By now, most of you will have heard of the passing of David Bowie.
I write this as I sob uncontrollably for the death of a man I never met. But through his music and some other parts of his public persona, he had the single greatest effect on my life, on my spirit, and on my sense of self of any person outside of a very few family members and close friends.
I first fell in love with Bowie at the age of only nine years old, in 1976. I listened to his recently released compilation album, ChangesOneBowie. I was captivated by Space Oddity, and my interest held through several more songs. But it was Suffragette City that really caught my nine-year old heart. I bought the album the very next day. By the time ‘Heroes’ came out, in late 1977, I already had all his albums to date. I didn’t have any idea what to make of Low or of ‘Heroes’ but I would learn, and eventually recognize them for the incredible works of genius they were.
It would be about a decade before I would see him in concert. In 1980, just short of my fourteenth birthday, I did get to see him live as he performed the lead role in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man. My first Broadway show, too. Shortly after, I wrote him a fan letter and he rewarded me with a thank you note and a hand-signed photograph. Needless to say, I was on cloud nine.
By the time Scary Monsters (and Supercreeps) came out, that same year, I had matured enough to recognize the Berlin trilogy (Low, ‘Heroes’ and Lodger, the trilogy Bowie produced with Brian Eno) for what it was. Now, with this new album, I was ready to fully appreciate it. And while video for Ashes to Ashes might look primitive today, in 1980 it was like nothing I had ever seen.
He, more than anyone, inspired me to learn to play music, to love being on a stage, to approach music as art and to feel music deep in my heart. More than that, David Bowie opened my mind to a much larger world than I had been born into. He led me into ideas, philosophies, and thought I doubt I would have otherwise explored. His music and abstract lyrics made me consider the relationship of art to the artist as distinct from the consumer of art, and thus to begin to contemplate perception and how different it is for every individual.
How ironic, then, that after lampooning fashion in the song of the same name on Scary Monsters, Bowie would turn his back on abstraction, on complex, experimental or adventurous music. I supposed at the time that he was entitled to get back to making big bucks and to show the world that he could make better pop drivel than anyone else. But it came with extra baggage and, even worse, it lasted for most of the 1980s.
As with any great love, there were times of tribulation for me with Bowie. His dive into pop vapidity with Let’s Dance, and especially with the execrable and ironically titled Never Let Me Down came to symbolize the 80s for me as a decade when music lost its creativity and even those who, in the previous decade, had reached for the highest star to make music unlike any that had been heard before were now simply printing out the pop moneymakers. Bowie wasn’t alone for me. Many of the progressive rock musicians of the previous decade were doing the same. And I had no delusions about Bowie cashing in on his art. Ziggy Stardust had been a marvelous fusion of art, rock, and marketing. He created a show on and off stage that was at once creative and groundbreaking and also commercial. In different ways, his subsequent records until the Berlin trilogy were that also. An artist is entitled to make as much as he or she can off their art, and no one should begrudge them this. But the three albums in the 80s (Tonight, the second one, was a slight exception, with a bit more adventure on it than the other two, but only a bit) were the same sound a thousand other singers were putting out.
With Never Let Me Down, Bowie bottomed out, with an album that didn’t sell very well, got universally panned and seemed to convince him to finally reinvent himself again. Tin Machine was his foray into being in an actual band. Lead guitar player Reeves Gabrels began a long association with Bowie there and, while the band’s two studio and one live albums were not great, they represented Bowie’s return to creativity. There were some real gems there, like Under the God and Shopping for Girls. The lyrics had a lot more direct social commentary than was usual for Bowie and, best of all, Tin Machine played small clubs, and so I got to see a show where I was literally standing inches from Bowie. By 1994, when he again teamed with Eno for the brilliant 1.Outside, Bowie was back, and never really left again.
But the tribulations for me with Bowie were most acute in sifting through some of his early, quite Nietzchean lyrics and, the most pointed, in the 1980s when he said that his claim of being bisexual was just a ruse or a phase (which he retracted again in his later years). David Bowie’s persona helped me to accept my own sexuality, something I struggled with in my youth, as so many people have. Years later, I published this piece, the only time I ever really published an article about Bowie and which, I am proud to say, has been republished in an anthology of writing by bisexual men. I think if you read it, it will help demonstrate just how much impact and in how many different ways David Bowie affected my life and those of others like me.
Bowie’s artistic journey was unlike any other artist I am aware of in its multi-faceted ways. He was sometimes one to redefine genres that others had already made gold out of, as he did with Young Americans. But he was at his best when breaking new ground, as he did with Eno on Low, ‘Heroes’ and Lodger, three records the critics all hated at the time (as did the public for the most part) and later were recognized for the genius they were.
Bowie left us with a masterpiece in his last album, Blackstar. A fitting summation, apparently from a man who knew he didn’t have much more time. From the time Major Tom first blasted off, Bowie led me and so many of us on an incredible journey. The wonderfully lewd lyrics of Width of a Circle, the oddly delightful Kooks, moving around like tigers on Vaseline in Hang Onto Yourself, the blatant decadence of Cracked Actor, the apocalypticism of the entire Diamond Dogs album, one-upping the Beatles and having John Lennon help him do it with his cover of Across the Universe, through the dark optimism of ‘Heroes’, the lamentation of Warszawa, the imagery of Look Back In Anger, and on and on…A journey that brought great guitar players like Mick Ronson, Earl Slick, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Carlos Alomar, Gabrels and even Stevie Ray Vaughn to audiences who might not otherwise have heard them.
Wherever we go after this, I hope it is a place where David Bowie’s creativity can continue to flourish. Rest in peace, David, and we’ll keep Ziggy, the Thin White Duke, Nathan Adler, the Blackstar preacher and all the other characters and personae alive down here. There are generations for you to still fascinate.