david bowie Archive

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Ava Cherry and Luther Vandross

In 1975, I was fifteen years old and a frequent babysitter for my sister, Lulu, now of St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. In those days she lived in a large apartment in Brooklyn; she shared it with her then husband, a native of Dominica. I loved going to her house, because you could listen to Richard Pryor there and, unusual for a black girl, Rod Stewart. I’m almost positive that I first heard David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” in that house that was so different than my own.  I couldn’t stop looking at the album cover. Bowie looked like any pretty deracinated girl. Had he been yanked from some Ronald Fairbank inspired garden? His hands looked like tentacles stretching towards an atmosphere that was spiked with longing; his cigarette was his breath. And his hair! I had seen black men–pimps, sometimes, or old time-y gamblers–with a ‘do that was similarly side swept. What did he want from us? From me? Well, a clearer understanding of one’s sexuality; his music–the propulsive beats, the endless narrative of difference–called one out. His sexual ambiguity frightened me because it wasn’t so ambiguous after all: he was equal parts male and female, and all parts star. Who was I? The album was confusing, too, especially because of what it sounded like: a black soul inside a white body. In an interview Bowie referred to the piece as “the definitive plastic soul,” record, and the “squashed remains,” of soul in the age of Muzak “written and sung by a white limey.” How could he do that? Be black and white at the same time, and articulate all parts of his fracture? My West Indian descended sister and cousin danced to “Young American,” knowingly; in our black neighborhood we were outside of American culture like that white limey. There were voices that helped give him voice: back up singing stars Ava Cherry (Bowie’s then lover) and Luther Vandross, whose success amused the competitive Bowie, but not the now dead Luther: his body could not handle it. The first step in understanding difference is knowing that you are, and placing yourself in the delicious muck of not-your-perspective from time to time, over and over again until you disappear, but not entirely, being present to the experience just enough to articulate it, in speech of song.

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Us Two

There had always been the dream of collaboration. As she lay dying, she had to write a letter. Her friend suggested they do it together; the letter would be better that way; their collaboration would result in a third person who would write the best kind of letter. She looked at him, quizzically, and then submitted to the experience. The letter was better. That was his dream, always, to make this third person with someone, someone who was better than either individual. Sometimes this happened for years, and then not. Sometimes, looking at programs about David Bowie, and  the years he spent touring with Iggy Pop, or living with him in Berlin, making music, he would remember that feeling–of creating the third person who wrote better than either individual. He would close his eyes against the break up part of the memory because he wanted to see that third person, always, as whole and pure. Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded.

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