I’ll get this right out of the way. I do not have highbrow tastes in music.
For many of my public outings with my own art, people have always mused aloud to me that my paintings must have been done while I listened to the Brandenburg Concerto, etc. While I do like some baroque trumpet, most, if not all of my artwork is created by listening to the loudest, gnarliest, vulgar, and obnoxious punk rock.
I distinctly remember one critique where someone pointed enthusiastically at a place in a painting they thought evoked very ethereal sounds and named classical pieces they thought could have influenced it. In all honesty though, it was created while I blew my eardrums out to “Beat on the Brat” by The Ramones.
Like many suburban teens of the early 80’s, I got my music through Top 40 radio, and I’m sure the first Bowie song I ever heard was either “Let’s Dance” or “Modern Love.” Both were ubiquitous in 1983-84, and since we didn’t have cable tv, my big night was staying up to watch Friday Night Videos to try to catch the song there too.
Eventually I braved the mall record store, where a neophyte music lover usually had to face the prospect of the older cooler teens who worked there sending x-rays into your uncool brain to discover that your music tastes were about five minutes deep. I was used to my purchases earning me a curled lip, since I was pretty all over the map in those years, and so was my personal sense of fashion, a mix of flapper, Stanley Livingston, and Merchant-Ivory poor relation.
It was easy to find a copy of “Let’s Dance” in stock, and I discovered that the section for Bowie was wide with records–I had expected to see the cover of the one I was familiar with in front, but instead there was a very strange bleached out clown, on an album titled “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps.)” I flipped through the rest of the titles. A different man, on each record. I got to the end–“Ziggy Stardust.” What was this?
I pulled out “Let’s Dance” and decided to also buy “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps.)”
If you own this record, you know what comes next:
Gone was the poppy crooner, the urbane guy in a suit who seemed tailor-made for 1980’s optimism and commercial appeal. What the actual fuck, he’s SCREAMING now.
I must have flipped this record over and over on my player about five times. Even the white lace on my bedspread seemed to shrivel back in awe. Childhood was gone. I’d crossed the threshold.
I got my hands on everything I could to do with David Bowie, tough in the days before the internet when you had to just research and get lucky, or take trips to Haight Street, where the record store employees were more intimidating than Darth Vader and made their suburban counterparts look like campfire girls. Soon, however, my room was covered in posters of old-school Bowie and pictures cut out from magazines.
All of us of a certain age in the Bay Area tuned into The Quake, which was truly alternative radio, right before most stations were merged into what we have today. The Quake DJs introduced me to more of the back-numbers from Bowie’s catalogue. So many songs set the incredibly other-world but raw-edged brilliance that never failed to completely polarize the brain cells the first time you heard one of them. “Fame.” “The DJ.” “Suffragette City.” “Queen Bitch.” “Fashion.”
At night, I would put a tape into the cassette player on the table next to my bed, the same record every night, “Hunky Dory.” Bowie has said that “Life on Mars?” is about a girl “living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it,” a quote I just found today. No surprise, since that girl would have been me in 1985, as I’m sure it was very many other suburb kids.
If “Life on Mars?” sang the blues for sad little girls who wanted out, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” the motion picture was the soundtrack for the trip off the planet. The image of Bowie’s raunchy sex lizard grinding on the stage with bare thighs and alien makeup was smoking hot and full of confusing erotic promise. The hot thing about Bowie was that he wasn’t pretty at all, but he made you feel like that didn’t matter for him or for anyone else. Sexuality was a matter of inhabiting the space you were in with authority. It didn’t matter how wounded and awkward you were, you could still work it with art and power.
This story doesn’t have an ending, since Bowie wasn’t supposed to die. I viewed his video for “Lazarus” on his birthday, moved by his apparent grappling with issues of mortality and aging, but rejoiced in the fact that I’d lived long enough to see Star Wars get good again and to see David Bowie release a new record, as if my childhood had been granted a sequel. No one was ready for the plot twist two days later.
I’ve seen a couple of people sneer on social media that David Bowie’s death is an occasion for people to pretend to care about an artist they never appreciated. It reminds me of those old record store clerks that loomed over someone younger in judgment.
If this is the first day you’ve listened to David Bowie, I envy you. You have much to look forward to.