David Bowie’s music, at first glance, was not emotional. He never came across as completely cold and unfeeling, but he didn’t write many love songs or political songs or songs that reeked of the sentimental. What I’ve come to believe is that with each new record, and each new character to accompany that record, Bowie built a new world. The songs on his albums were observational sketches of what life in this world was like, be it the world of Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke, or the slick figure dancing under serious moonlight. And these worlds were so rich and full that spending time in one filled you with feeling, and gave you the emotional experience of a different perspective on existence.
The 1960s were a decade in which so much of what we thought about institutions and the structures of existence was dashed away, or the groundwork was laid for them to be dashed away. I believe our society is still reeling from this upheaval. I also believe Bowie was one of the people who recognized this more than anything and stepped into the void. His message was that if you didn’t like how your school, your church, your government, your elders, whoever or whatever defined you, then you could be yourself. You could create a world. You could set the rules, decide your destiny, and in doing so find fulfillment and happiness. But these worlds were not self-contained…there would be enough in them that other people could recognize and relate to and share in, so while you were living as the person you dreamed you could be, you would also never be alone.
This sounds idealistic. But I think of going to the Museum of Contemporary Art last year to see the David Bowie Is… exhibit and spending two hours tracing his career through one straight line that showed how all of his worlds fit together. And I think of watching Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, a concert documentary for which D.A. Pennebaker only miked the stage, not the audience, so when it cuts to crowd shots we see boys and girls under flickering strobes screaming and sobbing in silent ecstasy as if they have found the most welcoming, reassuring Messiah. And I think of how that famous glam-rock run in the 1970s, when Bowie’s worlds helped redefine for the mass culture what gender and sexuality meant, reached beyond people who wanted and needed to redefine gender and sexuality. Clearly it touched a cis straight white male fresh out of Catholic school like my father, who owned all the early records and sang Bowie songs to me when I was in preschool. Clearly it touched many others like him, because whoever we are and however we think of ourselves, we all share a want to simply be ourselves. Bowie told us, and will always tell us, that self-expression is a necessary and beautiful thing.
It’s hard for me to pick the “best” Bowie record (they’re all so different and my favorite, Station to Station, is an oddity even for this greatest oddity) but I would argue “Heroes” from 1977 is the finest six minutes of his career for this reason: read the Wikipedia article. Now picture this recording session with the man forced to sing louder with every verse and keep that simple, beautiful melody intact. There is no room to think of plans or concepts or commerciality. For these few minutes David Bowie is pure and raw, and he becomes what he tried to teach us to be: simply himself.
Know how I first learned about David Bowie? I mean really decided to seek out his music? I learned of Bowie because of that whole bullshit with “Ice Ice Baby.”
Back in either 5th or 6th grade, my radio station options were limited. I lived in a little Wisconsin village that was in between bigger towns and cities. There was the local country station, there were the nearby oldies stations, and there was the Top 40 station in Green Bay. My hand-me-down boombox came with options for “mono” and “stereo” sound, but didn’t get many stations to test that switch.
Anyway, I remember the Top 40 station joking about the “Ice Ice Baby” / “Under Pressure” kerfuffle. I remember hearing the Bowie & Queen collaboration and realizing that there seemed to be a gap in my music knowledge. I mean, I knew Bowie as the Goblin King from Labyrinth; I vaguely recalled a few songs of his. (Queen, meanwhile, was only “We Will Rock You” to my limited knowledge back then.) The indiscretion of a vanilla flash-in-the-pan made me understand that there was more music among the stars and the earth that I had not yet discovered.
It’s not that I suddenly went on a Bowie kick, or even considered myself a huge fan of his. It’s that, as I was discovering music, Bowie’s influence was always there. He was the concept and the influence behind so much of what formed my love of music. Meat Puppets, Nirvana, TV On The Radio, the whole throughline from proto-punk to alternative — Bowie was a guiding star in the rock firmament. He was so embedded into my cultural, he even showed up in my favorite show. The most powerful villain in The Venture Bros. could be anyone he wanted — and he wanted to be David Bowie.
It was Venture Bros. that lead me to re-discover Bowie’s music. In the episode “Ghosts of the Sargasso,” the series introduces the short-lived character of Major Tom. Remembering that it was based off a Bowie song, I gave “Space Oddity” my first real listen. Holy fuck, that was a discovery.
There are three particular things to talk about Bowie, and they’re culled from moments of my own life.
1) The Discovery
Like most red-blooded Midwesterners of an age, I came to Bowie via the radio, driving around in my car. As a kid, I discovered most good classic rock through my parents (Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, etc.). However, as with any individual, their knowledge and tastes varied from mine, and neither of them seemed much into that weird guy who played dress-up and sang about spacemen.
So, I sought him out on my own. I listened to songs like “Rebel Rebel” on the radio, heard “Under Pressure” under very similar straits to J., and discovered a number of other tracks on classic rock radio (104.7 in Dayton, to be exact). After deciding that this cat seemed all right, I sought out a “Best Of” CD during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college. At that time, I was still spinning about in wild abandon, still trying to discover myself. I was an oddity.
And here was Bowie, singing about weird shit that nobody else sang about and not giving one iota of fucks. To me, Bowie was the freak on the edge of the crowd, much like me. He was forlorn, utterly rejecting Modern Love – and that played all too well for a nineteen year old reeling from the first rejection of my young life by the girl I’d pined after for several years. (Ah, to be nineteen again…) Bowie told me that it was okay to feel that way, that life would go on. Let’s dance.
2) The Romancing
Flash-forward one summer, and I’ve got my head wrapped around my favorite Bowie tracks. I’m living in Bowling Green for a summer, my first real time spent living away from home and worrying about shit like rent and bills. And then I got cast in a show in Toledo with two of my best friends of the time, and I was the one with a car. That meant that we relied a great deal on my music. And I just so happened to have that Bowie CD sitting in my dashboard.
And I learned about the other tracks on the CD. “Golden Years” had escaped my notice before. I didn’t know “Fame” was co-written by John Lennon. Hey, Bowie did a song with Nine Inch Nails that was totally dope. And holy fuck is “Heroes” amazing when you’re doing 90 on I-75 at night with the top of your car roof wide open and the stars are out and you and your friends sing along at the top of your lungs off-key and voices cracking but nobody cares because we are young and we could be heroes just for one day. For Bowie is the voice of eternal youth – he never seemed to age, so immortal and alien was he. He was our hero.
Sidenote: I won an argument with my friend Tyler thanks to David Bowie. He told me one time that, in spite of his varied career, Bowie never really believed in changes. Cue “Changes”. End result – Tyler had nothing left to do but to admit my argumentative superiority. That is one of two arguments I’ve won with Tyler.
3) The End
By now, you all may have seen the new music video for “Lazarus”, released just two days before his death. It’s haunting as any video I’ve ever seen – in terms of context, it’s rivaled only by Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt”.
In the video, Bowie languishes in a hospital bed. He sings “Look at me, I’m in heaven”. He disappears, trembling and ashen, into a black wardrobe, never to emerge again.
His entire career, Bowie performed a character. That lack of identifiable traits helped to bolster the sense that Bowie could not die, that we would never lose him. And, in the end, he knew that this must not be true, that he would die. So, naturally, he performed his death for the world at large. That’s at once the most Bowie thing Bowie could have done, and a terrifying thing to really consider – how often do we get to know about our imminent deaths and then broadcast it from station to station across the world?
There’s one moment to leave you with, and it’s an image of David Bowie, sitting cross legged on the stage at Madison Square Garden at the beginning of the Concert for New York City. 9/11 has just happened. The ruins of the World Trade Center are still smoldering. And here’s Bowie, barefoot and clad in gray, seated before a toy keyboard. He tinkers out a tiny organ-grinder melody. He sings “America” by Simon and Garfunkel, and his voice at once conveys elation and sorrow. It’s the most real I’ve ever seen anyone play any song without resorting to over the top melodramatics. It’s painful…and yet you feel whole again, as though everything can – and will – be right again.
Ziggy played guitar.