Turn On and Be Not Alone: Rock Stars, Writers, and Men Named David

Bowie plaque unveiled

At 17, I was a sad scribbler of overwrought rhyming poetry, a talentless back row chorus girl in the annual spring musical, a closet nerd who compulsively taped reruns of The X-Files off the Scifi Channel. I was pretty sure I’d never know an epic alien-hunting love like Mulder and Scully’s, and I was most certainly going to fail physics for the year. Like so many teenagers, especially those who happen to be only children, and especially those who didn’t always feel safe or stable at home, the private world I  built in my room was what sustained and comforted me throughout my adolescence. That world was built with the soft glow of the TV, with stacks of books and journals strewn everywhere and anywhere except on a shelf, and of course, with music.

In middle school it was all about boy bands and badass divas (your N’Syncs, your JLos, your Mariahs) followed by a fervent and lengthy phase of nothing. but. show-tunes. I could probably still sing you the first 20 minutes of Les Miserables from memory- but don’t worry, I won’t. By the time junior year of high school rolled around, I’d diversified my tastes, partly thanks to my good friend and music guru, Mike.

Mike and I had known each other since elementary school, but it wasn’t until high school that we drifted into the same social circle and connected, often late at night via the internet, with dispatches from our own bedroom encampments sent out over livejournal or aol instant messenger, often around 1:30am when neither of us had even started the lab report due in homeroom the next day. That year, Mike starred as Horton in the drama club’s production of Suessical. He would go on to get a music degree and become (in my opinion) the hottest damn drag queen in all of Pennsylvania.

But at 17, Mike made amazing mix cds: indie rock, freak folk, neo-jazz- I found it all unfamiliar and grating at first, but the more I listened, the more these songs spoke to me and spun my head around, the more they became the anthems of my own private country.

Mike’s mixes gave me the music bug, the hunger to search out as many different bits of sound as I could find and carry them back to my nest like a mad magpie: songs that felt like they were written only for me, strange barely listenable songs that I tucked away on my hard drive and occasionally referenced in hopes it would make me sound cool (it didn’t), older songs I’d previously dismissed because they didn’t fall into the aforementioned categories of boy band/broadway/badass diva.

I discovered David Bowie when my friend Sara burned me a copy of Ziggy Stardust. I’d heard him alongside Billy Joel and Pat Benetar on my parents’ classic rock station, and most notably, during a scene in The Wedding Singer, a movie that Sara and I watched again and again in her shag-carpeted basement, quoting every line in unison with Adam Sandler. But it wasn’t until I heard Ziggy Stardust, with its perfect mix of sweeping narrative, apocalyptic dread, fragile hope and upbeat dance tunes, that I became obsessed.

In the spring of our junior year, Mike, ever my fairy godfather of music, bought us tickets to see The Arcade Fire in Central Park. I left school after 3rd period with a faked excuse about a doctor’s appointment, slid into the passenger’s seat of Mike’s car, and rode 20 minutes to the train station, the very last stop on the New Jersey Transit line. 

Take me with you!

Take me with you!

I had never been to a concert, unless you count the one with children’s show stars, Sharon, Lois and Bram my mother brought me to when I was four, of which I have no memory. I’m told that when the actor in the elephant suit came out to dance to the theme song about elephants playing on spiderwebs (laws of physics be damned) I tried to rush the stage and had to be physically restrained.

But because I don’t count this as my first concert, that late spring afternoon of breaking out of school early and escaping in Mike’s shabby car felt like a thrilling new adventure. We ate $3 meals at the Wendy’s by the train station, arrived in New York way too early and had to wait at Penn Station for hours before we could meet up with some of Mike’s friends and finally make our way to Central Park.

The concert felt transformative in a way I suspect may be exclusive to teenhood. While the songs played, I felt outside of time, transfixed by how Regine moved her body as she pounded the keyboard, the mad, methodical way the violinist drew her bow across the strings and leaned over her instrument’s chin rest to shout along with the harmonies. Mike and I cried during our favorite songs, we bought glow-in-the-dark t-shirts from the souvenir stand, we caught whiffs of pot smoke and convinced ourselves we’d picked up a second-hand high.

We had sat alone in our bedrooms, hitting the repeat button, setting our hearts on fire again and again, and now we were standing in a sea of people who had spent countless evenings the same way. Now the band was right there on stage, sending their songs out across the crowd like a beacon while we put our arms in the air and reached back to them, singing along with every word.

During the encore, they announced a “special guest” and out strode Bowie. He was a couple decades past his Ziggy Stardust days, wearing a gleaming white suit instead of sequins or spandex, and singing a song from one of his newer albums that I’d never heard. But none of that mattered. I was beside myself. It was David Fucking Bowie.

We called him nothing else for months, giving him the most profane of middle names. Every time we told the story of the concert, it all led up to the thrilling climax when David Fucking Bowie took the stage.

Last month, I was at AWP[1] standing in a gray-carpeted hallway of Hynes Convention Center that was identical to every other gray-carpeted hall in the labyrinthine place (I’d already gotten helplessly lost twice that day) waiting for a panel on sex and love in YA fiction to begin. I’d gotten there early, crept out of a previous panel during the Q&A portion because I knew this was going to be the sort of thing that people lined up for.

And sure enough, there they were, a cluster of undergrads anxiously reporting the time to each other, making plans to rush the front row as soon as the doors opened, chatting and bonding over their favorite books. A girl with purple streaks in her hair worried that people in line behind her were going to try to elbow ahead of them while the boy next to her lamented that the AWP Powers that Be should have booked a larger room for the panel. He threw his hands up and said, “I mean, it’s David Fucking Levithan.”

I won’t pretend that AWP, with its book fair and panel discussions followed by quiet, thoughtful Q&A sessions bears any resemblance to a rock show. No, these students didn’t throw their arms over their heads or shout the way we did when Bowie took the stage. But if the environment hadn’t been one of such bookish seriousness, I’m sure they might have.

David Fucking Levithan indeed.

Two Boys Kissing by David LevithanThe recent reveal of the cover for Levithan’s forthcoming novel, Two Boys Kissing (which in what may be a first for mainstream YA, actually features two boys kissing) has sparked some criticism, some interesting discussion, and much celebration in the YA community.

Since the release of his first novel, Boy Meets Boy in 2003, Levithan has built a large, enthusiastic audience, many of whom had never enjoyed the privilege of reading about people like themselves- readers who never expected they’d be able to walk into a bookstore and find a happy story about gay kids in love, who felt transformed and inspired and finally understood by Levithan’s work.

Certain authors inspire full tilt rock-star-like fan adoration, and it’s no surprise that these often happen to be authors who write for teens. We read their work alone in our bedrooms, we revisit them again and again like our most beloved songs, scribble our favorite lines like song lyrics on our Trapper Keepers[2]. Even when we come to these books as adults-if I may be so bold as to call myself one-they speak directly to a time when there were so many firsts to experience and each one felt transformative, a time when every song we loved felt like our own personal anthem, when a book could be the one thing  that made us feel less wrong and absurd and alone.

My favorite and most oft-repeated track on Ziggy Stardust is also the final song of the album: Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. It begins with a slow strumming, the strangled, almost mournful voice of Bowie singing about time and cigarettes. Then the sound starts to crescendo, horns blast and strings sing. Bowie’s voice builds in feeling and desperation until it breaks into an ecstatic cry:

Oh no, love! you’re not alone

As the song builds to its final, hopeful chord, he sings:

No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone

Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on and be not alone
Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful

And perhaps this is why we read young adult literature, why we read at all. It’s why we elevate authors to rock star status, build communities around them, line up outside events to see them. Their work reaches into our private worlds and builds lines of connection between them. Each book is a hand held out into the dark, a voice that tells us again and again,

Oh no, love! you’re not alone

1 AWP Is the yearly conference and book fair run by The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Many books are bought, many panels are attended, as well as (in my experience, anyway) many after-parties with many cocktails.
2 I am aware that I am old and that kids probably don’t use Trapper Keepers anymore. I suppose instead of writing her favorite quotes on trapper keepers, today’s teen is reblogging them to her Tumblr page. Tumblr is the new trapper keeper.

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