Strange Overtones: My Mixed Mourning of David Bowie

Content Notice for Mentions of CSA Under the Cut

This morning, I awoke to news that I thought was a hoax. So did others. But no, it isn’t: David Bowie is dead, the cause being liver cancer (the disease wasn’t public knowledge). When the news was confirmed, I shed real tears. I am a hardcore Bowie fan. He taught me that camp was not only okay, or even awesome, but that it could be high art, a statement against the very shame so often levied against it. He taught me that reinvention wasn’t just for pretty cis girls like Madonna. He taught me that children’s movies could hold subversion of not only the obvious magic-pants kind — all hail The Area — but also of the political type.

The man, one who may have dabbled in not-quite-cishet culture and imagery but was actually straight, was integral to my eventual development into a genderqueer campy femme. I’d venture to say that he has had significant influence on many if not most of us who would call ourselves queer.

Yet, my grief is hardly straightforward, and felt punctuated by a non-Bowie song.

He also had sex with at least one very young teen who was likely under the influence of both the rock’n’roll scene and its accompanying drugs*. Furthermore, he had a complicated, drug-fueled Nazi phase (he later openly regretted the Thin White Duke persona). Does my saying that eradicate any of the good he has done? Suggest that we trash his entire body of work and shun his surviving family and friends? Pretend as though his influence on certain LGBTQ+ communities doesn’t exist? No. It simply means that he was not “too good for this world,” as the sentiment I’ve seen repeated across social media and news story comment sections would have you believe. Rather, he was most definitely part of it and influenced by it as well as an influencer of it, for good and for ill.

It takes nothing away from my grief or anyone else’s to point out that he did crappy things in his past, some of which he never quite addressed. We do not live in a world divided into heroes and monsters, we live in one populated by human beings. People have the right to mourn as they please, and for me, the best way to cope is cope in a clear-eyed rather than bowdlerized way. Those who need to mourn in a more selective fashion can look away, but the sad fact remains that this, too, is part of his legacy.

I say it about Islam and Muslims all the time: You cannot begin to fix the problems within any communities without first making an honest assessment of those problems. The music industry has a sexism and sexual assault problem and historically, things have been even worse. That the sunlight being shone on it is finally hitting disinfectant level at around the time the musical idols of those prior times are dying or dead is unfortunate but necessary.

Though I’ve seen calls for people to save their talk of the less savory aspects of his life for another day, I don’t know if there is any better day than today. People have been talking about these issues for years, but nearly no one has been paying much attention. If trending algorithms help spread the word, I cannot fault anyone taking advantage of that.

*It’s hard for me to call it rape when the person in question resists the labeling of what happened to her as such. Sexual contact of any kind with a young girl is not something a single grown man should have done, though, let alone two. A 12-14 year old cannot consent to sex with an adult, especially not when drug use is involved.

Main image via.

Edited 1/12: He died of liver, not lung cancer, as pointed out in the comments. Also, I am fully aware that Strange Overtones is not a Bowie song but it came to mind for me for whatever reason as I was processing my thoughts yesterday. Wanted to make sure that’s clear.

Strange Overtones: My Mixed Mourning of David Bowie

20 thoughts on “Strange Overtones: My Mixed Mourning of David Bowie

  1. T

    I appreciate your exploration of this tough topic. I also have to note that you inaccurately label him a straight man here. David Bowie was NOT straight. He was an out bisexual and was out for many many years of his life.

      1. This is an excellent piece, but you are erasing his bisexuality. I read the link you referred to. It says he regretted identifying openly as a bisexual, but he did not ever say he was NOT bisexual. Just because he preferred women doesn’t make him any less bisexual.

        1. There was more to it than that, important bits bolded:

          In a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone, Bowie said his public declaration of bisexuality was “the biggest mistake I ever made” and “I was always a closet heterosexual.” On other occasions, he said his interest in homosexual and bisexual culture had been more a product of the times and the situation in which he found himself than his own feelings; as described by Buckley, he said he had been driven more by “a compulsion to flout moral codes than a real biological and psychological state of being.”

          Either way, I disagree with imposing a label on someone who rejects it. It’s not erasure, it’s respecting people’s ability to self-identify.

          1. Human sexuality is often complicated, fluid and there’s the famous Kinsey spectrum ( ) and I guess its all another gray area given Bowie said different things at different times. (As I ‘spose most of us do?)

            I’m not sure that I’d ever classify Bowie as being heterosexual or that many others but then if he did, well, again, its really not clear. I can see given (some) of this comments as cited here why Heina Dadabhoy would do so and understand her reasoning (I think) but I don’t really agree here either.

  2. 2

    My feelings about Bowie’s passing are similar to my feelings when my grandmother died. She had a violent temper and physically abused my mother when she was a child. And yet she also took my mother and I in when my father bailed out on us, so I was really sad when she died. It’s like you said, the world isn’t divided between heroes and monsters.

  3. 5

    This was the groupie scene at the time. Basically all those rock stars are pedophiles, unfortunately. Which does not, for the record, make it better. If anything, it makes it worse.

    My favorite decade for music is 1965-1975. I love David Bowie, but I’m partial to the heavier progressive and psychedelic rock as well as the Blues of that specific period. Led Zeppelin is my all-time favorite band, followed by Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. I can’t allow myself to make heroes out of those people, though, because of the groupie scene.

    1. 5.1

      Pedophilia is actually a specific designation for people attracted to sex with prepubescent individuals. While somewhat troubling, the allegations against Bowie are not pedophilia. He was in his early twenties, having consensual sex with girls in their teens. Not a huge age difference. It was a different era, and the girls in question don’t seem to define it as rape or even coercive. I think what is key is that he didn’t end his life trying to sleep with young teens.

    2. 5.2

      As most of them had sex with adults and didn’t primarily experience attraction to pre-pubescent children, I wouldn’t call them pedophiles. Child molesters and child rapists, perhaps, but not pedophiles.

  4. 8

    I think what Aoife O’Riordan writes here :

    is also well worth reading. I’m disappointed and saddened to read this. Bowie was an awesome hero, rebel, artist and human being. Its hard to reconcile that with what you’ve said here except I guess to note that nobody is without any flaws and probably nobody has ever lived a rich and full life without ever doing anything wrong or that they regret.

    A good friend (& another huge Bowie fan) of mine has also just noted on fb that Bowie is all that kept him alive for many years. He made so many positive and good differences to the world as well. Lets not ignore the things he got wrong but least also put them into fair perspective and balance. Please?

    Add me to the list of those who always thought he was an out bisexual too.

    1. 8.1

      For clarity please note the ” I’m disappointed and saddened to read this.” part here refers to Bowie’s misdeeds NOT Heina Dadabhoy reporting them.

      I hope its alright if I also note that Bowie was a strong opponent of racism as shown here :

      Too.* Yes I’ma Bowie fan and yes this is hard to process except people are complicated and fallible and flawed and also still paradoxically marvellous and wonderful and so much more too.

      * Plus see this :

      among other things.

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