Music is very important to me. Opening doors and teaching me lessons about humanity, music has been a gateway to new ideas and philosophies. It has comforted as well as challenged me. In moments where I can be completely centered, listening to music can be a transcendental experience.
Since I was a teenager, I set out to discover as much music as I could. Growing up on military bases, geographically isolated cities, and a rural farming community, I did not have a place where music was conveniently waiting for me. I had to find it. Through magazines and music shows, I had to read about the greats and the obscure. At the turn of the millennium before the digital revolution and the invention of the pocket oracle, whatever I could not find around me physically I had to bargain with friends to steal from primitive piracy sites. At the time, it was all very laborious. Especially when you consider how easy it is find anything now. Looking back, it all seems so quaint and perhaps a good outlet for my insatiable hunger for information and the arts. Better to be looking for music than looking for trouble.
You never know it at the time, but there are moments in life where you are changed completely. Someone or something is introduced to you and it feels as though you have shed an old skin; reborn naked into a screaming world of sound and vision. The moment I would start taking music seriously as something that can bring out the best (and worst) in one’s self is when I discovered David Bowie at the tender, and impressionable, age of 13.
Before 2000, I knew some music. I listened to pop radio for the ear candy and summer anthems. The late 90s brought the sounds of Matchbox 20, Sugar Ray, and one hit wonders like Fastball. Car trips and bus rides to school had these sounds coming over the radio. I know many millennials are nostalgic for 90s music for all their own reasons. The world always looks nicer through rose-colored glasses. While these songs satisfied our infant need for culture, it would soon be time to grow up.
Before the year 1 BB (Before Bowie), I listened to a lot of classic rock and pop bubblegum. I recall my first CD being the first entry of the Jock Jams compilation series and I loved listening to AC/DC and Van Halen on class rock radio. I liked hard-pounding R&B jams you could dance to and playing air guitar to songs like “Running with the Devil.” Music was fun. You didn’t need to think about it. There was no deep meaning. Just three-chord guitar riffs and loud drums.
Bowie was an awakening. Anything I had played in my room or CD Walkman before then didn’t matter anymore. So much so that I never listen to that music anymore. They don’t even carry over as remnants of a lost age or something to be nostalgic over. If anything like Van Halen were to come on the radio now, I would change it. The power of the Thin White Duke was that strong.
Bowie was almost like a secret treasure I wanted to hide. My mother had some albums, but this was before I would grow to appreciate the album as a work of art to be dissected or observe as a singular entity. It was all about the greatest hits compilations for me. I wanted my introduction to Bowie, or any other artist new to me at the time, to be a concise retrospective of their career. The appeal of cherry-picking between periods or styles was refreshing. She burned for me a two-disc compilation of singles that I played and played and played. For a brief period, I almost felt ashamed for enjoying this music. Were kids supposed to like this? I thought. Is this something people listen to? Does anyone know who David Bowie is?
At the time, music listening was a very personal experience. It was all so new and left me feeling very vulnerable to the cruel teasing and judgment of others. Bowie wasn’t on the new music or hip-hop charts; music that the cooler kids in my school were listening to. In the world of middle school cultural politics, you were defined by the culture you consumed. What you listened to had to be surface level and reflective of your own personal choices and style. It was all very superficial.
I loved going for long walks with my bulky CD Walkman. Listening to Bowie and walking down the street through the neighborhoods made me think I was on some great journey somewhere; not only was I progressing and moving forward mentally, but it reflected physically too.
Since Bowie, I have grown to adore certain artists and be a more discerning listener; to think critically about the meaning of the artist and the perceived meaning of the listener. While artists I have discovered since Bowie have resonated with me more, Bowie served as the source. The beginning. The Alpha to whatever will be my Omega should I grow tired of music or die.
With Bowie’s long and storied career, there are so many great tracks to choose from. “Life on Mars” with its beautiful melody was an education in songwriting and imagination. “Heroes” being an introduction to the avant-garde. “Rebel, Rebel” as the sexiest and most erotic thing a 13-year old boy could leave to his imagination.
When I discovered Bowie, Heathen and Reality were on their way but they would be under my radar until years later. Then, Bowie quit music for a decade. This seemed to further elevate him as something of a distant memory; a celestial being that is increasingly distancing himself from humanity. The world thought they had seen the end of a Bowie record until the 2013 release of The Next Day, an introspective and humbling record that still gets heavy rotation from me today.
Today is Bowie’s 69th birthday and also is the release date for his new studio album ★ (or Blackstar). In his most experimental album to date, Bowie brings together a fusion of jazz and alien rhythms that only he could master. I’m eagerly awaiting going to the record shop; a kind of shop that wasn’t available to me until my college days. I rarely buy new albums anymore. But when I do, I make it an event. And very few people are worthy of such things as Bowie.