocking, sharply spiked red hair, vivid splashes of makeup, and a glittery jumpsuit. In his Let’s Dance days, he dressed in a style so conservative that it seemed like a hyper-self-aware parody of conservatism. Maybe it was.
Even as a kid, I was starting to wrap my head around that. But all postmodernism aside, he became a symbol of the suave, sophisticated, upwardly mobile cosmopolitanism of the eighties that had zero use, let alone empathy, for people like me.
When you’re a poor kid, you do one of two things. You either own your poverty, loudly and with a perverse sense of pride, or you become ashamed of it, quietly and with a resigned sense of doom.
I fell in the latter camp. I didn’t want anyone to see my poverty. My identity was inextricable from my lack of material status in the eyes of a classist society. (Yeah, I read Marx as a kid — I shoplifted Das Kapital). I desperately yearned to be one thing: invisible.
Bowie didn’t do invisible.
Bowie was gaudy. Grand. Crisp. Lurid. Harsh. Clever. His dead eyes gave away nothing. His smile cut a hundred different ways. Even when buttoned down, he exuded a decadent ambiguity. I didn’t know where he came from. Did he grow up rich? Poor? Information like that wasn’t available at the tap of a screen back then. It didn’t matter anyway. Bowie wasn’t a real person, was he? He was the personification. Of something. But, I asked myself many times as I sat listening to Bowie in some apartment that smelled like cat piss and government cheese, the personification of what?
The summer of 1987, when I was 15, my mom scraped together enough drug money to buy me a ticket to see David Bowie at McNichols Arena in Denver. It was my first concert. I camped out for tickets, because that’s what you had to do before you could simply hit “refresh” until your finger bleeds. After a ten hours in line, I scored the unthinkable: a seventh-row seat.
The concert is a blur. It was Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour, an over-the-top, excessive, bells-and-whistles spectacle that was savagely ridiculed by music journalists. As a music journalist myself, please allow me to say, fuck you, music journalists.
This is what I do remember: The show was magic, yes. It was fantasy, sure. It was giant spiders and stentorian narrators and Bowie singing from a scaffold hoisted high over the stage. But it was more than that. It was a story.
What was the story about? Who knows? This is Bowie. The man whose attempts at concept albums like Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs resulted in gloriously disjointed sci-fi fables that were too ambitious to bother with coherence. The story itself wasn’t important. It was the act of telling it. And the fact that he wasn’t just telling stories of his own creation—he was living them.
That’s when I realized what Bowie embodied. He wasn’t he personification of glamor or empowerment or imagination. Maybe to others, but not to me. Not quite, anyway. No, to the 15-year-old kid who lived in borderline squalor and occasionally had to eat dry cornflakes for dinner, he was the personification of something far more powerful.
He was the personification of story.
From Ziggy Stardust to Let’s Dance, from Major Tom to the Thin White Duke, from folkie to futurist: Bowie wrote his own story. And he was the star of the story. He put that story on like a suit of clothes. He tailored and altered and added to it as he saw fit, so that by the end of his life, there were barely only threads left from when he first shrugged it on. The threads that remained, though, were what held it all together.
I realized, as poor as I was, that I could do the same. I could write my own story. It didn’t have to be a consistent one. It didn’t need a linear timeline or a reliable narrator or a chain of logical causality. In fact, it could be a total fucking self-contradictory mess. It could be made up on the fly, as long as it adhered to a few elemental threads. What are those threads? Only the author knows. Everyone else is left guessing. As they should.
So that’s what I did. And what I still do.
Since then, I’ve been a lot of things. I’ve been a musician who’s recorded and toured. I’ve been a warehouse worker and a clerk at a record store. I’ve been a teetotaler and a drunk, a punk and a thief, and—at the risk of sounding like one of Bowie’s heroes, Frank Sinatra—a poet, a pawn, and a king. Craziest of all, I’ve been a writer. Not even an invisible one.
I’ve worn all these costumes. I’ve told all these stories. In one of them, a kid buys caviar with food stamps.
And he totally gets away with it.
David Bowie: The Last Interview is on sale now. Buy your copy here or from your neighborhood independent bookstore.
Jason Heller has written for publications including the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and The AV Club. His books include Taft 2012, Slappy’s Revenge, and, most recently, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, out now from Melville House.