GROWING UP BOWIE
FOR PAUL RISWOLD
In 1972, at the very impressionable age of 14, I saw my first rock concert.
A friend of mine had invited me to see a then relatively, if not completely, unknown musician from England named David Bowie.
He was definitely unknown to me, not because it was Mr. Bowie's first tour of the United States and he was unknown to all but the extremely hip, but because I was the single most unhip teenager in the Pacific Northwest. I had exactly one record in my music collection, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and the only Bowie I'd ever heard of died at the Alamo and had a knife posthumously named in his honor.
Like I said, I was impressionable and, therefore, things changed after that concert. The Charge of the Light Brigade was replaced by The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Posters of Willie Stargell and Gump Worsley that adorned my room were discarded for every image of a dress-wearing man with orange hair I could get my hands on.
This did not sit well with my father.
He liked Willie Stargell. He liked Gump Worsley. He liked The Charge of the Light Brigade. He liked that his son liked them.
Needless to say, David Bowie circa 1972 was no Willie Stargell. I remember the time when my father paid a visit to my room and, as was de rigueur in those days, Bowie occupied the turntable at maximum volume. Unfortunately for my father, his visit happened to coincide with one of my many sing-along-with-Ziggy Stardust sessions, and he heard an off-key son belt out, I'm an alligator, I'm a space-aged mama-papa coming for you/I'm the space invader, I'll be a rock-‘n'-roll bitch for you. It was all a bit much for the man; he quickly turned and left, muttering, " I'm too old for this nonsense."
He was 43.
This was just the beginning of his son's Bowie nonsense and, again unfortunately for him, he was going to do nothing but get older during its run.
Sexually ambiguous posters and sing-a-longs with Ziggy soon—to misuse a word—matured into experiments with hairstyles, failed experiments with orange hair, shaved eyebrows, jewelry, platform boots, androgynous attire, poorly applied makeup and colored contacts to match Bowie's mismatched eyes and pupils; or as Bowie himself sang in Ziggy Stardust:
Ziggy really sang, screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo
Like some cat from Japan, he could lick ‘em by smiling
My father couldn't agree more. His son looked like some animal from some far distant land or planet.
It got worse. It got Aladdin Sane. I remember its April 12, 1973 release well. I remember trying to figure out how I could get a lightning bolt painted on my face. I remember stealing the promotion poster from Campus Music in Seattle. I remember how fast I could run in 1973. I remember figuring out the pun of the title and, judging from his increased mutterings and furrowed brows while in my Bowie-attired presence, I remember my father could not agree more; he thought his son, his lad, had gone insane.
I remember how the album led to the first real shouting match between him his son over his son's Bowie wannabeness. The inside of the album jacket featured a nude, albeit airbrushed in the appropriate parts, image of Bowie and, of course, was featured prominently on the walls of my room. I don't remember his exact words, but I do remember they were not muttered and were along the lines of "No (expletive-deleted) son of mine is (expletive-deleted) going to have no (expletive-deleted) naked picture of no (expletive-deleted) orange-haired man in my (expletive-deleted) house!"
His (expletive-deleted) son (expletive-deleted) acquiesced and (expletive-deleted) removed the (expletive-deleted) naked pictures of the (expletive-deleted) orange-haired man in my (expletive-deleted) corner of his (expletive-deleted) house.
"I'll (expletive-deleted) show him," I thought and, in an act of generational defiance, I replaced them with Paul Riswold-approved posters of Willie Stargell and Gump Worsley, but not before drawing oversized genitalia on them.
Yeah, that'll show him.
It did not show him for long. My father removed them himself.
My mother intervened. Forever the optimist, she tried to console my father with well-worn motherly logic: "It could be worse, Paul; he could be into drugs."
My father muttered something along the lines that his son dressed more like his daughters than his daughters did.
After a bout with eye patches and earrings, Mr. Bowie himself came to my father's rescue late in 1974. Much to the chagrin of the Bowie fashion faithful, the man who sold the world sold his Ziggy threads for the Young Americans look of well-pressed suits, natty ties, box jackets, pegged pants, suspenders, thigh chains and sensible shoes, although in some cases those shoes were red and for ballet.
He also now—gasp—parted his hair on the side.
This was oh-so-good news for my father. He could live with well-pressed suits; he could live with pegged pants; he could live with suspenders; he could live with sensible shoes, even red ballet ones; he could live in eternity with hair parted on the side.
The question was, could his son live with them?
Yes. After all, if it was good enough for David Bowie it was good enough for Jim Riswold. Fortunately for my thin wallet, it was also good enough for my grandfather, Richard James, some 30 years earlier. His attic was full of 1940's suits, natty ties, box jackets, fedoras and sensible shoes, albeit no red ones.
Soon, his attic was empty of 1940's suits, natty ties, box jackets, fedoras and sensible shoes.
Oh, and my hair was now—gasp—parted on the side. This, and my raid on grandfather's attic, prompted my father to happily mutter, "It's about time my son started to look like a son."
Paul Riswold's son left for Europe in 1975. Apparently, someone in the United States government looked past my infatuation with Bowie and its attendant requirements on my hair and wardrobe and selected me as a student ambassador. I was going to tour the Soviet Union, France, Holland and, best of all, Bowie's birthplace, England.
Lenin's tomb. BFD.
Napoleon's tomb. BFD.
Tulips and windmills. BFD.
I was going to see Hammersmith Odeon, where, on July 3, 1973, Ziggy called it quits; I was going to see Trident Studio, where Ziggy was recorded; I was going to see the alleyway, where the cover of Ziggy was photographed; I was going to see the phone booth in the alleyway, where the back cover of Ziggy was photographed; and, I was going to do it all dressed as David Bowie, circa 1975.
Oh, and I was going over there with David Bowie.
Let me explain.
The first stop on my Bowie pilgrimage was Washington D.C. I was to meet with Washington State's senior senator, the Honorable and Ancient Warren G. Magnuson, so he could advise me on what it meant to be a good Young American in such un-American places as the Soviet Union.
Yawn. I bet he didn't even have a copy of Ziggy Stardust.
What a waste. Until Cardboard David Bowie showed up. Cardboard Bowie showed up in a record store near the hotel. Cardboard Bowie was an almost life-sized standup promotional piece for Young Americans. Cardboard Bowie featured Real Bowie in a flight suit, raising a glass of milk in front of an American flag.
It was the coolest Bowie thing I had ever seen since I saw it closely guarded, due in no small part to the Aladdin Sane caper, at Campus Music in Seattle. It was not closely guarded in Washington D.C. and Bowie habits, however at odds with things like the law they may be, don't die easy, so I stole it.
Cardboard Bowie struck Bowie gold. He instantly became my most cherished Bowie object, more prized than my Bowie wardrobe, more treasured than my Bowie haircut, more valued than any of my rare Bowie wax—so esteemed I wouldn't dare entrust Cardboard Bowie to the United States Post Office.
So he went to Europe with me. He was with me on every plane, every train and every bus and in every hotel room. He saw me throw up for the first time because of alcohol and I apologized to him. He saw me lose my virginity and I apologized to him, as I would have done to anyone who witnessed that debacle. He saw me throw up for the second time because of alcohol and, again, I apologized to him.
I saved his life in Moscow. He traveled in a large cardboard envelope and Soviet custom agents, circa 1975, were wary of large cardboard envelopes carried by odd-looking American students. This particular wary official opened the envelope and stared and stared at the image of a man in a flight suit hoisting a glass of milk in front of an American flag and acted like any red-blooded Communist would act.
"What is this?" he demanded and demanded loudly.
He seemed less fond of David Bowie than my father was. Bowie was always unexplainable to my father; how was I going to explain him to a uniformed and armed official who spoke poor, albeit loud, English? Oh, and please Uniformed and Armed Comrade sir, pay no attention to the American flag displayed somewhat prominently behind that man whom you have no idea who he is.
"What is this?" he again demanded and again demanded loudly.
"It's a cardboard David Bowie," I explained poorly.
Fully aware this sentence probably made no sense to anyone fluent in English and even less sense to a Russian considerably less than fluent in English, I attempted to clarify, "It's a—you know—promotional piece for Young Americans—you know, David Bowie's new album—that is a radical departure from his earlier work—you know, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.
He didn't know.
My explanation of the Cardboard Bowie made even less sense to him than Cardboard Bowie. He looked at me, then he looked at the cardboard David Bowie, then he looked at me some more and then he, in the best imitation of my father, shook his head and said okay, probably only because he had no idea what else to say.
Whew. Cardboard Bowie survived Soviet ideology, only to see me that night in Moscow throw up for a third time because of alcohol.
My Bowie quest masquerading as a student ambassadorship arrived in England. Yes, I saw Hammersmith Odeon. Yes, I saw where Ziggy was recorded. Yes, I saw where the cover of Ziggy was photographed. Yes, I saw where the back cover of Ziggy was photographed. Yes, I did it all dressed as David Bowie, circa 1975. Yes, Cardboard Bowie saw me throw up for a fourth time because of alcohol.
I almost forgot: I tried to track down his mother.
What was David like as a child?
What was David's favorite thing for breakfast?
What was David's favorite thing for lunch?
What was David's favorite thing for dinner?
What was David's favorite thing for dessert?
I did not track down his mother. The answers to these questions remain unanswered, unfortunately, to this day.
Cardboard Bowie and I returned safely home. I introduced Cardboard Bowie to my parents. My father was not pleased to meet him: "You lugged that thing all over Europe when you could have been lugging souvenirs for your mother all over Europe?"
The fact that I got my mother some very nice Bowie picture-sleeved 45s as souvenirs did very little to help.
Cardboard Bowie and souvenir 45s were nothing compared to the essay incident. All student ambassadors were required by the teacher chaperones to write an essay about what their European tour meant to them.
I only needed 55 words.
The most beautiful thing in England is Trident Studio, where Ziggy Stardust was recorded.
The most beautiful thing in Holland is Port of Amsterdam, the Jacques Brel song Bowie recorded as the B-side to Sorrow.
The most beautiful thing in France is Chateau d'Herouville, where Pin-Ups was recorded.
The Soviet Union doesn't have anything beautiful yet.
They did not like it. My father did not like that they did not like it. I rewrote it.
In 1976, I met Bowie's Thin White Duke. He was pencil thin and pathologically well groomed in a white shirt, black trousers and black waistcoat with a box of Gitanes peeking out of its right pocket.
I had a head start on the Thin White Duke; I was already pencil thin. I, however, had some catching up to do on the pathologically well-groomed thing. Unfortunately, my grandfather's attic wardrobe, which served me well during the Young Americans era, contained no such attire. Fortunately, my best friend Tom Scarsorie came to my sartorial aid. His mother was a tailor and she made me not one, but three sets of identical black trousers and black waistcoats.
My Thin White Duke Wear was my second skin from 1976 to 1977. I wore it everywhere and every minute. I did, however, heed the warnings of the Surgeon General and did not smoke—for reasons that still escape me since smoking was a staple in Bowie's iconography—but this rare bout with common sense did not prevent me from having my own ever-vigilant box of unopened Gitanes peeking out from the pocket of my waistcoats.
And my father continued his muttering.
Maybe his mutterings were prayers, because the prayers were answered by unfriendly fate in 1979. His son was forced to drop the Bowie look, not by choice, not by paternal mandate, not by maturity, but by on the onslaught of male-pattern baldness. No self-respecting Bowie wannabe could be Bowie if he didn't have the hair to be Bowie.
Alas, Jim Riswold and David Bowie parted ways over hair loss. While I didn't have the follicles to be Bowie anymore, I remained a devoted fan, yes, even during the nadir of his career called Tonight, Never Let Me Down and, yikes, Tin Machine.
Paul Riswold found new things to mutter about: a son who pursued a philosophy degree instead of a business degree; a son who spent what little money he had on art; a son who spent too much time pursuing girls; a son who had a run-in or two with those pesky things called drugs.
It could be worse, Paul; he could still want to be David Bowie.
Somehow, some way by some strange whatever, and much to the complete surprise of my father, I stumbled upon a successful career in advertising.
Long, boring, self-indulgent story short, people who have nothing better to do than write about advertising have told me that I'm pretty good at it.
Seriously, Dad and David, I don't think I would have been good at it if not for a youth spent trying to be David Bowie.
Dad, he taught me to look at things differently. Apparently, this is a good thing in my business.
David, my dad now goes out of his way to tell me and anyone and everyone how proud he is of his son. Thank you, David.
Dad, it means a lot to me that you're proud of me. Thank you, Dad.
Advertising also led me to a face-to-face with Bowie. I was hired to work on some marketing ideas for his 1993 release, Black Tie White Noise. I was at a lot of the recording. I dined with Bowie. I met Bowie's Ziggy-era guitarist Mick Ronson, God rest his enormous soul. I saw Mrs. Bowie—Iman—in a bathrobe. I got a Christmas Card from David Bowie. I had a highlight of my career when I was paged at the office, "Jim Riswold, David Bowie on 2-5-0." I had a lowlight of my career when David Bowie fired me.
Dream job dismissals aside, I am still a huge fan. Cardboard Bowie is alive and well and living in my basement, the Aladdin Sane poster and dozens of others are carefully stored and my mom still has her souvenir 45s.
I even took my father to a recent Bowie concert—my father who, I might add, has quite a bit more hair than I do, no doubt due to the fact he never tried to dye it orange. It was one of the best Bowie shows I had ever seen. I screamed once or twice. I danced unabashedly and awkwardly. I got goose bumps. I sang along loudly and off-key to every song.
Yes, I am 46.
My father enjoyed himself—well, at least until after the show when, while walking to the car, I told him, "Dad, I'd fuck David Bowie and, dad, I'd fuck him in front of you."
He told me, "I'm too old for this nonsense."
And, yes, he muttered.