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David Bowie, BC Place Stadium, Vancouver BC, Serious Moonlight Tour, August 9, 1983. Photo by Bev Davies
For 40 years I have read that “music can’t change the world” and maybe that’s so, not on a macro level. But it sure changed mine. It began the day my friend David Stein insisted I borrow his copy of Changes One best-of by David Bowie, circa 1977/1978, against my protestations. I am bummed about Bowie’s death. He looked so fit and healthy all the time, I just figured he would make it to 85-90-100. He just seemed immortal to me, even when I first became a fan. I guess he actually is. The idea of him, and music as art attack, still lives in me and millions who also just plain loved the songs, too.
Even with his frustrating absence in the late ’90s and the aughts, his presence (dormant as it may have been) was still comforting. For me it was never completely about his gender-bending tactics, the artful live performances, masterstrokes like Hunky Dory, or even the myriad of daring, stylistic departures and innovations he revealed to an unsuspecting world. Quite simply David Bowie was the embodiment of integrity in the ever increasingly safe and compromising eras of “rock” and “pop” he ascended in. And so that unwavering and transcendent integrity shall remain.
I was born in 1981. The first VHS I asked my parents to rent was Labryinth. My first favorite band was Queen. I was 11 when Freddie died and they had the Concert for Life at Wembley that year. I taped it and watched David’s performance over and over again. He sang “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox, “All the Young Dudes” with Ian Hunter, and “Heroes” with the surviving members of Queen. Those three songs defined my adult life. Nothing that came after matched what I heard that day, until the day he died. When he finished that set, he offered the Lord’s Prayer for everyone that had lost a friend to Freddie’s disease. I don’t know why, but I immediately thought of that today. It’s all I could think of, and I cried helplessly.
I first heard the news this morning. A good friend sent me several texts, one of which said “Dude” immediately followed by “Bowie. “ Though he had just put out a fantastic new album several days ago, I knew what this meant immediately and texted back “say it ain’t so.” Sadly, it is indeed so. To say that this is an unexpected shock is definitely an understatement, though the clues are there all over his new album blackstar and the video for “Lazarus.”
Regardless, I would rather celebrate his life and his records rather than dwell upon the circumstances of his death. Unlike a few good friends, Bowie wasn’t my gateway into the world of underground and alternative music. I first knowingly heard him via a mixtape I got when I was 15 that had “Rebel Rebel” on it. I loved that song, a paean to teenage lust and rebellion, and still do, but it would take me a few years to buy a copy of one of his records (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars). I liked it, but for years it was the only Bowie record I had. Still, I was well aware of his influence on a lot of the music that I love and at that point I already had other records in my collection that he was directly involved with, Iggy and the Stooges‘ Raw Power being a noteworthy favorite of mine. Bauhaus‘ cover of “Ziggy Stardust” is also a big favorite of mine and those are just several examples. Thus, at some point in my early 20s, I bought the 2 CD Singles 1969-1993 set and that’s when I really “got” Bowie. I bought as many of his albums as I could find shortly after that and though I still have a few holes in my collection, I’ve assembled and/or heard a good chunk of his recorded work. In college, I even did a term paper in one of my Expository Writing classes comparing his glam period to the then burgeoning “queercore” groups like Pansy Division.
I never did see him play live as the one show I had a ticket for (2000 at Roseland) was canceled and now I regret it, of course. Still, I liked much of his recent work and I’m particularly glad he went out on such a great note artistically. I do think that blackstar is his finest work in quite some time.
What I haven’t seen discussed nearly as much is the impact that his loss will have on his family, particularly his 15 year old daughter. I can’t imagine what I would think if I’d lost a parent at that young of an age and so my sympathies go out to her and to the rest of his family as well. RIP David Bowie.
I was born at the very end of 1987, so I had to discover Bowie almost entirely retroactively. To be honest, I only started digging into his discography a few years ago, when I was assigned to review the 40th Anniversary reissue of his most famous record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I was instantly taken aback by its raw vigor, narrative scope, seductive flair, balance of poignant and provocative songwriting, and overarching eccentricity. It still reigns as both a quintessential concept album and one of the strongest examples of ‘70s [proto] glam rock. Like with many fans, it was my introduction to one of the most iconic, idiosyncratic, and important musicians of the last sixty years.
While Ziggy Stardust may have been the true catalyst for Bowie’s transition into an international chameleonic superstar (as well as his penchant for alter-egos, which he’d continue with Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs), he was always an uncompromising visionary. Be it the charming ‘60s elegance of Space Oddity, the experimentation of The Man Who Sold the World, or the astounding diversity and consistency of Hunky Dory, Bowie was never content to simply mirror what was going on around him. Instead, he had to innovate and change with each new effort. We could (and probably will in the coming weeks) talk ad nauseam about how crucial David Bowie was not just in the realm of rock music (and other genres, since he switched up his sound about as often as his appearance), but in terms of what genuine artistry entails. Aside from The Beatles, arguably no other person impacted the music and style of his or her generation as much as David Bowie. (Of course, he lasted far longer than The Beatles, so his legacy isn’t tied to one decade.)
Although his new paths weren’t always equally enjoyable, the fact that he spent roughly forty-five years reinventing himself is astounding. I mean, who else has done that?
In a time when the music industry (and its “artists”) prefer emulation and redundancy over earnest experimentation and uniqueness, we can look back at David Bowie as representing something special about what it meant to be a musician. It meant taking your audience to unexpected places and challenging them (and hey, if they didn’t want to follow along, it was their loss, not yours); it meant the constant search for pushing boundaries instead of playing it safe and repeating yourself; and most of all, it meant having the integrity to follow your vision only and comprise for no one. As clichéd as it is to say, David Bowie was one-of-a-kind, and while his sounds and looks paved the way for countless artists since, no one will ever match his legacy.
I’m not going to take a lot of time telling you what you already know. I’d like to share what I found most admirable about David Bowie, and how I could tell what sort of person he was.
Listening to music obsessively now for most of my life, there are three artists who spring to mind when I think about who is tops in not only enriching my life with music, but also leading me culturally down paths that otherwise I might have missed. Joe Strummer & the Clash were very important to me for this reason musically. Not only did they invite heroes of theirs to support them on countless tours and shows, they recorded a bevy of cover songs that made me aware of other records to check out. See Bo Diddley, Gregory Isaacs, Lee Perry, Bobby Fuller Four, Professor Longhair, Junior Murvin, Grandmaster Flash, and so on.
Secondly, Lou Reed not only opened my eyes to a whole world of art & counterculture with his Warhol connection, he also spoke of, and took inspiration from great literature to inspire himself and others. These included Nelson Algren‘s A Walk On The Wild Side, anything by Hubert Selby Jr., and Delmore Schwartz.
And lastly there’s David Bowie. David Bowie was the first person to cover a Velvet Underground song. Far away in 1966 London, at the age of 19, Bowie was able to discover (with some help from his manager at the time) The Fugs & The Velvets. He was hooked immediately. And then, of course, there’s his well documented work with Iggy Pop (both with the Stooges & solo). What other rock star would go out on tour as a keyboard player – just part of the band? (This is documented on Iggy’s album, 1978’s TV Eye Live). Later on I was somehow able to find out he was a fan of obscure artists like The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
David Bowie was interested in art. He was interested in soul. I’m sure he enjoyed selling records as much as the next musician, but this is not what drove him. If only for that (and its much more than that), he has my undying devotion & respect. I know I wasn’t the only person paying attention.
I half-remember a Keith Richards interview with the Rolling Stones guitarist telling some young journalist, somewhat condescendingly, “My boy, for you, there have always been the moon, the stars and the Stones.” David Bowie was like that for me. I became acutely aware of pop music in 1978. By then, Bowie was already a major figure and had released Heroes, his twelfth album. I was fascinated by his radio singles, and still age gloriously backward when my cover band rips into “The Jean Genie.” Eventually, I indulged and adored his deeper cuts and experimental fare. Bowie’s musical scope was so broad, from very British pop to glam to mainstream rock to cutting edge sounds surfing new fascinations as they were vital, rather than reacting to them well afterward (Low obviously, but even Earthling). Even Bowie’s so-called desert period was loaded with gems. Are Tonight and Never Let Me Down justifiably maligned? Not here. “Loving the Alien” and “Neighborhood Threat” are perpetual, personal favorites alongside “Watch that Man” and “Life on Mars?” Some moods demand “Time Will Crawl” and “Bang Bang” in rotation with “Rebel Rebel,” “Suffragette City” and “Space Oddity.” Those Tin Machine albums? Love ‘em. Reeves Gabrels‘ acrobatic, mangled guitar sonics were counterpoint to Bowie’s assured croon and his bluesiest shouting on “Heaven’s in Here” and the abrasive but invigorating stadium rock of “Under the God.” My first time seeing Bowie perform, however, wasn’t until 1995’s Outside. My favorite concert moment was on 2003’s Reality tour at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, watching from a rafter seat. Bowie emerged for an encore of “Bring Me the Disco King,” essentially a duet between his tremulous baritone and the elegant, assured piano of Mike Garson, underscored by a skittering loop of tango drums. Bowie prowled a catwalk behind and beside the stage, singing in a theatrically embattled voice about the past, aging, death and the relevance of a single life. It was incongruously electrifying, and spooky-scary as hell. It gave me the shivers and stood my hair on end. I get an echo of that feeling, just thinking about it now. Bowie breathed a knowing resignation and mortality into the lyrics, like a heartsick torch singer in a long-ago nightclub. “You promised me the ending would be clear. You’d let me know when the time was now. Don’t let me know when you’re opening the door. Stab me in the dark, let me disappear.” One hates to think that Bowie, like so many of our loved ones, lived that experience more closely than he deserved while secretly battling cancer. Keeping that private struggle may have fueled an urgency in producing an excellent final album. Or not. Maybe Blackstar is just the incremental work of a great, rejuvenated artist. I had been enjoying the album immensely on its own merits, but now it assumes added significance as a parting statement. I anticipated more to come from a constant, lifelong hero, now off to join the stars that look so much different today. Sail on, Sailor.
One of the few high points in an otherwise miserable adolescence was finding Bowie’s early albums tucked away in my mom’s LP collection. As a teen, I read every book I could find about The Sex Pistols and punk rock in general, and every single one cited Bowie as an influence on all those involved. Ziggy Stardust still floors me to this day: brilliant lyrics and Mick Ronson‘s chunky guitar tone! Years later, when I finally got to hear his original mix of my favorite album, Iggy & the Stooges’ Raw Power, remastered the way it was meant to sound, I realized his version was indeed superior to all others. Even with the severe limitations of the band’s master recordings, he managed to produce a triangular effect that draws you into the darkness. I didn’t like everything he did — still can’t get through Young Americans — but his collaborations with Iggy, Lou Reed, Eno and a good number of his own albums still rank among the best albums I own. I’ll miss his presence — just knowing he was there was enough — but now he is truly immortal. We were lucky to have him around for a while.
I think about my first experience with a David Bowie song all the time, especially today. I went to middle school with a boy named Adam Dehmohseni whose unbridled flamboyancy outed him before he was even ready say the words to his peers. As a gay man, I deeply struggled with accepting myself during middle school and high school, but Adam and Bowie helped me. I will never forget the moment I saw Adam swinging his hips and mouthing the words to “Golden Years” one day at lunch. It was the first time I heard the song, but more importantly, it was the first time I realized being queer was actually a strength, not something to be dealt with and forgotten about. David Bowie is one of those people that it just seems wrong for the world to be without.
To be honest, I was never a big David Bowie fan. Not in the sense that I disliked him; to me, I simply didn’t have need for a David Bowie. His influence on music was so great and undeniable, that I looked on his records with awe and respect, yet with the knowledge that without them, the music I was into wouldn’t have been possible. He innovated, even if he no longer felt innovative to the times. So I was content with a Greatest Hits and the occasional foray into his albums — of which i was most enthralled by his Berlin trilogy, and its successor, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Those three albums are amazing, with their Christ-in-the-Wilderness feel — a superstar forsaking the industry, making the albums he wanted to make, not giving a damn about whether or not they were “commercial,” and then coming out of that exile with a lavish, over-the-top pop record that was both a return to form and a wonderfully innovative album of fresh, new sounds.
His passing comes at an interesting time for me; today marks the fifteenth anniversary of my first foray into online music journal writing. In 2001, my journalism career started with the announcement of a death: the passing of Gaunt frontman Jerry Wick. When I woke up this morning, I did so with the intent of writing a reflective essay upon the beginning of my online career, and my thoughts over the changes of the past decade and a half. Before I started writing, I made the mistake of going on social media. Those thoughts have not been put to paper; indeed, I simply posted a photo of Bowie in Sphinx regalia with the note, “Nothing else is of importance today.” I still haven’t written that essay — and truthfully, I’m not sure I will.
Like many of you, my feed was entirely taken over by posts about Bowie. No exaggeration: aside from sponsored ads, there were no non-Bowie posts on my Facebook feed. None. Many of these posts were written by those deeply and profoundly affected by his death, but I would dare say that just as many were by people like me: non-fans but non-critics, either; stunned at the passing of a man whose greatness cannot and will never be denied. I’ve read a handful of posts about interactions with Bowie — some shared publicly, others shared amongst the gated FB community — beautiful stories that are not mine to tell, but paint the picture of a truly great man — nay, a rock star GOD — who fell to Earth, who wasn’t afraid to walk among us and to share his creative vision with the world.
Everyone has a story about David Bowie and what his music meant to them. The man was so influential and so immersed in our culture of art, music, film, and fashion that his iconic status seemed to assure he would live forever. I am one of those peripheral fans in that I never collected anything beyond Ziggy Stardust and Pinups. But I remember hearing bands cover “Suffragette City” and loving that song. Today, it’s his Ziggy album that resonates with me. He will always be Starman, which is fitting since he often explored science fiction themes through his music. Bowie is immortalized through his music that he brought to all of us, and we will never forget him or the impact he had on many of our favorite musicians. RIP Starman!
“Are you kidding? Bowie recording here? Right here?”
My friend Turi and I stood in the wreckage that was once Le Studio Morin Heights, the spectral and hushed wooden remains to a decadence of music from the 70s and 80s. A sprawling Roger Dean inspired coke palace of excess, now with pools of still water rotting the molding carpet.
“Yeah he even came into the corner store when I was like, ten.”
I thought this was a true memory, maybe it was someone else’s memory in town. He must have needed smokes. There was only one store in 1984, Vaillancourt’s. You’d think he would have sent a minion down the 329 to buy smokes or whatever. He’d be ensconced in the sprawling studio residences wrestling with relevancy, heaped in by snow and inner wanderings.
Oddly, the grand piano was still in the building, and the pool table. A full grand Yamaha piano, been there since the 70s. Everything down to the sound baffles had been torn out and the building itself abandoned by failed developers. Not the piano. Turi pulled the cover off and filled the empty with the chords of Ziggy Stardust. The piano was out of tune, dissonant and beautiful.
I ate my bowl of amaranth flakes studiously while my younger sisters watched Labyrinth for the third time that day.
High school was turning out to be a churning mass of stress and violence.
We all were quietly also tensed, listening for the crunch of the Tercel up the long dirt driveway.
I mouthed the words along silently while my sisters were rapt.
you remind me of the babe
bottle tokes on a water bed.
tempting fate, 15 and endless. the world reduced, untravelled, everything big everything.
hash tokes and space travel
the sweeping part in Space Odyssey
when it settles into consonance finally
like your teenage self shot through sky, sunburned and beautiful
honest and bloody
tripping balls on your rooftop at night in summer
one of my regrets
telling her i didn’t like tin machine
making her change the tape
with all the tyranny of teenhood
but cowboy junkies went ok
and we fucked beautifully
In the one shitty bar in town
that collapsed a few years ago under neglected snow and few cared
there someone could dance at least
fuck the isolation and brutal hardening off you have to do
poor drunk and country
but dancing on the table
drunk to Rebel Rebel
I was talking to my mom on facebook today about trying to get my 89 year old grandmother to try a pot cookie for her arthritis pain.
You’d have to be there of course, I said
Yes, of course. she replied
You know about David Bowie?
It’s sad, you know he was a favorite of your dad and mine. We used to play him a lot at parties at our apartment in Montreal.
That’s cool mom, ya it’s totally sad.
Ok love you, call your grandmother.
Love you too.
For me, Bowie was just incredibly precise. More than any other rock n’ roll artist, he had a surgical precision in both his approach and execution. What hits hardest for me is the instrumental work found on Low and Heroes. Works like “Art Decade,” “Weeping Wall,” “Subterraneans,” “V-2 Schneider,” “Moss Garden,“and “Warszawa,” single-handedly introduced me to krautrock and ambient music. The Side B of Heroes and Low remain a source of wonder and inspiration.
I learned to play “Suffragette City” soon after getting my first guitar. I could barely form a bar chord at the time but was naive enough to start a band with my friends. That song became a setlist staple in those formative years. At every show (mostly keg-powered basement parties) we would invite various friends up to the mic for the “hey man” gang vocals. It was a real crowd pleaser. I sang lead by default, since nobody else in the band wanted the job and I was told I had the ego to handle it. Even with the big ego I was terrified at first because I had never done it before. But belting out Bowie really boosted my confidence. It was easy to sing and sounded really good. I took on a different persona when I sang it. My tone changed, and I had a swagger in my stance that wasn’t there for the other songs. I acted out the lyrics even when I didn’t really understand what I was singing about. “Queen Bitch” is my go-to Bowie cover now, and it gives me that same feeling- like I’m a (cracked) actor performing a part. So many of his songs are like that. Cinematic, universal, and eminently hummable. Thank you David Bowie.
I hadn’t even heard “Changes” when I saw The Breakfast Club for the first time, but his words spoke to my ten-year-old self. I was one of the children they were spitting on. As I grew, I fell in love with that song and so many others (not to mention the music of his acolytes, from Suede and Bauhaus to Psychedelic Furs and Echo and The Bunnymen). “Life On Mars,” and “Panic in Detroit,” to “Modern Love” and his take on Iggy’s “China Girl,” the man’s music is smeared in rouge across my heart.
He was an Aquarius rising like me. The only time I ever saw him live was at some godawful radio station festival in San Francisco. Everclear played. Bowie was touring Earthling and wore an ankle length Union Jack coat. But “Little Wonder” was a pretty good song, and it was thrilling to share the room’s air with him.
What strikes me today, amidst the grief and memorializing, is my impressions of the singer over the last decade. I won’t lie and say that I devoured his more recent output. I knew the artist was speaking his truth, but I was in a different place musically — more attuned to the rustic, the rustling, and the rumbling.
No, it was his face that stayed with me. Despite the frequent portrayal of him as a cocaine cowboy of the debauched ’70s and the myriad references to his alien persona and aloofness, what struck me about sexagenarian David Bowie is the warmth coming off his visage. He seemed a man who had seen it, done it, and written the songs to prove it.
That uniquely beautiful face, once a canvas upon which I projected ideas of decadence and androgyny, now gave off a gleaming warmth. He looked like someone you could talk to about stuff.
The magic trick of his farewell is unlike anything I have seen. It restores him to the extraterrestrial status I mistakenly believed he had outgrown. You little wonder, you.
My earliest memory of experiencing David Bowie’s music was tapping out the green, red and yellow notes to Ziggy Stardust on my plastic Guitar Hero controller. I remember liking the song and telling others about it. Most would nod their heads and remark how “weird” Bowie was in the classic Ziggy makeup and costume.
Ziggy seems to serve as the immediate reference point for most when hearing David Robert Jones‘ stage name. His fans, however, can rattle off all of his varying personas and eras with historian authority.
To me, Bowie is special because of this very diversity. From what I’ve read, there is no one consistent album that publications can agree upon as his best.
Since the awful news broke, I’ve seen posts heralding everything from the supposed stone cold classics of Heroes and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, to the normally reviled Diamond Dogs to even the no-hit weirdness of 2003’s Reality.
As a music fan, what this says the most about Bowie is that his appeal was truly widespread. In the coming days, fans and newcomers will no doubt plunge into his discography to understand what was lost. Bands and bars will sponsor tribute nights. Media outlets will continue to break “new details” of his death and how other artists are responding.
David Bowie was a man who sold the world several beloved versions of himself. It’s alright if we never figure out how to repay him.
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