David Bowie is dead.
This phrase does not compute because to me David Bowie was never here. He was the true embodiment of the oft used term, “not of this world”. And I am not embarrassed to admit that at some point in my teenage years I really thought he was an alien. His music was nearly always challenging while still managing to carry the weight of pop music’s universal sensibilities – the man had a knack for a good melody and a catchy chorus. There are so many David Bowie songs which spoke to me through different phases of my life, but here are just five Bowie songs that rocked my world and changed my perception of the universe around me.
“We all know Major Tom’s a junkie”
Space Oddity was probably the first Bowie song I fell in love with. It is exquisitely gorgeous, but it also has a dark ending, with the fate of Major Tom unknown as he loses control of his ship. Ashes to Ashes resurrects this character and introduces him as a different man – lost, destitute, and much bleaker than the starry eyed version of the man from the original song. As a kid, this dark turn frightened me a bit, but later in life I began to understand that the iconic stature that we give our cultural heroes can be quite different from the real people they are – and that we can all get strung out on heaven’s high like Major Tom.
“I wish I could swim, like dolphins, like dolphins can swim”
This track was my suburban angst encapsulated in a perfect song. Heroes is as tragic as it is hopeful. It’s about the human push and desire for something greater in a world which sometimes gives us the impression that it is conspiring to keep that from happening. Bowie’s dramatic vocals at the end was the focal point of all this emotional mishmash. When I was just a young kid trapped in a small town and wanting to extend my arms across the world, it was not enough to simply feel the push to get out, I wanted to shout about it while inducing images of dolphins and kissing under a blaze of gun fire. Although the barriers before me seemed endless, this song’s unadulterated emotion felt just as endless, and the antidote to that insuppressible longing.
“You’re too old to lose it, too young to choose it and the clock waits so patiently on your song”
The last track on Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars starts with a soft guitar and soothing vocal only to end with a cacophony of noise, drama, and madness that Bowie can evoke so seamlessly into what at first appears to be an innocent song. When I first heard Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide my immediate reaction was to stop and take it in. What had I just heard? My second reaction was to turn the record over and start the journey again at Five Years. My life ebbs between serenity and madness, but I like to believe that, like Bowie, I am the circus leader even if it seems as though everything is out of control.
“Sending me so far away, so far away, so far away …”
I got into Bowie’s music when I was a young adolescent in the early 90s by way of old records and Greatest Hits compilations, but he hadn’t put out any new music to brag about in that meantime. Earthling, though considered and uneven album by some critics and fans, was what I can consider my “first” Bowie album, and when the video for this track came on television I would turn the volume up to maximum. It wasn’t a very pop tune, but it got decent airplay as it came on the heels of an electronic and drum and bass wave which was still bubbling in America and that would explode the following year with Madonna’s Ray of Light – it also happens to be a damn good track. Little Wonder is heavy on the polyrhythms and industrial production, but at its heart it’s a very sweet song that Bowie delivers with delicate precision. It also marked my new journey into Bowie as a full fledged active member of my musical generation.
Young Americans is a curious song in that it strings together very opposing artistic tropes. It is is very much tied to its 70s imagery in the lyrics while being broad enough to make a timeless commentary on life, love and society. “Do you remember, your President Nixon?” Well, I was born in ’81, so I actually don’t … but I’ll say yes anyway. Being young in America meant having a myriad of choices at my feet, and endless roads to careen down. But it also meant teetering on the edge of insanity brought on by the onslaught of too much and too many. As I grow older I identify more and more with Bowie’s exasperation while delivering every line of the song’s final crescendo just before finally reaching the point of asking about that one damn song that can make him break down and cry. That was me asking myself the same question with him, and perhaps I still am. In an America (and a world) that is so lush and full of life even when it overwhelms you with its crushing weight, I find that sometimes it helps to stop thinking it all through and instead reach out for the emotional purity of a moment. And after I take my rest, like Bowie does in the song, I jump straight back into the chorus of life with him.