RIP David Bowie: When Remembering An Idol Conflicts With His "Problematic" Past

Jan 12, 2016

Cover art for David Bowie's 1977 record "Heroes".

I am not unique in that I am a huge David Bowie fan. So while I could probably muster up a remembrance about how he spoke to me as someone who saw herself as a weird kid - I will spare you. There are plenty of those to read. What I can't seem to get my mind around however, is that now - more than I ever noticed in his life - people are saying Bowie had a "problematic" past. People are saying all the idol worship in the air on the eve of his death could be triggering to some abuse survivors.

Within hours of hearing that Bowie had passed, I noted on my Twitter and Facebook feeds that many were calling Bowie out as a rapist and racist. While I knew his Thin White Duke persona could certainly be construed as racist - I hadn't heard much else. I knew he had apologized for that period, and it wasn't something that clouded my general love for his music and movies. Yesterday though, I learned that some people also think a dated interview with Playboy makes him a fascist, though he apparently backtracked on the comments he made. For the majority of his life he was publicly apolitical, refusing to be knighted by the Queen not once, but twice.

David Bowie is unique in that over his decades-long career, he continued to speak directly through his music to people who felt they were misfits or outcasts. He helped open up the punk and rock scenes into ones that were more inclusive of queer people. He made gender fluidity cool. He was bisexual, and had a relationship with a transgender woman before that was a concept on mainstream culture's radar. But that doesn't mean he's allowed to be a "rapist" without any public criticism, even in death.

Those claims mostly center on two reports... One, got thrown out. I have limited knowledge on it except for this article. The other, involves Lori Maddox, who never pressed charges regarding her claims. She was a member of the "baby groupie" scene in the seventies. She writes she was "yet to turn 15" when she lost her virginity to David Bowie. Clearly, by our standards, if what she claims is true - that is statutory rape. That is bad. Some, mainly feminist, websites are calling for an awakening to this fact - for history to be rewritten in a way that paints Bowie as a rapist, which they clearly see him as.

Does it matter that the encounter by Maddox's account was not violent or coerced? That she in fact never called it rape? Does it matter that she claims to have enjoyed it? Does it matter this was happening in a culture of wild excess and abandon when it came to intoxication and sex? Does it matter that she probably wasn't wearing her age on her forehead? Does even asking these questions make me some sort of sympathizer with a rapist -- just trying to find loopholes in order to continue her idol worship without the gritty parts mucking the whole thing up? These are the kinds of questions this issue has raised for more than just myself.

The issue immediately reminded me of claims made by The Runaways member Jackie Fuchs. Hers revolved around band manager at the time, and famous producer, Kim Fowley -- who died a year ago. Fuchs says Fowley raped her when she was a teen, leading to life-long trauma. Her account is haunting, and while Fowley is clearly the antagonist - so is the environment Fuchs was a part of. One where young girls were served to the stars on a silver platter - not as humans, but as sex objects. This culture is undoubtedly part of rock music's past - and in ways - its present.

This leads me to a new round of questions. Ones I haven't really heard. Like, whose job is it to dig into the past of our cultural icons and decide whose hands are clean? Is every artist who had sex with an underage groupie to be blacklisted? Why don't we talk more about the transgressions of the idols who are still alive? Why does it seem to come out on the day of a death announcement? Is it simple enough to say - "that was another age and time" as some seem capable of? Jerry Lee Lewis, "rock & roll's first great wild man," married his 13 year old cousin after all. While his career took a hit - rock and roll culture didn't get any less wild in the seventies. How do we come to terms with all the awful ways people who are applauded and idolized by mainstream culture behaved? What broader implications does this all have?

These are the questions I have. The ones that won't let up, the ones keeping me from falling into a black hole of Bowie's art, which is what I instinctively want to do. For now, for me, it's just too much.

Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest irony at this point is that for once, the hate-group Westboro Baptist Church and some feminists, have something in common. The group is joining in the Twitter backlash against the deceased musician.