David Bowie’s death came as a shock.
I was on Facebook late Sunday night and saw the announcement at the top of my newsfeed. At that point, my friends and I were hoping it was a celebrity death hoax. Sadly, this one turned out to be real. David Bowie had died of cancer at the age of 69, two days after releasing a new album. His work on Earth was done.
I don’t recall exactly when David Bowie first seeped into my consciousness. I was a very small child when he released his first albums; his songs would have been too avant-garde for the pop stations my parents tuned into on our station wagon’s radio. I can remember hearing the Carpenters, Helen Reddy, and Jim Croce back then, but not David Bowie. I must have been a little older, maybe around eight or nine years old. I had my own radio, and my own cassette recorder. That’s also when I started reading music magazines.
My older, more musically savvy friend next door was a huge Elton John fan and informed me that Elton was bisexual and so was David Bowie. In our traditional, working-class suburban Detroit neighborhood, the 1960s never happened, but the 1970s managed to sneak in somehow.
I clearly recall being freaked out (in a good way) by Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” music video when I was about eleven or twelve years old, but I also recall that I was familiar enough with him by that point that I expected his video to freak me out (again, in a good way). I remember where I saw that video– on the TV in our family’s living room. But where would I have seen that video? Cable TV was not available in my hometown, MTV did not yet exist, and it would have been highly unusual to see a video like “Ashes To Ashes” on American Bandstand, Soul Train, or Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 10 program. I must have been watching Canadian TV, or maybe PBS. Later on, I would see plenty of David Bowie videos on MTV, but by then I was in high school.
The novel I am editing, Red Flags, is set during this same time period. But my main character, a Soviet figure skating prodigy named Larissa Lyubovskaya, is growing up on the other side of the Iron Curtain. She doesn’t hear any rock & roll music until she is nearly ten years old and an older friend gets his hand on a bootleg Beatles album. Over the next few years, she moves up the ranks of the skating world, training with high-level skaters who have traveled outside of the Soviet Union, quickly becoming a high-level skater and competing abroad herself. Her own country is changing as well, because of glasnost and perestroika. Still, Larissa does not have access to the vast musical smorgasbord of the 1980s that American kids such as myself took for granted. But she has heard of David Bowie.
He turns up in my novel in a scene where Larissa is performing at an exhibition with the (fictional) American men’s champion, Reece Cunningham. He attempts to strike up a conversation with her. He keeps asking her, “Do you like _____? Do you like ______?” Larissa’s English is limited, but she knows he is naming names. She does not recognize any of these names until he asks, “Do you like David Bowie?” She answers yes. This is her first conversation in English.
I wrote the original version of this scene several years ago. It’s toward the end of the book, in a chapter that still needs editing. I hadn’t worked on that particular chapter or even read through it in months, but that scene came back to me when I heard the news about David Bowie’s death. I started thinking about why I chose David Bowie.
As an American in his mid-twenties who has traveled internationally, Reece would have had access to all kinds of music– he would have listened to bands that I myself would not have known. Most of them, if not all of them, would have been somehow influenced by David Bowie. Furthermore, Reece is a gay figure skater from a working-class Detroit suburb not unlike my own hometown. This is someone who needed David Bowie in his life.
Larissa is younger than Reece. Her musical orbit is smaller, yet rapidly expanding. By this point in the story, she would have recognized most of the big international music stars of the late 1980s. But seeing as how she only grasps the most basic English, I needed an artist who would draw her in visually as well as someone whose music would appeal to her without her needing to understand all the lyrics. Like Reece, Larissa is an escapee from a gritty, working-class background. Also like Reece, she is not heterosexual. She is still figuring out who she is and what she wants. While her appearance isn’t what most people would label as “butch”, within the context of the skating world she is not sufficiently feminine. Her skating style is too athletic, her attitude is too tough, and she has long since lost her innocence. This is a girl who has never been an ice princess and who will never be an ice princess. David Bowie’s biggest fans have always been outsiders, and Larissa is definitely an outsider.
I don’t mention David Bowie’s legendary performance at the Concert For Berlin in Red Flags— Larissa is, after all, Russian rather than East German; she is not on friendly terms with any German skaters from the East or the West. The concert took place about a year before Larissa and Reece connect with each other at the ice show. I expect she would have heard about it by then. I might find a way to mention the concert somewhere in the final version of Red Flags. We’ll see.
Larissa would be forty-five years old now; Reece would be in his early fifties. The way I imagine their current lives, they don’t keep the same weird hours as yours truly. They would have learned of David Bowie’s death on the Monday morning TV shows. They could have texted each other, but I think one of them would have picked up the phone, needing to hear the sound of the other’s voice at a time like this. Later, they would go online and share their favorite David Bowie videos as well as their memories of their first conversation many years ago.