A day after celebrating another year in my own meager existence, I rewarded my continued survival with a trip to the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Strolling hungover through the sea of Bowie relics on display, I tried to view afresh the life and work of a man who is so entwined in my existence that I can't imagine the person I would be without him.
My earliest exposure was watching the film Labyrinth on cable TV as an 8-year old kid. My father walked in to the living room, pointed at the man wearing tights on our TV screen, and said, "Hey, that's David Bowie." When I pried a little deeper, my father told me that he had been a huge fan of Bowie's music in the early 1970s and had attended some of his legendary shows in New York. My dad pulled out the Bowie portion of his record collection and I flipped through a few covers of this bizarre-looking creature covered in makeup and decked out in the strangest clothing I had ever seen. I was immediately struck by the title Hunky Dory, which looked very accessible and inviting to my 8-year old mind. For my father's birthday I decided to "update" his technology and bought him Hunky Dory on cassette.
Just as the title suggested, much of the album was immediately friendly to my young ears. It would be a long time before I could remotely comprehend the depth and complexity of the songs and arrangements. Longer still to figure out that guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman were musical geniuses in their own right. But the hooks got to me right away: "Changes," "Oh You Pretty Things," "Life On Mars?," and especially "Kooks" -- a song for kids about growing up with crazy parents. I was smitten from the get-go with this celebration of youth. Next came a greatest hits tape, then Ziggy Stardust, and into the rabbit hole I fell. A decade later I was still discovering "new" Bowie music, reaching beyond the bounds of my father's tastes into Bowie's late 70s and early 80s repertoire in which he explored what he termed "a new musical language."
My malleable young brain became entrenched in the language of Bowie even before I was interested in playing. My "instincts" about harmony and melody certainly owe more to Bowie than to The Beatles (who didn't sweep me up until my teenage years) or Led Zeppelin (who didn't hit home until after high school). And when I listen to my own tiny catalogue of songs, cowering in the shadows of his monumental output, I can't deny that much of what I've written is a humbly unintentional tribute to his body of work.
Getting into David Bowie as a kid also did quite a lot to open up my thinking on non-musical subjects: liberty, literacy, integrity, individuality, gender, and sexuality. Being a straight white middle school kid in the South and watching videos of my hero performing in a kimono, platforms, and heavy makeup -- well, it made me think twice about the hateful use of the word "gay" and "fag" being hurled about among my peers and their parents. Bowie's artistic choices helped me realize that gender norms are insignificant and the status quo is dull. He helped me to realize that the freedom touted by so many around me was a lie, as they were imprisoned by their own fears of the unusual and the unknown. And Bowie impressed upon me from an early age that sentimentality in one's writing or nostalgia in one's methods are the equivalent of artistic death. One must be honest even while in costume, and one must always look forward. I didn't necessarily process any of this on a conscious level as a kid or even a teenager, but Bowie set me on a path of curiosity and critical thinking for which I'm forever grateful.
His death in 2016 left me numb with disbelief. He wasn't a young man, but the extent of his genius had somehow duped my subconscious into believing he might be immortal, or at the very least, of a superior alien race that would outlive me and all of my friends. I didn't know I felt this way until he passed on, and the two years since his death have made it no easier to accept that my subconscious was wrong. I'm still processing the fact that he's gone.
The other great shock after his death was my gradual realization of just how many people loved him deeply. David Bowie has always been an outsider in my eyes, but his talent and showmanship allowed him to play that outsider on such a grand stage and in so many guises that he was able to connect with a ridiculous number of people over the course of his career. Of those who heard him and saw him, I began to comprehend just how few were able to walk away unmoved.
I saw the man in concert only once. It was just over 20 years ago, and I stood with my father among the drag queens / punk rockers / industrial kids at the now defunct International Ballroom of Atlanta. Bowie took the stage alone with his acoustic guitar, strumming "Quicksand" from Hunky Dory -- my favorite. The band emerged from the wings to kick in at the second chorus and continued to blow my adolescent mind for the rest of the night. A true life-changer, as with almost everything else he did. A part of me will always feel a bit lost knowing Bowie's no longer here with us. I'm not a sentimental person, but neither was he.
And walking out of the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum last week, I felt deflated not only by loss but by the magnitude of what this man accomplished artistically in a lifetime. Simply unparalleled and seemingly impossible, even for a man who worked as constantly and rapidly as he did. But I know that in the days and weeks to come, I'll take solace in his music as I have so often in the past and draw enough inspiration to sit down at the piano again, find a few good notes, set them to the right words, and try to uncover something bigger. Better. Bowie.