The first David Bowie song I can recall hearing was “Changes,” a steady rotation favorite on Boston’s AOR format stations in the 1970s. It’s schmaltzy, but it a way that connected with my childhood self. That connection has only grown stronger as coast into middle age, with the song joining the Byrds’ cover of “My Back Pages,” the Clash’s “Death and Glory,” and Arab Strap’s “There Is No Ending” in my entropic introspection playlist.
“Suffragette City,” also in heavy rotation, was another childhood favorite, if only because I was fascinated by the “WHAM, BAM, THANK YOU, MA’AM” false stop.
I became aware of David Bowie as a person-slash-persona from the Ziggy-decoed coke mirrors and posters given out as prizes at the traveling carnival that used to set up at the Northeast Trade Center grounds each spring. The more I think on this, the more appropriate it feels, especially considering how the so many of the rides featured lurid airbrush tableaux apparently inspired by the cover of Diamond Dogs.
My real crash course for the budding raver came during the Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) era. One of the Boston rock stations — WAAF, WCOZ, or WBCN — played every Bowie track to promote his local tour appearance. It was the first time I’d heard “Please, Mr. Gravedigger,” a song that gave me nightmares for a week.
“Modern Love” was my favorite song when I was in sixth grade, only briefly and temporarily overtaken by Def Leppard’s “Photograph.”
I’m fourteen years old and lying awake in the wee hours of the morning, gripped by a horrible fever. The classic rock station plays “Fame” and I become convinced I have entered Hell.
In my senior year of high school, I traded my dad a cassette copy of Blondie’s Greatest Hits for a copy of Changesbowie. While it did get short shrift from me during my lapse into punk rock puritanism, it had a tremendous impact on my little brother who became (and has remained) a huge Bowie fan.
Sometime in the early 1990s, I tell my girlfriend that my favorite novel is Absolute Beginners. “Did you know they made a movie of it a few years ago?” she asks. I didn’t and a VHS copy proves extremely difficult to find. After finally seeing it, I discover why.
Also around that time, I pick up some beat to hell copies of the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane LPs after Jon Savage cites them as influential punk precursors in the bibliographic notes of England’s Dreaming. They get a couple of spins before eventually passing into my brother’s possession.
It’s a new millennium. I’m once again feverish and “Fame” still sounds like the the Devil’s Own Anthem.
I’m assembling the first Armagideon Time anniversary mix in 2009. The first track is a spoken word civil defense radio spot that segues into the opening proclaimation — “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll! This is genocide!” — of “Diamond Dogs.” I will never top this.
Two months ago, Bowie’s “1984″ came up on the classic alternative station. I flipped to the 80s station. “China Girl.” I flipped to the 70s station. “Young Americans.” I flipped to the Underground Garage. “Suffragette City.” I flipped to the classic rock station. “Space Oddity.” I flipped to deep AOR cuts. “Cracked Actor.” I flipped back to the 70s station.
I was barely a fan — much less a superfan — of David Bowie’s music but he was a ubiquitous presence from the childhood up through my current state of decaying decrepitude. Even if I only incidentally engaged his material in a direct fashion, his influence remained a steady constant in nearly every punk, new wave, or quirky pop piece that streamed past my ears.
Even if Bowie’s intent behind his various reinventions was calculated self-marketing — and I’m not sure even the man himself actually knew for sure at times — their effect on the individual beholder was a very real and transformative force. That, not the musical component of his career, was Bowie’s real “punk” legacy. It didn’t matter what the folks on stage believed as long as it made you believe in your own agency. You could shed the skin you were locked into and simply be, and realizing that such a shift could be an ongoing process.
It’s an invaluable lesson, and one that almost makes up for the four-minute-twelve-second Satan-reeking nightmare titled “Fame.”