Three months ago my wife showed me the news that David Bowie had died. We were shocked. After spending a few hours listening to some of our favorite old songs, we walked down to the music store and bought the cd of his final album Blackstar. I had only just heard he had a new album out. Then suddenly, he was gone, and I was listening to his last album of songs. Really, I couldn’t believe what I heard, the whole thing was just too stunning…
I can’t remember when exactly I got my first David Bowie record, but I believe it was back in the latter part of ’81, or by the first part of ’82. I needed something new in a desperate way. I had been through rock (Kiss then Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd), and a period of Christianity, and came out the other side where the chasm was opening and I didn’t have anything to really believe in. And I was alienated, an outsider, getting over a terrible time of my life and adjusting to high school. I was turning fifteen. One day, just a bleak and boring day, when we had time but nothing to do and I yearned but had nothing to believe in, my best friend told me he heard a crazy song he couldn’t get out of his head, about a Major Tom in space floating in a tin can. I just had to hear it, he told me. He had that sly grin like he knew something. We went across the street to Tempo Records and after I had carefully and with much interest studied all the David Bowie albums I purchased ChangesOne, and we went back to my house and listened to it. Wow! Each song was at once surprising and yet somehow familiar. Side one: Space Oddity, John, I’m only Dancing, Changes, Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City, and Jean Genie. Side two: Diamond Dogs, Rebel Rebel, Young Americans, Fame, and Golden Years. It was almost too great to be put on one record! Each song seemed like a hit to me. Side one with acoustic guitar, jazz elements, distorted electric guitar, and a different sonic space then I’d previously heard, sparse, layered but with space, and a sharp metallic kind of quality. Each song on side two rich and delicious, glam, dance, funk, pop… And with his voice! It really gets full and pushing new frequencies on the Young Americans and Station to Station albums during the plastic soul phase represented with Young Americans, Fame, and Golden Years. I couldn’t believe that album. I played it over and over, thrilled at the prospect of finding an artist I really liked. Still, this was a collection of greatest hits. I had to hear a proper album, his latest, to hear if he was making music I could really get into. I got Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) with much anticipation. I was so drawn to the album, and trying to contain my excitement. It was getting dark when I played it the first time, on my parent’s stereo. (I was home alone for a while and there were better speakers there then in my room.) All my hopes were met and more, as it sounded perfectly. I leaped and cried tears of joy that such a great album could be made, and more importantly that I had discovered the amazing artist, singer/songwriter who made it. In the following weeks my friend and I started collecting his back catalog. My next purchases were Low and Heroes, because I was so intrigued by the covers, and those albums blew me away! MTV was fairly new then and it was always exciting to catch a Bowie video, Ashes to Ashes, Fashion, DJ, maybe Look Back in Anger or Heroes. Bowie at this time seemed to have a great sexually subversive feel. He was erotic in his movements, but it was of a kind I had not seen before. He certainly had something about him! The music on the records was primary for me, but his image, how he appeared in photograph and video, was also so important and intriguing. I studied his face in the photographs on the records for hours. I remember being drawn particularly to the image on the ChangesTwo album cover…
Then it was 1983 and Let’s Dance came out and the whole world knew it! I went with a friend to the US festival to see Bowie’s first U.S. performance in some years, and then saw him again on the Serious Moonlight tour at the Forum. He was so cool! Even though he had a big commercial hit and millions of fans, he was still so cool, floating there in rhythm with his golden hair in that golden suit, singing those songs. I have always thought that those fifteen years from 1969 – 1983 of David Bowie’s recording career to be the most amazing of any singer/songwriter’s output in like stretch of time. Going from these really unusual songs through early metal and folk to the crystallization of Ziggy Stardust and the perfect synthesis of rock and theatre with a strange sexuality. And then what always gets me, is at the height of that, he walks away from the Ziggy glam sound and gets into American music with dance and funk, expanding his songwriting and singing, (and getting the great African-American rhythm section of Carlos Alomar, George Murry and Dennis Davis). Then to leave America for Berlin and get experimental, into synthesizers and instrumentals. Then to put it all together in the art rock masterpiece Scary Monsters, and then finally make the breakthrough leap to smash superstar commercial success of Let’s Dance. It’s amazing! Full of variety, wildness, play, and perfect mastery. He knew exactly how to make a good song, but always pushed himself into new areas, following his fascination instead of the routine. He took all these different bits and wove a movement out of them. And always with that voice, which can buzz around you and get inside your skin, before leading to vistas of emotions somehow both basic and different.
Bowie was everywhere then. In films and in influence it seemed of every band I liked. He inspired a legion of musicians, and he pointed to other bands and musicians through association I had to check out, The Velvet Underground, T-Rex, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno… It was clear he had shaped music and culture.
After that with Tonight and Never Let me Down he lost me. I’m the kind of guy whose much more interested in artists coming up, then the ones on top of the world. Bowie delivered me to a place in the mid eighties where there was so many new bands, and I had to try a lot of them out. But David Bowie was always my most favorite, influential, and beloved of all the artists and cultural figures. He gave me something to believe in, and shaped the cultural landscape. He created a bridge from the misfits to the mainstream.
When Outside came out I got it and wrestled with it. It took a while but I finally made myself a cd without the segues and with only my favorite ten songs and I really started to like them. I also got Heathen, Realty, and then The Next Day when it came out. I played them sometimes and appreciated them, but of course I knew nothing would be like that time between ’81 and ‘83 when I fell for him and gobbled up the back catalog, especially Low, Heroes, Lodger, and Scary Monsters, and then saw him on the Serious Moonlight tour in ’83.
But then a few months ago, stunned with his passing and this amazing, final album Blackstar… I can’t put it into words, how completely moving it’s been for me. I am so blown away impressed with Blackstar. I feel that it’s the finest Bowie release to come out in the thirty-four some years I’ve been a fan, and as good or even better than any of the classic old albums I fell in love with when I was fifteen. And that he made it in his last, sixty-ninth, year, while battling and dying from cancer… It’s such a stunning accomplishment. (I can’t remember the last pop/rock album to come out that I was this excited about. It seems like it must be twenty years or something…)
He’s clearly reaffirmed his place in my mind as my favorite all-time artist. I can’t think of any other performer who had those fifteen years and got on top of the world, and then continued to try new things, push himself into new creative areas as to make music like that on Outside or Blackstar. And through all his relentless explorations and efforts he always remained true to himself and to the time. To have that kind of intelligence, experimentation, taste, honesty, commitment, and relevance! He’s become an obsession again for me. Nearly everyday these past few months I’m thinking about him when I wake up and hearing his voice and songs go through my head all day. For me, yes, he is so far above any other artist or cultural figure, creative thinker or performer, as to be a starman. I love David Bowie! I feel so lucky to have grown up listening to him, and for the times I got to see him, and listen to him with others. (and I’m a little sad I didn’t go to the Reality tour when it came around and I had the chance)
Now, lately, I’ve been collecting pictures of David Bowie, in addition to pretty much only listening to David Bowie. And I’m planning a David Bowie themed event coming this August. So, it’s been a wild emotional season for this David Bowie fan. I’m listening to and loving more of his music than ever before, appreciating his voice recorded, grateful for his work, and still absorbing his songs. (I won’t be able to express how much his voice means to me) And I’m still stunned by Blackstar, which I have played many, many times now, and have been so impressed with. It’s added new layers of magnificence on him that’s made the whole thing more awesome and intense and beautiful and crushing. I’ve been in a wave of Bowie, and with all the memories and emotions associated with his songs it can be quite moving! He’ll be so very missed but his work will live and be loved and his influence will continue on and on. And still, I haven’t said at all how much he means to me or how much his work has given me… David Bowie forever!
(portions of this appeared on Facebook in the Church of David Bowie group)