I think I was 14 years old. I had finally decided to expand my musical horizons beyond my beloved Beatles. I asked my dad to go downstairs and pull some albums for me to listen to from his extensive collection of vinyl. He was thrilled. Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, Fear of Music by the Talking Heads, Armed Forces by Elvis Costello, The Idiot by Iggy Pop, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. But the one that he pulled and immediately placed on the record player because I simply HAD to hear it right then, was an album called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Now, I had heard of David Bowie, of course. I’m sure I’d heard “Changes” on the local rock station about a million times by then. But this… this was something else.
My dad went straight for side two, moved the needle to the middle of the disk. “You can’t listen to this song quietly,” he said. He cranked that stereo. It was LOUD. “Hang on to Yourself” started blaring from the speakers. It immediately hit me. The energy of the song, the strength of Bowie’s performance, that melodic guitar solo.
My dad sang along in his best Bowie voice (he’s a pretty good mimic as far as singing along with the radio goes.) “Come on, come on. We’ve really got a good thing go-i-i-ing…” I distinctly remember him dancing and doing the weird breath thing at the end of the song. “Come on. HEH. Come on. HEH.”
I watched, amused, but I mostly listened. By the end of the song, I was hooked. I wanted to hear the rest. But it was late, and “you have to listen to the whole thing from the beginning now,” Dad said. I must have done so the next day. I loved that album so much. I made a cassette tape from the vinyl so that I could listen to it on the boom box in my bedroom. And I bought it on CD not long after that. Even my little sister, at the time a big fan of N*SYNC and Toby Keith, got so hooked on the album that she listened to it on her Walkman on repeat all the way home to New Jersey from Vermont one time.
Only one song on the album was not written by David Bowie. All the rest, he wrote himself. The Ziggy Stardust character was his own unique creation, and only one of the iconic personas he embodied in his long and celebrated career. For me, he is almost beyond the scope of influence. His songs are too inventive, his image(s) too ballsy, his catalog too all-encompassing. Some artists are easy to pillage from – their fashion, writing a whole new song influenced by one little lyric of theirs, the way their guitar sounded that one time. Bowie is different for me. I’ll never walk out onstage with a giant lightning bolt painted on my face. I’ve never written a song and said, “yeah, this has a kind of Bowie thing to it.” Maybe someday.
Some have dismissed him as a “chameleon,” changing who he was as an artist to try to keep up with the times and trends and thus never really being true to himself. I don’t think that’s true, or fair. I think Bowie was a multifaceted person, constantly evolving and endlessly creative, and pretty much always doing what he thought was artistically authentic and interesting. He was one of a kind, even in his many incarnations.
Rest in peace, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke… David.