January 12, 2016

R.I.P. Bowie


Bowie's dead. "I read the news today, oh boy..." Trying to figure out why I'm so affected by this -- I haven't thought about the man in years...

When I was about 12 one of the kids in our neighborhood gave away a few of his cherished LPs. Evidently his father in a drunken rage had smashed up most of his record collection. He managed to conserve a few, but fearing they might meet a similar fate, decided to pass these along to my older brother who, he knew, shared his passion for pop music. Among them was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This would have been 1972 and my brother, at 15, was solidly in what we would now term the "target demographic" for Bowie's magnum opus. That record changed my brother's life as it did teens across the Western world. I was a bit more circumspect being somewhat young for its themes of sexual abandon and decadent quasi-futurism, but thought it contained some pretty tight rock 'n' roll. 

It wasn't until much later that I realized Ziggy had done more than simply introduce the mullet to America -- it positively pronounced the end of the 60s, and properly christened the 70s: the "Me Decade," the decade of excess and self-obsession.

Personally, I never particularly took to glam, but was later quite taken with Mr. Bowie's Berlin-period output. Heroes, Low, and Lodger were remarkable records and I kept those platters spinning in continuous succession for a few years in my early 20s. I had never heard anything like them: dark and brooding, electronic and heavily processed, they captured the spirit of that time, when the world seemed at the brink of collapsing into industrial ruination (in much the same way Ziggy had effectively summarized the new-found sexual and social liberation of the early 70s). It goes without saying that Bowie's Berlin recordings became the template for much of the pop music of the 1980s; for better or worse, I'll let you be the judge. 

Irrespective of how I may now view Bowie's work through the lens of the intervening decades, I suppose his greatest accomplishment was his refusal to be pinned down (though not necessarily "pinned up"*). He was the first (perhaps the only) pop star to avoid the primary trap of popular success: i.e., how to escape the prison of one's own past. By deliberately discarding his previous incarnations, he repeatedly attempted to forge ahead and free himself of the shackles of his foregoing creations. Notwithstanding the debatable efficacy to which such an approach may succeed (after all, when you get out there on the stage the kids still want to hear "Suffragette City"), I imbibed from the man an important lesson: history is not destiny. It's my hope that I may have made good use of that lesson. And for that, and for opening my ears to new horizons, I feel an abiding gratitude.

It's quite pointless to remark that his demise slams the lid on a more innocent time -- but there, I've said it. I suppose what I'm feeling now is the transit of that time, and the need to mark it in some small way.