Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 11, 2016

MEMORIES: David Bowie

I don’t normally do this kind of thing here at Film Thoughts. This is a movie review blog and I take that mission statement rather literally. I don’t even feel comfortable talking about the people who make movies outside the context of a specific film. The closest I come to covering recent events is reviewing a new release. Even that can take me days or weeks.

But something happened today that I can’t ignore. David Bowie died. Very little of what I’ll say today has to do with Bowie’s acting career, which makes it a tenuous topic for a Memories column. His film work was eclectic and often great. “Labyrinth” may be an item of eighties nostalgia but it’s also a pretty great film. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is inscrutably weird at times yet undeniably impressive. Few musicians or performers of any sort stir the kind of memories in me that Bowie does. Or “did.” Referring to him in the past tense still feels awful. Or perhaps “will” is better. His music still touches me. It always will.

Bowie was someone I recognized from a young age. I watched “Labyrinth” a lot as a kid and my mother, dad, and sister were all fans. However, like many of his fans, I didn’t truly discover Bowie until I was a teenage. I was about fourteen years old when my sister loaned me her copy of “Bowie: The Singles – 1969 to 1993.” The two disc set was a fairly standard greatest hits collection, a little heavier on his eighties pop star era than most are. The set exposed me to more than the inescapable huge hits, like “Changes” or “Rebel Rebel.” The mournful solidarity of “Space Oddity,” the epic rock myth-making of “Ziggy Stardust,” the powerful proto-punk guitars of “Suffragette City,” the cloying sci-fi sexiness of “Drive-In Saturday.” As a teenager in the American South, I hadn’t heard many of these songs before. The New Wave experimentation of “Sound and Vision,” “DJ,” or “Ashes to Ashes” seemed new to me, at the time.

That’s the thing with Bowie. No matter when you discover him, his music still seems exciting, vital, important. The man was an innovator even in his final days. His twenty-fifth album “Blackstar” just came out last week. That a 69 year old man dying of cancer could still make challenging, engaging music that functions as fantastic rock n’ roll, exigent art experiments, and powerful personal statements… Well, for anyone else it would be extraordinary. For Bowie, it’s what he always did.

Across his long career, he performed in countless styles and was an innovator in a lot of them. The man codified and popularized glam rock. Even when covered in glitter and make-up, his music had the rumble and grit that would influence the punk movement. His work of the late seventies formulated the synth-pop and New Wave music that would rule the next decade. When he decided to become a full-blown pop star, he sure-as-hell mastered that as well. I know it’s cool to dis the blonde pompadour period but “Let’s Dance” is tremendously fun and fantastically listenable. Even his failed experiments were interesting. In the nineties, he took stabs at hip hop, industrial music, electronic dance music, and headlined a hard rock band. Not all of it worked one-hundred percent. I’m like the one guy in the world who can’t stand “Young Americans,” for example. Yet it was always definitively his own. His influence is still felt. Every indie-rock band around today owes him something.

But you don’t need me to tell you that. As an awkward, confidence-lacking teenager, I spent hours listening to his music. After playing “The Singles” so much that my sister just gave it to me, I started buying his albums as often as I could. The first time I heard “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” it hit me so powerfully. “Five Years” made me weep, capturing so perfectly what you imagine the end of the world might feel like. “Rock n’ Roll Suicide,” in a single song, had the man reaching out to all his listeners, begging them to know they’re not alone.

It’s a great album, so is “Diamond Dogs” and “Aladdin Sane.” The latter might still be my favorite Bowie album. While “Ziggy” is grand and powerful and still rocks, “Aladdin Sane” trembles with an apocalyptic energy rarely matched since then. As a teen desperate to be cool, Bowie became my standard model of awesomeness. “Aladdin Sane” makes the listener imagine a post-apocalyptic world full of drugs and sex, with Bowie as the immaculately composed ring-leader and guide. Many of the piano driven songs feel like they're being performed in a night club on the edge of the end of the world. Yet the album still has the confidence to wrap up with a giddy Rolling Stones cover and the yearning “Lady Grinning Soul.” One time, I can recall waking up at the five in the morning with that song stuck in my head. Even though I had to get ready for school, I stopped every thing I was doing and popped in the CD. That’s the hold Bowie’s music has over me, that it’ll always have over me.

David Bowie evolved and changed so much over his career, that he matured with his listeners as well. Or rather, whatever Bowie you need at any point in your life is always waiting for you. “Station to Station” and the Berlin trilogy were a little to eccentric for my teenage ears. As a twenty-something, reeling from heartbreak and struggling to live my own life, I saw a lot of myself in the Thin White Duke. “Stay” is about longing to make a deep, personal connection. “Word on the Wind” is about wanting to break a cycle of negative behavior and find emotional solace. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is about still repeating the mistakes of the past. I never did cocaine or thought witches were trying to steal my semen but the neurotic, isolated music spoke to me.

That’s another thing about David Bowie’s astonishing body of work. He was reluctant to admit it, sometimes. During the production of “The Next Day,” his penultimate album, he denied the music was about himself. Yet his songs were always piercingly personal. In “Ashes to Ashes,” he looks back on his decadent seventies rock star life style with regret. The “Sweet Thing” triptych that comprises most of ‘Diamond Dogs” makes references to loosing your mind in a storm of drugs and abuse, something he was surely experiencing at the time. The more relaxed melodies of “Hours,” “Heathern” or “Reality” – all tremendously underrated albums – frequently spoke to what Bowie’s role was in a changing world.

When “Blackstar” came out, none of us realized it would be his last album. Now, it’s obvious he knew the end was soon. “Lazarus” begins with the lines “I’m in heaven” and concludes with “Oh, I’ll be free.” In the music video, he lays in a hospital bed, surely reflecting the treatments he underwent while ill. The clues were hiding in plain sight. The man no doubt intended it this way. A few days ago, the songs meant something different than what they mean today. “Blackstar” is clearly the work of someone facing down their own mortality.

Yet, even as he grew older, David Bowie seemed immortal. For years, the guy appeared to barely age. While promoting “Earthling” in 1997, he sported a goatee and looked as cutting edge and daring as anything else on MTV at the time. I remember the first time I saw the man after he suffered a heart attack in 2004. It was in an ad for satellite radio, of all things, and I was startled by how old he suddenly seemed. Age was catching up with him. But watching the videos for “Lazarus” or “Blackstar” last week, it never occurred to me he was ill. He looked like a 69 year old man but, in many ways, he still appeared the way David Bowie always did.

When I learned he had died last night, I was shocked. I actually shouted “What?!” very loudly several times. The rest of night I was sleepless, feeling numb and dazed. Even today, I’ve constantly been reminded of his sudden passing, a tinge of sadness welling in me every time. Just the other day, we were celebrating his return and now we’re commiserating his death. The outpouring of grief on the internet, of fans and supporters coming together to acknowledge their idol’s passing, has helped a little. We all thought David Bowie might live forever, that he would be as ageless and unstoppable as the alien-like, pansexual entity he often played on-stage.

Bowie was number one for me. I can't put into words how his work influenced me, opened my eyes, or changed my view of the world. It will be quite some time before I acclimate to a planet Earth without him. When your pop culture heroes die, it’s the universe’s way of preparing you for the death of your loved ones. I never knew the man yet I’m one of millions who felt a powerful connection to him, through the game-changing, culture-busting, immortal work he produced. David Bowie may be gone but the effect he had on music, fashion, film, art, the innate definition of “cool” and the millions of fans who loved him will never disappear.

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