Liz Phair on “Rebel Rebel”
After finishing my 33 1/3 volume on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, I’d had enough ruminating about the album on my own. Now I wanted to hear what other people had to say. So I wrote to some of the smartest and most interesting people I know to ask them for their thoughts and feelings about Bowie and Diamond Dogs. The amazing and wonderful Liz Phair—who needs no introduction for readers of this blog—generously took a moment from her current tour to send me this anecdote and appreciation.
It was a clear, cold night in December, just a few days before Christmas, when my mother took our family to see the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. My son was turning 16 the next day and she thought it would be the perfect way to celebrate. As we moved through the exhibit, shuffling along with the silent crowd, we split up, each of us pausing at different displays, engrossed in our own experiences. Listening to the accompanying audio tour, I was blown away by how much each of Bowie’s artistic incarnations over the years reflected or influenced the spirit of its age. For someone so wild and outrageous, Bowie was highly tuned to the broader culture. Walking through his life was like walking through my own, each musical and sartorial progression was familiar to the point of being uncanny. Everything was a touchstone to a time and place I’m sure everyone recognized, sparking nostalgia for our own pasts. It was profoundly moving, one of the best shows I’ve seen and exhaustive in its scope. I heard people whispering that Bowie had curated the whole thing himself. I began to wonder what had prompted such a monumental undertaking. Was he getting ready to release a new album? To receive a lifetime achievement award? Or just cementing his own legacy? As internationally famous and beloved as he was, the show left me feeling like he was an underrated talent and deserved much more acclaim.
Two years later, I got my answer. Just after releasing his stunning and wholly original masterpiece Blackstar, Bowie died, shocking the world. No one in the public had even known he was sick. It was almost as if he’d curated his own passing, writing the final chapter of his life with as much flair and influence as he’d exerted at any other period in his life. It was a final act of artistic bravado on par with his best work in a career filled with stratospheric success. How could it have been any other way for such a man? He literally blasted out of this world as dramatically as he’d arrived in our collective consciousness, and for that I will forever be in awe of him.
The night they announced Bowie’s death, there was an unusually spectacular sunset in California, a fitting tribute to a flamboyant performer, one last master stroke. As I looked out over the Pacific Ocean, stunned by the painterly streaks of crimson, fuchsia and gold, I thought about the impact he’d had on my own decision to pursue a career in music. In particular, his song “Rebel Rebel” had captivated my 13-year-old heart and mind in a way no other song had before. It felt like a call to arms, like a dare to step through the looking glass into a world that was limitless and more exciting than my own. “Rebel Rebel, Your face is a mess/Rebel Rebel you’re a juvenile success/Rebel Rebel, how could they know?/Hot tramp, I love you so.” I listened to that track off of Diamond Dogs over and over again, singing the lyrics out loud to give me courage. Those muscular guitar riffs coupled with his effete style presented someone who was neither masculine nor feminine, some new kind of hybrid. It sparked something in me, showed me a different path I could take into adulthood, how to be unapologetically creative. I was primarily a visual artist at that time and I honestly don’t know if I would have wanted to write songs without his example. I owe him a lot for his bravery. We all do. The world is a brighter and better place because of him.
David Bowie has inspired and shaped the lives of millions of people with his music. Order a copy of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs to learn more about one of his most important albums.
Cover photo courtesy of The Nation