It should come as a surprise to no one that I was a pretty weird kid growing up. Between not fitting in at school, not wanting to talk to my parents and being an only child, I spent a lot of time with my headphones plugged in, seeking empathy and connections with people I’d never met, and now never will meet. My process of discovering Bowie came in fits and starts: there was “Space Oddity” through sheer cultural osmosis; there was the accidental discovery of the live rendition of “Station to Station”on my dad’s iTunes; perhaps most importantly, there was “Ashes to Ashes” on a new wave compilation my mom bought me.
From my early teens onward, David Bowie, more than any other musician or cultural figure, not only continually altered the way I understood the world and my place in it, but helped see me through any changes I might have been going through. “Teenage Wildlife” was there when I reached the melodramatic nonsense that was middle school; “Station to Station” was there during my more alienated periods; “Heroes” always had a role to play, whether I was love stricken or heartbroken. Bowie, like the many artists that would follow in his footsteps, reached out to every outcast, every downtrodden teenager and confused young man or woman to let them know that it wasn’t strange or odd to feel the way they did: “you’re not alone.”
Bowie changed my conception of what music – to say nothing of art as a whole – was and could be. Pop songs could be longer than four minutes; the most esoteric of subjects could be more relatable than anything on the radio; music could actually profoundly MOVE you. Bowie’s reinventions, perhaps more than any other artist amongst his peers, continually showed audiences just how diverse, large and beautiful the world of music is. Think back to being a young person and not knowing anything but your parent’s rock and roll and Top 40 radio: learning that the guy who made “Ziggy Stardust,” that most iconic of rock anthems, also dabbled in soul, drum and bass, industrial and ambient music was not only earth shattering, but opened up genres and sounds you didn’t know that you didn’t know about.
Beyond what the music itself did for myself and so many others, there are too many cherished memories that wouldn’t have been possible without him. Laying in my cabin bunk, listening to “Best of Bowie” on my CD player long after everyone else had gone to sleep; being gifted “Low” and “Aladdin Sane” by my father during one of the most difficult periods of my life; whistling “All the Young Dudes” in class unconsciously and catching my teacher’s attention; asking a Barnes & Noble clerk to order “Station to Station,” the first CD I ever bought with my own money; diving headfirst into “The Venture Bros.” because I heard they portrayed Bowie as the affable shapeshifting leader of a supervillain union, with Klaus Nomi, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno as his henchmen; buying my “Ziggy Stardust” tee in Asheville at the first record store I ever stepped foot in; going to high school (and years later, an Arcade Fire show) with a lightning bolt painted my face; telling drunk classmates that no, just because I love Bowie, I don’t think playing “Heroes” at a high school kegger would be a fun thing to do; a very late night discussing how much I hate “It Ain’t Easy” while listening to “Ziggy Stardust” on vinyl in a friend’s dorm; drunkenly screaming “Modern Love” at a Bowieoncé party (it’s exactly what it sounds like) while dressed as The Thin White Duke, but looking more like Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof”; hearing Ty Segall warm up by playing the chords to “The Width of a Circle,” and being the only person to freak out and give a shit (he didn’t play it in full); talking to a total stranger for ten minutes at FEST on account of his badass “Diamond Dogs”-era Bowie patch; just last week, delivering a knockout karaoke rendition of “Rebel Rebel” with a good friend before stumbling home through the streets of Gainesville belting “Five Years” with people I love; I could go on.
Above all else, Bowie taught me empathy. No, I’ve never been a strung out astronaut, pansexual alien rock messiah, coke addict or harlequin, but I DO know what it feels like to be an outsider looking in. Music is oftentimes storytelling, and with that comes a variety of characters, perspectives and experiences: few understood this better than Bowie.
All morning I’ve been receiving calls, texts and messages from friends, family and even people I haven’t heard from in years; regardless of whether or not Bowie moved you to the degree he did I, thank you for reaching out. No, he wasn’t family, I didn’t know him personally, and I probably shouldn’t be as upset as I am, but this man did more to influence the person I am today than most people I will ever meet.
One of my favorite David Bowie memories is also the dumbest. For whatever reason, my dad thought it would be appropriate to take his seven year-old son to see “Zoolander” in theatres. When Bowie makes his grand cameo, “Let’s Dance” snippet and all, he absolutely lost it. Not getting why it was funny, I asked him who that man was. He told me I’d get it when I was older. Years later, re-watching “Zoolander” but remembering nothing of Bowie’s appearance, I too found myself doubled over with laughter, memories flooding their way back in.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that he was, and forever shall be, the best to ever do it. There will never be another like him, and that’s okay: to be able to say that we lived in the time of Bowie is enough.
- Zach Schlein
This article was originally published online at the Swamp Records blog.