I didn’t pay much attention to Bowie growing up.
In my early 20’s, I put the finishing touches on an album, Bright Day for a Frog’s Rebellion. The mastering engineer John Mailloux remarked, “Oh man, you must love Hunky Dory.” I had the ridiculous task of telling him I’d never heard of it. (Made easier because I didn’t know how ridiculous it was.)
The absurdity continues, as my search for a singer had included the vocal description “Bowie-esque”. I loved Bowie’s voice but barely knew his music.
I bought Hunky Dory as soon as I returned to New York and obsessed over it. Oh! You Pretty Things and Life on Mars? and Andy Warhol (War-hall!), and then Oh! You Pretty Things again. And again and again and again.
David Bowie is dead. I woke up in my parents’ house because I’d happened to stay the night. I walked downstairs and my mom called my name. I went into her room. She said it, David Bowie is dead.
She was very sad. Not much of a reaction from me. Within minutes I was on the train into Manhattan.
This past Saturday night I had shown Bowie’s new music video to a friend. I thought it was creepy. He thought I had oversold it. We both agreed the black buttons sewn into the bandages covering Bowie’s eyes should have been larger.
On Sunday morning I was thinking about Bowie and came across the site What did Bowie do at your age. Turns out, he did a lot.
Today was cold, winter in New York cold. But it was one of those noble days, frigid yet sunny, windy and clear. Off the train, I walked down 6th Avenue. The air against my face, Bowie singing “Ground Control to Major Tom!” I floated up, lifted on to an edge: alive, teary-eyed, and full of glory.
Tonight I listened to my favorite Bowie songs on repeat and made a playlist with 10 of them:
1. Oh! You Pretty Things
Just some light apocalypse-celebration in the evening. Poignant and cheeky. We all know what it’s like to witness the end of the world, one death at a time. Well, it departs one birth at a time too. This might not be a Childhood’s End, but it sometimes feels like one.
All the strangers came today,
And it looks as though
They’re here to stay.
Oh! You Pretty Things,
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and papas insane?
2. Ziggy Stardust
Always figured this one was about Jimi Hendrix. I feel foolish writing that line but I can’t escape it.
Ziggy played guitar.
He played it left hand.
He could lick ’em by smiling.
As the song repeats, I have less and less evidence, but more and more conviction. On and on Jimi wails, and Bowie worships him, even through jealousy. Ziggy played guitar.
3. China Girl
My little China girl,
You shouldn’t mess with me,
I’ll ruin everything you are.
I’ll give you television,
I’ll give you eyes of blue,
I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world.
She says, shhh.
I remember the first time these lyrics knocked me out. I was in high school. I’d heard the song a hundred times before. Although his lust for power was familiar, I didn’t yet know how it felt to be snuffed out, overwhelmed, to have all that ridiculous ego melt away. Suddenly I had a feeling.
4. Ashes to Ashes
What a goof. Leave it to Bowie to have a strung-out, drug-relapse song put light-heartedly. Is he finally clean? Perhaps he’s over the moon.
When he sings, “My mama said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom”, a children’s choir could sing along. Warpaint’s interpretation is at 3m31s:
5. Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide
I want this song to last my whole life. The misery, the loneliness, the compassion, the fire! What else is there?!
But it’s so terribly short. I’ll just play it again, and again. And once more.
You’re watching yourself
but you’re too unfair,
You got your head all tangled up
but if I could only make you care,
Oh no love!
You’re not alone!
Whenever you need to believe in the whole arc of human experience, from devastation to triumph and all the peril in between, you can. And it will only take you 3 minutes.
6. Aladdin Sane
Only 2 things matter here. The psychotic piano solo by Mike Garson and that droning bass line. There doesn’t even need to be any vocals. Skip to 1:30 and turn your stereo up as loud as it goes.
Who’ll love a lad insane?
(The one pun I’ll stand by.)
7. Let’s Dance
Big and glamorous, beautiful yet still haunting, still Bowie. He takes the melody soaring, then goes all the way out with us. I’m excited, but everything becomes dark and perilous.
Quick interlude. Check out this wild, creepy, wacky performance of The Man Who Sold The World:
8. Space Oddity
Space Oddity launched with Apollo 11, arriving 9 days before we first landed on the moon.
My initial warmth of realization turns to horror. Who the hell would release this song while astronauts set sail for the furthest reaches we’d dared explore? I know Chris Hadfield loves this track, but imagine you’re preparing to board a rocketship, and you hear that countdown. Triumph dissipating to empty isolation.
This is Ground Control to Major Tom!
You’ve really made the grade,
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear.
Now it’s time to leave the capsule,
if you dare.
9. Life on Mars?
With each new song, I have the same first thought: “This is my favorite one of them all.” Though Life on Mars? has perhaps the better claim because it’s the only one I can play.
Hunky Dory is gripped by a chasm between parent and child. The children crackle with youthful magic, devastating their mothers and fathers. Nobody gets any joy or comfort from the other’s experience. Is there life on Mars?
It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow.
Now the workers have struck for fame,
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again.
See the mice in their million hordes,
From Ibeza to the Norfolk Broads,
Rule Britannia is out of bounds,
To my mother, my dog, and clowns,
But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more.
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on
Sailors fighting in the dance hall.
I first heard Changes in 10th grade. I was in the New York City, sitting at Burger King on a summer day with a couple friends.
We hated it. It was so hokey. Each time the chorus came up again, we’d laugh.
Isn’t that too perfect? Kids disdainfully laughing at the theme song of Hunky Dory.
And these children that you spit on,
As they try to change their worlds,
Are immune to your consultations.
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers,
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older.
Bowie favors youth, but he has it out with all sides of this tragedy. I wish Hunky Dory ended with Changes. It’s so hopeful, nostalgic but warm.
Then it all falls apart. The nightmares came today, and it looks as though they’re here to stay.