Farewell to the Thin White Duke

Sometimes, this blog feels like a series of obituaries for musicians I’ve admired. I guess part of getting older is seeing your old favorites pass away. So it is again today, with the news of David Bowie’s death from cancer yesterday at age 69.

When I was in junior high and my first year or two of high school, everything was new – clothes, girls, and especially music. I read music magazines voraciously, and there was always someone new to discover. I was an innocent kid in a small town, and the rock stars I read about were a little scary and exciting at the same time. I wanted to hear all of them – Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Hendrix, Clapton. And in the summer of 1974, I first heard of David Bowie.

The first Bowie album I bought was Young Americans in the summer of 1975. Looking back, that record wasn’t close to representative of his music; it was a brief fling with soul music. It had the great title song, the disco-tinged rave-up Fame, a seriously bad version of The Beatles’ Across the Universe, and not much else that I remember.

The next winter brought Station To Station, which included what is probably my favorite Bowie song, Golden Years (see the video below.) Within the first two notes, I’m 14 again, loving the feel of that song, the way the vocals fade in and out, the way they seem to surround me, rising above and through the disco rhythms, Bowie sneering, “Last night they loved you / Opening doors and pulling some strings / Angelllllll…..”

Very close seconds are two from 1974’s Diamond Dogs album . The title track, with its menacing guitars, dog howls, and one of my favorite opening lines to a song: “As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent / You asked for the latest party.” And Rebel Rebel, with an infectious guitar lick and that chorus:

Rebel rebel, you’ve torn your dress
Rebel rebel, your face is a mess
Rebel rebel, how could they know?
Hot tramp, I love you so.

High school summed up in four lines.

Later on, I found some of his earlier, greatest songs, like Space Oddity (I shamelessly stole the style of that song for a forgettable piece of teenage angst I wrote my freshman year of college). Incredibly, I think I may have been in college when I first heard Changes and Suffragette City. And then, my first summer after college, as I adjusted to the working world, was the summer of Let’s Dance, China Girl and Modern Love. It was the soundtrack of my summer.

Bowie never equaled the commercial success of the period from 1969 to 1983. I pretty much lost track of him. I got older, married, had kids, became … respectable. And yet, somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain, there’s a high school kid itching to jump on stage with a Strat and play the lead part on Diamond Dogs. Just once. Ah well. There are some fantasies that are best left as fantasies.

So, David Bowie has departed this world. I like to think of him fading away, whistling as he walks down whatever path he’s on, just like at the end of Golden Years. And as he exits, he’s left me tapping my feet and singing “Wop-wop-wop.” What more can we ask of a great musician?

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