What David Bowie Means to Me

13 Jan

(This is long and personal. It’s something I needed to write.)

It all started with a song.

That’s typically how most people discover their favorite artists. The one song they hear on the radio, a friend’s sound system, or MTV (back in the day). Ironically, my love of David Bowie’s music started with a Queen song.

You know the one. “Under Pressure.” I literally have no memory of David Bowie before 1983. I am an only child and discovered all my pop and rock music on my own. KISS was an easy find because, in 1977-1979, they were everywhere. Plus, I found them because of how they looked. They were right up my comic book loving, Star Wars loving alley. Bowie was the surprise. I discovered Bowie because of his voice.

I had Queen’s Greatest Hits, the original one with the black cover. There, buried as the last track on side one of the cassette, was Under Pressure. It was a duet with a guy named David Bowie. I knew Freddie Mercury’s voice so Bowie’s was that low, baritone one with the melodic voice. I loved it enough to realize I wanted to know more things this Bowie guy did.

Summer 1983 saw me back in Tyler, Texas, visiting my grandparents. Hanging out at a friend’s house, somehow I connected that the Bowie guy in Under Pressure was the same guy who sang that song “Let’s Dance.” I saw the video, heard that voice, saw the singer, and I wanted more. I bought the cassette version of Let’s Dance and that was all she wrote.

Next thing I knew, I was hunting for more Bowie music. That wasn’t difficult. He had a lot of albums. But where to start? RCA, Bowie’s 1970s label, caught on the Let’s Dance craze by issuing a compilation, Golden Years, with a 1983-era image of Bowie. That, along with ChangesTwoBowie, were my first steps into the older material. And boy was it spectacular. In looking at the tracklist of those two LPs today, I realize that I heard “Aladdin Sane” and it’s wonderful piano solo early on in my discovery of David Bowie. And “Starman,” “Wild is the Wind,” “Fashion,” and “Ashes to Ashes.” I didn’t have MTV at home, so Bowie was all vocals for me early on. And, boy, did he have a voice!

I missed the Serious Moonlight tour stop in Houston, but the local radio station did a broadcast of the Vancouver show. It would later be released on VHS. I taped that show off the radio and that became my first instance of an artist who *changed* his songs in concert. Up until then, KISS was my only reference point, and the differences between studio cuts and live performances for them were small. I listened to the cassette copy of that show for years. I still have it. Interestingly, the words “Serious Moonlight,” written in red ink, have long since faded away while “David Bowie,” in blue ink, still remain readable. Poignant, huh?

The years 1984 to 1987 were an interesting time to be a new Bowie fan. I discovered the older stuff in greater depth while hanging on every new thing he created. The Tonight LP had “Loving the Alien,” a tune that still captivates me. The Labyrinth soundtrack had the still-excellent “Underground,” the goofiness of “Magic Dance,” and the ethereal “As the World Falls Down.” There was the duet with Mick Jagger with “Dancing in the Streets” and, if you were around my group of friends back in high school, you got to see my friend, Chris, and I reenact the video. I was Bowie. The title cut of the movie “Absolute Beginners” is in my top 5 favorite Bowie songs of all time. I love the sweeping grandeur of the tune and was so excited to hear it live in 1987.

Speaking of 1987, that was a huge year. The new LP, Never Let Me Down was going to have a tour associated with it. I drove back to Houston from attending college in Austin to see it. Looking back on the Glass Spider tour now, it was pretty excessive and even now I’m not quite sure the meaning of some of the things were trying to do. Don’t care. Didn’t then, either. It was a spectacle. The sheer thrill at seeing the giant spider over the stage before the lights went dark only stoked the imagination. During the spooky spoken opening of the song “Glass Spider,” Bowie was lowered in a chair to the stage. Finally, there he was, clad in red. I was in the same room as David friggin’ Bowie! It was an incredible feeling. The renditions of the songs in this setlist is stellar, with Peter Frampton playing lead guitar. I had the VHS (still do, and I’m watching it now) and I played the cassette over and over.

The Rykodisc reissues of the RCA albums were—and still remain—definitive in their inclusiveness. Those are the versions I have. As a young man in the late 80s, I wanted Bowie to be a certain way. Turned out, Bowie was all ready to move on. You see, I hadn’t lived through the warp speed transitions of the 70s, but I was about to. Tin Machine I enjoyed, but it confused me. I didn’t get it in 1989, but I understood in 1991 when Nirvana exploded on scene. Ah! So Bowie was already ahead of the game and had left the over-the-top 80s sound. Typical.

The Sound + Vision tour, in 1990, was the opposite of Glass Spider. Plain stage, excellent musicians, and just the music. And that was perfectly fine. I loved that show, my second time to see him.

The 1990s David Bowie proved, in retrospect, to be nearly the equal of the 1970s Bowie. I loved all the LPs he released. Only in 2003 was the pattern apparent. You see, Tin Machine allowed Bowie to reboot himself. He went back to his jazz and 60s pop roots with Black Tie White Noise. Outside teamed him up with Brain Eno again, the first time since the Low/Heroes/Lodger records of the 1970s. Man, that was a swing for the fences. The concept was perfect for the end-of-the-millennium/X-Files era and I soaked it all up. Pianist Mike Garson is all over these songs, and this album contains some of my all-time favorites: Strangers When We Meet, The Heart’s Filthy Lesson, The Motel, Hallo Spaceboy, and the title cut. The tour (that I missed!) had Bowie playing with Nine Inch Nails and recasting his songs with a techno-industrial vibe. He brought out songs even I had forgotten (I found a bootleg of the show. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone.) What this music also made me do was seek out Nine Inch Nails music and other techno music.

Earthing (1997), with its drum-and-bass, jungle music had me scratching my head once again. What was this music Bowie was making? I wasn’t sure, but I sure loved it. Back to the record store (pre-internet times) to get me some of the music Bowie listened to for inspiration. “Dead Man Walking,” with his long-note vocals over a furious bear, is a stunning song and proof yet again that Bowie is a crooner. “Battle of Britain (The Letter)” is very good, and the single, “Little Wonder,” is a fist-pumping song. This was the year when going acoustic was all the rage and he took some choice cuts off this LP and older songs and made acoustic versions. I found more bootlegs of acoustic shows and other performances and was in Bowie heaven.

Then, in 1999, Bowie started a trilogy. Hours (1999) saw the return of a softer, Hunky-Dory-esque Bowie, with “Thursday’s Child,” “Seven,” “Survive,” and “Something in the Air” adding themselves to my favorites. Heathen (2002) can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with ANYthing from the 1970s. Period. “Slow Burn,” “Everyone Says Hi,” “Sunday,” Heathen (The Rays)”, and “Slip Away” are incredible pieces of music. Plus, his themes of isolation fit perfectly in the post 9/11 world. Reality (2003) had some callbacks to 1980’s Scary Monsters LP and featured some killer songs: “New Killer Star,” “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” “Reality,” and “Bring Me the Disco King.”

It was the Reality Tour in 2004 that I last was in the presence of David Bowie. The setlist was a dream for me: (http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/david-bowie/2004/cynthia-woods-mitchell-pavilion-the-woodlands-tx-1bd2d154.html) 17 out of 26 songs I had never heard. And the ones he performed were so good: Battle for Britain, All the Young Dudes, Hallo Spaceboy, The Supermen, Slip Away (with the Polyphonic Spree), and he friggin closed with “Ziggy Stardust”! Come on! The last thing he sang in my presence was “Ziggy played guitar,” center stage, arms outstretched. Perfect.

This touring band had Mike Garson on piano and I’m here to tell you his is a vital ingredient to Bowie’s sound. Gail Ann Dorsey was the bass player for this band. She was also the “Freddie Mercury” when they played “Under Pressure.” You talk about coming full circle with a single song. Dorsey is phenomenal in her vocal delivery. No one can replace Mercury, but damn, Dorsey comes close. She is so, so good. If you are of a mind, I can’t recommend the Reality Tour DVD highly enough. Thirty songs. 140 minutes of beautiful music. (I’ve now put this DVD in and am listening to it now.)

I saw David Bowie for the last time 29 April 2004. My wife was with me and it was her first time to see him. She didn’t know all the songs, but loved the show. Two short months later, he had a heart attack in Europe and cancelled the rest of the tour.

And then he was gone. Seemingly forever. As the years went on, I counted my blessings to have seen that last tour and heard that last album. If Reality was the final tour/record, I was okay with that. He owed me nothing more having given me and the world so much.

But Bowie wasn’t finished. I distinctly remember checking his website in early January 2013 and there was a NEW SONG! “Where Are We Now” is a somber, yet thrilling song. It has some of the most intimate lyrics he’s ever written. He had gotten older, his audience had gotten older, and Bowie understood that. WAWN moved me to tears when I heard it (not a difficult thing, actually, softy that I am) and the entire record was incredible. I knew there wouldn’t be a tour, but we had a new album! “The Star (Are Out Tonight),” “I’d Rather Be High,” “The Next Day,” “Love is Lost,” and more are fantastic additions to the catalog. Couple that with the EP that came out later that year and you had what appeared to be a nice epilogue to a wonderful career.

But Bowie still wasn’t finished. “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” was a new song for a new compilation. This song featured Bowie fronting a big band. It wasn’t your grandfather’s big band. It was Maria Schneider’s Orchestra and it was as far away from Glenn Miller as your could get. It was more in the realm of Gil Evans and Miles Davis. And Bowie was in his full crooner mode. I remember thinking in 2014 “Man, if he’d do a whole album of this, it would be so awesome.”

He did. Blackstar, his latest (and last) record is that album. It’s not all big band, but it’s jazz musicians working with a rock musician. It’s out there. The record demands repeated listenings. I pre-ordered the album and had it the moment I woke up on 8 January, his 69th birthday. I listened to it four times in a row. Non-stop. I hadn’t done that for any record in years. The music engulfed me. I was so happy to have new music and that the music was jazz! And Bowie! Folks at my office saw me react to this music. I even played a couple of tracks for my wife who wasn’t as impressed as I was. It was a great time to be a David Bowie fan.

Until Monday. And David Bowie was gone. The husband was gone. The father was gone. The friend of so many was gone. The inspiration to so many was gone. The man I never met but became a musical mentor was gone. It’s still shocking to realize it now, three days after the news broke. He was one of the four pillars of rock music for me, the other three being KISS, Chicago, and Bruce Springsteen. He was the one I found on my own. He was the one whose musical choices led me to new places and opened my mind to new ideas. He was the one who electrified me when I was in his presence. He was DAVID BOWIE!

I know his wife and daughter and son all miss him more than I do. I understand that. His close friends, too. But to all of us out here whose lives he touched, we’ll miss him, too. Blackstar is a fitting last album because it demands to be encountered and understood and not merely listened to. It’s already led me to seek out the albums of Donny McCaslin (saxophone) and Maria Schnieder because I want to know what Bowie heard in those artists that inspired him.

David Bowie granted me many gifts. His own music is part of my musical DNA. It will be with me forever. His music is an indelible and intricate part of my life’s soundtrack. I am not completely who I am in 2016 without David Bowie.

Thank you, David Bowie, for everything you did.

*Bonus Tracks*

The best tweet that summed up what David Bowie meant to the world was this. I quoted JeSuisDean:

“If you’re ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

On the day the news broke, my friend, Daniel, posted this video to his Facebook page. Of all the tributes I read and saw about David Bowie, none moved me to tears quite the way this clip did. I’ve never seen the movie, but this one scene captures all the exuberance you can have when you’re different but find a home in a group that’s also different and everyone is equal. It also shows the sheer joy in making music, truly a sublime facet of this life. Thanks, Daniel, for sharing it with me. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is now on my radar.

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