On the evening of the day that I—and the world—learned the news of David Bowie’s death, my 15-year-old daughter put on her earbuds, plugged herself into her IPhone, and proceeded to wash the dishes. She was off into her own world, as I was off in mine at that age, surrounding myself with music, creating an invisible shield around me. Of all the musicians I listened to in that self-imposed bubble, it is David Bowie’s that comes most readily to mind. I can recall so clearly his music—over anyone else’s—as that which filled my head at those times when I wanted to draw inward, to shut out everything around me, and enter my very own world.
I started listening to him as a teenager. At first, I didn’t really care for him—I think this was about the time of “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance”—but then I was exposed to his older stuff, and became an unabashed fan. Ziggy Stardust. Starman. Heroes. Young Americans. Changes. These are the songs I listened to either on stereo or on headphones attached to a Walkman, the ‘80s precursor to the IPod. The rich combination of story, lyrics, and sound that characterizes Bowie songs is rarely found in other artists—or at least not ones that I liked–and when I listened to his music, I entered a world that completely engrossed me.
I loved how Bowie’s songs painted pictures and told stories, yet were imbued with feeling that only music can bring to them, like in “Changes” when Bowie croons “they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” This line is exactly the kind of moment in his music that describes the “crackpot compassion” that Rob Sheffield wrote of in a recent tribute. This line took on even more meaning as it was used as an epigraph to one of the prime movies of my generation, “The Breakfast Club.” And then there’s “Ground control to Major Tom…. And may God’s love be with you….” And you hear the voice fade out and can see the rocket just taking off. I can hear those lines so clearly in my head, precisely the way they are sung in that arching epiphany of voice…who doesn’t get chills from that?
Bowie may have been of my parents’ generation (having been born just a few years later than them), but he remained through his music like an older brother who was looking out for those of us who felt so lost and confused in the world, trying desperately to find our bearings. This comes through no clearer than in “Rock and Roll Suicide” when he belts out, “You’re not alone, and you’re wonderful.”
And I suppose the brilliance of his music is not, cannot, be all of him, as no album can be, but his unfailing dedication to his own self-reinvention speaks volumes to who he was as an artist. It is significant, at least to me, that he’s the only musician whose biography I’ve read. As I came to know Bowie, I came to know myself and my place in the world and I’m sure this was just another layer that built on my passion and dedication to being a storyteller, for creating my own worlds of what I hope might also exemplify a kind of “crackpot compassion.”
Thank you, David Bowie.