Awkward wardrobe is a good place to start if you're trying to explain him to somebody who has never heard of him (indeed an unfortunate uncultured cretin). Well, not awkward, but certainly varied and interesting. In the late Sixties and earliest Seventies were the man-dresses, then the flamboyant jumpsuits and leotards and no eyebrows and kabuki makeup and that rooster-red mullet, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, if you please. Then there was the lean, lean, coked up Thin White Duke, all German and vocal swagger. Then the late years of the Seventies with less image than sound and the Berlin trilogy. Then the ghastly Eighties with the blonde hair...
But what I really like about David Bowie's history and catalogue is that he was a kid who had a dream to be famous and to be true to his art and himself, and he went and made it happen. He was absolutely fearless. No two records sound identical, and many of them are absolutely distinct from the ones before and after them. I love that his body of work isn't perfect. There were a couple of albums that left ya scratching your head, "What-on-earth-was-THAT?", and I think that's to be expected in a career as long and varied. But I didn't know all this at first. All I knew was that "John, I'm Only Dancing" had about the sexiest "Ow!" interjected at the closing of a song that I had ever heard. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VrqCBsbeuc is the disconcerting but fascinating video for it... if you're squeamish about "weird" I'd probably turn up the volume and but not watch the video)
That first summer when Dad gave us his cassette tapes, the one I wanted most of all was ChangesOneBowie, which is his first Best Of collection. I don't think even my parents know how many times I listened to it. For me it was almost a sacred ritual that summer. I would wake up early and slip down to the basement where my dad's drum set quietly snoozed next to a sleek silver portable stereo, and, with headphones in, commune with Bowie for a while before the household got up. It just... Moved me. There is something about his voice, in all its seasons and ages, that captures me.
That was it, then. For months, I had no other serious musical relationships whatsoever. I entertained a few others on the side, yes, but I basically breathed Bowie. Before I started buying CDs my dad literally resurrected his other Bowie tape by transplanting the film into what had been a Judas Priest cartridge, and I will tell you, my dad isn't a surgeon but after that memorable 45 minutes, I'd be pretty comfortable with him in an OR. The first album I bought on CD was, I am pretty sure, Ziggy Stardust.
2003 was a really painful and beautiful time to come into your own as a fan, though: the album Reality came out with a supporting tour that year, and I saw the Phoenix show on 2/5/04. One of the most thrilling nights of my life. He was, it was, beautiful. And then, a few months later, there was the emergency heart surgery, the abrupt end of a critically praised tour, and then, nothing but scraps, whispers, and crumbs, for almost 10 years.
It felt like I had fallen desperately in love with someone who then had to leave. My wonderful new Sailor had shipped out, and I thought he would return in a year or so, as he had always done. Then the letters home became rarer and rarer. People started to use the word "retired". Every year around his birthday we'd hear the music mags nod in his direction and say he's reported to have no interest in returning to the music industry. Through the disappointment, I tried to make myself be happy for him. Good for him, right?
Then, as I think all of us will remember, there came another shot heard around the world. This year for his birthday, he gave us a new single, literally out of the blue as far as all of us were concerned, and there will be a new album accompanying it in 41 days, from the current date, in the US.
I have tried many times to explain my fascination with David Bowie, and even more times to transfer it (oh, you poor kids I used to babysit). I have come to conclude that if you are innately a David Bowie super-fan, you know it right away, and no other artist will do for you exactly what he does for you. I believe you can learn to like him, but unless you have that weird chemical or emotional predisposition, you might never truly ever "get it".
That said, I am not against exposing everybody I meet to Bowie, or my love of Bowie. I plant songs and references like a devoted little Johnny Appleseed, hoping that someday, someone will say, "Who does this song? I really like it."
For your playlist: A-Side
1. "Heroes" (get the original album version, the long one) from the album by the same name
2. "Suffragette City" from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
3. "Modern Love" from Let's Dance
4. "Golden Years" from Station To Station
For your playlist: B-Side
2. "Somebody Up There Likes Me" from Young Americans
3. "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon" from Reality
4. "Fantastic Voyage" from Lodger (which, with Young Americans and Scary Monsters, might be my favorite album)
Check it out on Spotify at Eye on Your Soul: David Bowie
"At a certain age, an artist comes along and really captures you for the rest of your life, and you never let them go, and they can never disappoint you." For me, it's David Bowie. Who is yours?
Up next: a band that knows a little bit about astronomy, zoology, writing postcards, construction, and going insane. Guess who? ;)
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