Who He Was: As I noted in my recent article about Neil Diamond, I generally open pieces like this one with a bit of conceptual framing, because I know that my tastes can be arcane much of the time, and I feel a duty to explain some of my more obscure topics and choices to readers. But I’m guessing that if you’re culturally literate enough to bother reading a website like mine, then you know who David Bowie was, and any additional explication will be needless fluff. David Bowie was David Bowie, at bottom line. He was a cultural anchor and reference in and of himself, and so should not require links to other, lesser reference points.
When I First Heard Him: The late Casey Kasem became something of a joke trope late in his life and career, but I cannot stress enough how influential his weekly American Top 40 broadcasts were for me in the 1970s. I am all but certain that I would have first heard such Bowie hits as “Young Americans,” “Fame,” and “Golden Years” on Kasem’s Sunday morning AT40 broadcasts, which (to their credit) my parents would put on the house and car radio before we headed to church, and then again after we emerged from the sanctuary, conceptually sanctified. I can actually remember a number of Sundays when we sat in the parking lot outside the church building listening to catch the next song on the list, or rushing out when the service was over to try to catch the top of the list for the week. (We lived in both Eastern and Central Time Zones at various points of my childhood, so sometimes AT40 was over before we went in to church, and sometimes we’d miss most of the final hour). While Bowie’s first hit single, “Space Oddity,” would have come out pre-AT40 era, I do know that I was aware of it as a youngster, perceiving the thematic drama within it as a direct adjunct to my contemporaneous fascination with the American space program. I also have a very distinct memory of being in my grandparents’ kitchen in Ridgeland, South Carolina circa 1972, intently reading one of my grandmother’s pop culture magazines that had an outraged feature article about Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era persona, and my grandmother looking over my shoulder, asking “You don’t like that, do you?” I hemmed, I hawed, I dissembled, I awkwardly put the magazine aside and fled to another room, because (of course) I was utterly fascinated by Bowie/Ziggy, but was not sure at the time that one should admit such a fact to one’s Gran. For the record, since she’s long since flown away from this mortal coil: Yes! Yes! YES! I do like that! Very, very much, indeed!
Why I Love Him: In my earlier article in this series about Frank Zappa, I celebrated the fact that Zappa was “a full package, real deal Artist (with a capital “A”), who left behind an incredible legacy of music, words, and deeds that could and should inspire generations and generations of artists in the decades, if not the centuries, ahead of us.” I’d say exactly the same thing about David Bowie, who spent his entire creative life probing and pushing into places that nobody had gone before him, judiciously self-curating not only his musical output, but also his image, his recording partners, his work outside of music (mostly cinematic and theatrical in Bowie’s case, plus his forays into extreme fashion), and his personal life. Bowie was also a key for me as I moved beyond the sorts of pop music that AT40 offered into more eclectic and eccentric fare, e.g. my early interest in King Crimson and Brian Eno largely coincided with the time when Eno and Crimso main-man Robert Fripp were working with Bowie on what’s now known as the Berlin Trilogy of albums, arguably Bowie’s creative high point. (As a parent, I take it as a point of pride that my only daughter counts David Bowie as her favorite artist, and actually has a tattoo from the first Berlin album, Low, on her shoulder. Good job, Dad! A Parenting Gold Star for me!) I also have long celebrated Bowie’s skills as a band-leader, and I consider his late ’70s rhythm section of Dennis Davis, George Murray and Carlos Alomar to have been one of the most incredible bands ever assembled, utterly perfect for what he wanted to achieve in that time, and an essential (if under-appreciated) component of many of his finest albums. Finally, how about that narrative arc of Bowie re-emerging after a long period of creative quiet with two of his career’s finest works, The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar (2016), then dying immediately after the release of the latter work? Wow, that was just like something from a pop culture novel or film that should have damned as unrealistically trite, but, then, those beyond-reality types of experiences were often endemic with Bowie in so many times and so many ways that we almost could have expected something like that from him, on some plane. I’m not normally moved or saddened on a personal basis when famous people who I don’t actually know die, but in that particular case, Bowie’s passing gutted and haunted me for quite some time, as I wrote about in the moment here. David Bowie’s catalog, soup to nuts, is an utter motherlode of creative brilliance and genre-defying genius. And, to be fair, occasional creative clunkers, but he who will not risk, cannot gain, so even those failures play their important parts in his story. He was one of the most distinctive and important artists of the second half of the 20th Century, at bottom line. He saw a creative future that didn’t exist, and he made it real. We’re all better for his vision, and the ways in which it was made manifest.
#10. “Young Americans” from Young Americans (1975)
#9. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” from Blackstar (2016)
#8. “African Night Flight” from Lodger (1979)
#7. “Heroes” from “Heroes” (1977)
#6. “Aladdin Sane (1913–1938–197?)” from Aladdin Sane (1973)
#5. “TVC 15” from Station to Station (1976)
#4. “Sons of the Silent Age” from “Heroes” (1977)
#3. “Where Are We Now?” from The Next Day (2013)
#2. “Sound and Vision” from Low (1977)
#1. “Look Back in Anger” from Lodger (1979)