My first encounter with David Bowie came through his guest vocal appearance on Queen’s “Under Pressure.” I was a kid, around the age of five I’d say, and I had borrowed a cassette copy of a now out-of-print Greatest Hits from one of my parent’s friends. I took in all the fun and catchy songs about bicycles and fat-bottomed girls until it reached THAT SONG. There was something different going on. There was a tone that was anxious, paranoid, and worried about the state of humanity. I had never heard anything like it before. The contrasting voices of Bowie and Freddie Mercury gave it a tension that made me feel like my brain would explode at any minute. But it always returned back to that comfortable bass and piano riff, you know the one, the one that Vanilla Ice would eventually rip off.
Then it was the video of him and Mick Jagger covering Martha and The Vandella’s “Dancing in the Streets.” Then it was Labyrinth. This man kept popping up in my life, but it was impossible to figure out who he was. Each time I saw him, he looked different, acted differently. I could place the face, but I was fully immersed in whatever he was doing.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I began to seek out his music on my own. A blind vinyl buy of Changesbowie introduced me to his range. I knew some of the songs on there already from the radio, but others, like “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Suffragette City” were new to me, and I was immediately in love. This was a guy who didn’t play by anyone’s rules but his own.
In my early twenties, I started getting into more ambient music. On recommendations, I picked up records from his “Berlin Period” and they made as much of an impact on me as his earlier work. “Heroes” is still one of my favorite albums of his, showing the transition from his glam-rock persona to a darker, moodier figure. The second side, or the last five songs depending on your format of choice, are more introspective and feel apocalyptic compared to the first half. This led me to discover artists like Brian Eno, the producer of these records, and Boards of Canada, who coincidentally provided inspiration for Bowie’s final album, this week’s Black Star.
I’ve grown to acknowledge how much of an impact Bowie has on me. About ten years ago, I was asked to be interviewed by a friend who was writing her thesis paper in cultural anthropology, the subject of the paper being me. I said OK, and over the course of a week we talked about my life and views about the world. I was curious what the end result of the paper would be and asked if I could have a copy of the final product. When I read it, I noticed that she took note of every single piece of music I played throughout our conversation. Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars was played in its entirety five different times. I learned it was my comfort music.
Thinking about his death today, I realized sometimes I’m hearing David Bowie without directly listening to him. In the past month, I have caught myself singing “The Man Who Sold The World” while grocery shopping and putting on Iggy and The Stooges’ Raw Power while folding clothes. This last statement is relevant because I have the David Bowie mixed version of the album which is superior to the Iggy or Bruce Dickenson mixes. It’s snobby, but it’s true. I even went a whole day randomly singing Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” to my roommate — a song which features David Bowie prominently — because every time I got to the “I love to watch things on TV” line she would laugh uncontrollably.
The image that came to your mind when you heard Bowie left us reveals a lot about yourself, as it’s essentially a rorschach test. Bowie himself was a living rorschach test. He was an androgynous alien, a musical chameleon, and an actor with understated ability. Whether you thought of him as Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Goblin King, or even Nikola Tesla, David Bowie was here on Earth to be an always changing, evolving individual.
He no longer has the ability to change or evolve. Our living rorschach test is gone forever. If his death makes you sad, I recommend you watch his duet with Bing Crosby singing “Little Drummer Boy.” It’s enjoyable on many levels, but when and how wide you smile will be the answer to how you liked David Bowie.
Charlie Nickles has held jobs painting car emblems, inspecting cereal, and making vegetable trays. He currently lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he writes, works, and beatboxes “Billie Jean” to unappreciative cats.