David had his new stereo hooked up: Speakers, turn table, 8-track tape deck.
He was 16, I was 8, and Jim was 13, maybe 14 already. All I knew was this was amazing. We had graduated from the family record player (which Lori, then 12, used to keep company with The Carpenters, among others). So many buttons, a huge dial, and the sheer coolness of 8-track tapes. And to christen his new treasure, David presented us with the 8-track called Diamond Dogs, the new ‘record’ from David Bowie. We had heard Rebel Rebel on the radio already — it was a hit. But this was something more.
In the weeks and months that followed, the 8-tracks were displaced by LPs and most of them by David Bowie. Space Oddity. Pin-Ups. Hunky Dory. The Man Who Sold The World. Aladdin Sane. Even an obscure collection of early works called The World of David Bowie. Until then my musical interests had been rooted in The Monkees and an assortment of stray 45s, including No Time by the Guess Who, Hush by Deep Purple — since we couldn’t understand the lyrics — and Bobby Sherman singles surgically removed from countless boxes of Super Sugar Crisp cereal.
Records from other performers and bands would trickle in — Rush, Led Zeppelin, T Rex, Lou Reed, Robin Trower, and a variety of other rather talented musicians (who likewise served as unfortunate social influences). But we were sure to get all-things Bowie. His music, whether popular hits or obscure tracks, comprised much of the soundtrack of my 70s and early 80s adolescence.
Bowie shocked us with a sharp turn from the traditional rock-friendly Aladdin Sane (the title track of which remains, in my estimation, one of the finest-ever musical compositions) and Diamond Dogs to the plastic-soul Philly-funk of Young Americans and Station to Station. We absorbed that shock, but then Bowie began to drift along again (with his “Berlin trilogy” of records) and what would become a decade that swirled around a variety of pop-rock centric stylings with plenty of plot twists, atmospheric experimentation, and mysterious simplicities thrown in just for good measure.
Never Let Me Down was the last Bowie record I bought, released the spring before I set off on a four year college excursion at Harding University in central Arkansas. That record in particular was great for me. It was familiar, harkening back to some of Bowie’s sound from the 70s, plus the added bonus of guitar super star (and former Bowie schoolmate) Peter Frampton. I guess in a way, musically, I was reacquainting myself with him through new material at a time when I was setting myself up to part ways with my childhood, where his diverse music often inhabited the space near David’s stereo in the security of my childhood home.
Flash forward a few years. January 1989. Keller Dorm, room 210A, and a new roommate.
David and I decided it would be cool to be roommates, having struck up a friendship with this cajun wildman from Baton Rouge earlier in the fall. The absurdly-high 10’ ceilings were conducive to building lofts in these rooms, so we built a cool loft, trimmed with Christmas lights David had, embellished with posters and CD longboxes and a growing assortment of graffiti. With our mattresses up top, the ‘downstairs’ became something of a gathering place of guys on our floor, most of whom were in our “social club” (read: frat), Chi Sigma Alpha. David Gregor’s collection of music was amazing, spanning Christian and secular genres: Dash Rip-Rock and The Times, Vector and The 77s, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Jim Carroll Band, and so many more. And Tangerine Dream: Live Miles, perhaps the most perfect background music for that rare occasion of actually studying. Oddly enough, a cassette of his, Meet The Raisins — as in the then-popular California Raisins — was a favorite of ours, given the updated Motown covers within were crafted by rather exceptional musicians as opposed to, well, actual raisins. Our tastes intersected and expanded our thinking and creativity.
Brett Rardin was just across the hall. My fellow Michiganian saw fit to bring his drum set to Searcy and David — being well-suited to the whole ‘cajun wildman’ ethos at that time — saw fit to bring Brett’s drum set across the hall to our room on many occasions. Way too many. And for all the music in our combined, extensive library, one record — perhaps one song in particular — had the lot of us regulars unleashed on air-guitar, air-mic, air-bass, and very-real drums: Under the God by Tin Machine (the band Bowie formed after NLMD). If we ever make a soundtrack to our years of being roommates, that song would be the opener for sure, and David will be on Brett’s drums. (What’s left of them, anyway.)
After college, I rarely reached for any of my few Bowie CDs. The vinyl from the 70s was now warehoused in a former ceiling fan cardboard box in a closet back home. And over the past 25 years or so, I have only paid brief attention to his material and activities. And that’s not a bad thing, really: Bowie moved. And moved on. Pushed. Pushed harder. As Steve Jobs might say, he kept striking out into space harder to put more and more dents in the universe. Bowie has a long trail of alienated or disaffected fans, I believe. Most great artists do, as the great ones realize they are on a quest rather than settlers. They are conquistadors, not harbormasters; architects, not residents. They keep exploring, moving, testing, failing, course-correcting, impressing, inspiring, …and enduring. Collecting many new fans and understandably losing a few in the process of moving ever onward.
David died yesterday from liver cancer. He was 69. He didn’t let us know, and I’m not sure why.
Maybe because for all the years spent redefining himself, for every persona he meticulously crafted to represent his music (or vice versa), he did not want to be defined again, this time as the dying man – as in a man whose health is deteriorating and has months to live. We already watched a similar legend slip away when we were the audience to Steve Jobs’ demise. Instead, David confronted his mortality with his music (or vice versa), given his final formal work that came out two days before his death – on his final birthday. As in so many other stories popular and private, David lived long enough to see that day, then slipped away without saying goodbye. How could he have, anyway?
Blackstar is no goodbye.
I don’t believe he left us with such a parting word or benediction of sorts.
Who understands David Bowie? Who has really stripped away the layers of his writings to know his mind and heart, other than God Himself? Having bid my Spotify app to indulge me in random selections from his catalog during my commute to and from work today, I can say the David wrote with intent and depth – profound depth. Maybe a lot of drug-infused depth which could certainly help dismiss some of it. But not all 50 years of it. Certainly not the riddles in his latest work. A lot of it is ambiguous and complex. Whatever he meant, I’m inclined to believe that David only really ever wrote music he wanted to hear. Success and fame were side-effects that happened along the way. His music never lead to movie and TV roles. His acting did. His grasp of theater and performance art was as old as his musical interests, really. He wrote, he painted, he danced and mimed. He was clearly one wanting to constantly express himself, but never quite the same way.
And never, it would seem, as one who was fading in the shadow of death. He was content to let the announcement of his death be no less shocking than any character persona he brought to his concert stages. He was not going to say goodbye, because for David Bowie, that would seem to be impossible. His friend and producer Tony Visconti said that right up until the end he was writing. But no farewell note to us, it seems.
Impossible, when that time and energy can be spent on what’s next, pushing further, ever onward, no surrender, no goodbye,.. there’s something more and it has to be done.
In 2005 David said, “Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always.” I can’t help wonder what he was writing at the end. It wasn’t goodbye, apparently. Maybe he was still questioning. I hope not. I hope between the end of the recording sessions for Blackstar a year ago and now, David’s questions were resolved. Maybe not answered, but maybe he found peace and closure with all that he had to write and sing and say over five decades.
Those of us who embrace faith in God through the risen Christ still have questions, and too many it seems will go unanswered. But we claim the peace and resolve that is sufficient to let us move forward to the the next day or to our final day. We too really can’t say goodbye, but because we know the impossibility of that kind of goodbye. Eternity won’t let us. Our faith empowers us, even into our final days and hours, to press on.
And perhaps David knew that too – that nothing can be said at the end of a life like this that rightly captures the desired sentiment or scope that neatly and comfortably wraps it all up. Just as commentators today have struggled to list “the five (or ten) essential songs” he created, David’s defined by them all. And with that, how does one add a fond farewell?
Maybe the best way to leave them is to leave them wanting after all. And maybe that means leaving us with more questions than answers — and using our time and energy on what’s next, pushing further, ever onward, no surrender, no goodbye,.. there’s something more and it has to be done… The struggle is real, but so is God.
So for now, no farewells and no goodbyes. “Goodnight, Mr. Bowie,” will have to do. In these late hours and through the dawn, your music will play on and on.
As for us, questioning our spiritual life is still germane to all that we do, regardless of what kind of people we are at the moment. We must keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, and believing the answers will be provided…
A New Career in a New Town –
I have always loved this song. For an instrumental, it articulates an amazing amount of emotion. If there is one song fitting to share here in his memory, it’s easily this one.
“May God’s love be with you…”