“We Were So Turned On”

I know exactly where I was the first time I heard all the Bowie albums before Scary Monsters and where I watched the Nomi/Bowie performance on Saturday Night Live and where I was introduced to T Rex and Eno, and so much else.

I was in the dorm room of an artist, Jim Sanders, who signed his work Sabbat. I usually called him that.

He was a friend, never a lover. We were perhaps too wise for that (at that age such relationships usually ended in tears), and I, a scrappy ill-groomed half-feral thing, was clearly not his type.

He came from the least likely of places, Centerville, Alabama, a non-place really, but as an Army brat had been around some, in fact being born on a base in France.

He was tall, thin, with a delicate frame, and long slender fingers. In spite of always having a beautiful girlfriend with him, one with an hourglass figure, he caught a lot of hell and insults. Fag was the word of that time, and what could an artistic male with no interest in sports, hunting, and machismo be if not gay? I don’t know how sharply he was stung, but he was who he was, and certainly had no intention of shunning his gay friends or conforming to the dull.

Sabbat was the host. He stood by the turntable and knew just what to play next. By day, his room was what it was: a concrete block tiny barracks with some cloths draped about and quite a few paintings on the wall. By night it was a salon or quasi-opium den, those cloths illuminated by colored bulbs.

People would come and go and there he would stand, presiding at the coolest place those who self-selected themselves would want to be.

Sometimes a stray memory manifests. One year, I was taking a train trip and asked him to make me a cassette of songs, but I didn’t know quite what. It opened with “Station to Station.”

I last saw him in 1983 at my wedding, but we corresponded for a while. He had moved to Columbia, SC., not a full day away from me, but one thing led to the next. We fell out of touch. I used to ask mutual friends what had become of Sabbat, and no one knew.

Then one day in 2012 a stranger called. She had failed to locate family but had found our letters. I’d lived in the same house 20 years, and we kept our phone number when we moved. This was back when there were land lines and directory assistance.

Sabbat had died in 2011, aged 53, after having been sick a long time. He had no health insurance. He died alone, from shock after bleeding out from a burst esophageal varix. He was months past due in rent. His phone service had been cut off, so when he started vomiting blood, he couldn’t call for help. It would not have been painful, but scary, yes. He would have lost consciousness fairly quickly. When his friend told me that he always wore long sleeves even when it was over 100 degrees in Columbia because he itched all the time and left flakes of himself everywhere (pruritus), and that he had started drinking very heavily following one girlfriend’s suicide and another’s cruel departure, it was obvious he had died of advanced cirrhosis.

He wasn’t much of a drinker when I knew him. Different times, different culture.

She put me in touch with his best friend, and there had been some good years. Sabbat taught himself bass guitar, dj’ed at various clubs, worked at a stained glass shop, and loved to cook.  I had organized a reunion of friends to go over and see his work and where the county had buried his ashes, but it fell apart when I got very sick.

It is hard to think of him dying alone of liver disease. Why did he not reach out to me? How did I lose him? I don’t know.

Bowie and Sabbat and those memories of the enchanted days, the true golden years: All of this will never be again.

Post title alludes to “The Bewlay Brothers.

This photo reminds me of Hunky Dory Bowie plus fedora; the second, of Lodger.


The inset featured above is cropped from a much larger print of Sabbat’s, Subtle Passengers.

I call this one Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy in Another Green World.

tiger mt.


3 thoughts on ““We Were So Turned On”

  1. Beautiful words about a painful memory. Thanks for sharing this. I am about the same age he would have been, and knew similar people. We were adventurous, and took risks with our lifestyles, and sometimes they work out and were ‘just a thing we did back then’ and sometimes they fall to terrible luck.

    1. And so it seemed like such a cosmic slap when Bowie, who had been sober twenty years, died of liver cancer. Damage from cirrhosis is in very early stages reversible, and I don’t think he could have done the shows he did before the heart attack with it. But cirrhosis is a risk factor for liver cancer. I was surprised that my friend drank himself to death; we used to look down on the frat boy culture of binge drinking. That is not new; a girl in my dorm died after taking too much Tylenol after too much drinking. But in the real world, drink is what is easily available and legal and socially everpresent. And I’ve seen a lot of damage from it.

  2. thank you for telling of Sabbat (… the ‘day’ put aside for contemplation?); I shall remember that he did paint and he did play music as garnish to life, not just entertainment

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