The Return of the Thin White Duke

There have been days where I wake up thinking about David Bowie.

Not in, you know, a creepy way. In an appreciative way.

David Bowie’s albums were my first foray into music as a still-forming but independent person. Up until then I had mainly been exposed to music by way of my parents’ collections. Now, my parents have pretty good taste in music. There was a lot of Floyd, a lot of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, the gamut of classic rock. A sprinkling of stuff like Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult. Some wanky prog rock like Genesis. Stuff that I still hold near and dear to my heart.

But David Bowie’s work? That was where I took my first step into a larger world. I had just seen Labyrinth for the first time, I remember it vividly, and I was completely entranced by Bowie’s performance as Jareth the Goblin King. Here he was, surrounded by puppets and special effects and gorgeous handcrafted scenery and this guy seemed to be the least human thing on the screen at any given time. And that voice, man. Otherworldly doesn’t begin to describe it. I had to have the soundtrack, of course, with all four songs he actually sung in amidst all the trippy 80s synth scoring. Underground remains one of my favorite of his songs to this day.

Imagine my surprise a few years later when, as a young teenager, I discovered that this guy wasn’t just an actor. He was a singer, and he’d released a ton of other albums! I dragged my father to Barnes and Noble and asked if he’d heard this guy before and which CD I should get. My dad recommended The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and gave me a little bit of background on it, that it was something known as a concept album, that the songs stood alone but if listened to in order they told a story about an alien who came to earth to uplift the human race but was instead dragged down and torn apart by the human experience.

And so began my love affair with an artist I never actually met. I listened to that damn album so many times up in my room, often just sprawled out on my bed with the lights out staring at the ceiling and visualizing the story. I never got bored of it. I’m still not bored of it over a decade and a half later. I had to have more. I picked up the Berlin Trilogy. I picked up Station to Station. I scraped and saved and got all of these albums with money earned mowing lawns and stacking wood while most of my friends were buying video games. How could I not?

What really gets me about Bowie’s work is that it didn’t just fill a void in my heart, it also introduced me to countless other artists and genres. When I became intimately familiar with an album, I had to go back to his primary and secondary sources. This is one of the things I credit with getting me into history as both a hobby and an academic interest. The end product, the thesis, the song, it was fantastic to listen to. It stood by itself. But you had the option to dig deeper, to see what had influenced that song, to look at the “purer” things that he was putting his own spin on and customizing. Young Americans got me into soul music. Station to Station is why I knew about krautrock as a genre and listened to Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream when everyone around me was listening to modern pop (and that is not me bashing contemporary pop – hell, Bowie was contemporary pop for his listeners many times!). The Berlin albums got me into ambient music and introduced me to Visconti and Eno’s wider catalogs. My first exposure to industrial rock and Trent Reznor in particular came through Bowie’s fantastic fucking music video for I’m Afraid of Americans, coupled with him dipping his toes in the genre with earlier pieces like Heart’s Filthy Lesson.

My musical tastes would be a shameful shadow of what they are today without his direct and indirect influence.

And if I’m being completely honest with myself, my interest in science fiction and my personality too.

David Bowie didn’t just do science fiction, David Bowie was science fiction. Every album he put out, every persona he adopted, everything he did dripped with futurism in all its terror and grandeur. It’s easy to point back to Ziggy Stardust as the stand-out example of this, but man, it’s everywhere. The Supermen is infused with shades of HP Lovecraft and Nietzsche and talks about uncaring and inhuman demigods taking back the world they once ruled. TVC15 is about Iggy Pop’s television coming to life and eating his girlfriend. Hallo Spaceboy. Dead Man Walking. Diamond Dogs. These aren’t just songs with spacey themes, they’re storytelling straight from the heart of an alien being.

Personality-wise, Bowie taught me it was okay to be weird. Particularly at a stage in my development when I was feeling a lot of pressure to conform to certain standards. Here was this tremendously successful guy who had made bank and received acclaim for being a complete fucking weirdo. Every thing he did made me aware that it was okay to buck the norms. He told me I could be secure in my heterosexuality while also admitting when other dudes were hot. That I should dress in ways that made me feel cool to myself before anyone else. That I should listen to whatever insane blend of musical roots made me happiest, because here was a guy who took in the most disparate set of genres and subgenres and spit back out something greater than the sum of its parts on a daily basis. Here was a man who was regularly cited as a rock and roller who came up with his last and one of his most critically acclaimed albums after listening to Kendrick Lamar, Death Grips, classical jazz, and Gregorian chants.

rebel.pngI’ve even got a tattoo dedicated to the dude. It was booked a couple of weeks prior to his death, a silly little tribute piece combining one of my favorite songs with one of my favorite symbols from the Star Wars series. Overnight it turned from a tribute into a memorial piece, and I even thought about asking my artist to change the design so that part of my body wouldn’t forever be a tombstone. Then I realized fuck it, he’d already etched a lot of my mind, etching my thanks to him on a few inches of skin was a small price to pay for that. It ended up being my first tattoo in ages that healed poorly and the lightning bolt ended up scarring a bit and had to be reworked once it healed over, and that… kind of works, having that scarred in there.

I never got an opportunity to see Bowie himself on tour, but the other weekend I was lucky enough to attend the Nothing Has Changed show at the Sydney Opera House. It was a bigger production than I had realized going in. iOTA, the Sydney orchestra, Deborah Conway, Tim Rogers and others all parading around in Bowie-inspired garb singing their hearts out. Not trying to be Bowie, exactly, but paying tribute by putting their spin on his work like he’d put his spin on his seemingly infinite list of influenced.

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It was a seriously magical evening, and atmospheric. It started off against a pitch black backdrop that gradually lit up with stars during Space Oddity, and then as it transitioned to Starman the classic jagged lightning bolt lit up in the center like a constellation, turning blood red as Ziggy Stardust finally started. I was a complete emotional wreck by the end of the first act, and after a brief intermission they launched into a brilliant Modern Love/Let’s Dance/Fashion medley with rainbow strobe lights and the entire theatre shaking from people stomping their feet and clapping in time.

I think the best part was the end. They played Lazarus, as was fitting. That’s a music video and a song that will haunt me forever, especially knowing that by the time it was released Bowie was probably in his death bed, and the man’s own black humoured sendoff to himself. Great way to close the show as the stars went out one by one, only to be re-lit slowly but surely as everyone came out for an encore and sang Five Years, and then the entire thing exploded in golden light as they sang Heroes for their last song of the show.

In a weird way, it made me realize something else about Bowie’s work. When he was alive it was a great commentary on the world around him, the planet filtered through the eyes of this bizarre starman, this neofascist duke, this undead astronaut and king of filthy muppets and all the other personas he stepped into over the years. With his death so fresh in the mind though, every song took on a hidden new meaning, like he’d planted seeds in it that wouldn’t sprout until after he’d passed away. I doubt it was intentional, especially in his earliest work, but it’s made me go back through a lot of his music over the last week and draw some new meanings from lyrics I’ve already heard a billion times over the years.

There have been days where I wake up thinking about David Bowie, and sometimes I feel like the alien knowing that this isn’t a widespread condition.

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