Some people say you never escape the music of your youth, and maybe they’re right. They say this music, frozen in powerful nostalgia, will always be your soundtrack.
David Bowie died of liver cancer one year ago today. And I have to admit his death sparked those sentimental emotions in me. But he also stood for something far greater, something unnameable, that you could take with you into adulthood. I have a better idea of what he meant to me now than I did last January 10.
His songs weren’t calcified in the naïveté of any particular cultural era or time of life. Youth defines much of the rock star mystique, but the best ones, like Bowie, have maturity in them, too. Even when they’re barely out of adolescence they have an ability to look forward to themselves looking back.
In “Changes,” Bowie “turned myself to face me” and said to rock ’n’ rollers “pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.” Those lines always jumped out at me. The self-awareness was incredible. Maybe because I was an only child and close to my parents, age wasn’t such an intangible, distant thing.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t play with gender bending, drugs or bisexuality. I was the kid telling her party-girl mom that I couldn’t go to a movie that night because I had homework to do. I wasn’t lifeless, just earnest. Responsible. Definitely a good girl. But David Bowie spoke to me.
I grew up with my parents’ music—Gershwin, Porter, Berlin. During my childhood, the American Songbook was the dominant melody in the background. O.K., in this way, as a kid in the 1970s, I was a bit of an outsider. But of all the thriving, throbbing music of the day, the words and lyrics that actually got through to me were Bowie’s. It’s obvious why Changes resonated with an adolescent who was tortured in only average ways. And Let’s Dance. But “Space Oddity”? Ziggy Stardust? Low? I still wonder.
I never questioned it at the time. Why he was the one rock star that got through to a girl not interested in rock. Sure, his choices, the optics (as they call it now) offered up variety and free thinking and a universe of options. But it was the nod he always gave to the old-fashioned that also piqued my interest. That was less intimidating. You didn’t have to reject your parents’ world to be of-the-moment. To be free.
Even when he was charging headlong into the future, Bowie embraced the classic, the traditional, the appeal of history. He wasn’t politicized, although many have co-opted his image and his messages for political purpose, the heavy burden of advocacy was not there. Here was the radical honoring Marlene Dietrich, transforming into the Thin White Duke while wearing her famous tuxedo. Here was the avant-gardist singing a “Little Drummer Boy” medley with Bing Crosby on his “Merrie Olde” Christmas special.
What other rock star could do that without looking like he’d been tamed?
Here was the freaky provocateur turning to big swelling instrumentals at the end of “Life on Mars,” or bluesy jazz at the end of “Changes.”
It makes me think about my parents a little differently now, too. What if my daughter liked a strange androgynous alien rock star? Would I wonder what that meant? They didn’t. They knew me, I guess. Or maybe they were more open-minded than I remember. Or maybe just not as hovering as I am.
Underneath all the weirdness was an outsized sense of control, a deliberate, painstaking level of artistry no other musician has ever grasped. Behind “David Bowie” was David Bowie the puppet master, with the artistic restraint that true genius requires.
Cerebral and always analyzing, he went back in Ashes to Ashes to reconsider his astronaut creation Major Tom, now “strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low.” Sometimes as a teenager, I admit I struggled to find the regular good-looking guy in the imagery. Even at his most relaxed, Bowie always had a tension around the mouth. The thinker was never absent.
What did Bowie tell the good girl?
Tremendous intellect did not have to be nerdy. It could be splendid and fabulous. One could be, indeed had to be, rigorous in the service of magnificence.
What did Bowie show the teenager?
Predating the movie Gravity by decades, without 3-D CGI and other high-tech cinematic tricks, in “Space Oddity” Bowie created with sound alone the queasy feeling of a complete and ultimate untethering. Today I see the message of Major Tom as all about cutting the cord.
And Bowie has spoken to me so many times since. In “Kooks,” a quirky couple invites a new baby into their little bubble of a world and it’s clear, the parents are lovingly incompetent and the baby will do things their charmingly offbeat way. The song should be required listening for a generation of helicoptering tiger moms and dads who have sadly and too often made their lives revolve around their offspring.
Then something crazy happens, like all of 2016, and I’m wondering if there’s life on Mars, just like Bowie would have if he’d seen this past year.
Iman said she married David Jones. Perhaps that is, in the end, who always captivated me, as well. The man who worked like a demon even in his final moments.
Just like the haunting echoes that finish some of his songs, he was determined that ★, the last music he left behind, would reverberate into the cosmos long after he was gone. The messages there are still being parsed out today. Commandeering from the grave, it seems, Bowie always worshipped at the foot of meaning and he had the superhuman fortitude to stay true to it.
David Bowie said we’ve all got wild impulses, unexpected fantasies and desires. But it takes discipline to allow those impulses, all impulses, to be expressed in beauty and art.
For those on the fringes he was a standard bearer. He gave the audiophiles a magical complexity. But for the rest of us—or maybe just me—one year later and for always, what matters are the “boring” bits of Bowie. The variety of sound. The act of giving meaning to glamour. The grit amidst the glitter. A black star in the sky shining down on us all.