Hung Up On Romancing: Josh Stallings Remembers David Bowie

Josh Stallings’ latest work, Young Americansis a heist novel with a 70s glam-rock backdrop, set in San Francisco. Every character, much like the author, worships David Bowie. When Bowie passed away, we asked Josh if he would write a piece about his idol and in a few days he gave us this brilliant beautiful work.

“Hung Up On Romancing” by Josh Stallings

I am twelve and my big sister Lisa gives me David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. Lisa is the escape artist. She slipped the gravity of our chaotic, mad planet of a family and crash landed in Los Angeles. Violent red hair cut in a jagged bob, purple skirt, feather boa, walking cool down Hollywood Boulevard. Mythic.

I am thirteen and listening to Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. It is dirty and sexy and dangerous. In “Cracked Actor” Bowie sings of trading oral favors for fame. I hope my mother doesn’t hear this. The hippy Quaker activist woman who birthed me would panic at this casual pansexual Bacchanal. I’ll take your Erica Jong Fear of Flying zipper-less free love and raise you glitter rock’s anthem to lustful androgyny.

Bowie made it cool to be smart. Cool to love words. He was also a flag I flew to find others of my tribe. A litmus test for lifetime friendships. We might argue Rod Stewart vs Todd Rundgren, or Mott the Hoople vs Kinks, but no one questioned David Bowie’s place in our constellations. He was our north star. Our way home through the murky seas of hormones and high school.

I am fifteen and with absolutely no musical talent, I take on the persona of a rock star. Scarves to the floor. Hair long. Jeans tight. Attitude, pure Ziggy Stardust. Some nights when the rum to Coke mix is perfect, I adopt a British accent. A parking lot jock calls me “Fag!” because his raven haired amore is shooting bed-me eyes my direction. I think he is unclear on the meaning of the insult. When he calls me “Woman!” the linguistic inanity stuns more than hurts, had my sparkling lamé shirt confused him about my gender? Or, worse, does he think women are less than men and thus it’s a demeaning label? Little wonder his babe wants to hop in the sack with a glitter boy. Bowie made it cool to be smart. Cool to love words. He was also a flag I flew to find others of my tribe. A litmus test for lifetime friendships. We might argue Rod Stewart vs Todd Rundgren, or Mott the Hoople vs Kinks, but no one questioned David Bowie’s place in our constellations. He was our north star. Our way home through the murky seas of hormones and high school.

I am twenty-two and holding my son, wet from his mother womb. Flooded with love and fear. I am doomed to screw this up. My wife and I are kids. I have no memory or cultural reference point for what a good dad looks like. My pop abandoned the Norman Rockwell, Fathers Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver icons to explore art and drugs and wine and Haight Ashbury. In a quest for his inner child, he abdicated fatherhood. Traded it for being an older pal, a cool uncle. Earlier that year, Pop dropped acid in our tiny bungalow. My girlfriend, soon to be wife, gets big points for not freaking over the freak rolling and mumbling on the carpet. The next day he announces he is no longer Hal Stallings, he is from this point on Tobias. That is my only blue print for how a father should be. I am screwed. I pull out Hunky Dory, drop the needle onto the fifth track, “Kooks.” And there it is. We are a couple of kooks hung up on romancing, and raising a kid. I can do this. I dance to Bowie with my son cooing in my arms.

It is Monday and Bowie is dead. I want to cry, scream, thrash about like a tiger on Vaseline. On every channel and station, expert commentators drone. Bowie was a musical mood ring, sexual revolutionary, shocking showman, con-man, calculating chameleon, blah blah blah.

I’m fifty-Six and my novel Young Americans is coming out. Concurrently, my younger son is crashing on the rocks of addiction again. I get tattooed with a line from Bowie, “Gee my life’s a funny thing.” It reminds me not to take any of this too seriously. My world view has been informed by this skinny pale English man with bad teeth. I am deeply sincere and stay away from cynical irony. All the while, aware that this moment of certainty is transitory. Defend my currant stance with blood. Be clear it will change.

I am fifty-seven and feeling old. My pay job is cutting movie trailers. In Hollywood advertising years, I’m one hundred and four. At my church, I set up a group for post high school not quite grown up youth, and I’m told by leadership it really should be run by stakeholders (i.e. someone younger than me.) It’s Friday night and Bowie’s Blackstar drops. Stunning. Fresh. On the eve of his sixty-ninth birthday, Bowie has found yet another undiscovered sonic and lyrical corner to explore. Bowie refuses to become irrelevant, why should he? Bowie doesn’t chase trends, he is them. I start typing on Tricky, it is the best work of my career. It is a year away from completion. It tastes like word alchemy. My age brings power and depth. I am proud of every white hair in my beard.

As a teen I developed two versions of how to face death; Dylan Thomas’s “Rage against the dying of the light.” And T.S. Eliot’s “Not with a bang but a whimper.” Very teen angsty. Very binary. Bowie opened a third door. Face it, eyes open, fully aware. Acknowledge it is happening, and, this is the important part, if you are an artist, document it.

It is Monday and Bowie is dead. I want to cry, scream, thrash about like a tiger on Vaseline. On every channel and station, expert commentators drone. Bowie was a musical mood ring, sexual revolutionary, shocking showman, con-man, calculating chameleon, blah blah blah. My pop once took me to see Monet’s lily pads. I read a typed card describing the painting, it seems tiny in the face of these lush, messy brush strokes. My pop leans down and whispers, “That’s just someone’s opinion. Want to know what the artist was thinking, it’s on the canvas.”

So I turn off the noise and listen to Darkstar. In “Lazarus,” Bowie says look up and see him in heaven. In the video he is in a hospital bed, rising up. For the eighteen months between diagnosis of cancer and death, he worked, he wrote, he created. As a teen I developed two versions of how to face death; Dylan Thomas’s “Rage against the dying of the light.” And T.S. Eliot’s “Not with a bang but a whimper.” Very teen angsty. Very binary. Bowie opened a third door. Face it, eyes open, fully aware. Acknowledge it is happening, and, this is the important part, if you are an artist, document it. Bowie demands I allow my life to influence my work, and my work to color my life. I am never the same person twice, so never write the same book twice. I must be fearlessly honest in every word I type.

Thank you Mr Bowie, godspeed.

You can find copies of Young Americans on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Josh Stallings, known for his Moses McGuire Series and his noir memoir, All The Wild Children, comes to BookPeople to speak and sign his latest novel, Young Americans, on February 1st at 7 PM. He will be joined by authors Terry Shames and Scott Frank.

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