Being huge Bowie fans from early on, one album Keith and I had in permanent rotation (to borrow a phrase from Mark Nowlin) in high school and college was Hunky Dory. There is a tune on that album called Quicksand whose lyrics are a bit hard to parse and easily misunderstood. The chorus goes:
Don’t believe in yourself / Don’t deceive with belief / Knowledge comes with death’s release.
One could read those lines as nothing more than an ironic smackdown of the 1970s “Me” generation — advice deliberately contrary to all the self-help books and refrigerator magnets of the day. But, as most things with Bowie, it goes deeper than irony. Much of that album, as Bowie fans know, was inspired by the works of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who, to quote a trusted resource, “became increasingly preoccupied with the creative powers of the individual to overcome social, cultural, and moral contexts in pursuit of new values and aesthetic health.”
What Bowie meant, in other words, is “don’t believe in the idea of yourself that you get from your society, your culture, your environment.” Don’t deceive yourself with belief that you are only what everyone tells you you are. “I’m a mortal with potential of a Superman,” David sang in that song.
Keith Warnack understood that message. He, like Bowie, Prince and other artists, knew that a person can make his or her own reality–regardless of any external pressures to the contrary. But doing so would never be easy — in fact, it would take incredible strength and courage.
As a teen in the 1970s, Halloween was the one time of year when Keith was allowed to hone the skill of changing his own persona, shaping his own reality. He recruited me at an early age, I think we were 14, in joining his sisters to create our first scary front porch — a tradition that continued on Flagstaff until our junior year in college. Every year it got weirder and more gruesome. We had a guillotine with a headless bride, a seven-foot-tall grim reaper with a scythe, an electric chair, a scary Ben Franklin and a pine coffin — the latter which we took up to East Lansing, where it was recommissioned as a bar for our dorm room, complete with silver candelabra. Every year on that porch, Keith was Master of Ceremonies, dressed persuasively as Frankenstein, Dracula, Hunchback, a murderous Charlie McCarthy, the Invisible Man, a knife victim zombie, and, later in college, the Jolly Green Giant (okay, that one wasn’t so scary).
I followed Keith around in middle school and we made the most terrific friends. The early years were sloe gin fizzes at the roller rink, or Bowie sessions in Nancy Nordstrom’s basement. We were a clique, a Mutual Admiration Society, glam as glam was fading and punk before punk hit hard. We caught Bowie at Olympia, Rocky Horror and Talking Heads at the Punch and Judy, and the Ramones and the Runaways at Masonic Temple. After a night of partying in Canada, we would make sure to steer away from the toll booth of Mr. Vartanian at the Windsor Tunnel, the mean algebra teacher who moonlighted as a border crossing guard.
While I preceded Keith at Michigan State by one semester, he preceded me in studying journalism at Oakland University— continuing in a pursuit we each had started at the high school newspaper and yearbook. It was his love of storytelling, more than any itch to uncover the next Watergate, that drew him to journalism, which he majored in when he transferred to Michigan State. And it was there, in and around the State News and Mary Mayo and Landon Halls, where we found our new clique, our Rock-and-Roll household. Brothers and sisters in arms, united in music and culture. Boy, we were full of ourselves, but if our confidence that we had better taste, or perceived the world through a darker, twisted lens than most, might have seemed overbearing, it was not entirely unfounded.
It wasn’t until near the end of his college years when Keith finally came out (his straight friends had suspected for years; his gay friends, of course, had already known for years). When he was finally able to freely express his sexuality, all of us who loved him said “Thank God. It took long enough.”
And so Keith’s journey truly began, where he took Bowie’s advice to heart and freely reinvented himself over the years. He went to Boston to work with autistic children. He went to Seattle to work at a blood bank. He loved and was loved deeply, deploying his charismatic charm and making dear, lifelong friends everywhere he went. He then met Frank Vogt-Saraber, the true love of his life, and emigrated to Germany, a place where, in his heart and ours, we always knew he really belonged. In the 18 years they were together, including 15 years of marriage, they traveled widely, always looked fabulous and lived well as they built their careers and lives together.
This is how Keith ultimately reinvented himself. He loved his job as a tour guide, including at a concentration camp, where he explained the difficult stories of the Holocaust to tourists. Keith acknowledged how well that job seemed to fit with his macabre side, but he took it seriously and got terrific reviews.
Another thing I loved about Keith was his insistence that every moment could be fascinating, or at least could be improved, if you had the right attitude. He taught me to see everything, even the smallest gesture, comment or incident, through a slightly twisted lens of quirkiness and irony. His talent was to make the mundane and the ordinary into an event. He would turn a typical Friday night in our college dorm room into a spectacular affair, with the music, lighting, candles, decor and friends just right. If, during high school, a camping trip was plagued by mosquitos, he would say “at first they bug you, but then you sort of have to get into it.”
Last summer, during his visit to Michigan, I joined Keith and Frank on an outing to Walmart because they had a list of items that apparently you can’t get in Germany. (Really Frank? Tide stain remover stick and pancake mix? You can’t get that in Germany?) Now, you might think Walmart is the last place any of us would want to go on a beautiful late-summer day. But Keith, true to form, turned it into an adventure. He would pick up an item and tell a funny story about it. He would talk nonstop about Germany, or reminisce about shopping carts, parking lots, old jobs he used to have. He would use Frank as his straight man, me as his audience. This was the Keith of my youth — every moment with him was like this.
As often happens when best childhood friends finish school, Keith and I went off in our own directions. But he was still the one I turned to when I needed a best man for my wedding, or a godfather for Lexi (I did that with eyes wide open, knowing his definition of spirituality was shaped more by the Exorcist and Vincent Price than St. Ephram’s Catholic church, which both our families belonged to but neither actually attended regularly).
I learned a lot from Keith, but also from his family. Mel, Celeste and Karin were the cool sisters I never had. I tried to view the Mills family through their eyes and the only word I could come up with was: boring. When they moved into their new house on Flagstaff, we first knew them as the family that painted their garage robin’s egg blue — and hung oil paintings on the walls. Actually, that’s just how it seemed from down the street. In reality, Della Warnack was a semi-professional flea market and antiques show veteran. Their house, to paraphrase the Addams Family theme song, was a museum, when people came to see ‘em.
This trait rubbed off on all the children, particularly Mel (as evidenced by her dumpsterdiva email address), but also Keith. His love of flea markets continued through his life with Frank in Germany. Back when he smoked, he once told me the reason he did so was because it was the only thing he didn’t enjoy getting secondhand.
We all treasure Keith’s short video tours of Munich, Berlin and other European cities. In 2015, Connie, Lexi, Georgia and I were fortunate to be able to spend a couple of days with him roaming Vienna. He told us then how much he loved Frank and how happy he was to be living in Germany.
I last saw Keith in May, when he and Frank came to visit us in DC. As soon as he exited the Uber, he hugged me and gave me two presents: An enlarged photo of us, taken during his trip to Greece for Lexi’s baptism (using his timer, of course). And a copy of People magazine from Sept. 6, 1976, with Bowie on the cover.
Apparently, it was another thing he didn’t want to get secondhand. He had saved it since when we were kids.
— Mike Mills