David Bowie was one of those artists—human beings—who did only exactly the things he wanted to do. He was beautiful, strange, androgynous, flawless, sexual, artistic, fucked up, supernatural. Bowie gave us permission to be all of those things as well, to be a star and a mess, to live our lives as creatively as we dare to, to have no fear and fulfill our every desire.
His creativity really impresses me, and it makes me feel bad about myself as an artist. People like Bowie are constantly creating something in some way, even if it’s just the way they decorate their bathroom. They cannot breathe if they do not have creativity flowing through their lungs. They cannot function without making something out of nothing. Every second of every day is consumed with art. When I read about such artists, when I see their creations and hear them speak about what they do, I get so excited and inspired. I always wanted to be creative, and I always have been creative. But I haven’t always done much with my creativity.
This man could have done fuck-all for the last 30 years, but he couldn’t bring himself to exist in that sort of complacency. He kept making music and acting and living the life of an artist. His last album was recorded while he had fucking cancer. He couldn’t even stand to not create while his body was dying. That makes me cry, the thought of him putting every last drop of love and art and passion into recording those songs, knowing they would be his last. But he just had to do it.
Bowie once said that he considered fear to be the depth of misery. Well, shit. Most of us are fucked if that’s the case, because we live in constant fear of failure, of being judged, being disliked, being misunderstood, or of just being different. Think of what things were like when he first came out with all that makeup and pasty skin and flamboyant clothing. Who the fuck did that back then? What kind of balls did it take for a scrawny little androgynous English boy to call himself Ziggy Stardust and sing about space? Praising hot tramps and juvenile delinquent wrecks? Telling reporters you’re bisexual in 1972? What? Nobody was even using that word. It’s really extraordinary to think that this man was comfortable enough to just be in the world as himself, and that he allowed himself to transform physically and artistically as dramatically as he did throughout his life.
So what are we supposed to do without him? He’s still ahead of his time. He’s still the standard by which we must judge all creators, not just in terms of his art but his work ethic and passion. One of my favorite quotes explains why he was so successful and prolific:
I’ve never been worried about losing fans….My strength has always been that I never gave a shit about what people thought of what I was doing. I’d be prepared to completely change from album to album and ostracize everybody that may have been pulled in to the last album. That didn’t ever bother me one iota.
This is how we must live our lives, as human beings and as artists. Waiting to be critiqued by others, sitting around and praying for approval—that is death. That is the opposite of what David Bowie stood for. That is not the path to happiness. And what now shall we do with ourselves? Is it enough to mourn a man we never met, a rock star we worshipped from afar? Should his death affect anyone? Should his music still matter to us?
I’m not a singer. I don’t write songs. I don’t play an instrument. But I am still inspired by music every single day. I’ve heard millions of songs in my 42 years on this earth, and sometimes I’ll hear a song for the 800th time and suddenly have an epiphany—Holy shit, that’s what it means! I’ll cry. I’ll applaud. I’ll laugh. I’ll obsess over it. I’ll write about it. No matter how old I am when I discover an artist, they have an impact on me, and that effect can never be diminished. My writing is probably more inspired by music than by any book I’ve read.
David Bowie has been with me since I was ten years old and I first saw the video for “Let’s Dance.” I didn’t really know who he was, but I thought he was fascinating and beautiful. And then I saw “Modern Love.” And then the long version of “Blue Jean,” the short film Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, which my best friend and I loved! MTV didn’t play it as often as the short version with just the song, so it was always a special event for us when it was on. My Mom told me a bit about Ziggy Stardust, but I don’t think I really understood what that was since she didn’t have any of his records and I didn’t know what that looked or sounded like. Bowie as I knew him was this tall, super blonde dude with a crooked tooth and some nice suits. I had the same idea about Robert Plant at the time; I heard that he had been in a band a few years before The Honeydrippers, but since my Mom didn’t have any Zeppelin I had no context for that, either. MTV was my gateway drug to modern music, just as my Mom’s Chuck Berry and Elvis records were the taste I needed to become addicted to rock and roll in the first place.
Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were my David Bowie, if you will, in that they were freaky and cool and gave no fucks. I grew up in a very homogenous, very white suburb where being different was just not a thing. I felt different because I am Serbian, and we were the only ethnic family in our school aside from one Chinese family. I never felt awkward about my ethnicity, and I was always very proud to be Serbian. I loved teaching my friends about our traditions and food. To me, not being like everyone else was awesome.
Watching Cyndi and Madonna celebrate their own freakiness, dressing trashy and singing about sex and being funny and smart—that’s what I wanted to be! Just comfortable with myself. I always sort of felt like I wasn’t good enough or something, like I was a bad kid and had to really try to be better. I’m not sure where that came from, but at the start of every elementary school year I would tell myself that I was going to get good grades and not talk in the lunchroom when the lights were out and not say bad words when I was with my friends. My sloppy handwriting was going to be perfect and I was going to be nice to everybody and never talk back to my parents. But none of these promises lasted very long, because they just weren’t me. I wasn’t a horrible kid, but I’ve always been stubborn and had a mind of my own. Cyndi and Madonna seemed happy to be themselves, and that’s what I wanted.
And this is what I see in David Bowie. Despite his addictions and scandal, he was still living life on his own terms. He had no choice but to be himself, as much of a mess as he was for a while. His struggle was no different from any of ours. He just had a much stronger determination to work through it so he could continue his life as an artist. That’s what made him happy with himself. Everything he ever wanted to experience in 69 years, he experienced. He let nothing stand in his way. He is our example of how to really live life.
When I was 16 years old, my grandmother was dying of cancer. There were several times during the last year of her life when we thought we were about to lose her, and then she would get a bit better and was able to function. When she was around 20 she saw her most of her family murdered as the Nazis invaded her village, and she was taken to a German labor camp where she remained until the war was over. She met and married my grandfather in that camp. They brought my father and aunt to America in 1956 and did what they had to do to make a new life for themselves and their family without having any education or any skills other than farming. And they did make a decent life, even when things got difficult. They were no-excuses kind of people. They were survivors. They knew they were blessed to be alive after the horrors they had seen in the old country. In the 1980s my grandmother got breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Years later, the cancer returned in her liver. During one of those times when she felt good, we were visiting for the weekend and went to church. Orthodox services are very long, even on regular Sundays, and there is a lot of standing. It was the middle of July and very hot, and I had hardly eaten breakfast, so I felt sick and kept sitting down. But there was my grandmother, 66 years old and dying of cancer, standing for every single second of that service, looking at me like I was a punk bitch for not being able to stand up for two hours. I felt like such an asshole.
No matter what, we have to do the things we want to do. We only have so much time, so we need to stop wasting it. There can be no excuses. Fuck your fears. And fuck cancer.