Ground Control to Mental Health Justice

For any music fan who grew up in the 70's or 80's, David Bowie's artistic influence was everywhere–progressive rock, punk rock, glam rock, New Wave later Indy rock, space rock (think Pink Floyd & Muse), disco, emo, ska revival, & modern R&B/pop fusion (think Michael Jackson)–his genius infused the bones of all of those movements and the artists that performed in those genres.

I first heard David Bowie's music in the early 70's and I was instantly drawn to his lyrics that explored the stigma that accompanies being considered different by society and the realms of human isolation that he iconically represented in his alter ego–the astronaut Major Tom–introduced in his hit "Space Oddity": 

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating
in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do
— from Space Oddity

The original 1969 video of the David Bowie classic "Space oddity.: 

Bowie lyrics continued to deal with human isolation and knocking on the door of insanity. His 1981 classic collaboration with with Queen, "Under Pressure" was an anthem for all those dealing with the overwhelming stress and existential realities of modern life.  

It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming, “Let me out!”
Tomorrow gets me higher
Pressure on people - people on streets
— Queen & David Bowie

After hearing of Bowie's death earlier this week, I started to chronicle his lyrics in my thoughts and consequently to manically hum them in the kitchen, in the shower, at the grocery store. It became a bit of an obsession and soon it was clear to me that David Bowie's muse was constantly exploring people's struggles with mental health triggers. Hmm? A little research was in order.

I was quick to discover that indeed David Bowie's muse was one who knew mental illness well. His mother's family had a genetic disposition to mental disorders, His brother, Terry, suffered from schizophrenia. That experience introduced Bowie, at a young age, to the terrors of misunderstanding, stigma and judgment. This is an excerpt from Davanna Cimino's biography of David Bowie: 

In an era when there was more shame attached to mental illness than there is today (although we still deal with this stigma up to the present day) there was little meaningful help for David’s half-brother, Terry who suffered from schizophrenia. The streak of mental illness that ran through David’s mother’s side of the family cast a shadow in David’s life from his youth onward.

in 1967, David experienced one of Terry’s full blown bouts of schizophrenia. He had taken Terry to see Cream at the Bromel Club. The loud music induced a bad reaction in Terry. David took him outside to the street to get some relief. David recounts that Terry fell to the ground. There was fire coming out of cracks on the street, and Terry was trying to hold onto the road to keep from falling into the sky. David recounts this experience, and Terry’s illness in this VH1 “Legends” (part 1) documentary on YouTube.

Terry was institutionalized at Cane Hill mental hospital. Eventually, Terry took his own life in 1983.
— David Bowie- A biography

Nearly ten years after the death of his brother, Bowie gathered the courage to write about the experience in the very honest and intense "Jump They Say":

David Bowie was clearly one of the most innovative artists of the modern era–part Mozart, part Shakespeare, part Giorgio Armani-his legacy extends across music genres, fashion, theater and film and social commentary.

However, when you look through the glasses of Bowie's life narrative you consistently see a muse guided by the ghost of the young David Jones (Bowie's given name) whose brother, the town crazy, was the subject of gossip and ridicule.  Years later, he wrote of his regret of not quite figuring out how to help his mentally ill brother.

Got Oh my, naked eyes
I should have kept you
I should have tried
I should have been a wiser kind of guy
I miss you
— "Survive" by David Bowie

The real question we need to ask ourselves is, "How different would have David Bowie's art have been had he not had such an intense interaction with mental illness as a young man?" While we can never know, we do know that a hallmark of Bowie's music was to emancipate yourself not from "the demons that you understand but from the ghosts (that you don't)."  In his last album "Black Star" released just a few weeks ago, Bowie uses the imagery of a psych ward to say perhaps goodbye and seemingly release his own ghosts of mental illness. 

David Bowie's final song Lazarus." 

Thank you David Bowie for all your incredible music and for having the courage and insight to explore your own "Ghosts of mental illness." 

Mental Health Justice. No stigma, no judgment. Everyone is welcome.