By Rhian Ellis
David Bowie was my mother's music. In the early seventies, she played it all the time, usually loudly, often while drinking and crying. She loved Bowie so much she had a poster of Aladdin Sane on her bedroom wall. So, although I know it well--every note and word on certain albums--and although I admired it and understood even then that he was a genius, until today I have never listened to it on my own. When someone played it at a party in college, I would want to leave. There was something about that music—something unsettling and a little frightening. Sometimes when I heard it, I'd feel as if I was falling into a fiery void. Is there life on Mars?
One night in 1972 I sat on my mother's lap and looked out my bedroom window. It was night, we lived in Santa Barbara, where my dad was in grad school, and if we pressed our faces to the screen we could see the fiery streak of a rocket taking off from Vandenberg Air Force Base up the coast. My mother loved space, everything about it. She subscribed to Astronomy magazine, which was smooth and glossy and filled with beautiful photographs of planets and nebulae, and she read science fiction and books about physics. I did not share this love with her. Space seemed so cold and empty. But I wanted to love it because I loved her. She said to me, When you're a kid, you love your parents more than anything. But when you have your own kids, then you love them more than anything.
One day, she said, you'll love your own kids more than you love me.
I was only four but I knew that what she was saying was true, was crushingly true. It was only a matter of time before I'd betray her, and take my love away.
Of course, when you're a kid you know things without being able to articulate them, even to yourself. I knew why my mother listened to David Bowie, even then. She listened to him because his songs were about loneliness and alienation, about being in a tin can, cut off from everyone you loved forever. My mother had come to the US from Britain when she was twenty-three and was desperately homesick. Britain at the time was very unlike sunny, beardy, hippie-era Southern California. She was very shy and had trouble making friends. She could write letters home, on thin blue air-mail paper, but phone calls were prohibitively expensive. My dad was in college and working full time so she was alone all day long with me—I had arrived a year after she came over—and then, four years later, with my sister too. Many days I came in from playing outside and heard "Jean Genie" or "The Man Who Sold the World": We must have died alone/A long long time ago. Her loneliness filled every corner of the house.
Listening to these songs now, after so many years of spinning the radio dial past them and dodging out of parties to avoid them, I'm kind of dazzled. The lyrics are even more complex than I remember and they weave dense narratives, and the music sounds like nothing else. Bowie pursued his own highly idiosyncratic vision; he made meaning out of his weird obsessions. He was, in a word, brilliant. My mother, I have always known, was also brilliant, even though she left school at fifteen. Bowie operated on her level—he must have challenged and excited her. I know for a fact that the mushy pieties of Simon and Garfunkel left her cold.
But it is mistake for me to think I understood her. I didn't, and I don't. One day when I was three or four she left. I came downstairs to find my dad hammering his wedding ring flat, crying. Where had she gone? Off with some other man, an old boyfriend from England who'd come all the way to California. She had dropped my baby sister at a neighbor's, though I thought, at the time, that she had taken my sister and left me. My dad and I went out for ice cream and to a jewelers for a chain for my dad to hang his smashed ring on. The jeweler, I remember, said, "What an interesting idea," and the ice cream was chocolate chip.
She came home a few days later. My feelings, I remember, were mixed. I couldn't decide whether to be happy or angry. I wasn't sure if I even wanted her back.
Many years later, in the weeks after she died, my dad returned again and again to this interlude, the time my mom left him and came back. Where had she gone? What had she done? Who, exactly, was that guy? It was as if she had disappeared into space for a little while, and come back to earth just a little bit strange.
That sense of mystery, the idea that a person is ultimately unknowable, that the meaning and purpose of our lives is unknowable, is part of David Bowie, too. His music shifts seamlessly between the comprehensible and the mysterious, the frightening and the fascinating. But you don't need to understand something, his music says, to love it. I think I get that, now.
Rhian Ellis is a writer and editor in Ithaca, NY. She is the author of the novel After Life and fiction editor of the on-line lit mag Okey-Panky.