David Bowie was weird. There’s little point in trying to argue, minimize, or qualify it. He was a weird person, and a weird artist. He was “too weird” for most people. He was too weird for my family and friends, so he was too weird for me for many years. I would love to write that I debated the opinion or ignored them altogether. I would love to write that I argued that he might be right for me, because I’m weird, and I embrace the weird. While that was true, I didn’t know how different I was when I was young, and even I did, I wouldn’t acknowledge it, because I wanted to have friends. Even the weirdest among us do whatever we have to do to have friends. So, when they tell us something is not only weird, but “too weird,” we back away with them into comfortable groups.
He shocked audiences in an era that didn’t want to be shocked. In Bowie’s prime years of creative productivity, shock value was not yet a commodity. The New York Dolls were shocking people in New York, Marc Bolan was doing it to England, and Alice Cooper and KISS were putting it to the United States, but shocking people was not apart of the marketing package of an artist in the way it would be ten years later. Those other guys also tapped into a definition of weird that was the fun part of their show, but Bowie was different. There was something about the strain of strange he displayed that was so organic that it was a little creepy. When we saw it, we could tell he wasn’t having a laugh. It felt like apart of him, and that he might, in fact, be part alien.
Watch the shows of David Bowie on YouTube, circa 1972, and try to picture how shocking that must have been to that audience. It’s hard for us to imagine how shocking it was now, because we’re so accustomed to performers pushing the boundaries for greater shock value now, but ’72 Bowie was regarded as so weird that people actively avoided listening to Bowie because of his alien nature.
Long story short, I have been a David Bowie enthusiast for about 20 years, but it took me a long time to get there. By the time I discovered Bowie, I already knew most of his hits, so I wasn’t immediately blown away by many of the songs. The genius of his deep cuts did not blow me away either, in the manner the Beatles’ deep cuts did. Bowie’s genius was not that immediate for me. His subtle artistic creativity required repeated listens, until I found myself working through his constructs when I wasn’t listening to the music.
Listening to Bowie is sort of like putting on a great pair of socks. I’ve never met anyone who was absolutely blown away by a pair of socks. We prefer some socks over others, but there are some socks that fit so well that when we put them on, they just feel like us, and we begin wearing them every day. When I began seriously listening to Bowie on a daily basis, I found philosophical artistry that fit me like a great pair of socks. Art is relative of course, and I know people who identify with Elvis Costello in the same ways I do Bowie, but I didn’t understand why so few mentioned Bowie among the elite artists’ discussion. The only answer I could come up with was that he was just so weird.
I appreciated Bowie’s reincarnation on MTV from afar, as a kid, but the Let’s Dance, China Girl songs seemed more like period pieces in the Madonna/Whitney Houston mold. Pop stars buy great songs from great songwriters, I thought, but a weird, music freak seeking deep, multi-faceted artists doesn’t dive deep into the catalog of pop stars. We wait until the radio stations play one of their singles. I thought David Bowie was just another good-looking pop star who bought great songs that were probably written by someone else. It was important to me, even back then, that an artist write their own music, because, to my mind, that was the difference between a star and an artist. I thought Bowie was just another 80’s pop star who had a 70’s catalog that I had no real interest in exploring, until an unusually perceptive friend of mine dropped this line on me.
“This crazy, weird musical path you’re on all points to one man, David Bowie,” he said.
“David Bowie?” I asked with disdain. “The Let’s Dance, China Girl guy?” I couldn’t believe the guy who introduced me to such incredible music was now saying I should be listening to an ‘80’s pop artist. I’d been on the other end of the “if you like those guys, you’ll love these guys” suggestion so many times that I didn’t pay too much attention to him. This unusually perceptive friend said the same of Miles Davis, King Crimson, and Frank Zappa in the past, and while I liked and respected those artists, they didn’t reach me on that other, “my music” level.
“I’m telling you,” he added, “Bowie is T. Rex, Hanoi Rocks, and Roxy Music, and that music is Bowie in a way that you won’t understand until you listen to this,” he added handing me a copy of a Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (AKA Ziggy) compact disc. “This is David Bowie 101, and when you start loving the alien, I’ll start introducing you to the alternate universe he created.”
I thought Ziggy was a quality album when I first heard it, but I couldn’t get passed all the other hang ups I had about the man. Those hang ups led me to think Ziggy was so immediate that it might be too immediate. After repeated spins, I started zeroing in on the other songs on it, and I started dissecting them in the “parts are greater than the whole” mindset. Soul Love was the first song that grabbed me, after the more obvious songs hits Ziggy, Suffragette City and Lady Stardust. At the end of that week, I forgot to return the disc to my friend. The music on Ziggy Stardust became “mine” in so many ways that I forgot the disc it was on was not. I returned his disc and went out and bought my own.
After borrowing Hunky Dory, then Diamond Dogs from him, I was hooked. The fixed notions I had of Bowie began to fall away, and I stopped borrowing the discs from my perceptive friend. I bought them. I did something different with my Bowie-obsession than I did with every other artist to whom I became obsessed. I bought a Bowie album, and I inhaled it. I lived with each album, until I knew just about every lyric and every beat of those albums. I thought there was something different to know on each album, something to feel and know that I never experienced before with any other artist. Each album was so different that I could see what everyone was saying when they said he was too weird, but I was weird, as I wrote, and it took a while, but I began to embrace Bowie’s definition of the weird. I listened to them as an art enthusiast might when examine a painting, slowly ingesting each nuance until I discovered what it meant to me.
When my excitement to buy another album overrode my good sense, I moved onto the next album, only to discover I wasn’t done with the last one yet. Bowie, I realized, was one of the very few rock stars who could have one foot planted in the pop world and one in the world of art. My peers told me the man was weird, “too weird”, and I listened. Soon after taking a deep dive, I regretted how much I missed by listening to them for so long. Yes, he was weird, I thought, but I’m weird. I eventually found comfort in my oddities long before I discovered Bowie, but his music seemed to fit me like a comfortable sock. There are very few artists that affect me so much that I regret not listening to them sooner. I thought of all the years I wasted listening other artists when I could’ve been listening to The Man who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Alladin Sane, and Diamond Dogs. I thought it could’ve changed my world just a little bit back then, and I know that’s silly, but the effect his music had on me was that profound.
When I finally made it past the obsession, I had with the Five Years chunk of his catalog (Man Who Sold the World through Diamond Dogs), I graduated to the Berlin Trilogy; Low, Lodger, and Scary Monsters. We listen to music, albums, and artists for a variety of reasons, and I couldn’t count my obsessions with various artists on my fingers and toes, but there was something different about David Bowie. We could label his music in all the pedantic ways, deep, meaningful, and spiritual music, but it’s hard even for a writer who overanalyzes the thoughts in his head to capture the effect his music had on me.
Whereas most singers sang about love, drugs, and rocking out, Bowie sang about aliens, estrangement, and various other themes that were so weird. In places where an artist might go over the top, Bowie showed restraint. In places where an artist should show restraint, Bowie went over the top. He could write a song that that would live on in the history of FM radio (Space Oddity, Changes, and Heroes), and on the same album he could leave a song to cure our longing for great, weird, offbeat music that only music aficionados love (Alternative Candidate, It’s no Game (part 1), and Lady Grinning Soul). Bowie was the consummate artist who found a way reach me as no other artist could. Most music aficionados don’t intend to downplay the effects of hits, but most quality artists have some hits in their catalog. The difference between Bowie and most good artists is that he spent as much time perfecting his deep cuts as he did his hits. He had a conventional side and an artistic side, as most of us do, but unlike most of us David Bowie managed to cultivate both sides.
I started listening to David Bowie obsessively about 20 years ago, and I bought his new releases on the date of their release. I enjoy a majority of them, but Bowie captured magic in a bottle during the Five Years albums and the Berlin Trilogy. Hours…, Reality, and Blackstar were my favorite late Bowie albums, but they couldn’t compare to the great eight.
David Bowie has experienced a rebirth since his premature death. Fans and fellow artists now list him just a bit outside the greatest artists of his era. They call him revolutionary, a pioneer, and all that stuff, but save for a few artists here and there, I didn’t hear the adoration society crown him in a way he richly deserved when he was alive. I might have missed it, but I was paying attention, and I couldn’t believe the lack of attention he received. I understood that he was “too weird” to ever be listed among the upper tier of his craft, but if you’re such a music enthusiast that you crave something different, you might hear that David Bowie is weird, too weird. I suggest cast that you that aside for as long as it takes to make an individual assessment of his material. My bet is that he reaches you on a level you’ve never considered before. Music, like every other art form, is so relative that his music might not appeal to you on the level he did me, but if you’re anything like me, it all points to Bowie.
Other than providing me an excellent entry point to David Bowie, with Ziggy, my friend was notoriously poor at providing me an entry point to the artists he loved. To introduce me to Frank Zappa, for example, he loaned me an an advanced 401 Zappa album that he loved as someone who had been listening to Zappa for years. I eventually grew to love that album, but it took me a while. I needed to start at a Zappa 101 album. With that in mind, I thought about an entry point to David Bowie. I would compile Hunky Dory and Ziggy into a playlist, and I would cut the songs Eight Line Poem and It Ain’t Easy (personal preference). Best of Bowie is another great place to start, of course, as most people prefer hits as a point of entry, and if you’re not familiar with the hits, you might want to start there. For those who know those the hits so well that they seek deep cuts, beyond the hits, I’ve compiled a list of those songs that have made it on my Bowie playlists most often. Some of them were marginal hits in their era, but I still consider them so deep and meaningful that I had to include them.
1) Alternative Candidate (no longer on Spotify for some reason. It’s on YouTube though.)
2) It’s no Game (Part 1)
3) Lady Grinning Soul
4) Sound and Vision
6) African Night Flight
7) Soul Love
9) Thursday’s Child
10) Queen Bitch