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Sunday, January 17, 2016

What David Bowie has meant to me

Sometime in 1983, David Bowie's Let's Dance album penetrated the hinterlands of Michigan's rural Thumb region and helped to change my life.

The hipster cognoscenti may pooh-pooh Let's Dance and dismiss it as Bowie's concession to commercialism, but to many of us growing up in small towns across America, the music and imagery of that record couldn't possibly be much more odd and otherwordly. So what folks in New York, London, and Los Angeles considered pop confectionery was a small town kid's ticket to a world he or she previously did not know existed. A gateway drug to a wider and wilder realm of experience. The greatest quality of Let's Dance was that it was commercial enough to make it into the living rooms of middle America, and it was just weird enough for us middle-class, white bread kids to turn us on to ideas, sounds, and visuals we had little (or no) idea existed outside of our boring little bubbles.

It's so long ago that I was turned on to Bowie, that it's hard to remember the sequence of events. I want to say, and want to believe, that the first time I saw him was when he appeared on Saturday Night Live with Klaus Nomi way back on December 15, 1979. To this day, it has to be one of the strangest musical performances in SNL history, and if anything I found it more strange than cool. I'm sure it was much more than my 11-year-old brain was capable of processing.

It was certainly the "Let's Dance" video that made me a fan. Soon after "Let's Dance" was deemed acceptable enough for mass consumption, older music videos like "Ashes to Ashes" appeared on television. As I recently wrote on Facebook, the "Ashes to Ashes" video was like a mini art film that miraculously penetrated the nooks and crannies of Middle America.

Some time after that initial exposure to "Let's Dance," as well as "China Girl" and "Modern Love," I bought my own copy of the Let's Dance album at our local Woolworth. I was intrigued by the jacket cover of David Bowie in shadow, posing like a skinny bleach-blonde coiffed boxer. I can still see my 15-year-old self playing that album in my bedroom on my little crappy portable record player with its tiny, tinny speaker.

It was probably shortly after purchasing Let's Dance that I found The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in the "cheap cassette" bin at Woolworth. The contrast between the glam rock 1972 Bowie and the Miami Vice-like 1983 Bowie couldn't have been more stark.

Listening to "Let's Dance" in 2016, I'm struck by how much power and excitement the track still has. It comes mainly from the "Twist and Shout" homage of the background vocals, the bouncy bass line, and Nile Rodger's staccato guitar lines. But the secret weapon of the song, and one that doesn't get discussed enough, is David Bowie's world-weary, laconic vocal. He sounds like someone who doesn't give a damn if the woman puts on her red shoes and dances the blues--and it works. It makes the song better. If Bowie sang with more enthusiasm and pep, it'd actually make the song much less effective. It was a tactic used with great effect by Prince one year later on his breakthrough hit, "When Doves Cry." Whether the Purple One had Bowie in mind, I have no idea. But it's not beyond the realm of possibility.

Over the 33 years between Let's Dance and David Bowie's death on January 10, I remained a fan. However, it'd be a stretch to say I was passionate. I loved almost all of his 1970s output, with Hunky Dory, Low, "Heroes," Lodger, and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) as my favorites. I was never much enamored with anything Bowie recorded between Let's Dance and 2002's Heathen. Heathen is an album I didn't even hear until about four years ago, when I found it in the "cheap CD" bin at Schuler Books & Music here in my hometown of Okemos, Michigan. I was immediately impressed and felt bad that I had spent so many years ignorant of its high quality.

Those 33 years have been periodically punctuated by moments in which Bowie was an important element in my life, either in the foreground or the periphery. I remember, in spring 1987, buying used but pristine copies of Diamond Dogs and Scary Monsters from a college friend who was downsizing his vinyl collection. Those albums were part of my personal soundtrack during that summer, a summer punctuated on September 12 when I saw Bowie at the Pontiac Silverdome on his Glass Spider Tour. I'd be lying if I said it was a great show, but it was wonderful to see Bowie live, even if our seats were about a half-mile from the stage.



Then there was my senior year in college, when I met a girl who was a big Bowie fan. We spent evenings drinking cheap wine and listening to music like Lou Reed's Rock and Roll Animal and Bowie's Aladdin Sane. She was involved in campus movie nights, so we also went to a showing of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Bowie's turn as Major Jack Celliers in a Japanese POW camp lit up the screen of that musty lecture hall.

For reasons I don't feel like getting into now (silly college drama, mainly, which for awhile brought back unpleasant memories), I burned out on Bowie by the early '90s, and I certainly wasn't into his latest musical offerings. But by the middle of the decade, when the CD boom made old vinyl extremely cheap, I went on a Bowie buying binge; picking up used copies of just about every Bowie album I could get my hands on.

On CBS Sunday Morning, Bill Flanagan, in his Bowie tribute, said that 2013's The Next Day was like hearing from an old friend after a long absence. I agree completely. It was the first Bowie release that excited me since the 1980s. I was equally intrigued by Blackstar, and bought it the day that Bowie died, two days after its release. Though I only heard part of the title track in my car on the drive home from the Best Buy store near my house (yes, I admit, I bought it at Best Buy), it was clear to me that the album was Bowie's most daring and uncompromising in years.

I can't adequately describe the shock I felt the next morning when I woke up for work, checked my phone, and saw the many notifications of Bowie's death. Even in death, Bowie had a flair for the dramatic.

So I guess what I'm trying to get at, in this rambling blog post, is that David Bowie has been an important part of my life since I was a teenager, though I don't know if I truly realized how important until now. Bowie always seemed to be larger than life, somehow beyond a mere mortal, so it's hard to imagine a world without him. Of all the recent celebrity deaths, this is one I'm taking the hardest, and I suppose the very reason for this is that Bowie has been a part of my life since I was a teenager, and now he's gone. And with that, the reality of my own mortality hits home even more than usual. But until that happens, I'll continue to listen to the incredible gifts that Bowie left me and all of us.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Working on a David Bowie post

David Bowie and his music have been a part of my life for 33 years. I'm currently plugging away on a David Bowie commemorative blog post, that I hope to finally publish on this blog sometime this weekend. So stay tuned...

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie

"Look up here, I'm in Heaven"--David Bowie, "Lazarus" (2016)

I woke up this morning to the stunning news that David Bowie had died.

I'm almost speechless.

On Friday, Bowie turned 69 and I was in a celebratory mood, listening to Hunky Dory in the car while driving my son to a friend's house, then listening to Low in the kitchen on Saturday morning while making breakfast and putting groceries away.

Yesterday morning, after dropping our sad, dead Christmas tree off at the township tree recycling location, I stopped by the local Best Buy on a whim to see if they had Bowie's new album Blackstar in stock. Sure enough they did, and though I do my best to do most of my music shopping at the local stores, I figured "I'm here, they have it, it's $9.99, let me just buy it now." I listened to part of the title track "Blackstar" and was pleased to hear how at this point in his career, Bowie simply follows (followed) his instincts, not giving a hoot about chasing trends.

I checked my phone first thing this morning at 5:45 AM and couldn't believe my Facebook feed.

Now, I am at work and listening to Blackstar on my headphones, to Bowie's last dispatch before becoming the Starman he once sang about. The album is uncompromising, as most of Bowie's career was.

I need to get back to work...and actually do some, like, WORK. I want to revisit the subject of David Bowie soon, though.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Football, FitBit, and college reunion

It's 11:30 PM on Saturday night and I'm plopped here on the couch watching the Pittsburgh Steelers try and blow their playoff game to Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers took a 15-0 lead into the fourth quarter but have gone into a long, deep slumber in this quarter and now trail 16-15 with about a minute and 30 seconds left. (Update: the Bengals live up to their "Bungles" reputation and put the Steelers in field goal position on a stupid personal foul penalty. The Steelers oblige by nailing the field goal attempt and winning 18-16).

So I received a FitBit for Christmas, and wowzers are those things addictive. I'm not sure if this was set arbitrarily, but FitBit has established a goal for me of 10,000 steps per day, which is approximately five miles. I have now broken the 10,000 step threshold five days in a row and any day that I DON'T hit the 10,000 mark will feel like a failure (and I know that sounds ridiculous). That's just my addictive personality for you. I'm easily obsessed.

A week ago today I attended a reunion of the guys who lived on my residence hall floor at Michigan State: East Shaw Hall Ground Floor "Nads." (All of the various floors in the residence hall had nicknames, and ours was one that I'm sure would--in 2015--be met with criticism and derision. Hey, it's juvenile humor, but most of us have fond memories of our "Nads" days and are still proud to call ourselves Nads.

The reunion was fun, and it was truly wonderful to see these guys again, many of whom I hadn't seen in 25+ years. The most amazing part was that as soon as I talked to many of these guys, their personalities, mannerisms, little quirks, and essence came back to me immediately. It was as if we picked up where we left off, albeit a little grayer, paunchier, but I hope a bit more mature.