“News guy wept when he told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.”
(“Five Years,” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)
Less than an hour after I awoke to the news of Davis Bowie’s death from cancer at age 69, I heard a choked-up DJ this morning on one of the classic rock stations in Atlanta talking about her memories of Bowie’s albums coming out in the ’70s.
I was too young to be more than vaguely aware of David Bowie until Let’s Dance came out in 1983, so I can’t even imagine how exciting — nay, anxiety-inducing — it must have been to be a Bowie fan in the ’70s.
I’ve always highly anticipated albums by my favorite artists. But you almost always know what you’re getting. Imagine 35-45 years ago, saving up your $8.98 to buy the LP or 8-track and not even knowing what genre the album would be. Would it be the folk-rock genius of Hunky Dory? The glam pioneer/punk precursor of Ziggy and Aladdin Sane? The Philly soul of Young Americans? The experimental genre-defying compositions of Low, Heroes and Lodger? The only artist of Bowie’s stature I can think of today with the boldness to follow his muse in wholly unexpected directions and assume his audience will follow is Kanye West — but Kanye doesn’t go to Bowie’s extremes.
“Up every evening ’bout half eight or nine
I give my complete attention to a very good friend of mine”
(“TVC15,” from Station to Station, 1976)
As a child of the ’70s who started buying music in the ’80s, Bowie was a visual artist as much as a musical genius. He was a movie star. Every Christmas special replayed his bizarre duet on “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby. And his unshaven-but-clean look on the ubiquitous “coffee generation” commercials seemed to inspire every young adult I knew to grow some Bowie-esque stubble.
Looking through the stacks at Bowie’s album covers was nearly as visceral as hearing the music. The stark cover of Heroes. The brilliant and muted colors that made the covers of Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs and Low so intriguing. What’s he looking at in those pictures? What does he know that we don’t?
Bowie was a painter himself. And an actor. And a fashion icon. But most of all, he was a lad insane — a mad musical scientist of epic vision.
“Watch that man! Oh, honey, watch that man!”
(“Watch That Man,” from Aladdin Sane, 1973)
I almost saw David Bowie once.
In 1987, Bowie’s “Glass Spider” tour came to the Capitol Centre in Landover, Maryland. Back then, pre-Internet and pre-TicketMaster/Live Nation monopoly, if you wanted tickets to a big show, you had to camp out at ticket offices in random places. The closest to me was at Hecht’s department store at Montgomery Mall, in Bethesda, Maryland.
Back then, I often had swim practice at 5:00 a.m., so my parents waking up to find me gone was no cause for alarm. I took advantage of that one morning, and instead of driving to swim a few thousand yards, I drove to hang out in a mall parking deck with dozens — if not hundreds — of strangers.
I don’t remember much about the events of that day except there was some sort of computer glitch, and tickets went on sale very late — so late that I ended up only making it to school for a few classes, and the school called my parents. I remember that I had purchased great seats. And I remember that my parents made me sell them for face value and I was barred from going to the concert.
At the time, I was upset, though I knew I had screwed up. But I figured that Bowie wasn’t even 40, and he’d tour a lot more, and I’d see him sometime.
That never happened.
“Love descends on those defenseless.”
(“Soul Love,” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)
I generally find it pathetic these days how when anyone who has achieved even 15 minutes of fame for any reason is lionized on social media by millions of people who never knew them. Very often, celebrities feel the need to weigh in on other celebrities. And very often, the praise is niche.
But what I’m seeing about Bowie seems heartfelt, and transcends age, race, politics, and all the other differences that seem to be tearing the United States, if not the world in 2016.
It’s a reminder of the importance of great artists, and their unique ability to unite us in appreciation.
David Bowie’s songs and art championed outsiders. Whether he was truly bisexual or not (he’s made conflicting comments over the years), for years he wanted people to think that, and I suspect someone as cool as Bowie helped lead to greater acceptance of people’s differences.
Many of his songs were filled with references to outer space, to isolation, and to death — which he now obviously foreshadowed in the video his final single, Lazarus,which just released.
He will be missed.
“No matter what or who you’ve been.
No matter when or where you’ve seen.
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain.
I’ve had my share. I’ll help you with the pain.
You’re not alone.”
(“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)