Five Songs by David Bowie
The following piece comes from my personal blog. I wrote it on January 11, 2016, just hours after hearing that one of my favorite musicians had died. Music and memory are closely related both psychologically and neurologically, so it's no surprise that music can bring us back to earlier points in our lives.
Space Oddity. 2003.
I’m eleven years old, and it’s my first summer at Camp Becket, a place where I would grow up, find myself, and spend the next thirteen summers of my life. My counselor that summer, Dean, was an amazing, gentle man, a college kid from Massachusetts who became an idol and a hero when he was surrounded by his campers. During a time in my life when I hid burned copies of The Eminem Show and The Marshall Mathers LP in my underwear drawer, Dean’s music was mellow, refreshing. He’d play songs from Sea Change to help us fall asleep. He’d sing songs as our cabin group walked down to the waterfront, or to the archery range, or to the dining hall. One of his favorites was Space Oddity.
When I returned from camp that summer, I knew exactly who I wanted to be when I was older. “Dean went to Boston Latin,” I explained to my mother in the kitchen of our suburban home in Connecticut. “I think that’s where I want to go too.” Along with several other requests, which included guitar lessons, a pair of New Balance 574 sneakers, and a trucker hat, I asked my father to download Space Oddity onto my pre-iPod mp3 player, a small, round, yellow device which looked like a gadget from the movie Spy Kids. He looked at me sideways. The dial-up internet wailed and crackled.
Space Oddity, with it’s bizarre (odd?) narrative of Major Tom, protein pills, and a tin can’s broken circuitry, still brings me back to my early, wide-eyed days as a camper in Iroquois Village. Life, then, was an adventure, every one of Dean’s songs leading to a new experience, a new friend, a new memory.
Queen Bitch. 2005.
Several years later I decide to expand my David Bowie collection. I download Queen Bitch because of its provocative title, thinking that if the song contains a swear, it must be cool. Such is the flawless nature of middle school decision-making. The Killers’ Mr. Brightside came out around this time, and I lurked on internet forums where music snobs drew parallels between “And now I’m calling a cab/because my stomach is sick” and Bowie’s more British “And I’m phoning a cab/Cause my stomach feels small.” I felt protective of Bowie’s lyrics, almost like they were mine. I explained this to my friends. “The Killers are just copying David Bowie,” I would explain in the cafeteria. “They’re posers. Bowie wrote Queen Bitch like, fifty years ago.”
Not surprisingly, my egocentric, middle school mind was only hearing half of the story, only paying attention to half of the lyrics. The Killers weren’t copying anyone. Instead, they were inspired. In an article posted this morning, Brandon Flowers describes the first time he heard David Bowie on the radio. “It changed everything,” he explained.
I’m back at Becket, this time as one of the counselors I had so looked up to as a young camper, and my staff group is responsible for choosing a song for one of camp’s weekly chapel services. Our director, Ben, was a die-hard Bowie fan, a creative, smart guy who always had Hunky Dory or Changes running in the background during our staff meetings. He played us the song during one of these meetings. We knew it was the perfect fit.
Kooks captured the contagious, quirky, uninhibited energy of our staff group. It was about breaking the mold (though we weren’t about to encourage our campers to burn their homework), an anti-establishment “lover’s story” about embracing one another and all that life has to offer. The song spreads the odd, intelligent energy that marked his career. He invites listeners in; “Stay with us,” he says. “You’re gonna be pretty kookie too.”
Young Americans. 2011.
I’m driving through the frozen and gray hills of rural Eastern Connecticut with my college girlfriend and her older brother. It’s late February, and the sky is blanketed in thick clouds. I’m sitting in the backseat of her brother’s Toyota, a car we’d later take to Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee, and my girlfriend is guiding me through her life, one song at a time. We blast Of Montreal. I hear Heroin for the first time. After an hour of aimless driving, passing forests and lakes and churches and small homes, we cross back into Mansfield. “Only time for one more song,” her brother points out.
Campus is approaching in the distance. It’s the place where, over the next four years, I’d be broken down and built up, develop friends and interests that would forge my path and change me forever. Her brother turns up the stereo. The piano comes in, then the drums. Then David Sanborn’s saxophone. Then the lyrics, full of poster love and vagabonds and that one song that can make you break down and cry. It’s a rock and roll ode to the liminal years of emerging adulthood. She’s blasting Young Americans.
Five Years. 2013.
I’m living in Florence, Italy, and I’ve developed a habit of taking the long walk home. There was something about living abroad that encouraged, no, forced me to be present. To take it all in. To listen to music and walk home in the rain, maybe stopping for an espresso or a kinder along the way. Every day was an adventure, and days slipped by and blended into weeks and months at a shocking speed.
I’m not sure how Ziggy Stardust ended up on my iPod, but the album was an amazing fit for those cold, rainy walks through Florence. The album’s opening track, Five Years, is a love story detective novel, it’s Bowie walking through the dark, winding streets, searching for a lover or a friend. Simultaneously dark and promising. About home, the past, and the possibilities of five years of living. A near-perfect match to the album art, which could easily be a storyboard image for the song’s second verse. Walking through Florence, slipping through puddles and cobblestones while the rain soaked the shoulders of my jacket, I felt at peace. I felt like the song was mine. My moment of introversion and reflection amidst the greatest, most energized months of my life.
I woke up this morning and I felt sad. I felt sad for the man who, when asked about being a parent, explained that the most important thing he could do was encourage his children to read. A man who transcended gender and race and so many barriers to create and deliver amazing art. But something amazing, immortalizing even, happens when the world loses an artist. In our sadness, we go back to the discography, back to the albums.
We go back to Changes, and Heroes, and Diamond Dogs, and Aladdin Sane, and Ziggy Stardust, and this 1975 performance of Fame, and we realize that, in a way, Bowie’s never going to be gone. He’ll always be there, waiting in the music. Maybe he’s slinking across the stage, microphone in hand and lightning bolt painted across his face. Or maybe it’s 1982, and he’s pressing MTV to air more black music on their network. Or maybe he’s at home, tucking his children into bed, making sure they have a book ready on their nightstand.