You might not believe this, but I woke up this morning thinking of David Bowie. His name was in the news lately since he just had a birthday and a new album, so that might not be the most far fetched thing to be bouncing on my brain, but seeing his name trending on social media before I even got out of bed today put a lump in my throat.
For whatever reason, I had just had Five Years in my head when my eyes started to open. That was the first strictly Bowie tune I ever listened to absolutely deliberately, as in it was on something I bought and didn’t just come on the radio or something like Changes, Space Oddity, Fame, or Let’s Dance, and wasn’t Under Pressure, which isn’t even my favorite song on Queen’s Hot Space, a record I think maybe only I like all the way through.
I was way into Queen. I bought each of their albums on cassette between eighth grade and the end of my sophomore year of high school, and then I had to figure out what to do next with my allowance. I finally got around to buying the Flash Gordon soundtrack, which I saved for last for reasons that are likely pretty obvious.
That summer of 1995 was transformative for me. Everything seems huge and dramatic to a teenager, but there was a definite turning point, and like you’ve heard in a million other stories, it all hinged on a trip to a record store. I had been reading Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, a comprehensive tome that’s still my favorite about youth culture, with a discography in the back that touches on every bit of mid to late 20th century Rock & Roll that ever freaked out a parent. It led me to make three fateful purchases: Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps’ Greatest Hits, The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks…, and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. A lot to take in over one day.
Where Gene and the Pistols tagged my gut, it was Bowie who put the zap on my head. I would in short order consume and memorize Ziggy, and then Aladdin Sane, and then Diamond Dogs. They were almost like literary pursuits compared to all the raw Link Wray and the ilk that I was absorbing at the same time, in an effort to mainline Rockabilly into my system. Although he always denied that his work was really about anything, perhaps as a successful effort to seem unpretentious despite apparently being from outer space or another dimension or something, it was quite clear to me that not only did each of those albums tell a story, but the three of them together tell a larger one. Ziggy Stardust came from space to an Earth that just learned apocalypse loomed and comforted us with -what else?- pop music, Aladdin Sane was somehow responsible for the shit hitting the fan, and then Diamond Dogs was about the aftermath. I can never hear tracks like Rebel Rebel or Panic In Detroit without placing them into that larger song cycle and narrative, as chapters.
Although those three albums ping my nostalgia hardest, I have affection for every incarnation of Bowie. Every pop artist who ever “reinvented” themselves owe a debt. Without him, it’s hard to imagine that “performance art” would be as tolerable a phrase/concept as it is, or that popular musicians could just ditch and create entire personas at with nary a raised eyebrow. All those roads lead back to Bowie. Somehow, he just didn’t seem to be taking himself completely seriously, even when he almost certainly was. Therein lied his charm. It was such a hard thing to ever imagine him doing anything pedestrian; could you see him making and then eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Did he ever in his life ride a bicycle? Sneeze and then blow his nose? Did he carry money in his pocket?
The world is a poorer place without him in it, but was richer for ever having him here. I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that he could ever even die in the first place.