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 manI 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.
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.
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.
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?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.
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
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.