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Station to Station: On David Bowie and Skateboarding

As has been previously noted, the last account David Bowie felt the need to follow on Twitter was God’s. This, then, seems apt. Since his unexpected death of cancer on January 10, the world’s been fittingly a-flutter with Bowie memorials, elegies, grievings and remembrances, the vast majority of them poignant and heartfelt. The man alternately known as David Robert Jones, Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack and the Thin White Duke clearly meant a lot to a lot of people, including me.

My David Bowie is one that is inescapably wrapped up in my youth. I grew up skateboarding at a serious level, and Bowie’s music was prominently featured in the many skate videos that my friends and I obsessively watched. Among others, I first heard the Bowie songs “Under Pressure,” “1984,” “Heroes” and “Fame” through a decidedly low-resolution TV monitor, not a stereo speaker.

Perhaps surprisingly, Bowie and his ever-shifting personas were embraced by the skateboard community. Circa 1999-2006, when I was going out skateboarding five to six times a week and regularly traveling to out-of-town skateparks and skate spots, the common skateboarder was still seen as a societal pariah of a sort, one reduced to proselytizing for the sport by baldly declaring its crimeless nature. With nationally-televised contests and corporate sponsors and sponsorships, that stereotype has receded to a certain degree. But skateboarding still isn’t as widely celebrated in contemporary culture as basketball, baseball or, for that matter, American football.

For skateboarders of my era, Bowie was omnipresent. Along with the Notorious B.I.G. and Dinosaur Jr., he was one of the musical artists considered “safe” to like no matter if you skated street or vert, ditches or pools, curbs or quarter pipes. And as a skateboarder’s style and fashion sense often matters as much as the tricks she does, Bowie’s music and appearance, its shifting sound and scope from album to album, decade to decade, seamlessly melded into skateboarding’s changing fashion standards—from cargo pants and t-shirts to tight jeans and pullovers—and terrain preferences: if you can’t ollie up it don’t ollie down it; the introduction of the Mega Ramp.

Like the common skateboarder, Bowie initially also existed on the margins. Apart from his ostensibly Apollo-11-inspired “cheap shot” hit “Space Oddity,” his first four albums were largely ignored by both the British and the American press, and it wasn’t until his fifth record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, that David Bowie became David Bowie. And although Ziggy put him on the proverbial map, as it were, the musician yet remained an enigma throughout the duration of his career, not known so much as seen, heard so much as studied. If The Beatles wanted to date your daughter and The Rolling Stones wanted to steal your girlfriend, David Bowie wanted to debate fashion and art with your stepmother, then stay out all night with your cousins.

A man who gained fame both musically and cinematically through his ability to be someone other than himself, an ability that perhaps became his source of self, Bowie, consciously and subconsciously, spoke for the many unable to speak for themselves. Simply, who he chose to be gave others the courage to be themselves, and no other rock star was, in my opinion, quite like that. Or him.

Although the world was clueless, Bowie knew that he was dying; an eighteen-month battle with cancer will force one to come to terms with that fact. I wonder, then, about his dreams as he went into that good night. Or as T.S. Eliot, one of Bowie’s favorite writers, had it in his poem “The Hollow Men”:

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

1947-2016. R.I.P.