January 22, 2013
Musically speaking, the early eighties in north central Florida existed in an alternate universe where Bowie never happened and Lynyrd Skynyrd happened exponentially. That’s how it looked from this twelve-year-old’s school bus window anyway. I didn’t have much reason to think it wasn’t the same everywhere. Though the older kids seemed pretty cool in their matching jackets with the big, gold FFA emblem on the back, for me, their coolness was more about my wanting to be a T-Bird in Grease than it was about farming. I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted a dramatic story. I wanted to belong somewhere.
Then, a world opened up. MTV hit the airwaves and a new band called Duran Duran took hold of my consciousness. They wore flashy suits and had an exotic, futuristic sound and they were from England — a place that seemed so far away from the world of BMX bikes and Dukes of Hazzard imaginings I’d known before. They were expressive and flamboyant and made art that raised questions about different ways of being in the world — instead of preempting such dialogue with crushing fundamentalism and drab uniformity. They were amazing. And since all the girls liked them, they seemed like a good thing to want to be. Going into my teens with bleached blond hair and skinny ties, the older kids who hadn’t noticed me before now called me ugly names. But they noticed. I was on to something.
David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album had come out during that time and hits like “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” were part of the musical landscape for me that included Cyndi Lauper, Thompson Twins and the like. Bowie existed in my young mind on the same plane as “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats and Nena’s “99 Luftballons.” I remembered a passing reference to David Bowie in the 1984 film Footloose. When Bowie’s Tonight album was released that same year, the single “Blue Jean” was strange and inaccessible to me. I didn’t like the horn part and the way the backup singers on the chorus chanted under the lead vocal. It was just kind of weird and spooky. I didn’t know how to get at it.
In retrospect, I think one of the main reasons I didn’t like “Blue Jean” is I couldn’t sing along with it the way I could with other pop music of its day. Bowie does unusual things with his voice on the mumbled lyrics in the verses (“She got a camouflaged face and no money…”) and the crooned chorus lead (“Somebody send me…”). It’s not the kind of catchiness a kid can get his voice around as easily as “Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand.” It’s not Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It’s not “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” I can recognize “Blue Jean” as a fairly straightforward dance rock song now, but there is a depth to its musicality and cultural meaning I couldn’t understand or participate in at its release in 1984. So, I didn’t yet dig David Bowie. But I’d noticed.
The following year was my freshman year of high school. My friend Jimmy Cooper and I were obsessed with the introspective sounds of Tears for Fears. Duran Duran had all but imploded, but their place at the top of my musical idols had not yet given way to U2. Jimmy and I wanted to play music and we hung around with a new kid in town named Rick who played guitar. One day, I played Rick a tape of Duran Duran’s Nite Romantics EP which included the song “Fame.” “That’s Bowie,” Rick said. “What?” I asked. “That’s a David Bowie song,” he repeated. Something important had happened. A connection had been made for me between David Bowie and what was then the greatest band in the world.
Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away, I used to stay over at the house of another friend, Mike, who had a brother in his mid 20’s. The brother had left behind some 8-track tapes of T. Rex and the B-52’s and a few LP’s. I knew the Duran side project The Power Station’s song “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” was a T. Rex cover. This was the first I’d gotten to hear the original. The LP’s included Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and the Changesone collection. The cover art for these records was a study in contrast. I could look at them for hours trying to get a take on which façade was the “real” David Bowie. Mike and I would stay up late into the night memorizing the spoken words of “Future Legend.” We’d sing along on “Fame” and about going through ch-ch-changes. Mike didn’t share my affinity for Duran Duran, but we could both get onboard with a guy named Ziggy who played guitar but made it too far. That was it. I was in. I fucking loved David Bowie.
I loved Bowie’s early work for its own sake and for how he and bands like T. Rex and Roxy Music paved the way for Duran Duran and other artists of my formative years. I love that when I got my first CD player in 1986, the first music I went out and bought for myself in the new format was Changesone. I’ve since collected most of Bowie’s pre-eighties work on vinyl, but that CD represents the first music in my life I had to actively seek out — with which I had needed to work a little harder to engage. Exploring David Bowie, my life has been made better for the sweeping, cinematic breadth of “Lady Grinning Soul.” The world would not be as full without the raucous riffs of “Suffragette City.” I am better for the way the change in “Heroes” at the line “Nothing will drive them away” tears me apart every time. It’s easy to see where the Bowie thread connects through artists as apparently diverse as Iggy Pop and Kiss to Duran Duran, to 80’s hair metal and Bono’s early 90’s Fly and Mephisto incarnations, from Devo back to the New York Dolls, from Alice Cooper to Lady Gaga. One could look at connections in the traditions of vaudeville, minstrelsy and Athenian tragedy, but I’ll always have a special love for the spectacle, sounds and stories David Bowie brought to my small window to the world — and for the meanings I’ve been able to make of them in my small time and place.
And I love that I didn’t like David Bowie at first. In many ways, getting into Bowie represents to me a larger metaphor for the graduated emancipatory process of learning generally. Gaining a better understanding of how the concept of a David Bowie relates with that of a Duran Duran gave me a greater appreciation and awareness of both. Adding in T. Rex, Roxy Music, etc. expanded the awareness further. Understanding how a David Bowie relates with the spectacle of a Lady Gaga — or an Elvis Presley — or how a Marilyn Manson plays into the traditions and iconography of a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins — or where a Screamin’ Jay or a Captain Beefheart relate with a Frank Zappa or a Tom Waits — or a Diamanda Galás — or where these traditions connect with Asian, African and other non-Western traditions — it all becomes part of a greater narrative of the wondrous diversity of human expression — and I become progressively fluent in navigating not only the landscape of popular music or the music industry, but a larger culture industry, structures of influence and power, the writings and rewritings of history. Looking at my own reactions to the arts, literature, science, philosophy — paying attention to not just what seems obvious or appealing at first glance, but to where I could be wrong about that which doesn’t — I gain a critical, reflexive awareness that is arguably the basis for higher thinking and for creating an actualized adult self. The alternative being to remain forever as children, spooked by that which we do not understand, passive consumers of stories prescribed by powers before us, unknown to us, and not always for us.
So, in honor of your recent 66th birthday, David Bowie, your single release “Where Are We Now?” and your forthcoming album The Next Day, I want to say a heartfelt thank you. I owe you a lot. I didn’t always get where you were coming from, but I was always bound to come around. Thank you for continuing to move the dialogue forward. Best wishes to you and your family, Godspeed in your endeavors — musical and otherwise. In all your future journeys, in the words of Ground Control, may God’s love be with you…
and with all of us.