Sunday, January 17, 2016


‟One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious.”
– Carl Jung

Alchemy is the medieval forerunner of modern chemistry. It can also be seen as a symbolic metaphor for the growth of consciousness. The classic understanding is that alchemists were attempting to ‟turn lead into gold.” Too many people read this on a concrete level and think these silly old medieval magicians were actually trying to physically accomplish this. Some probably were. But a deeper reading of this phrase is all about taking the darker elements of your life and finding the positive aspects of it. It is ‟finding a silver lining in the darkest cloud” rendered in more esoteric language. It is creating a work of art out of the raw elements of your life.

I was reminded of this idea this week through a variety of experiences and encounters with art. I want to talk about them.

I’ve already discussed my reactions to the death of David Bowie in my previous blog, so I won’t dwell on it again, except in the context of this post. Suffice to say, that was how the week began and created a framework for where my head was all week. Bowie was diagnosed with cancer eighteen months ago. He knew he was dying. He spent the last year and a half of his life creating the album Blackstar. Knowing that now, listening to it creates waves of resonance it wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise had. He took the time he had and spent it creating art out of his experience. It was an attempt to sum up and make peace with his life, to say goodbye to his family and fans and life. It seems that he found meaning in his sickness and suffering through expressing it in his art. Ziggy Stardust may have been an imagined figure of light, but David Bowie made the darkness conscious by finding gold in the face of his own demise.

Wednesday at the comics shop saw the release of Rosalie Lightning, the new graphic novel by cartoonist Tom Hart.

I have a small connection to this through his wife, cartoonist Leela Corman. I don’t know Leela personally. Though we have never met face-to-face I have had the pleasure of collaborating with her. Last summer she drew the story I wrote about Raoul Wallenberg for the upcoming second issue of Chutz-POW!. Rosalie Lightning tells the story of the sudden loss of their two year old daughter in 2011. I didn’t know this about Leela when we were sending emails and scripts and drawings back and forth. There was no reason I should have. This graphic novel is an amazing work of bravery. Tom Hart lays bare the unbearable sadness and depression he and Leela experienced. It is a difficult book to read and I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried tears throughout. But it is a worthwhile read. I hope creating this book and sharing it with the world is a healing experience for Leela and Tom. As difficult as this subject matter is I believe it can also be a healing experience for others who have experienced a similar loss, and for creating empathy and understanding in those of us who have not. Tom Hart took one of the absolute worst things that can happen to someone and created transformative art.

Speaking of Chutz-POW!, on Thursday evening I was invited to speak at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh for their monthly Wechsler Session. Drew Goldstein, the Chutz-POW! project head, and MarcelWalker, lead artist for the comic, were also guests. We have all spoken about this project many times. The whole idea of Chutz-POW! from the beginning was to focus on the acts of heroism during the Holocaust instead of the horror and tragedy. We have been trying to tease out the gold from this dark time from the beginning and as the writer of the project I have been constantly amazed at the examples of shining human spirit in the face of some of the worst circumstances in history.

On Thursday we heard Holocaust survivor Moshe Baran speak. Mr. Baran was one of the five people I wrote about, and while I had met him before this was the first time I’ve heard him speak in public. He is 95 years old and a survivor of the Jewish ghetto of Krasne, Poland, and spent two years as part of a resistance group living in the forest and fighting against the Nazis. He told the same story I had written, the same one that Marcel had drawn. As he spoke we pulled out the comic and followed along. I have known from the beginning of this project that I had been entrusted with people’s lives. I took this very seriously. But, no matter how much research I have done, I have always worked at a remove. They are stories. Hearing him speak brought it to life. This was not just a story. This was his life! This narrative Marcel and I had created is a small window into this enormous true life experience. I hope that our efforts to keep these stories alive have an impact on those who read them, but it is Moshe, and his late wife Malka, a survivor of the death camps, who truly found gold in their experience. They were both active throughout the rest of their lives, through speaking engagements, through her poetry, through their faith and continued engagement with life, in keeping their stories alive and inspiring others. Mr. Baran said that he has been asked many times in his life how he was able to keep his faith, given everything he had experienced. He said that to give up his faith would have been the same as saying the Nazis were right, and he refused to give Hitler a posthumous victory over his soul. This is not just finding a silver lining. This is being a figure of light.

On Friday I went to the Arcade Comedy Theater in downtown Pittsburgh to see an old friend, David White, perform his one man show Panther Hollow. David and I were parts of a larger social group, and though he and I never hung out a lot back then we were at a lot of the same events and parties and I’ve been happy to stay in touch with him over the intervening years. David is an actor and a playwright. Panther Hollow, an autobiographical piece, premiered off Broadway this past November. For those of you outside of Pittsburgh, Panther Hollow is a ‟hidden” neighborhood near the University of Pittsburgh where White lived during his years in grad school. The performance begins with the true story of the time he found a dead body there, hanging in a tree near his house. From there the performance is both poignant and hysterical. It is a collection of anecdotes from his life, centering on the theme of the depression he suffered at the age of twenty-five and how, at the time, he thought the guy hanging from the tree may have had the right idea. The show is brilliant, and I don’t say that just because I know David. It is honest and brave and funny in the face of despair. It’s also an important show, because it confronts the idea of depression and mental illness head on. These are still taboo topics for way too many people. David shares very personal and embarrassing moments of his life in a way that is gentle and caring and empathetic. If even one person who suffers depression comes away from this show better able to talk about it and not be embarrassed then David’s art has served an even greater purpose.

At one point in his script, David says, ‟I put my head on his shoulder no matter how uncomfortable it is because sometimes you have to feel uncomfortable so that someone else doesn’t feel so alone.” I guess maybe that’s what I’m trying to say about art with all of this. The best art is the act of transformation. Of taking some of the darkest moments of your life, the ones we all have simply by virtue of being human, and transforming them into something greater, something that rises above the dross of merely being, something that touches the spirit of other human beings and allows them to recognize a piece of themselves in your suffering.

Something that says, as Ziggy Stardust did in his final song, ‟You’re not alone!”

Give me your hands.

 Because you’re wonderful.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Busting Up My Brains for the Words

Fame... What you get is no tomorrow.

Or, as Neil Gaiman put it, through his characterization of Death, You get what anyone gets... you get a lifetime.

David Bowie died, and here I am, attempting to join the throngs of memorials being written about him. It probably goes without saying that I never knew the man. Why does his death affect me? Why does the death of a celebrity affect any of us? I still have everything I have ever had of Bowie, except the knowledge that he was alive. All most of us have of him is the music, art, and creative legacy he left behind. That will remain, and my life goes on with no real, personal loss at all. Yet I’m still compelled to add my tiny voice to the outpouring of tributes that have already appeared.

I came to Bowie around the same time most of America did, with his Rebel Rebel single. I was eleven when The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was released. Contrary to how the album is perceived now it didn’t leave much of a splash in America at the time. I was just starting to explore real music at this time. Rebel Rebel was one of the earliest Rock 45s I ever purchased (the actual first record single is lost to memory, but this was close). I discovered this around the same time I first heard Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (which was a couple of years old before I first heard it). These were the two songs that launched adolescent Wayne into the world of Rock fandom. The opening riffs of both of these are the two most primal rock hooks in my personal lexicon. Both are songs about rebellion against authority and societal standards. Perfect for a twelve year old.

Other than a few pictures I didn’t see much of Bowie at the time. I now know he was in the process of moving past the Glam persona and experimenting with his white boy American Soul era. I think had I seen more pics of the Ziggy era I might have been more into him from the beginning. As it was I really didn’t listen to a lot of Bowie in the 70s. As much as I loved Rebel Rebel and Fame (which I also bought on 45), I simply never invested in the albums. I remember looking at Diamond Dogs in the stores, but full albums were still a little beyond my budget yet. By the time I started really buying records I was hooked on Alice and KISS and a bunch of other 70s hit bands and Bowie had moved to Berlin and become too experimental for the radio stations I was listening to. As far as I knew he had completely dropped off the musical landscape. I don’t remember ever hearing Heroes on the radio back then.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was released in 1980 and pretty much escaped my notice at the time. I vaguely remember hearing Ashes to Ashes and Fashion as part of the radio background of the time, but I was taking my first tentative steps into New Wave and Punk right then and it just didn’t register for some reason. I saw the Ashes to Ashes video and thought it was pretty cool, but at the time my access to MTV was pretty limited, so it wasn’t as much of a constant as I know it was for a lot of other people.

Somewhere around 1981 I bought a used car, a blue mid-70s model Ford Granada. It had a factory installed 8-track player in it and the previous owner had thoughtfully left a copy of Heroes in it. At that point in my life that album was the most challenging thing I had ever listened to. I immediately fell in love with the title track (and, gun to my head, I may still consider it my favorite Bowie song, if such a thing is possible). But the rest of that album was a revelation and changed the way I thought of what Pop music could be. Not long after I bought Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane and was promptly blown away. I was pretty primed by the time Let’s Dance blew up in America. Though I heard most of his other work in the 80s, I didn’t invest in his entire back catalog until the CD revolution in the 90s.

I only got to see him once, on the Sound and Vision tour in 1990. My first visit to Star Lake was to see the Starman.

Smaller moments... I was in a dance club called Tin Pan Alley in Wheeling in 1980, bored by the disco floor and too scared to talk to the girls there. There was a band in the upstairs room and the only thing I remember about them is they covered Space Oddity. The grad school apartment I shared with five other guys had a poster of the cover of Aladdin Sane in the living room. The first time I saw the Dancing in the Streets video with Mick Jagger was on the big screen when it was played before some movie I saw at the Edinboro discount theater.

I realized recently that I have spent more time as a fan of his first twenty years of work in the last twenty years than I was when it was new. And, like a lot of others, while I haven’t ignored his output since 1990, it just doesn’t resonate in the same way. I’ve read several biographies. I’m fascinated by his interactions with Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. I’ve read analyses of his lyrics and his concepts and recently an entire book of pretty heavily academic essays about him and his career. I’m currently reading a book called Ziggyology that is not a biography of Bowie, but of Ziggy, an attempt to pull together all of the musical and cultural influences that led to his creation.

So, I’m a little obsessed. The question is why. Why does this one person’s creative output lead me, and many others, to not just listen to his music, but to devour his career? Obviously, a huge part is the music. I like it. That’s pretty simple. It entertains me. I’m aware that there is a lot more going on in his oeuvre than there is in many other musicians I like, but I’ll leave it in the hands of those who are much more musically savvy than I am to talk about that.

For me, a lot of it is image. My two biggest life-long hobbies are comics and music. They were doorways for me. They opened on to a bigger world. They were the entrance to Narnia in the back of my closet. They were a TARDIS that took me away. They were the technicolor world of Oz in my sepia-toned Appalachian youth. I came of age in era where, at least for me personally, comics and music overlapped. Bowie, and Alice, and KISS, and Queen were superheroes, at least visually. My heroes, on the page and on the stage, were the weird outsiders that every teenager feels like. They showed me that the things that made them different were actually their strengths. What a great lesson. Loving the alien means loving yourself.

Somewhere in my brain, developing very slowly, is an entire thesis about identity and persona and costumes and personality and myth and pop culture and how these things relate.

Part of the genius of Bowie was that he showed us that we all wear masks and personas, and that it was possible, through these, to remain true to your authentic self. For all of his permutations of image, Bowie always followed his own path, distracting the world with style while creating his truth through art and music.

What we lose in his death is whatever he may have gone on to do beyond this. The potential for more. That is what we always lose when someone dies. The potential for more.

We will only ever know David Bowie through his masks and personas. Only his closest friends and family can say any differently. But through these characters and through his art we glimpsed a burning creative talent. We can simply enjoy what he gave us, or we can use it as an inspiration. We are all stardust. We can be heroes, forever and ever. The Starman that is waiting to blow our minds is our own potential for more.

And, as we’ve been told, if we sparkle he may land tonight.

I’ve been ending my blogs with a video. I’ve spent the day trying to choose the right one. In the end I decided it wasn’t about which one was exactly right, or summed up what I want to say in the lyrics. In the end it’s the one that made me a fan.

We like dancing and we look divine
You love bands when they're playing hard
You want more and you want it fast.

Listen to that guitar riff.