Five Years (or, On My Mind Since Bowie Died)
David Bowie fucked a kid.
The piece was going to end with a conversation at a Ryan Adams concert, and the piece, itself, was about Ryan Adams.
I had started it shortly after he was outed, by a lengthy article in The New York Times at the beginning of 2019, as a sexual predator—as a fan (at the time) of Adams’ music for almost 20 years, and as a music writer, I felt like I had to sit down and not so much offer a response to the allegations made by numerous women from his life—allegations that are most certainly, 100% true. Because there is, really, no response that can be offered, but I felt like I had to sit down and reflect on his music, what it had meant to me, and how, at times, it had really helped1 me—and how now, there was really no way for me to reconcile with the kind of person he was, and the kind of behavior he had been notorious for.
It was an ambitious piece, or that was my intent when I began and I hadn’t gotten very far in before I hit a wall.
It wasn’t that I wrote myself into something that I couldn’t write my way out of, but I think that I had rushed into it, and wanted it to be something ‘big,’ and the idea of how ambitious or sprawling I wanted it to be became too much, and at that time, I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to continue it. I abandoned it completely for a number of months, but eventually worked my way back into it by writing a much, much shorter version with a lot less ambition and barely any personality, for the annual “men’s issue” of a women’s magazine2 that I occasionally contributed to.
What remains of the piece I had scrapped, entitled “Crossed Out Name3,” is still in a folder of Word documents on an old laptop.
This isn’t really about Ryan Adams though.
It’s about how David Bowie fucked a kid.
But the piece about Ryan Adams that, at the time, I wasn’t able to write the way I had wanted it to, was going to wrap itself around into a moment with a conversation at a Ryan Adams concert in the summer of 2017 in St. Paul. Adams was touring in support of Prisoner, the album he had released some months prior.
My wife and I, as we entered the cavernous theatre, figuring out where to position ourselves, encountered an acquaintance near the front of the stage, and in the small talk we were making with this acquaintance and her husband—enough time has passed4 that I do not remember how we got on this subject, or why, really—but the legacy of David Bowie came up.
This acquaintance became not so much upset, and the discussion didn’t become heated in anyway, but you could tell that this element of David Bowie’s life, and the way that this element did not negatively impact his legacy—that he more or less fucked a kid in the early 1970s—really bothered her.
Or really disappointed her, for myriad reasons.
It’s too easy for me to be cavalier about this when I say, “David Bowie fucked a kid,” because that removes this element of Bowie’s life from its full context, but even in the full context, which is incredibly complicated and contradictory, it is something practically impossible to reconcile, and with just how bothered, or irritated, or whatever, our acquaintance became while discussing this at a Ryan Adams concert, the piece, that at the time, I wasn’t able to write the way I wanted to, but in the moments when I was still attempting to write it—I already knew the ending and I was trying to write my way backwards toward the ending with the hopes that I had earned it—it was going to end in that moment, with that discussion.
Because the irony was just too great, and too horrible to ignore and that is the only way it could have ever ended.
There was always a lot of music in my house growing up—MTV, records, tapes, CDs, or the radio when we were in my mother’s gray Pontiac hatchback, but the first two experiences I can remember with David Bowie were not with his albums, or most well known songs, but with his appearance on soundtracks, two years apart.
The first was in 1990, with the soundtrack to the film Pretty Woman, which included a number of memorable songs from the time, including the proto-sex positive anthem “Wild Women Do”5 by Natalie Cole, and the iconic “King of Wishful Thinking” by Go West. It also, for some reason, included the newly issued 1990’s remix to the David Bowie single “Fame.”
“Fame,” upon its original release 15 years prior, was his first number one song on the Billboard Hot 100, and had been pulled from the somewhat maligned album, Young Americans, which found him suddenly steering away from the glam rock that had defined his career up until that point, and embracing a newfound interest in “blue eyed soul.”
I have only seen the movie Pretty Woman once. I watched it with my wife very early in our relationship, and I recall very little from it—I remember the lettering on the VHS tape6 was printed in pink, which was incredibly novel for the time; I remember Jason Alexander really playing against type; I remember there’s a scene near the end of the movie where Richard Gere shows up and is standing at the bottom of a fire escape, but seems afraid to scale it; and I remember Laura San Giacomo, who would later go on to star in the fashion-based sitcom “Just Shoot Me,” has a small role as a friend to Julia Roberts’ character.
I do not recall if “Fame 90” is, actually, used in the movie—the song was remixed to coincide with the Rykodisc reissue campaign of Bowie’s canon, and was included on the Bowiechanges singles collection, as well as to promote his Sound+Vision Tour. The remixed version isn’t unbearable, but it does strip away the lush, warmth production of the original “Fame,” removing the mid-70s cocaine funk and sleaze, replacing it with a hollow sounding drum machine beat, and speeds the overall tempo up just a little, coupled with glitchy production flourishes of the time that have not aged well at all.
The second was in 1992, with the soundtrack to the film Cool World—a sprawling, bizarre complication, mostly comprised of electronic or dance music from the era, with a few heavily compressed, harder-edged songs. Cool World, if you haven’t seen it, is a truly strange, problematic movie, directed by animation auteur Ralph Bashki. It blended live action with animation, starring a young Brad Pitt, an over-sexualized Kim Basinger, and a befuddled Gabriel Byrne.
I saw the movie in the theatre because its promotion geared it towards pre-teen and teenage audiences, and at all of nine years old at the time, I was entirely too young to understand most of what was happening, which was probably for the best since I was watching it with my absolutely mortified parents. Despite whatever misgivings they had about the film itself, I was given a copy of the soundtrack, Songs from The Cool World, for Christmas—despite my best efforts, I think I still have the CD somewhere in my home.
Bowie, collaborating with Nile Rodgers—the two would, a year later, complete the 1993 album Black Tie, White Noise, contributed the titular track to the film—“Real Cool World.” The song, making heavy usage of Bowie’s saxophone, also, musically, is an early indication of his flirtations with contemporary electronic music—specially with the quick tempo of the drum programming, and warm, rave-ready synthesizers—that he would later explore on both the perplexing Outside, in 1995, and the frenetic Earthling in 1997.
Up until a certain point, probably in the 2000s, you could say that Bowie continually found ways to reintroduce himself to audiences, and through doing that, gain new listeners. He, of course, found ways with literally every album he recorded to reinvent himself as a performer.
Would I have eventually heard of David Bowie at some point in my early life if not for these two introductions via soundtracks? Probably—though I am uncertain as to when.
Both of those subsequent, mid 1990s albums featured singles that, at the time, had accompanying videos which were in the rotation on MTV—from Outside, it was the dizzying, grotesque, industrial “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”; from Earthling, it was the skittering, jungle/drum and bass inspired “Little Wonder,” and the infamous “I’m Afraid of Americans,” which garnered attention thanks to its remix by Trent Reznor.
Reznor, with Nine Inch Nails, had accompanied Bowie on the tour in support of Outside.
And it was Reznor who, early on during the pandemic, gave some kind of update to fans, encouraging them to not be hard on themselves during this time of uncertainty and unrest, and to seek comfort in listening to David Bowie.
I opted to do neither of those things.
I didn’t see how anybody could do either; especially the latter.
Her name is Lori Mattix, and if I’ve done my math correctly, based on the birth year given in her sparse Wikipedia entry, she is now 62 years old.
There is a lot of contradictory information about Mattix herself, and her past, but outside of her apparent tumultuous, somewhat long running relationship with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, in the early 1970s, she claims, in a 2015 interview with the website Thrillist, that her first sexual encounter was with David Bowie when he was touring the United States in support of Ziggy Stardust.
Bowie, at the time, would have been around 25 years old; Mattix states she was 14 or 15.
The Thrillist piece, as well as subsequent versions of Mattix’s stories about a relationship with Bowie when she was a teenager, resurfaced only a few days after Bowie’s surprising death from cancer in January of 2016.
Mattix, in the article on Thrillist, looks back on the reckless sexual exploits of her teenage years with a tawdry wistfulness—that was, after all, the whole point, I think, of the piece.
It is clickbait at best, but regardless of how the story is presented, it’s disconcerting to say the least.
I wake up on the morning of January 11th, 2016, and have to tell my wife that David Bowie died.
I had been up for an hour before I sat down on the edge of her side of the bed, gently rousing her, telling her it was 7 a.m., and it was time for her to get up for work.
She could tell something was bothering me, and asked what was wrong.
“David Bowie died,” I told her, practically blurting it out and giving her little, if any, time to really ‘wake up’ before telling her the news. She seemed confused, and asked where I had heard it—I told her I saw it first on Facebook, then had read the news article on Pitchfork.
I think I spent a bulk of the day in a bit of a somber fog, and by evening, had sat down to write an ‘in memoriam’ piece—more or less a knee jerk response to the news, with thought put into it, yes, but maybe not as much as I could have included had I given myself more time to actually collect, and reflect, on how I was feeling.
There’s no real grand conceit, or through line, that pulls the piece together—nothing that lingers, hauntingly, in the end, as I am wont to do in essays now.
It ends, somewhat abruptly, and rigidly, with something now seems cloying—
“And what he leaves behind are his words and music—the obscure songs from this 1990s run of albums, like the overlooked Hours, which is what I am listening to right now as I sit on the floor of my living room, attempting to put my thoughts into words, as well as the classic, well-loved songs like ‘Heroes.’ He left it all behind for us to continue to discover and rediscover on our own terms, and at the right time—at a time when we either need it the most, or it will resonate the most with us for the rest of our lives.”
Within the next few days, I quickly get to work writing out four short blurbs to be included in a David Bowie canonical retrospective for a music site I used to occasionally7 contribute to—sitting down and revisiting Diamond Dogs, “Heroes,” Lodger, and Hours….
At the time, I remember feeling like I had more I wanted to say, but I couldn’t quite find the words.
What would become his final full-length album, Blackstar, had been released roughly two days before his passing, on what was his 69th birthday. As an internet music writer, I hadn’t so much ‘panned’ it when I had put together a review of it that ran shortly before its release date, but I also really struggled with it at the time.
I didn’t ‘get it.’
It’s a dark, confusing, disorienting record that pulls together a cavalcade of influences and can make for an uncomfortable, dissonant listen.
By year’s end, I backpedaled slightly, and included it on my 10 favorite records of the year, understanding in doing so, that there was a line to walk between truly believing it to be a good, albeit incredibly divisive and difficult record, and spending the year seeing it become something greater than itself—the final entry into Bowie’s ever changing mythology.
In the wake of his death, with the album arriving two days before that, there are a number of people who believe Bowie knew his time was very limited, and that he opted to use it, and whatever frail strength he had left, to make an album where he could provide his own eulogy to the listener.
Blackstar is a concise album—harkening back to the kind of records he was making in the 1970s, both in running time, and number of songs included. It’s a brief 41 minutes and 14 seconds in length, and a sparse seven songs total.
We don’t listen to a lot of Bowie in the house anymore, and haven’t for a while—not the way we used to, so I really don’t recall the last time Blackstar was pulled off of the shelf, but when I do think about Blackstar, I think about the album’s final moment, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”
Musically, the song sounded more dated than it should have upon arrival—with the warm synthesizer washes and skittering drum programming that are both reminiscent of his mid 1990s output, specifically calling to mind the final song on Outside, “Strangers When We Meet.”
Lyrically, there aren’t many overall to analyze—like a lot of Bowie’s songs throughout his body of work, they are vague, and are open to interpretation. It’s only a few, fragmented verses, but the song primarily returns to the repeated, and now haunting, uses of the titular phrase, “I can’t give everything away”—the importance falling on the way he holds the note on the word “away.”
The opening line to the song is, “I know something’s very wrong,” and I guess that’s one of those things—the words he left behind, and the things that resonate, because five years ago I said that Bowie left his work behind for us to discover, and rediscover, ‘on our own terms.’
What does it means when the terms change?
What happens then?
The poster was huge—24 inches by 32.
I mean, it still is huge—still the same dimensions now as it was the day it arrived in the mail, sent from the United Kingdom, in a long, thick cardboard tube. We framed it shortly after it came—it’s still in the frame now; nothing special, just a very basic, somewhat flimsy 24” by 32” frame, purchased from Target—plastic, instead of a pane of glass.
The wood of the frame itself covered in a thick, smooth coating of black lacquer.
It had come from the United Kingdom because when my wife and I, the year before we were married, decided we wanted a David Bowie poster—specifically a Bowie poster of the album artwork to “Heroes,” I found that it was difficult to find one that didn’t cut off his hands.
Bowie’s hands are iconic in the photograph that graces the cover of the album. Shot in black and white—Bowie, looking as pale and gaunt as ever, his hair expertly coiffed. His frame stuffed into a tight, black, leather jacket. The shot, taken by Masayoshi Sukita, is a slight homage to a woodcut called “Roquairol,” from the German visual artist Erich Heckel.
But it’s his hands—his right placed across his chest, obscured slightly by shadow and the folds of his jacket; his left, contorted a seemingly unnatural pose. He looks uncomfortable—Bowie biographer Nicholas Pegg describes the pose from the photograph as “serio-comic agitation,” adding that the palm presented in such a way that it seems he has “mimetically lifted the final mask of artifice from his face.”
It was from a website in the United Kingdom that I eventually found a poster that positioned the cover image from “Heroes” in such a way that Bowie’s hands were not cut off by the poster’s edge. And for over a decade, it hung prominently in our living room; first, the only thing on a large, white wall that separated the living room from the kitchen in a duplex we rented for a little over a year; then, after buying a house, the frame hung again in the living room, this time fitting almost perfectly on a corner wall in the center of the house—projecting its energy into the living room, the hallway leading to the bedrooms, and down the stairs into the basement.
On January 10th, 2017, I took a photograph of myself in front of the poster—in it, I’m wearing a gray t-shirt with nearly an identical image, faux-distressed, and screen printed onto the fabric. The shirt, a replica from Bowie’s “Isolar II” tour, as a birthday gift from my wife, some nine years prior.
I shared the photo on social media including a caption that pulls lyrics from "Heroes."
On January 10th, 2018, I didn’t take a photograph of myself in front of the poster.
What happens when the terms change?
It took us until the fall of 2019 to finally take the frame down, and put something else up in its place—both my wife, and I, over time, each becoming more and more resentful of the fact that Bowie was still gazing upon us from the living room wall. I eventually took the initiative to commission a local visual artist to paint a portrait of our three companion rabbits—Dennis Hopper The Rabbit, Annabell, and her sister Sophie8.
The framed Bowie poster is now in the basement, where so many things we don’t want to deal with, or just want to forget about completely, wind up—old books and CDs, things from our collective childhoods, small appliances we never use. It’s stuck behind an old drafting desk, more or less out of sight, and collecting dust.
The shirt, too, is long gone now—either in a bag of clothing that was donated to charity, or simply sliced into pieces and used as rags to clean the bathroom.
What happens when the terms change?
No photographic evidence of Lori Mattix and David Bowie exists.
Is this an important detail? I don’t know.
The second result, when you search her name on the internet, is the piece from Thrillist, but the first result is a sparse Wikipedia entry—a page that someone has gone through great lengths (complete with sources cited) to not so much discredit the story of her night spent with David Bowie, but to point out the myriad contradictions in the tale, the timeline it takes place within, and the people it involves.
Another result, when looking up Mattix online—specifically Mattix and David Bowie—are two pieces from the website Medium, posted in May of 2016, both written by there same author who to this day, has contributed only three pieces total to the site—the other, his first, was written in April that same year, and is titled “Was Prince9 a Homophobe? Probably. How Much Does That Matter?”
The posts, “A Word on David Bowie, Lori Mattix, and The Speed of Information,” and its follow up, “Pamela Des Barres’ Memoirs Also Contradicted Lori Maddox’s Story,” are awkwardly stiff in their formality; that tone suggests the author, M. Sullivan Gates, is not trying to create some kind of compelling to read narrative—he makes a point to chide Thrillist for their lack of journalistic integrity for not fact checking the piece, and in both his pieces, Sullivan calls countless things into question, presenting what he considers to be the facts, or at the very least, the details of the situation described.
While saying there is a problem within the culture, the piece comes to Bowie’s defense almost immediately, albeit subtly.
To my knowledge, nobody from Bowie’s family, or his “team” responded to the Thrillist piece when it originally ran, or when it made the rounds again shortly after his death. It was first published in November of 2015—during that time, he had just announced the imminent release of Blackstar; he was also, you know, dying of cancer. Regardless of the validity of Mattix’s story, the way it was presented, splashed with the headline, “I Lost My Virginity to David Bowie,” is the digital equivalent of grocery store tabloids.
Bowie’s sexual identity—stating, early on, that he was bi-sexual then later walking that back completely—was probably controversial at the time, as it was provocative—obviously becoming much less so as he gracefully aged throughout the 1980s and into the 90s. Perhaps the most controversial, or troubling thing that I had been aware of about David Bowie, prior reading of his encounter with Lori Mattix, were his bizarre, seemingly admirable statements about Adolf Hitler.
He later blamed living in Los Angeles for his infamous spiral into cocaine addiction during the mid to late 1970s, and it was during this time in an interview, he quipped that Britain could “benefit from a Fascist leader,” then more or less doubling down on that by calling Hitler “one of the first rock and roll stars.” He backpedalled a year later, saying that, due to his dependency on drugs during this time (he famously subsided on a diet of cocaine and milk), he was “out of his mind” and “completely crazed.”
In the 80s, and into the 90s, became vocally anti-racist and anti-fascist; memorably calling out an MTV personality, during an interview, on why the network was not giving more airtime to Black artists, and working politicized (though maligned) lyrics into one of the albums he put together with his ‘band’ Tin Machine.10
I hadn’t intended on writing this—this thing. But what happens when the terms change?
And since I hadn’t intended on writing this—I did not go into January of this year with it having been five years since Bowie passed being on my mind—at a certain point, or at least, when things begin to converge, as they so often do in things like this, I knew I would need to get to the part where I talk about both how my wife and I ‘got into’ David Bowie, and why he became so important to us.
And since I hadn’t intended on writing this, it took me me a while to remember the ‘how’ part, but it eventually came to me.
I still don’t remember the why.
What happens when the terms change?
For about two or three years before we completely immersed ourselves, we had the single-disc, United States edition11 of the 2002 compilation Best of Bowie. My wife, long before we were married, and even long before we were living together, had bought it at a now long since shuttered Borders when she was in her final year of college and I was living in a rundown basement apartment in Dubuque, Iowa.
It’s a long, structurally uneven collection, filling up almost the entire 80 minutes of a single CD, so it was something we used to listen to a lot on long car trips.12
And it would have been near the end of 2007—around Thanksgiving, that I bought both Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars on CD. And because I hadn’t intended on writing this, it took me a little while to recall that, of all things, the impetus for doing was more or less because an episode of “Flight of The Conchords.”
We were taken, at the time13, as so many other people in our age demographic probably were with “Flight of The Conchords.” We didn’t have HBO, and so before the first season of the series was released on DVD, we spent a lot of time with our friend Carrie scouring the early incarnation of YouTube, looking for clips from the most recent episode before they’d get pulled down for copyright infringement.
There’s an episode that revolves around different versions of David Bowie visiting one of the main characters while he’s sleeping, and the episode ends, as every episode did, with a song—the song, “Bowies in Space,” is a parody of both “Space Oddity” and “Let’s Dance.”
I guess, at the time, when we were both in our very early 20s, this was enough to unearth something inside of us; I still don’t remember why he became a figure so important.
I’m not sure if that’s even something I want to try to revisit.
What happens when the terms change?
I hadn’t intend on writing this—this thing.
And I was at work on a Saturday afternoon, in early January, when coming in and out of the backroom throughout the day, I continued to hear both David Bowie and Led Zeppelin songs sandwiched awkwardly into the rotation of the Minnesota Public Radio station “The Current.”
They were, apparently, being included in honor of Bowie’s Birthday—January 8th, and Jimmy Page’s birthday—January 9th.
The fifth anniversary of Bowie’s death is January 10th.
The weekend DJ, a boring male voice that exuded the charisma of a wet piece of cardboard, seemed beside himself with glee to be able to force these tidbits of music trivia and history onto whoever was tuning in.
The place where Bowie and Page intersect isn’t really a nearly shared birthday, though.
The place is a person. The person is Lori Mattix.
The place is that they both fucked a kid—Page, allegedly, fucked a lot of kids.14
I hadn’t intended on writing this—this thing.
What happens when the terms change?
The piece was going to end with a conversation at a Ryan Adams concert, and the piece, itself, was about Ryan Adams.
Shortly before the New York Times piece on his long standing predatory behavior ran, Adams had announced the release of a new album, due out in April of 2019—Big Colors. I had pre-ordered it from his website, but the day after reading the Times story, I emailed his web store’s customer service and asked if it was at all possible to cancel the order—I didn’t explain why, and they didn’t ask. My money was refunded, no questions asked. Maybe two days after that, the album itself, a co-release between Adams’ Pax Am imprint and Capitol Records, was shelved indefinitely.
Save for one occasion15, I haven’t felt comfortable listening to Adams’ music since then.
What happens when the terms change?
Prior to the cancelation of the tour in support of Big Colors, the album itself, and, if we’re being honest, his career as a whole, Adams had hinted at releasing three albums total in 2019—one of which was titled Wednesdays.
That album, surprisingly, was unceremoniously (digitally) released at the very end16 of 2020.
On his Instagram page, the post announcing the release of Wednesdays is besieged with people who are still fans—people sharing their excitement at the fact that he was ‘back.’
I have to wonder who these people are, and how they can reconcile; how they make those kinds of concessions.
I hadn’t intended on writing this—and the further I write myself into it, and the more I think about it all, it continues moving into this terrible gray area where you desperately want there to be clear right or wrong answers—but that isn’t the case at all.
Who is someone that, in the face of something deplorable, it is easy to let go of based on what they have done, and that alone? And who is more difficult, or impossible, to do that to?
And where are the exceptions made? And why do we make those?
Terms continue to change.
Around the time of the 20th anniversary of his milestone album Play, the man born Richard Melville Hall, known better as Moby, was on the cusp of releasing his second memoir, Then it Fell Apart—a reflection on the time following the slow burning success of Play and the career highs and lows he experienced up until 2008.
The rest of the book, as well as any kind of celebration or retrospective on the cultural impact of Play, were both overshadowed by the inclusion of two specific instances Hall had written about in Then it Fell Apart—when he made a pass at Lana Del Rey, then just a 21 year old Elizabeth Grant, and was immediately rebuffed, and when he ‘dated’ Natalie Portman, who was 18 at the time.
Hall alleges they were a couple in the fall of 1999 after meeting in Texas after a performance, and claims that he would travel to Harvard and visit her while she was beginning her first year in college.
Portman’s side of the story is quite different, as she explained in an interview shortly after this element to his memoir began making the rounds online. “My recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just graduated high school,” she told Harper’s Bazaar. “He said I was 20; I definitely wasn’t…I had just turned 18. There was no fact checking from him or his publisher—it feels almost deliberate. That he used this story to sell his book was very disturbing to me.”
Rather than issue an apology, or make any kind of statement of correction, Hall doubled down immediately, sharing a photo on Instagram of himself with Portman—she looks almost inappropriately young, wearing a black t-shirt with the words “Milk Fed” on it; he is shirtless, gaunt, and grinning like an idiot.
He captioned the photo by saying Portman misrepresented the truth about their brief involvement, adding her comments were published in a ‘gossip piece.’
Subjectively, Hall’s output as Moby has been wildly uneven, and as a critical listener and music writer, I haven’t enjoyed an album of his since Innocents, released in 2013. He, apparently, issued a full-length entitled All Visible Objects, less than a year ago—I’m uncertain if I even knew it had been released.
When was the last time I took one of Moby’s CDs off the shelf and put them in my stereo?
Is Richard Melville Hall a sexual predator, or a ‘sex pest’17? There is no easy answer here.
Is his music something that I want to listen to now?
What happens when the terms change?
How easy does it become to walk away when the terms change—to walk away from the up and coming Brooklyn-based rapper who is accused of sexual assault—to regret having spent so much time and effort analyzing his lyrics and writing positive things about his music, only to want to delete the files from the hard drive of the computer.
How easy does it become to walk away from the already seemingly troubled ambient18/experimental performer who, shortly after the release of an ambitious and stunning full-length album, is called out for his apparently long history of misogyny and anti-Semitism?
How do you make concessions, if you can, for artists like Nasir Jones, and Steven Patrick Morrissey—Nas, the legendary emcee from Queens, and Morrissey, the once iconic frontman for The Smiths?
Outside of the critical evaluation of their respective canonical works—a strong case of diminishing returns could be made for both performers—how do you feel comfortable listening to Illmatic after Jones was accused of physically assaulting his ex-wife, the singer and rapper Kelis?
Can you still listen to The Smiths, or early Morrissey solo albums like Viva Hate, knowing his bizarre, and apparently lengthy history of racism and his support of an anti-Islamic activist and politician?
What happens when the terms change?
How you do you reconcile? How and when do you make concessions?
The name Mark Kozelek, alone, to many, might not register, but his output under the banners of Sun Kil Moon, or the much beloved and mythologized Red House Painters might.
Kozelek was more than likely always both cantankerous and a lothario even in the early days of his career, but within the last 15 years, and even before a very long, unsettling piece published by Pitchfork in 2020 accused him of sexually assaulting a number of women, his reputation19 began to eclipse his music—his music, famously20, has also become unlistenable within the last decade.
There was a time when I simply just struggled with overlooking, but tried to overlook nevertheless, his continued public misogynistic outbursts, and continued to disregard the albums he insisted on releasing, and would retreat back to Songs for A Blue Guitar or April with an ignorant wistfulness.
You try to make an argument about separating the artist from the art.
There was a time when I was a Kozelek “apologist.”
A little over a year ago, I was having a discussion about Kozelek with someone who knew very little about him as a person, or about his body of work. I said that if anybody needed to be “MeToo’ed” it was him.
Around eight months after I said that, the terms change.
In 2018, The Guardian ran a thinkpiece with the subtitle, and conceit, that the “#MeToo” movement was going to “Kill off the rock ’n’ roll groupie.”
In it, Lori Mattix is interviewed, and the Thrillist piece from just three years prior, is mentioned. By this time, she seems conflicted, specifically about her involvement with Jimmy Page. “I never thought there was anything wrong with it, but maybe there was,” she responds, all while reflecting on her experiences as ‘a great time,’ then backtracking, and adding that her perspective is changing. “I don’t think underage girls should sleep with guys. I wouldn’t want this for anybody’s daughter.”
I hadn’t intended on writing this.
We can walk away so quickly from some—or, at least, I can, but then there are others that an exception21 is made for. You desperately want there to be clear right or wrong answers—but that isn’t the case at all.
We make concessions for Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin—and in celebration of Page’s birthday, the most insipid Zeppelin22 tunes are inserted into the afternoon playlist on a public radio station.
Reconciliation is made because with Page, or Bowie, it was a ‘different time,’ which is a weak excuse at best.
You try to make an argument about separating the artist from the art—but those arguments can only go so far.
The thing is that I had been aware of the Thrillist piece long before my wife and I had the conversation with our acquaintance in the crowd at a Ryan Adams concert—I had been aware of it, I had read it, and I didn’t know what to do or how to process Mattix’s story.
Because it changes the terms—it changes how you think of someone you once admired. And rather than thinking about how David Bowie, at one time, really meant something to me, or thinking about how there were specific moments23 in his music, or lyrics24, that have stuck with me, what I think about now is how he fucked a kid.
I think about how disappointed my wife was after hearing about that story. And I think about an exchange I had once with my former co-worker, where I was talking about how we used to listen to a lot of David Bowie, but don’t really anymore. And this former co-worker, who is also close friends with my wife, responded by saying that she understood why we didn’t listen to him much anymore, because “he was a” and then in a half whisper, half mouthing the word, said “rapist.”
I hadn’t intended on writing this, and there was a point, I’m uncertain as to when, though, that I was already really far into this, and I started thinking about the song “Heroes,” and I started thinking about it in connection with the last year.
And I started to wonder if I could write something about the complications I feel about David Bowie, but then also turn around and writing something else juxtaposing the song “Heroes,” dissecting it and the irony of the way the title is presented, alongside the last 300 days spent being unwittingly deemed an ‘essential’ worker during a pandemic.
I know I make concessions, but I don’t know if I can make that kind of a concession. Not now.
You desperately want there to be clear right or wrong answers but we all know that can never really be the case.
I hadn’t intended on writing this—and now, this far into it, I have more or less surrounded myself with the terrible gray area.
I think about the song “Heroes,” and the irony in the way the title is presented; I think about the very notion of a ‘hero,’ and the adage that you are never supposed to meet yours.
1- I’m specifically talking about the song “Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part,” from the third album Adams released in 2005—29.
2- The magazine in question is a regionally distributed publication, River Valley Woman. The woman who edits it reached out to me in 2017, and asked me to contribute to the “men’s issue.” In retrospect, it seems that she probably only wanted me to contribute to those issues alone, because any pitches I sent her way, or interest I showed in writing other pieces for subsequent, less ‘male focused’ issues, were met with skepticism in her responses to me. I had two very negative experiences with her, as an editor—once involving the Ryan Adams essay in question here, and another, at the beginning of 2020, with a piece I wrote about my best friend’s dog. I doubt very much that I would ever want to contribute to RVW again.
3- “Crossed Out Name” is a song pulled from Adams’ final album with The Cardinals, Cardinology, released in 2008.
4- I had spent so much time on this piece, as a whole, laboring over different parts of it at different times since the start of January that I, eventually, think I recalled how the conversation wound up on the legacy of David Bowie. It’s super complicated, though, and very Minneapolis focused, and not something I am confident I can articulate well enough to get into in a footnote.
5- An inside joke between myself and my wife is her description of the overall theme of “Wild Women Do,” which is saying, “We’re women. We’re whores. We don’t take no shit.”
6- I think that we still have a VHS copy of Pretty Woman—the very one I watched in this anecdote, in our basement, purchased for a few dollars, from a Half Price Books, in 2006.
7- The site is Bearded Gentlemen Music, which I irregularly contributed to from 2013 until 2019, when the misogyny from one of the editors and a number of writers, as well as the rampant transphobia from one specific writer, became too much of an issue and I no longer felt good about my name being associated with the site.
8- Dennis Hopper The Rabbit passed away in April of 2012; Sophie in February of 2015; and Annabell in May of 2018.
9- Prince passed away mere months after Bowie, and much like Bowie, Prince Rogers Nelson’s life was full of complications and contradictions. Nelson famously had made a surprising homophobic remark in an interview conducted 2008.
10- Despite how much time my wife and I spent listening to David Bowie over the course of a decade, Tin Machine—Bowie’s short lived foray as the frontman for a hard rock band, was one thing we never explored, perhaps because it was so poorly received.
11- There are apparently 20 different versions of Best of Bowie. Each edition was assembled to include the most popular songs for the region it was being released in.
12- We used to drive from Minnesota to Illinois to visit my mother quite a bit, and in an effort to cut down on the amount of CD switching my wife would have to deal with in the car, we’d pick albums that were over 70 minutes to play—they were often singles collections of ‘greatest hits.’
13- I say “at the time” because we really loved this show in 2007 but our enthusiasm in it quickly disappeared. I also cannot imagine that this show has aged well.
14- Jimmy Page’s appetite for underage girls, during the heyday of Led Zeppelin, is well documented, and apparently everyone is just fine with his behavior?
15- I was having ‘a moment’ once while having a difficult conversation with someone and I felt like I needed to listen to Adams’ cover of the Taylor Swift song “This Love.” This was in the summer of 2019. It’s not that I haven’t thought about specific Ryan Adams songs at all since his downfall, but I just cannot bring myself to reconcile with his actions and feel comfortable listening to him again.
16- Coincidentally, Adams opted to release Wednesdays the same day Taylor Swift released Evermore. The release of Wednesdays barely made a ripple, with no music news outlet I follow opting to give it coverage. I saw the album art shared elsewhere online and thought it was a weird joke thing at first.
17- Just an aside that I heard the term ‘sex pest’ somewhat recently and have tried to work it into situations where applicable.
18- I don’t want to make it hot and use this person’s name but well before these allegations about their behavior were revealed, they would often send email blasts to anyone who had ever downloaded something off of their Bandcamp page, asking if people would be willing to ‘help them out’ and download their entire discography—presumably because they were hard up for money, and perhaps struggling with some kind of addiction or substance abuse. The emails always made me very, very uncomfortable.
19- Making misogynistic comments about writer Laura Snapes, telling the band War on Drugs to “suck his cock,” and constantly insulting the core of his fanbase at the time certainly did not do wonders for his personality.
20- Beginning in 2010, with Admiral Fell Promises, I began losing interest and found it very difficult to enjoy the kind of music Kozelek was producing.
21- So this seemed like as good a place as any to drop this in: I chose to focus on musicians who were problematic with this piece, though there countless other individuals I could have included—actors, directors, sports icons. Before this got to be over 6,000 words, my intent was to discuss the concessions I try to make with the writer David Foster Wallace. It isn’t well known, but known enough, that he, in the 1990s, after experiencing his sudden literary fame, was a lothario, but more troubling than that, is his treatment of Mary Karr. He both emotionally and physically abused her, something that is relatively glossed over in D.T. Max’s uneven biography of Wallace, and something that Karr herself has become blunt and embittered when discussing, and rightfully so. It’s difficult to make a concession for his behavior toward her—I haven’t gotten rid of my entire shelf of DFW books but I can’t say, over the last few years, that I have felt compelled to re-read any of them.
22- I have never found the music of Led Zeppelin to be remotely interesting or enjoyable and have, in fact, always thought it to be terribly boring and fail to see why people—mostly men of a certain age—find it so fascinating. The songs that I heard on the radio on the Saturday in question here were “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Rock ’n’ Rolled.”
23- Mostly thinking about the way the music and Bowie’s vocal delivery blends together on the song “Strangers When We Meet,” and the absolute manic way he screams his vocals during a part of “Heroes.”
24- “And we’re learning to live with somebody’s depression; and I don’t want to live with somebody’s depression,” from “Fantastic Voyage,” and “You, you could be mean—and I, I could drink all the time,” from “Heroes.”