observations and opinion
David Bowie became a pop star in 1969 with the eerie “Space Oddity.” Everyone knows it – “can you hear me, Major Tom?” – and he became a rock star later with “Ziggy Stardust”, his concert persona that, despite its inherent silliness and 40 years passing, is still, as embodied by Bowie, somehow cool.
It is impossible now, in the lateness of time, to describe to people what Bowie seemed to signify in the early 1970s. His intensely androgynous style was a slap at the hairy, ungroomed macho shagginess of 70s rock and roll. His apparent bisexuality, and the offhand manner in which he was simply himself, was simply unbelievable in a public figure for the time.
I was not a gay teenager in grade 8 but I knew a gay teenager and let me tell you, David Bowie was a walking style book for that kid. It took guts beyond imagining to be David Bowie. And he made it easier for others to be themselves. Whether Bowie was gay, straight or bi actually had almost no effect on his popularity. Even the cavemen in my high school liked his stuff, a testament to the man’s artistic power.
Yet my David Bowie was someone else. Someone else cool, but differently so. In 1971 he recorded an album of gems, melodic, rocking pop tunes, called “Hunky Dory.” It included his now legendary anthem “Changes” and the thrilling “Life on Mars.” The album can best be called affectionate – listen to his warm hearted coda about oddballs, “Oh you Pretty Things” – almost parental. And at one point, it really is parental. That’s because of a little song called “Kooks.”
The best word for “Kooks”, musically, is jaunty. It is a melody that Paul McCartney could have written – not something you would often expect in a Bowie song – although the lyric was not quite “Paul” of course. Kooks was written for someone named Duncan Jones, the baby son of David Bowie and his then-wife, Angela (of “Angie” fame, thanks to the Rolling Stones.)
In the song, Bowie welcomes his son into the world, and immediately asks him to “stay, in our lovers’ story.” I remember that line because what it conveyed, in a sweet sentence, was an immediate respect for his son as a person. Will you stay with us, for a while? You get to choose.
From there, Bowie goes on to make his case, for why the boy should hang around. He describes the stuff they’ve bought for him, like an old crib, but the real reason to stick around, he tells his son, is “Cause we believe in you.”
When I heard that, at maybe 12 or 13 years of age, I knew something deep in my bones: nobody believed in me like that. Nobody saw me for who I was, or might be. The idea of someone believing in you – keeping faith in you no matter what, seeing the best in you (especially on the days when you didn’t see it yourself ) that was a radical, bold and beautiful concept. It thrilled me. It still does.
Unlike baby Duncan, I wasn’t really all that welcome in the world I lived in. My arrival had overwhelmed my fragile parents, sending them into a spiral of drink and rage that fairly wrecked my older brother’s world and their own. All of that hung around my neck (some of it always will, I suppose) the day I first heard “Kooks.”
But what Kooks said that it could be different in a family. It might even be fun: if the homework gets too much, “we’ll throw it on the fire” Bowie tells his boy. And look out kid, he warns baby Duncan, “if you stay with us you’re gonna be pretty Kookie too.” What kid wouldn’t take that risk, though?
Listening to David Bowie didn’t ch-ch-change my life – time changed me. But I am grateful to Bowie for giving one long ago lad a small window into what family life might be, through a small song sung to a small boy. It will be with me all my days.
Rest in peace, Mr. Bowie. We believe in you, too.
Will you stay in our Lovers’ Story
If you stay you won’t be sorry
‘Cause we believe in you
Soon you’ll grow so take a chance
With a couple of Kooks
Hung up on romancing
We bought a lot of things
to keep you warm and dry
And a funny old crib on which the paint won’t dry
I bought you a pair of shoes
A trumpet you can blow
And a book of rules
On what to say to people
when they pick on you
‘Cause if you stay with us you’re gonna be pretty Kookie too
And if you ever have to go to school
Remember how they messed up
this old fool
Don’t pick fights with the bullies
or the cads
‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s Dads
And if the homework brings you down
Then we’ll throw it on the fire
And take the car downtown