|David Bowie in NYC by Jimmy King.|
Last Friday, during a segment on NPR about the release of David Bowie's 25th album Blackstar (issued on his 69th birthday, January 8, 2016)--which I was looking forward to hearing, as I'd absolutely loved his previous record, The Next Day (2013)--the reviewer noted that Bowie's career spanned over 50 years, just a year or two longer than I've been alive. He's been with me and you for all of our lives--so much so that I thought he would live forever.
Groggily listening to a Marketplace segment last Monday morning on NPR about Bowie's past business dealings, I panicked when I thought that I heard at the end of the piece that Bowie had died. How was this possible? He had just released an album a few days ago, I thought to myself, as if that act could fend off one's mortality. I turned on CBS This Morning for confirmation and it was the lead story. Shocked (and with memories in my head of how I learned of John Lennon's assassination the first thing the next morning), I woke up my son (in my defense, he had to get up for school anyway) and broke the terrible news. His almost sobbed response was, "That's horrible!" And he then pulled the blanket over his head. Like I wanted to do to myself.
I can remember being introduced to his music in third grade in 1975. My best friend's older sister loved Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, Pin Ups, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs (as well as Lou Reed's Transformer, produced by Bowie) were always leaning up against their family's stereo cabinet in their living room with the green shag carpeting (because of these records, I'd forever associate rock'n'roll and its progeny with theatricality and reinvention). We'd put on Bowie's albums and listen to them while playing Stratego, Battleship, and Sorry or closely examine the LP sleeves for hints as to what each record and David Bowie were all about. Even at nine years of age, Bowie's glam androgynous look didn't phase me one bit--it was a cool, outrageous part of his act and, no doubt, helped shape my tendency to be tolerant and accepting of people's difference.
In high school, Bowie came back into view in the early days of MTV (which I had to catch at my friend Johnny's house in Inwood, in upper Manhattan, since we didn't have MTV yet in Yonkers) with the extraordinary "Ashes to Ashes" video (with that bulldozer on the beach looming over Bowie done up as Pagliacci), his collaboration with Queen on "Under Pressure," and the "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" duet with Bing Crosby shown around Christmastime. And then there was the massive Let's Dance album, which completely dominated radio and MTV during the summer of 1983 with three enormous, inescapable hit singles: "Let's Dance," "Modern Love," and "China Girl." (Like the Pat Benatar girl in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," there was a girl at my school who styled herself after Bowie and always wore the same gaucho hat as he did in this photo.) I played tracks off Let's Dance at the parties we held at friend's houses in Yonkers and Riverdale, and soon picked up the ChangesOneBowie and ChangesTwoBowie compilations on vinyl, which I copied onto cassette to play on my Sony Walkman to keep me going when I'd go for night-time runs up and down Rumsey Road (side two of ChangesOneBowie really helped me keep my up pace as I tried to stay in shape for cross country and track). Right after college, Rykodisc reissued Bowie's back catalogue on CD (with loads of bonus tracks), which I delved into deeply, discovering all sorts of amazing cuts that I never caught/knew about the first time around (like the Velvet Underground-appropriating "Queen Bitch").
Of course, Bowie greatly influenced countless musicians who would go on to make the new wave/post-punk era (my absolute favorite period in the history of music!) so completely fantastic. In the first half of the '80s, Bowie's songs from the '70s--god, there were so many good ones like "Golden Years," "DJ," "Hang On To Yourself," "Rebel Rebel," "Aladdin Sane," "Sound and Vision," "Heroes," and so many more!--fit in almost seamlessly with the new wave soundtrack running through my head, playing on WLIR, and spinning on my turntable. Sub-genres like goth, synthpop, and the New Romantics simply would not have existed without Bowie and his constant musical experimentation in the 1970s. Don't believe me? Check out musicians as varied as Ian McCullough, Paul Weller, Gary Numan, Vince Clark, Nick Rhodes, Jim Kerr, Andy McCluskey, Billy Bragg, Holly Johnson, and more noting their fave Bowie albums and acknowledging his influence on them and their music.
I've spent a great portion of the last two days reading about Bowie (and always learning new things!), listening to songs from throughout his astonishing career, and even seeing some of his music videos for the first time ("Loving the Alien," "Blue Jean," and "Jump They Say"), which were always fantastically inventive and compelling. In a way, it's honoring his work and life, but also processing my memories of how his music was entwined with the momentous and banal moments of our lives--and mourning that there will be no more of it to come.
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Watch the incredible video for David Bowie's "Lazarus," which is his last gift to us.
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David Bowie's New York Times obituary
David Bowie's Guardian obituary
Read critical, track-by-track commentary on every one of Bowie's songs at Pushing Ahead of the Dame.
Read "Listening to David Bowie" at the New York Times.
Read Trouser Press' entry on David Bowie.
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