I have two memories of the first time I saw and heard David Bowie. The first is, when I was about five years old, of seeing this strange man, with blonde hair, on Top Of The Pops (ask your parents, it was a pop music show, popular on the BBC, back when we only had three channels), with what still strikes me, even now, as a very stark voice. He seemed to be commanding us to dance. Let’s Dance.
So I did, I had a whale of a time in front of the TV, dancing my heart out, happily lost in my own little world, much to the amusement of everyone around me as well. That song went around and around in my head for days afterwards.
Don’t you ever get that feeling as an Aspie? There are certain phrases (both of the vocal/verbal and musical kind), which just stick with you for no apparent reason? You’re meant to be concentrating on this one thing/matter/topic/subject and yet, for some reason, you just cannot get that phrase out of your head. Like a lot of Aspie phases, that soon passed.
Years later, though, when I was about twelve, it came back to haunt me. I was going through one of those difficult transitional phases, which I am sure will be familiar to Aspies of all ages, reading this. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. I didn’t know how I was supposed to act. Adults in my life seemed to be telling me, always, that I really needed to grow up. To behave a bit more maturely. To stop being so silly. To stop diving into conversations around me. To really watch what I was saying to others. As much as I wanted to do all of these things, I simply did not know how to. As much as I knew that I needed to, I was too frightened to ask for help, for fear of appearing either stupid or more immature, or for being made a fool of. Or – even worse – all three. So, I would say yes, I understood, when really, I did not. And from there, the whole cycle would start again.
I was 12. It was the summer of 1990. While all (or most) of my peer group in high school were well on the way to teenagerdom, and eventual maturity, I still seemed to be stuck on the treadmill of late childhood. I came across, to others, I am sure, as a bit of an embarrassment. This is because I was desperate to join in, desperate to be accepted as a member of the group or the gang. And none of them wanted me. I remember certain conversations between my mother and myself at that time, where one phrase cropped up a lot from her:
“You cant be a baby all your life”
I’d only recently given up playing with toys. I couldn’t understand the signals and signs that my friends and classmates were giving off to each other, seemingly without trying. The unsaid things. The flashes in the eyes. Those wee sharp smiles they’d give to each other and also to me, as if to say, Good God, he’s not really that stupid, is he??!! What have we done to deserve putting up with him?
I nodded and said yes, I understood. Mum and Dad and sundry other well-intentioned adults, with whom I had, then, to interact on a daily basis, had “wee words” or “wee chats” with me, about how I really needed to grow up a bit. About how I needed to stop acting so strangely. About how I needed to think about what I was saying to people. About how I needed to leave things like toys in the past now. I smiled and said yes, because I felt I had to.
I wanted to start to feel my own way towards the door to adulthood. Only, I didn’t know who had the key. Then, one summer day, I saw Bowie on TV again, singing about Fame. He stood out for his appearance again. He stood out for another reason as well.
There was a sharpness and coldness in his voice that I could really relate to. It sparked off something in me then, which still resonates today.
I later learned that this song was called Fame ’90 and was a remix of an earlier song. It seemed a very strange song and I liked it all the more because of this. I’d always viewed fame as a good thing.
Bowie seemed to think otherwise, with lyrics such as “Fame – what you need you have to borrow” and “Fame – what you get is nothing but sorrow”. He seemed to view it as a curse, a cross to be borne.
I felt the same way about growing up and becoming an adult. I couldn’t throw that off, either. I didn’t know, then, that I had Asperger’s. I didn’t know what autism was, I didn’t know what was “wrong” with me, I didn’t know why, no matter how hard I tried, I could not join in, like everyone else was able to.
I wasn’t able to understand the emotions of others, I didn’t understand why I constantly felt the way I did, neither did anyone else. There seemed to be no way out of this, no way forward. Then, along came Bowie.
Along with Fame ’90 came an album called Changesbowie. It was the first album cover, to make a real and true impression on me.
We Aspies are likely to be visual thinkers. I think this is why the cover really struck (and continues, still, to strike) me. It showed a fairly normal picture at the centre. It was what was around it that really struck me. Various album covers. Various stages of Bowie’s life. He’d always followed his own path.
Maybe I could do the same thing? Maybe, rather than trying so slavishly to copy and to follow others, I could trail blaze my own path, battle my own way through to life’s conclusions? In essence, that is what I think I have been doing ever since. Battling my own way through to life’s conclusions.
Bowie’s music stood out because it sat (at least, during his 1970s period) on the edge of the charts Around him would be ballads by Wings, or punk by The Sex Pistols. He would be drifting away in a world of his own, singing about Starmen, or Fame, or describing the world of Major Tom (and that’s another thing – Bowie’s creation of fictional characters around whom he clearly felt more comfortable than real people, because he could control how they acted and what they thought really resonates with me, down the years, as an Aspie), miles away from anyone else. Just like an Aspie.
It was like, in his own little world, he was safe, because he could control what did and did not happen. Just like an Aspie. He must, therefore, I assumed, like us, have sat in on far more conversations than he had actually been part of. Listening to everyone else bouncing off what his or her fellow participants were saying and doing. Trying desperately to copy these emotions, to get himself involved.
And that ever-present tinge of sadness in his voice could only have come (I decided) from the fact that, just like me, he had tried and failed so many times. Just listen to the opening of Space Oddity or Starman, to get an idea of what I mean. The way his voice lingers just a little too long on the notes at the end. The way the music suddenly rushes to uplift him. Just like my friends and family have done with me.
I assume, and this comes across particularly in Alan Yentob’s 1970s documentary on Bowie, that Bowie must have, at least, during that period, have felt the same. Just like myself, as an Aspie.
It must have seemed like everyone else knew how to feel and he didn’t. A particular sequence, in the back of a limo., springs to mind. Bowie’s asked a question about how he feels.
Rather than answer directly, he looks down and sees a fly, swimming in the milk carton he is holding. Reacting to this, he says something like, “Oh God! See the fly! See it swimming!”
He sees it feeling trapped and trying to escape. And yet, it is also swimming frantically, against a tide that is (at least, in part) of its own making. I know that feeling. Many are the time I have been at a works do, a family occasion, or even just out with friends, and I have felt as though I am sitting in on a conversation.
Many is the time also when, in the workplace, I have heard a conversation going on around me and wished I could have known how to join in. Or else, I have joined in and come out a real cropper, having not realised I had no business joining in.
The conversations I had in my head were always better than the ones I managed in real life. Actually, when I was growing up, the same thing used to happen just as often, around the family dinner table. Mum and Dad would be talking about something, generally something that had happened to one of them at work and my brother and I would be eating.
I would join in. At least, I would try. They would then exchange a look. Its kind of hard to put this look into words but, if you’re an Aspie, and you are reading this, you’re bound to know the look of which I write. If you’re a parent and you are reading this, you will have given it to your children on countless occasions, maybe even without realising it. You may have even given it to your partner too, because after all, Asperger Syndrome has to have come from somewhere.
This, then, was another reason why I chose to (and some days, still choose to) lose myself in the music of David Bowie. He could find the right words and notes to articulate the things that I, myself, could not.
I don’t know if David Bowie was, himself, an Aspie. There is already plenty of discussion elsewhere on the internet, on sites such as www.wrongplanet.net, on this subject.
What I do know, through listening to songs such as Young Americans and Diamond Dogs, is that he, like an Aspie, was very goo at being an outsider and observing and commentating on the behaviours of others. Just listen to the visual pictures he paints on Young Americans. That laid-back wailing saxophone in the opening, almost lays out the path right before you. These are young guys on the make. We see their paths open up right before them. And we want to follow them.
John I’m Only Dancing and Hallo Spaceboy serve (at least, to this writer) as very good examples of behavioural descriptions and analyses set to music. Who, as an Aspie, hasn’t been alone in the school disco, or a club, just like the titular John and desperately wanted to get someone’s attention, only to be rebuffed, ignored, or worse – noticed by the wrong people and made out to be a living joke? Who, as an Aspie, has not felt like the titular Spaceboy, coming down, it would seem, from Mars, observing other human behaviour from the outside, wondering and wishing as to how they, themselves, can join in?
We Aspies are always having to explain our behaviour to others. In the classroom, in the workplace, even in the family home, there always seems to be someone (doesn’t there?) who will pick up on the fact that we are a bit different, to them, no doubt, a bit strange. They may, even secretly, recognise something within ourselves that they can relate to, even thought they would never admit it to themselves. These people may be bullies, or they may be friends or family or colleagues, driven by some desire to help us, or to reach us.
In the worst cases (at least, from my own personal history) we are often having to defend, clarify or justify our behaviours. The same was true for Bowie, too. Everyone else knew how to feel like everyone and he did not.
Growing up, I knew I didn’t fit in. I really wanted to do so, but did not know how to. Many is the time I have had the conversation about trying harder, about daring to be different, about standing out from the crowd and (naively) how wonderful it would be, to dare to be different. A prime example of this would be, when I first went for an Asperger’s diagnosis, the conversation I had with my then-line manager after my first meeting with the doctor. My manager could not see what my problem was, just thought I was lazy and not trying hard enough. Couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. His last comment to me in that conversation – “Off the record, Robert, I want to give you such a f*****g kick up the arse!!”
It was not, then, you may have gathered, the happiest of circumstances. And then, along came Bowie, releasing another Greatest Hits (Best Of Bowie) and the world didn’t seem like such a bad place. What these people don’t realise is that we, as Aspies, are different by default and not by choice.
Like Bowie, all that is around us influences us, we are sponges because everything goes in, whether we want it to or not. I thought about that, walking to work this morning. I had the Young Americans album on and it sounded so smooth, so manufactured.
It struck me then that it, at least on one level, is a very good analogy for being an Aspie. Bowie wanted to make a “plastic soul” record.
A façade, in which he could put on display all he had learned, by rote, about that particular form of music. We, as Aspies, learn mannerisms and moods by rote and have to absorb and process them in ways in which many in the outside world will never understand. This is why icons like Bowie mean so much to us. They show us it is possible to succeed, no matter how life hurts us. I will leave the last word here, then, to the man himself:
Time may change me – but I can’t change time
Amen to that.
ROBERT LAING BIOGRAPHY
Robert discovered he had Asperger’s at the age of 20, quite by chance. His mother had been given Tony Attwood’s first book and recognized within it characteristics and situations similar to these encountered by both Robert and herself as a parent.
Robert has felt moved to write about Asperger’s – both his own experience with it and also the help that is available out there to others – now, because there are more people both being born with it and also being diagnosed with it retrospectively, in later life. He wishes to offer help and advice to others, just as others have done for him.
Aside from Asperger’s Syndrome, Robert also writes for a variety of website and print publications on subjects such as music, books and the local area in which he lives.
Robert has done a considerable amount of research into the average Aspie diet. He is sure that both parent and Aspie alike will find something to relate to in both this and future articles and welcomes feedback from both. He can be contacted for this and other writing matters at [email protected].