In an important way, Bowie isn’t really dead.
I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s music for more than 40 years, I didn’t think of the arc of his work when I heard he died. Nor did I think exclusively about the great music he made during those years. I also reminisced about specific times and specific people.
The first person I thought of was a girlfriend who was the first Bowie fan I knew. I remember her telling me how her mother gave her hell for playing the song “Rebel Rebel” from Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album too loudly. It seems her mother didn’t see any redeeming social values in lines like “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” or “Hot tramp, I love you so.”
This girl dressed like Lady Stardust, especially when it came to the outrageous platform shoes and androgynous hairstyles that were so popular in the early ’70s. We attended the same college, and in the summer of ’74, I was working at a job that required me to become a member of the United Steelworkers union. I had long hair at the time, and to a lot of those older, blue-collar workers, long hair was an invitation to either tell me I looked like a girl or call me a faggot. That summer, I went to visit this girl (she lived in a Buffalo suburb), and we were walking through a now-nonexistent mall when one of my Steelworker tormentors saw us. My girlfriend’s appearance was a mix of glitter, a sexy Ziggy Stardust-esque hairdo, hot pants, long legs and platform shoes. The Steelworker was astonished to see me with a striking woman; I could see it in the look on his face—the bulging eyes, the dropped jaw. He never gave me any guff again.
Alas, I dropped out of college and the girl dropped me like I was radioactive, so I slunk around my hometown for a couple of years working in the deadest of dead-end jobs. A friend turned me on to Bowie’s Hunky Dory, which I found to be a better album than The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which I had bought to impress the suburb girl. I got hold of an 8-track tape (remember: early ’70s) and got together with her to give her the tape. It was a morose get-together, and I never heard from her again.
Back to Hunky Dory: Rick Wakeman (piano) and Mick Ronson (guitar) carried the music, resulting in especially great songs: “Queen Bitch,” “Song for Bob Dylan,” “Life on Mars,” “Quicksand” and “Andy Warhol,” among others. Those songs got me through that tough time of crappy jobs, too much drugs and alcohol, and too little female companionship. When I’d get really down, I’d listen to “The Bewlay Brothers” over and over, if for no other reason than to remember that someone else was living in strange days, just as I was.
So did another Bowie record at that time: Station to Station. It had longer songs than Hunky Dory, and some of them are real standouts: the title track, as well as “Stay” and “Wild is the Wind.” The instrumental side was carried by the killer guitar duo of Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar. (For you music buffs: Slick played all the leads; Alomar was strictly rhythm.)
The third Bowie album that knocked me out—and like the others, it still does—is Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) from 1980. Robert Fripp’s air-raid-siren guitar gives the record an on-edge feel throughout, and the record features guest spots by Roy Bittan and Pete Townshend. “It’s No Game” is among the best album-opening songs ever and immediately establishes the flavor of the album. It verges on chaos and is steeped in anxiety—in fact, almost an existential dread. I love it—and the song “Ashes to Ashes,” about Bowie hero Major Time having become a junkie, still makes the hairs on my arms stand up. The video from the song was the first music video I ever saw, and in the few years I watched MTV, I never saw another song/video pairing that was nearly as effective.
The fourth person I think of related to Bowie’s music is my wife. When we met, I turned her on to three artists she’d never heard before: Bruce Springsteen, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (an act I’d seen open for the Kinks), and Roxy Music. She loved it all. This was significant. Shortly later, she gave me Bowie’s Low for my birthday. This was even more significant. It didn’t take much more for me to realize she was the girl for me.
As is the case with Jimi, Stevie Ray Vaughan and so many others, Bowie’s music will endure. In an important way, he’s not dead. Maybe it’s because Bowie’s integrity as an artist never was in question (at least as far as I know). Sure, sometimes his work wasn’t terribly appealing, but you can’t hit home runs every time at bat. Besides, so much of what appeals musically is strictly personal, so what I didn’t care for (I thought The Next Day was overrated, for example) might be thought of as genius work by someone else. In any case, I always thought his music was well-crafted, thoughtful and provoking, the kind of art that, decades after I started listening to it, always brought back strong memories of when the music and my life were much newer.