When I was seventeen years old or so David Bowie came out (and boy did he come out) with the persona of Ziggy Stardust, and music was changed.
It didn’t matter if you were a proto conservative in Philadelphia or a glam rocker in Brixton, he changed the culture like very few before him. He channeled Heinleins Stranger in a Strange Land, the excitement of the moon program and the nihilism of mutually assured destruction into a personal and revelatory angst that allowed all of us to feel in a new way. It was okay to be different.
Social isolation is a big thing when you’re in your teens and anxiety and identity and sexuality are all mixed into a cauldron of confusion. We don’t know who we are or where we’re going. Bowie enabled us to feel those feelings without judgement or condemnation.
At the time I was listening to Zappa and Captain Beefheart and Neil Young and jazz and was as far from the world of glam as can be imagined. Philadelphia was very real and it was a tough place to grow up, even in the suburbs. Frank Rizzo was the Chief of police and his grey leather clad police were known for their violence.
And Bowie came storming into the Tower Theater in Upper Darby near where the old mafiosi lived and lit it on fire. “You gotta hang onto yourself”, Rebel, rebel”, the first chords of Suffragette City, the heartbreak of Life on Mars, Space Oddity…. Rock & Roll Suicide left a lingering question in the air. Would he go over the edge at some point?
Mortality is a difficult concept when you’re in your 20’s. “All the Young Dudes” put suicide and drag right out there. The alien space prince, the doomed astronaut, the androgynous oddity. Some of it was the act. But it came from an intelligent, sensitive writer with tremendous inventiveness. He never left you bored and his riffs were insane.
This was before pomp rock and it engendered a new subculture. Andro was in….Bowie influenced a whole new generation; the Dictators, The New York Dolls and then punk and New Wave. Bowie’s music was calculated and precise but it let rip the garage band fantasies of tens of thousands of teenagers. From Television to Talking Heads to Flock of Seagulls to Heaven 17 to the Cure to Echo & the Bunnymen. Who could imagine them without Bowie first?
Bowie was the master of reinvention. He didn’t measure the pulse; he redefined it and reset it. And always that edge of mortality. We could be heroes or maybe just crash and burn.
Age can be cruel but Bowie aged like a good Armagnac. Intriguing, complex; harsh and raw at times. Always unafraid. Never the sweet saccharine approach.
And as we now know, his exit was planned like an opera. Hero fades to black, leaving us wanting more. We were lucky to have him. Go in peace star man.