It’s been a week since the passing of David Bowie, and as much as I try, I cannot shake it. Feeling lost is really the only way that this can be described, but it’s difficult to reconcile how hard this has hit me having never even met the man.
And like so many of us, he feels so much a part of me and so with his departure from this plane, it feels as if a piece of me has died as well. So much of his music has unwittingly become a part of the fabric and filter of how I hear music, of how I think about music. It’s been this way for a long time, and his departure has left me feeling stunned.
I am not alone in this feeling. So many of my friends on Facebook have been experiencing the same unshakable feeling of emptiness, and I don’t know that any of us can fully articulate why this particular loss has been so hard. We just know that it does. It aches. Many of my friends find themselves crying uncontrollably at different times during the day(s). They try to find meaning, but there isn’t any. I haven’t been able to cry, but it’s right there under the surface and feels like it could burst at any moment. But it doesn’t.
I showed up late to the party. It was the summer of 1980 and had just turned nineteen in Rotterdam a week or two before. My friend Aaron Berg and I were about two thirds through a ten-week bicycle tour of Europe. We were staying for a week in Amsterdam with the family of a friend and co-worker, Simon Van Waay, a wonderfully sparkling Dutch man who—in his eighties—had a spirit younger than most of the students that came in and out of the campus bookstore where he and I worked together.
It was nice staying in an actual house with real beds and bathrooms: most of our trip was being done with sleeping bags, bedrolls and a tent, staying wherever we ended up each day at dusk.
On the second or third day of our stay in Amsterdam, I got hit with an ugly virus. For the better part of two days, my fever held at 102, and even after it broke, I was weak and spent, unable to do much of anything. During the days, I was mostly alone, with Aaron out exploring the city, our hosts at work and their kids doing whatever it is that Dutch kids do in the summertime.
My one saving grace was the stereo in that house, and while many of the records were by artists that I was either unfamiliar with or unimpressed by, there was one— the timeless, magnificent Hunky Dory. During those sick days, I listened almost exclusively to this record, unable to believe the depth and breadth of the music, the lyrical calligraphy, and the adventurous range of it all. My entire concept of what popular music could be was being turned on its head, and I felt as if I was being transformed in a way that only those life-changing records in our lives can do.
Before Europe, I had already resolved that I wanted to become a musician and that would eventually play in a band that wrote and played original material. This new discovery was fuel like nothing I could have imagined.
Prior to Europe I had certainly heard “Changes,” “Fame” and “Rebel Rebel” on the radio, however I never paid them much attention, as I had been more entrenched with prog-rock, fusion and jazz during my last two years on high school. Realizing that this gem was almost a decade old at the time of my discovery was in itself unfathomable. If Hunky Dory record was this visionary, I wondered what the rest of Bowie’s output was like. I had become a fascinated devotee of this strange creature, and was about to embark on one of the more obsessive musical explorations of my life.
After Europe, I visited my friends Tom and Ben for a month in Seattle, where they had an apartment to themselves while their father was teaching English on a boat somewhere in the Philippines. He had paid the rent in advance, and left the place in the hands of his two teenage sons, my two best friends at the time.
We had virtually no money, but somehow managed to scrounge food and the occasional beer. At the center of everything that went on in that apartment was a turntable and a small but impressive selection of records. A couple of the records that will forever be tied to the memories from that party month are Ziggy Stardust, and the then recently-released Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), to this day still easily one of my favorite records by Bowie.
After my visit to Seattle, I spent nine months living with my grandparents in Redondo Beach, working and saving my money for my eventual move to Seattle. I bought my first guitar, a six-string Ovation. I began teaching myself songs. One of them was “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory. I also started teaching myself “Oh! You Pretty Things” on my grandparents’ piano. I was working at Millie Riera’s Seafood Grotto, with people who were all in their twenties and thirties, and they were more than happy to further open my eyes and ears to more Bowie. I became deeply obsessed with Station to Station, Low and my favorite at that time, “Heroes.” A couple of my more savvy co-workers took things a step further, and made a point of turning me on to Brian Eno and in particular, Another Green World, Before and After Science and Music for Films, all records that I became infatuated with in parallel with my new-found devotion to Bowie.
In the summer of 1981, I finally moved to Seattle, a city that would remain my home for the next 22 years. I ended up playing in several bands, the most notable of which was Skin Yard, an outfit that I co-founded with Jack Endino. Our first show was in the summer of 1985, during the earliest days of the scene that would eventually be known as Grunge. At first we did not really fit with much of the music that was contemporary to us. Our singer, Ben McMillan was often criticized for being “too Bowie-esque,” and indeed, Ben was a BIG Bowie fan. Keep in mind that this criticism was leveled at a time when Bowie’s most recent recordings were Let’s Dance and Tonight. These were records that were the very antithesis of what our burgeoning music scene was about, however Ben’s influence was ultimately rooted in the earlier material from before Scary Monsters. The first cover that Skin Yard ever ever did was “She Shook Me Cold” from The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie’s second release. We released a live recording of the song as a bonus track to our first record when it came out on CD. I still think it is a worthy (if not bombastic and sloppy) rendition.
None of this however, gets the meat of what it is…was… about Bowie that has so many of us feeling such a sense of anguish in his death. What was/is it about him that has left us with such a sense of pain and loss?
His presence was magnetic and his talent utterly breathtaking. He was always an anomaly, intensely public, yet intensely private at the same time. A dichotomy that seems near impossible, yet he managed to glide effortlessly between them.
His creative genius is unparalleled, and even though he laid a few eggs in my book (everything after Scary Monsters and before The Buddha of Suburbia, and then again his records Hours and Reality), his albums individually are more innovative than the entire catalogs of most artists. Bowie’s “bad” albums (see above, and feel free to disagree) would be a remarkable achievement for the average mediocre band whose music fills the airwaves today. I can only imagine what it must be like to have to try to measure all your new work against a bar that was set so high – a bar that you set yourself. It’s like Martin Scorcese trying to make another brilliant piece of work after having released Taxi Driver… It took him a while.
I think for many, David Bowie is the artist that most inexorably marks their musical life, and it’s pretty easy to fathom that we’ll never experience another artist in our lives that will have the creative impact and influence this Bowie’s work has imprinted on all of us. It’s more than his music: It’s his essence. It permeates the ether, and now with his final record “★,”he’s left as an enduring gift, a deliberate and thankful goodbye to all of us, and the most elegant departure, with Lazarus as the signature and his final parting glance. Contextualizing this final release as part of his greater oeuvre is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Many of us share a certain connection with each other based the shared love we have for Bowie, and in the ways that his music has altered the ways that we reflect on music, think about ourselves and about how to better live creative lives.
With his passing, we have ultimately lost a part of ourselves, but if you try to consider a world where he never existed, where these gifts were never known, we would have to consider entirely different versions of ourselves as well.
For this, I am deeply grateful. His life contains lessons on how we can better live our own lives. That said, shaking this is still gonna take more time.