Bowie In Berkeley

In my last post I gave my little tribute to David Bowie.  Now I want to drop him in Berkeley and see how he’d fare.

I spend a lot of time (maybe too much time) thinking about how to navigate academia and how to grow continuously and in ways that frighten me.  Of course Bowie would do just fine in Berkeley, with his weirdness being exalted, but what I’m curious about is to see how his way of living would survive academia.  I want to see how his forceful soul would brave the culture of academia and how I can channel it as I go forward.

In my tribute, I singled out Bowie’s courage as the aspect that I admire most and hope to learn the most from.  Oh, that courage.  To consistently reinvent himself and his sounds into something unknown and bizarre, leaving behind the well-trod and proven success he could have clung to.  This notion of reinvention terrifies and excites me greatly.  And inspires me.  It is a courage that I know will pump courage into me as I trek through academia.

In a well-circulated talk, Dick Hamming has similar views on self-reinvention: “Somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field… When you go to a new field, you have to start over as a baby. You are no longer the big mukity muk and you can start back there and you can start planting those acorns which will become the giant oaks.”

Start over as a baby.  How terrifying!  After all the clout and momentum you built up.  Just to jump into a possible failure.  This is the courage I admire so much in Bowie.  And to see him succeed with such humanity in his leaps!  This is the Bowie I need to channel through me as fear coos to me under the guise of practicality or convention or exhaustion or contentment.

But, besides sheer courage, Bowie also had some practical ways that would have come in handy in academic Berkeley.  Creativity and productivity are evasive critters, scurrying in our chests, teasing the heart.  Discipline is a necessary stimulant, and techniques are needed to coerce these critters to play within the heart.  And Bowie had some techniques up his sleeve:

“Writing a song for me always felt…it never rang true.  I had no problem writing something for Iggy Pop or working with Lou Reed…I can get into their mood and what they want to do.  But I find it extremely hard to write for me.  So I found it quite easy to write for the artists that I would create.  I did find it much easier, having created the Ziggy [Stardust], to then write for him…even though it’s me doing it.”

I’ve heard it said that Walt Disney had three different personalities: “the dreamer, the realist, and the spoiler.  You never knew which one was coming to your meeting.”  Like Bowie, Disney compartmentalized his creativity into different personas that were each a breadcrumb, leading those manic critters of creativity and productivity to the heart to rage within.

Academia overwhelms me.  Often.  The sheer amount of things that could be (should be!) learned and the myriad of creative directions to go for.  Each of them is paralyzing.  Forcing myself to work on a specific thing  at given times has been an informal technique I’ve adopted to spur some productivity or creativity.  Because it is extremely hard to choose what would be good for me or worthwhile.  So creating personas and interests is something that excels in academia.  Disney’s success was through his juggling of his personas and Bowie brought to life fantastical Starmen brimming with creativity even when he may have felt devoid of creativity for himself.

I’ve tried to create (though have yet to implement) some personas of my own to juggle and I’m curious to see how Bowie’s lead will influence them in the future.

  • The Dreamer
  • The Worker
  • The Pedant
  • The Landscaper

Although less flashy than Bowie’s personas, hopefully one of them is a Starman…

As a slight digression, there is something that Bowie, in his death, has captured that I never expected to really see:

In the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, a young Cash is trying to record his first record when the producer stops him in the middle of a dime-a-dozen Gospel song Cash is singing.  He says to Cash “If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing?… Or… would you sing somethin’ different.  Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”  Johnny Cash then sings Folsom Prison Blues.

You don’t come across many artists or songs that can fit that description.  I’ve actually classified artists by those that overflow with enough humanity and beauty to fit that description for a long while now, and songs that feel like they could be that “one song” remain among my favorites and most human.  David Bowie has been doing this his whole career.  Hell, his first hit was one of these!  But now he actually did this.

His final album, Black Star, was actually done with the knowledge that he was dying and that this would be his last album.  Voltaire said “God is a comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.”  Bowie did more than laugh.  He sang, he wailed, he posed and pouted, he created, he danced.  He screamed while he burned.  And he burned through this world on a space-path with a fervor and hunger.  And I’m looking forward to see how the exuding humanity of his last album “truly saves people.”

Humanity!  As much as this was a digression, I can only hope to have as much humanity in my life and to have the courage to let that into my academic scramble.

So, I’m sure there’s much to learn from Bowie in Berkeley.  His courage and creative techniques and humanity, his ambition and fear and lust for life.  This last week of winter break I plan to become the Landscaper to map out the terrain to explore for this upcoming semester, and I hope to channel at least a polynomial fraction of Bowie as I learn these new personas and what courage they have.

So, David, you’re stuck here in Berkeley so long as I’m here and have humanity left in me.  I’ll need all the courage I can get, so let’s turn on and be not alone.

This entry was posted in Grad School, Humanity, News, Survival Tips and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Bowie In Berkeley

  1. Molly McAlister says:

    Hey Manuel – interesting read. I have been writing music in my haphazard fashion off and on for a long time, and I have yet to write for anyone else, or *as* anyone else. I might have to try that method and see what happens 🙂

    I can’t wait to hear about how you do with your multiple personalities of mathematician-ness. Best of luck to you in your academic whirlwind. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.


  2. Scott Farrand says:


    I recall many years ago when the thing that struck me so strongly about Bowie was the level of innovation in his music. It seemed so different and so creative. I heard him interviewed on a talk show, and the interviewer made the same point. Bowie demurred. His perspective was that he borrows from everyone, and doesn’t feel innovative. What a stark contrast he created between how I perceive his work and how he perceives his process.

    I wonder whether there’s a parallel to academic life in Berkeley there too. Can paying lots of careful attention to the work of others and putting all of that into your own work result in research that appears especially innovative?


    • Manuel Sabin says:

      Whether Bowie was being humble there or actually felt like an impostor, there’s DEFINITELY the parallel impostor syndrome that runs rampant in Berkeley (and academia in general).

      As for whether it actually is innovative and creative to borrow from others, I think it is. Theoretical CS (probably because it’s so young) has a pretty well-known toolbox with many of the same tools and techniques beings used everywhere. But some of the most creative-seeming papers to me are the landscape-y ones that recapitulate a bunch of already stated ideas with a bunch of already known techniques but that say something insightful and culminate things to a new direction. It seems most of creativity is just finding the right way to string together all the tools and ideas that are already out there.

      Although it always seems “obvious in retrospect to some degree and that you just borrowed ideas and then comes trudging impostor syndrome : P


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