Sunday, January 17, 2016


I have a vivid memory of my first exposure to David Bowie, and it was not at all pleasant. Mind you, unpleasantness is not always a harbinger of bad relationships; sometimes it is the effect of a particular time and place. In this case, it was certainly that, as I recall being only a boy of 11 at the time, living in Chula Vista, CA. It was 1973, and for some inexplicable reason, I was given a copy of the album "Aladdin Sane" for either my birthday or Christmas--I can't recall which. The story gets even stranger when I tell you it was my parents who gave me the album. Why was this strange? Well, it was 1973, and if I was listening to anything at all, it was probably what was on pop radio in those days: Jim Croce, Helen Reddy, Diana Ross, Elton John, Roberta Flack, and my parents were not what you would call "current" on the music the kids listened to.

Hell, I was not current on the music the kids listened to. I was 11!

Bowie was not played much on pop radio back then, even though in 1973 he was a bona-fide rock superstar, one year after the breakthrough release of his album "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars". Elton John was a rock star too, but his music was embraced by radio since the songs largely fit the format of what was being played--Bowie was an altogether different beast. Elton John was outrageous, but David Bowie was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, making music that was unlike anything ever heard before. He was definitely unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Even though I don't remember exactly when I got the record, I do vividly remember opening it up and gazing for the first time on the cover. It freaked me out completely: the makeup, the lightning bolt, the hair, the naked torso. And what exactly was the meaning of that pool of liquid on his collarbone? (It is supposed to be a teardrop.) I didn't know what to do with it. I could not identify at the time the feelings his face brought up in me, but now I would describe them as a mixture of shock, disgust, curiosity, and fear. I do remember that I felt it must be somehow evil, and I didn't want to play it, so my parents returned it. I don't remember what I got in its place, but it was no doubt less memorable. To this day I continue to be curious about why my parents thought it might be an appropriate and appreciated gift to give to me. I never asked them about it, but I like to think that they were appealing to the "outsider" they sensed in their boy, or perhaps they were just trying to keep up with the times. I will never know. What I do know is that as an 11 year old, I was not ready for David Bowie.

I did not encounter Bowie again in a significant way until several years later, around 1980. This was an electric time for music, as disco was waning and new wave was just starting to show signs of life; but many artists were caught "in between", and many of them never made it out to the other side. Bowie had never become a "disco star", so he made the transition quite easily, especially since his 70's music was already showing signs of the future. In 1980 he released "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)" to critical and commercial success, and I became aware of the song Fashion because it was being played on certain radio stations and in certain youth oriented retail stores. I distinctly remember visiting Georgetown University in Washington D.C. during my first year of attendance at the Naval Academy, and while in a record store I saw the video for Fashion playing on the TV. Now this was before MTV was launched the following year, so I am not sure how it was playing, but it was actually the first time I remember seeing a video for a song, and it struck me as something new and cutting edge. (Music videos had actually been used to promote songs since the 60's to some extent, but of course entered the zeitgeist with the launch of MTV.) 

Fashion is a hypnotic song, and I love it to this day. At that time, it signaled to me the possibility that music could be more than just pleasant songs to listen to--it could also excite and stimulate, seduce and challenge. Fashion is not Bowie's greatest song, but it made an impact on me in that it awakened the artist, it appealed to the outsider, it flirted with the explorer. When I saw the video and listened to the song that day, something in me started to change. I became aware of possibilities in expression that were not shown to good Catholic boys from Chula Vista, California. Bowie signaled to me that there was a whole other world of people who lived differently than I did. And I wanted in. 

My roommate at the time on campus was a big guy named Kevin, who was from Los Angeles, and he was older than we were since he came to the Academy from the enlisted ranks. Kevin was brilliant but lazy, a common combination that keeps many people from accomplishing many things, but he did introduce me to real rock music. He had hundreds of albums from most of the great rock acts of the 60's and 70's: The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Elton John, of course, as well as the "city" bands: Kansas, Boston, Chicago. Kevin introduced me to a world that was richer than the pop landscape I was familiar with, and for the first time in my life I learned that rock music was not yelling and screaming, but actually thoughtful, challenging, melodic, musical, theatrical, seductive, and my favorite--transgressive. 

Bowie's music was part of this offering, and the album that shook me up the most was "Hunky Dory". This was some of the most beautiful music I had ever been exposed to, and the lyrics spoke to the boy in me who was hidden: the gay artist masquerading as a Naval Academy midshipman, the sexual explorer pretending to be a heterosexual virgin, the philosophical thinker trying to be a staid engineer. I knew of the song Changes, since it had been a pretty big hit ten years previous, but I hadn't known about Oh! You Pretty Things, Life On Mars?, or Quicksand. One of my favorite lyrics of all time is from the latter:
I'm not a prophet or a stone age man
Just a mortal with potential of a superman
I'm living on
I'm tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can't take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith
If I don't explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it
On the next Bardo
I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain't got the power anymore.
I mean, what the fuck!!!! This album, as many others have declared, changed my life. It's music and lyrics hinted, suggested, and cried to me about a world where all was not as it seems. It described a life where thought could be a cage or a set of wings, where love could be sticky. If suggested that conflict was a state of aliveness, that one could hold two ideas at the same time and not decide, that you could want to move on and yet not be able to let go. This album showed me that things are not always simple, as I was raised to believe, but that we are all "tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien" in ways that were maddening and invigorating.

Kevin failed out of the Academy before graduating, not because he was not intelligent, but because of his laziness. I have never heard from him since, though I suspect that they sent him back to enlisted ranks. But he did succeed in introducing me to the richness of rock music and the alternative worlds of the artists who created the songs. Thank you, Kevin, wherever you are.

After two years I decided to leave the Academy and take up the study of dance. If you are shaking your head as to why a young man would give up a stable and respectable career as a naval officer for the vagabond existence of a dancer, you aren't the only one, and you do not know me very well. Rather than being a "path", the Academy ended up being a sidebar--it was an opportunity for me to get away from Chula Vista, California, and find out what kind of man I wanted to be. What I found out is that I wanted to be my own kind, not a cloned template cut from the military mold. Like Major Tom, I decided to float away from the spaceship and find my own way, and I knew that the path would be paved with music. 

In 1982, as a 20 year old, and I remember hanging out with a friend I knew when I was in high school. Her name is Annette, and she was unlike anyone I knew, and she was also a fabulous Bowie clone. I had just started to reconnect with the gay world in San Diego after leaving the Academy, and Annette was a willing and eager buddy in this endeavor. We were young, and music was key in our lives as it served as the soundtrack to our attempts at love and laughs. It was during this time that Queen released the duet Under Pressure with Bowie, and a classic was created. Annette and I used to sit on the curb of the street and listen to this song, our song, and we would revel in that particular golden narcissism that only the imagined rebellion of youth can sustain. 

There was something about the ferocity of the lyric that gets me to this day. A sample of my favorite lines:
Can't we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can't we give love that one more chance?

'Cause love's such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure
I wanted to have this kind of love, the love for the people on the edge of the night. I wanted love to dare me to change how I cared about myself. I wanted love to have me under pressure. I wanted to give myself one more chance (this was my youthful narcissism, as I was just at the beginning of my romantic life!). I did not want to love like everybody else, and you know what? I never did.

To this day I have not yet had my "last dance".


Once you have a hero, it takes a lot to dislodge him or her. Bowie became my hero, and he was never dislodged. He flirted with, and seduced, mainstream pop in the 80's with his hit album "Let's Dance", but he can be forgiven for this affair,
because the 80's drew many mavericks from their course for a time, including Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, The Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand, and more. I don't blame them. But Bowie's affair with the mainstream did not last for long, and it had integrity. However, I was glad to see him return to the edge in the 90's with albums like "1. Outside", and "Earthling". This was not radio music. Instead, he surrounded himself with impeccable musicians and, like Madonna, reformatted current music trends to suit his talents and vision.

Bottom line, the man cared about music. You could tell by the songs he wrote and the musicians he hired and the producers he employed. He wrote about a world where the outsider had relevance, where the "freak" could fly, and the rebel could lead. He wrote about death and solitude and loss and love and a world of topics that you won't find in most music. His vocals "floated" on top of the production, inviting attention and only pulling focus to bring home the point. He blurred the lines of gender and sexuality, showing us that music could be theater and that art could inform as well as entertain. He never wrote a casual lyric. He was both flawed and perfect, which was an example I needed to become aware of as a youth, having been trapped in both worlds; I needed to know that there was such a thing as duality of existence, and David Bowie showed me that there is.

He is dead, but will never be forgotten, as his music will awaken future freaks for generations to come. There was a meme spread around Facebook recently that I liked. It said that we should consider ourselves fortunate to exist in a time that included David Bowie. I would go further than that. I consider myself to still be alive because I exist in a time that included David Bowie. His was a life well lived, and he shared it with the public in glorious notes and melodies. Goodbye, my hero.


  1. Great tribute, Tony. I remember first hearing Bowie thanks to my brother, who had a few of his records in his collection. (His collection also introduced me to early Elton John.) I still love Space Oddity.

    1. Thanks Greg! It is frightening to think that there are young people who have never heard of him. I am glad that we are not in that generation--there ARE benefits for being older men!

  2. I agree with Greg: this was a touching tribute indeed.
    I came to Bowie 'late' and oddly enough through Labyrinth. Whenever I need comfort I play Mr. Bowie's As the world falls down.

    1. I am glad you agree with Greg, as I know how you two don't often see eye to eye! Dude, WHAT were you listening to in the 70's that you discovered Bowie in Labyrinth? Not even The Hunger? Ha! Perhaps you needed a "Kevin" to introduce you to rock like he did for me. It's never too late...there is a lot of Bowie music to explore late at night with a proper glass of scotch.

    2. A pattern for me with music is "I am often late to the party" viz. I discover someone at late in their career (or after their death). I explore their work, find it delightful, and wonder why on earth I haven't done this sooner I suppose better late than never.

    3. Fortunately the music is always there to discover!

  3. Another touching, honest, deeply personal and yet universal post! David Bowie was my sister's icon to my Madonna: An excellent reflection of our slight generation divide! I only came to appreciate David as an artist in recent years, but he accompanied me throughout my musical sentimental journey. Now I am simply in awe of him, and am so grateful to have his legacy to enjoy.

    1. Interesting that Madonna has greatly acknowledged the influence of Bowie, as she should. Even she, in her greatness, is a product of others (Bowie, Debbie Harry, etc.). But Bowie sprang forth from true originality, in my view. He CREATED a template for artistic expression. Fortunately, he had the massive talent to back it up and sustain a career long after he shed the makeup. There is Bowie music I have yet to discover, which is the benefit of a large catalog. I am grateful too, especially for the parting gift of Blackstar. He has given us the best example of how to die since Maude from "Harold and Maude". I share your awe.

    2. Few artists have that intangible essence. I might have only found Joni Mitchell as deeply affecting in my lifetime. Madonna is a logical disciple of Bowie, but her craft is very different, and her work lacks his ethereal depth and scope. I used to compare them, inevitably focusing upon the modernism of her singular image combined with the tradition of the mythology of the sexes, and the fact that she was younger. Ah youth! So alluring and deceiving! However, Bowie truly was ageless and more recognizant of philosophy. There is an obvious existentialist thread to all of his work. Perhaps fundamentally it comes down to one being an American, and the other not. Madonna was a product of burgeoning empire, whereas Bowie came on the heels of the decline and eventual disappearance of his.

      Thank you for what you wrote in my comments. It was ironic yet logical that as soon as I had finished writing and posting, I saw that you had shared some prose of your own, and there was his image emblazoned as it should be, a mirror of sorts. We used the same shoot. Different expressions, but the same vision.

      Bowie terrified me as a child. The eyes. The facial expressions. The music! I did a performance to Space Oddity when I was about 7 or 8. We traveled to my sister's high school and performed it for 500 students. I was relatively unfazed, but had no idea what the song meant. I realize with hindsight, however, that I did know how it felt. That is unique to all of his music.

    3. I wish I could have seen that performance!

  4. Tony, thanks so much for this wonderful bio on David Bowie and how he and his music influenced your life.

  5. Hey Tony! I miss your writing. Come back to the 5 and dime jimmy dean, jimmy dean!

    1. I miss it too--ha! Working on a new post...stay tuned.

  6. I wasn't introduced to the musical genius of Bowie until the 90's crazy as it sounds...great post, Tony. Saw you on Jon's blog and decided to come over the follow. I like your writing style!

  7. Thanks for adding your thoughts, and welcome!