Bowie, Prince, and Cohen: Saints of freedom

Bowie, Prince, and Cohen: Saints of freedom

Bowie, Prince, and Cohen slashed through repression, urging us to be rapturously unshackled and alive.

Elaine McArdle
Illustration of Prince, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie as angels.

© 2016 Robert Neubecker

© 2016 Robert Neubecker


My father was a colonel in the Air Force, and by the time I was in tenth grade I’d been to three high schools in three states, with another move looming. Inside our home, life was equally untethered. With my dad away tending to the end of the Vietnam War, my poor mother made frequent, furtive trips to the base liquor store for gin. Desperate to escape the stifling sadness, I graduated early, eager for the thrilling variety of people and adventures that college would bring. I was determined to get as far away as possible, so when a small Catholic school 800 miles west offered me a scholarship, I took off. I was newly 17.

I immediately realized I was doomed. The campus was barren and isolated, the student body homogenous and conformist. The administration was not only authoritarian but racist, sexist, and anti-intellectual (these weren’t Jesuits). When some property went missing, the school’s few black students were the only ones questioned. After I objected about this to some classmates, I was summoned to a nun’s office for mysterious reasons that she vaguely connected to the Led Zeppelin T-shirt I was wearing.

Like an alien suffocating on a hostile planet, I was alone and achingly lonely. Then I was tossed a glittering lifeline that’s illuminated my entire life.

“Are you into Bowie?”

A quirky kid from Little Rock played me Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It sounded like nothing else. This wasn’t music; it was a communiqué from a fellow alien who’d fallen to earth seeking kindness and acceptance but instead encountered hostility and fear. Forever after, I was not alone.

‘Are you into Bowie?’ became a password that led me to many of my closest friends.

With his wildly subversive gender-bending—bright-blue eye shadow, glitter boots, dresses—David Bowie cracked open every constraint: musical, intellectual, sexual. Over the decades he introduced me to an expanding galaxy of sounds: soul, doo-wop, flamenco, symphonic orchestrations, techno. From his adventurous mind emerged an ever-evolving sound and vision, an endless stream of ideas and identities into which he slipped with elegance and ease even as he hung onto himself.

Importantly, he was a romantic. His was the hopeful music of an extraterrestrial who understood far more than we did and was gently offering to share his superior knowledge, if we’d only listen. He saw how happy we’d all be if we rejected our false divisions, and how beautiful our world could be—if we didn’t destroy it first.

“Are you into Bowie?” became a password that led me to many of my closest friends, shorthand for a certain kind of innocent—however decadent, or odd in appearance—who believes in love; someone wounded, sad, but faithful we’d be rescued to a better place.

Bowie sustained me until I transferred to a tiny but wonderfully diverse college in Louisiana, with black, white, and international students; professors espousing liberation theology alongside bayou-born born-agains; and a significant gay population, semi-closeted but dancing to Grace Jones on weekends at the Florentine. The night before my statistics final, I drove four hours to see Bowie perform in Dallas. I got back two hours before the exam and got a C in the class. I stand by that decision.

In January 2016, two days after Bowie’s 69th birthday, my son called to tell me the Thin White Duke had died. I sobbed as I rarely have. For the next several days I listened to his many albums and thanked him for extending a generous hand to all the kooks in his lovers’ story who believe in something more.

Prince preached sex as hot and holy sacrament while always believing in love.

Three months later, this world lost Prince, the other living artist most important to me, another creative genius who slashed through rules and repression and urged us all to be rapturously unshackled and alive. Prince was sly and funny and dazzlingly original. With his innovative integration of rock, funk, psychedelic grooves, and pop, he wrote gorgeous songs that preached a delightful creed of raunch and self-authenticity. He was mind-blowingly liberating—wildly sexual and deeply religious. A connoisseur more than glutton, he preached sex as hot and holy sacrament while always believing in love. Behind the unfettered lust of “Little Red Corvette” lurks the ache for deeper connection.

If Elvis freed our bodies and Dylan freed our minds, as Springsteen said, then Bowie freed us from gender roles, and Prince demolished barriers not just of sexuality, but race. In “Controversy,” he asked, “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” The answer—loud and proud—was Yes.

In a sermon after the Artist’s death, the Rev. Tom Disrud, associate minister at First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, said Prince “was a man who wore high heels and did it well,” and “not one to be put into whatever box somebody wanted to put him in.” Quoting Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Disrud said that Prince “acted as if he believed he was free.” Tragically, when he died Prince was hours away from taking steps to shake free of an opioid addiction born of chronic pain related to years of performing.

I was a latecomer to Leonard Cohen, a musician I knew I should like but never got around to. It wasn’t until Jeff Buckley’s Grace—an album so precious I listen to it only once a year—and his cover of the otherworldly “Hallelujah” that I turned to Cohen. Who could write such a song, so dark and yet so beautiful, with a sensuality forged in pain? I was a convert. I’ve seen hundreds of concerts in my life, but Cohen’s 2009 performance in Boston was transcendent. “Friends,” he called us, as if we were his band of intimate survivors, scarred but smiling. When he recited “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” it took my breath away.

I loved you when you opened like a lily to the heat
You see I’m just another snowman standing in the rain and sleet
Who loved you with his frozen love, his second-hand physique
With all he is, and all he was
A thousand kisses deep

Cohen, a devoted Buddhist, passed last November, another loss in a year rife with them. Among musicians alone, there are others to mourn here, including the beloved George Michael, himself a freedom-fighter.

Aware their time on earth was ending, Bowie and Cohen did not go gentle into that good night but raged with creativity to the end. Two days before he died, Bowie released the terrific album Blackstar, with an astonishing video exploring his imminent death. Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker, came out two weeks before he passed. Yet, wise men both, at their end they knew dark was right. And so, their final gift of freedom to us: the extraordinary courage to stare into the maw of the infinite unknown—and not to recoil, but to jump.

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