I want to tell a story about falling in love with David Bowie.
Not the man himself because I don’t know him, but with the art created by the artist. I’m one of millions of acolytes in the Church of Bowie; I own the records and know the stories and can quote his biography like only a fan can. How an American kid who got into nothing but trouble got into the Thin White Duke is a little odd, in my dreams a story Bowie might have told.
Too often did I run into trouble with authority growing up. It’s just what I liked to do. I had and have great parents, but I just had this taste for fun that mostly stood opposite of whatever authority loomed above me. Enough was enough and, at 14 years old in the year 2000, my parents sent me to a military boarding school in central Virginia, which was very rural and very much more “Southern” in connotation than in geography.
But 14 was a tricky year. I had only begun to chase down the soundtrack to my troubles. I had heard the name “David Bowie” associated with MTV and some friends here and there, but never had any idea who this person was. I remember seeing him guest on Saturday Night Live in 1999; his first song was an airy, spacey, sympathetic single that just didn’t really connect with me; I was still pouring ’90s punk and big, broad rock into my ears like gasoline so I had no truck for the track.
This list is of the must-hear tracks. The ones that everyone knows, or should.
His second song was “Rebel, Rebel.” I thought, I’ve heard this. Probably on the classic rock station, but hearing the crowd react to the opening riff, and then right in sequence the Bowie smile. That smile alone is enough to make his loss a tragedy. So Bowie connected with me, hard, right there in the waning minutes of the midnight hour in my parents’ basement a year before I was in captivity, aware of my problems but not of the solution.
A week or so later I bought ChangesBowie, a compilation CD that combined his two Best-Of vinyls into one disc. Each song sounded, and sounds still, like it came from a different artist. These days I wince at Best-Of CDs because they’re splicing songs together out of context and ripping up the albums; Bowie has had a number of Best-Of compilations but they all sound bizarre, unlike, say, The Beatles One or The Rolling Stones Hot Rocks, because you can hear the evolution of those bands. It’s not the same with Bowie. You couldn’t have predicted one turn from the next, no, sir.
So I was getting into these songs in a big way, but I knew I needed context. The summer before military school I purchased The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars from a Sam Goody store in Scottsdale, Arizona while road-tripping with my Mom and siblings. It was the soundtrack for the entire ride, and the first entirety of that era of Bowie I’d ever heard. What was once a kiss was now love.
Enter military school. We were not permitted CDs because kids would steal and fight over them, and I’d just discovered David Bowie, along with The Stones, Joni Mitchell, Otis Redding, and all these artists who gave voice to growing up an outsider. Not just CDs, we weren’t permitted music. And computers were in a lab rather than at every desk in school, there was no YouTube, and if they caught you trying to hear music you got in trouble. That was a place where you didn’t want to get caught doing wrong.
Well, there was no worse fate than knowing so much sound was out there and I couldn’t access any of it. I started reading everything I could about music just to imagine the sound. I hung out with the musicians, whereas I’d never been one personally. I flipped on VH1 in the mornings, one of the few outside portals we were permitted. Of course, they didn’t touch Bowie, instead airing whatever soft pop was blasting out of work commute car rides at the time. It was mostly dreck. Four years later I would graduate with all honors and accolades, but the problem remained the same every day between my first and my last.
The second list is of the deeper tracks that are just as good as the first set
I found one book at the library in the reference section that had me hooked, however. It was the 2nd Edition All Music Guide to Rock, which took every artist as you would see them in a record store, chronologically, and rated every single release of theirs they could find. It was so clean and precise that I soaked up every last word I could. They had a star system along with their reviews. David Bowie had four five-star reviews, which was a lot. The system was tough and he was in the top-one percentile of rated artists. I read and reread those reviews until they were committed to memory.
Around this time I met a teacher, Col. Ransone, who was a country dude and loved music. I would enthuse to him about what I’d read and he would relate to me how he knew those sounds so well, where he was, all of that. Ransone started pressing me on how much better vinyl sounded than CDs; how digital recording had eviscerated the texture of music itself, and that I should buy as much vinyl as possible. He was that guy who declared to me that there was a better sound than even the one that I knew.
That first Thanksgiving break, I was in my hometown of Old Town, Virginia. I knew there were some record stores bunched around each other, and they had those massive vinyl platters that I could just remember a bit of from my youth; dad spinning a record and then dancing and embarrassing me and my brother. Now, I had a sip of the mystique. I went in and Bowie was the first section I attacked. When I voiced my interest to my parents about records I received some of theirs, including the Beatles and the Stones. They even purchased a new player, perhaps as a prize for not getting kicked out of school; a few close calls but that player was waiting for me when I graduated.
I walked into the purest of the stores, Record Mart. There was one particular record that I really wanted to find of Bowie’s, because of the review from that book that I’d read and reread and just loved. “Low is a dense, challenging album that confirmed his place at rock’s cutting edge,” read the words of Stephen Thomas Erlewine, still my favorite music critic. I said that line in my head, again and again.
I went to the section, and there was Low. No Ziggy, no Hunky Dory, nothing else that I wanted to buy at that moment. Just this. It was the first vinyl I ever purchased. With great ceremony, I dropped it on my parents new vinyl player, laid down on the floor, and played it, again and again on through the night.
I took this picture the night that Bowie passed away.