Just a few hours ago, the Facebook page for David Bowie announced that the iconic performer has succumbed to his long battle with cancer yesterday, just days after his 69th birthday. Waking up to this news — the loss of someone who had had such a profound effect on my life when I was growing up, through both his music and acting — I have decided to delay what I was planning to publish today, to take this moment to say a few words.
My first introduction to Mr. Bowie (who’d started out as David Jones, but adopted a new stage name to avoid confusion with The Monkees‘ Davy Jones) came at a very early age, when I started listening to my mother’s collection of “45s” (record singles). A number of these really grabbed my attention and began to shape me as a music fan, but none so much as Harry Nilsson‘s “Spaceman” or Bowie‘s “Space Oddity” b/w “The Man Who Saved the World.” These (especially that last one) ranked among my absolute favorite songs, for several years. At the time (we’re probably talking about a period somewhere between the ages of six and ten years old) I wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly why that might have been, but there was definitely something about the inherent darkness (both of the lyrics and of the melodies and harmonies), an underlying sense of mysteriousness (same), as well as the intriguing complexity of the arrangements.
While both of those songs were relatively big hits for Bowie when they were first released, by the 1980s he had become much more well-known for songs in the new wave and dance-pop styles of that day; in my insulated childhood world, the songs on the records I had adopted were like my own secret treasures, relics from the past that I could savor in my own room with my headphones on, that nobody else even knew existed. (Of course, all that would change some years later when a certain grunge band who shall remain nameless included a rather pedestrian rendering of “The Man Who Sold the World” in their unplugged performance on MTV and the subsequent live album, and now all of a sudden everyone that I went to high school with thought it was the most marvelous thing ever.)
Anyway, back to my original narrative but shifting forward a couple more years to when my sister and I were old enough to walk down the street by ourselves to visit the corner video store — we’ve probably hit approximately 1990 by now — I have fond memories of spending hours browsing, being grossed out by the covers of the horror movies, and ultimately finding something for us to bring back home. One of our earliest discoveries at that store was Labyrinth, a fantasy adventure that features a cast of Jim Henson‘s creatures, and stars David Bowie as the Goblin King. Bowie also wrote and performed the bulk of that movie’s soundtrack, full of haunting and enchanting melodies, much of which is able to transcend the context of the movie and just stand alone as great, timeless songs. As I recall, we probably rented Labyrinth as many times as all the other movies combined, and as an adult I own a copy of the movie and its soundtrack.
Naturally, each of you reading this will have your own specific memories attached to some part of this man’s incredible career — and that’s probably the most remarkable thing about him and his work. Trends change frequently, and there are plenty of examples of artists who have tried to change along with them, to go along with whatever is popular in an attempt to remain relevant. I’ve never thought of David Bowie in those terms, however. There has been a tremendous variation, both in image and style, throughout his many decades in the public eye; it seems that every few years he would completely reinvent himself again and again — but it never felt like he was trying to keep up with the times so much as the times were keeping up with him. His array of new personas and frequent genre hopping seemed more than anything else like a way to keep this artistic genius from growing bored — and whether it was glam rock, krautrock, or straight pop music, incorporating electronic, ambient, techno, or industrial elements, he always managed to be right on the cutting edge, throwing himself wholly into whatever new endeavor may have caught his fancy, and then when the world thought they had him figured out, he was already moving on to something brand new and completely unexpected.
So whichever era or aspect was your favorite, or meant the most to you at an important time in your life, there was definitely something that spoke to all of us, and we all will be missing this unique person in our own way…
Please feel free to reminisce about your earliest Bowie memory, or share something that was very significant or influential in your life, by leaving a comment below!
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