I am traditionally a light sleeper, and I usually keep the TV on at night to help me sleep, most of the time set to the NBC station out of Portland, Maine. At 4:00am, they air a half-hour news show called EARLY TODAY, their precursor to the bigger and expanded TODAY show that airs a few hours later. And, on Monday morning, January 11, 2016, the words “breaking news” were followed by the words that kept me from going back to sleep – David Bowie had died at the age of 69, after an 18-month battle with cancer.
Instantly, my heart was broken. My heart is still aching over the loss of this amazing singer, songwriter, producer, musician, painter, actor, innovator and downright cool and brilliant individual. I’ve loved David Bowie and his music for a long time, but I never expected to feel like this.
My first David Bowie experience wasn’t ZIGGY STARDUST or “Changes” or “Fame” or “Golden Years,” and happened by way of the source least likely – Bing Crosby. It was November 30, 1977, and CBS aired the Christmas special, BING CROSBY’S MERRIE OLDE CHRISTMAS. This special was notable for the fact that Bing had passed away that October, just weeks after filming the special. It was also notable because it introduced me to a 30-year-old David Bowie. They sang “Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy” together.
It’s no secret that David didn’t want to sing “Little Drummer Boy.” It’s also no secret that he wasn’t too jazzed that his record label, RCA, released the song as a single five years later, in 1982 (it reached No. 3 in the U.K.; soon thereafter he and RCA parted ways). Regardless of any drama related to the creation of this song from the special, it was instantly my favorite Christmas song. And it still is.
At the time of this Christmas special, I had absolutely no idea who David Bowie was, or that he had already released 12 albums by 1977, or that he released another 2 albums before the song “Let’s Dance” caught my ear in the Spring of 1983. Since I didn’t really get into music until 1979, and most of it being Top 40 music until the mid-80s, great albums like 1980’s SCARY MONSTERS had eluded me.
David Bowie not only co-claims my favorite Christmas song of all-time, he also has an association to the first album I ever bought with my own money – Queen’s 1981 GREATEST HITS album (bought at the former LaVerdiere’s Drug Store in Waterville, Maine, of all places). “Under Pressure” was the only new single released from that album.
Queen’s GREATEST HITS album, 35 years later, is still in my collection, although totally beat to hell. I loved the mini-bios of all the songs on the LP, and included peak chart positions in the U.K. and the U.S., which totally excited the 14-year-old chart nerd inside me.
“Under Pressure” was my second introduction to David Bowie, and I couldn’t help but notice the amazing passion and conviction in David’s and Freddie Mercury’s shared vocals. I had been steadily buying 45s for over two years when this song came out at the end of 1981, and while most of the purchased 45s were hits, there were some that didn’t do as well as I would have hoped. I loved “Under Pressure” so much, I was a little more than disappointed when it stopped at No. 29 on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 for a couple weeks in early January 1982. I was so moved by this song, I was truly surprised more people in the country weren’t as moved about it, and in turn move it up higher in the upper echelon of the Top 40.
Years later, I was pleased to see “Under Pressure” did move more people than I initially thought by a Top 40 pop chart ranking here in the United States. (WARNING: my chart nerdiness at work here…) The song hit No. 1 in the U.K., Argentina and Holland, and the Top 10 in (at least) Austria, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland. And, just this week, “Under Pressure” was only one of 2 Bowie songs (along with 1969’s “Space Oddity”) to re-enter the BILLBOARD Hot 100 following his passing, coming in at No. 45. It might leave the Hot 100 again next week, but I look at it as a testament to how many people are moved by this song all these years later. And, as much as I loved the Top 40 back in 1981, it goes to show that you don’t have to be a big hit to be remembered for all time. A great example of this is Bowie’s 1972 Classic Rock gem “Changes,” which stopped at No. 41.
After “Under Pressure” faded from the Top 40 in January 1982, I led a Bowie-free existence for about 14 months, when “Let’s Dance” and its parent album of the same name changed all that. It was NEVER a Bowie-free existence for me after that.
Once I had the LET’S DANCE album in my hands and onto my turntable, I would learn a lot more about the artist formerly known as David Jones. LET’S DANCE was also my introduction to the massively talented Stevie Ray Vaughan. His guitar stylings on the album remain unforgettable, most notably on the album’s singles and the reworking of “Cat People (Putting Out Fire).” I was exercising to this album the other day (via my 5th generation iPod), and I still dig it, 33 years later.
Fast-forward to 1984. Although I was buying more albums by then, I was still purchasing more singles (7” and 12” alike) than LPs. 1984 also brought some God-awful reviews of David’s TONIGHT record, which I did not buy. I remember one critic listed it as one of the worst albums of all-time. But, I really enjoyed his Top 10 hit from that album, “Blue Jean,” and will never forget his haunting and powerful message on the 12” mix of the charity record, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
In February/March 1985, David returned with a gem of a minor Top 40 hit, “This Is Not America, from the Timothy Hutton / Sean Penn film, THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN, and which paired DB up with Pat Metheny Group, who were already Jazz Fusion legends. It was so different than much of the other singles out at the time, I really appreciated that. Plus, I had a strong dislike for “Rhythm Of The Night” (sorry, DeBarge).
A few months later, I (like millions around the world) spent my entire July 13, 1985, glued to the TV set watching LIVE AID. (I’ll be sure to go on about LIVE AID in a future post, don’t you worry.) I mention LIVE AID here because you can’t mention LIVE AID without mentioning the amazing performance of a then-38-year-old David Bowie. It was heralded as one of THE BEST performances that day (and it also didn’t hurt that he was getting some excellent keyboard help from the also-amazing Thomas Dolby). 38 years old and rocking that “global jukebox.” Not many people can say that…
The video for his cover of “Dancing In The Street” with Mick Jagger debuted at LIVE AID, and the single was released shortly thereafter. I owned the 12” single version of the song (my close and über-talented friend, Hope, would be prompted to ask, “What 12” singles DON’T you own!”), and I enjoyed their cover version, but it never compared to what was about to hit me in the Spring of 1986 – “Absolute Beginners.”
“Absolute Beginners,” written and performed by David Bowie, was the title song from a British Rock musical directed by Julien Temple (who directed many films and documentaries about bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, and even directed 1988’s EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY). David appears in the film (as well as Sade), and I can’t remember how this song found me, but I’ll be eternally grateful that it did.
The single stalled out at No. 53 on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 in early May 1986, but my love for the song never subsided. Like “Under Pressure” four years earlier, “Absolute Beginners” had passion and conviction encompassed in David’s vocals. And, once I learned that the 5-and-a-half-minute single had an 8-minute companion on the soundtrack album, you better believe I snatched it up as soon as I could.
In celebrating my 40th birthday in 2007 (the last full year I was living in Portland, Maine), I made mix CDs for everyone who came to my party (yes, people still made mix CDs then; hell, I still do). The idea came to me by way of Christian, a friend and longtime supporter of my little radio show, STUCK IN THE 80s, and who made mix CDs for his friends around Christmastime. I loved the idea and put together a baker’s dozen and then some of songs that meant something to me during my first 40 years. “Absolute Beginners” was the first song on the CD. Along the same lines as I’ve stated in this blog post, I wrote, “This tragically underrated gem from 1986 fared much better in the U.K. than in the U.S., but is still my favorite solo song from him. Outside of the brilliant ‘Under Pressure’ he did with Queen, I think this is Bowie at his strongest and most passionate.” That sentiment from my 40-year-old self still highly resonates to my soon-to-be 49-year-old self.
I’m a bit embarrassed to say that, after “Absolute Beginners,” his wonderful work in 1986’s LABYRINTH, 1987’s NEVER LET ME DOWN and the 1989 TIN MACHINE album, I kind of lost track of David Bowie. Don’t really know why. Before his final album, BLACKSTAR (his first No. 1 album, BTW), the last thing I ever purchased of his was the 1990 remix of “Fame” and a clear vinyl version of the CHANGESBOWIE compilation that Rykodisc put out. Sadly, I can’t locate either at this moment. Hope to find them somewhere in the madness that is my record collection.
Though most of it escaped me at the time, David put out some great music in the 90s, like 1990’s “Pretty Pink Rose” with King Crimson’s Adrian Belew; “Real Cool World,” from the 1992 film, COOL WORLD, whose soundtrack was way better than the film itself; 1997’s “I’m Afraid Of Americans” (co-produced by Nine Inch Nails); and, “Without You I’m Nothing,” a 1999 collaboration with London alt-rockers Placebo.
In January 2001, I became the volunteer Music Director for WMPG Community Radio in Portland, Maine (I had been doing STUCK IN THE 80s for 5 years at that point), a position I held for over 10 years (both as a volunteer and as a paid manager with WMPG and the University of Southern Maine). During that time, through Virgin reissues, plus 2002’s HEATHEN and 2003’s REALITY albums, I reacquainted myself with Mr. Jones. HEATHEN sported this kick-ass cover of “Cactus,” a Pixies song from 1988’s SURFER ROSA. It was his strongest-reviewed album since LET’S DANCE. REALITY was also well-received and featured another notable cover – “Pablo Picasso,” a monster cover of a 1972 song written by Jonathan Richman.
2013 saw the release of David’s 24th studio album, THE NEXT DAY, and for whatever reason, despite strong reviews from friends and critics, and a No. 2 debut on the BILLBOARD album chart, it, too, eluded me for whatever reason. I’m a few years late, but it’s on my list, and I’ll visit the album for the first time soon.
When I thought of the idea for this blog many months ago, I had no idea my second post would be dedicated – literally – to David Bowie. When I was old enough to know better, he remained one of my favorite artists, but not near the top of my list for reasons I can’t explain.
Last year at this time, I was having breakfast with one of my closest and oldest friends, Michelle, a former Portlander who now calls Colorado her home. We were discussing a possible visit there for me in the summer, and who we’d love to see perform at famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre, just outside of Denver. David Bowie was at the top of that list. Little did we know that concert would have never happened. David had been battling cancer – unbeknownst to us and most of the world – for six months by that point. He didn’t bother many with it, left us with one more hauntingly amazing album, and said farewell on his own terms. Classy right until the end, that one.
It’s been a week and a half since he’s been gone, and it’s still hard. I haven’t felt a music-related death like this since the tragic passing of INXS’ Michael Hutchence in November 1997. Michael’s death hit me hard, but I don’t think his death affected me as hard as David’s has, and INXS remains as my favorite band to this day. And there have been some heavy duty passings in the last 18 years, including but not limited to The Ramones and The Clash’s Joe Strummer.
It’s strange (or maybe not), but I’m kind of still surprised at how the loss of David Bowie is affecting me; more than I ever thought it would. The other day, I was listening to Peter Gabriel’s gorgeous 2010 string-infused cover of “Heroes,” and I almost wept right there in the car.
My longtime friend and STUCK IN THE 80s frequent guest host, Shawn Emerick, did an excellent Bowie tribute on the 1.17.16 show while filling in for me. I was meant to be away and he had intended on doing a regular show. And on 1.24.16, Hope and I are joining our Sunday night shows (STUCK IN THE 80s and her show POWERHAUS) for another tribute to David, this time for 4 hours. If people call and ask why we’re doing another Bowie tribute, I’ll just say the answer is in the question – it’s David Bowie. And it’s deserved.
I had read somewhere that one of my favorite actors, Simon Pegg, said (of Bowie’s passing), “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.” Right on. Maybe a part of me thought David would be around forever, and my body’s not used to the idea of him being gone. I can’t be the only one who feels this way.
In life, David Bowie inspired and influenced and touched so many with his work, and in death (or from one constellation to another), he’ll continue to do so. I know he’s certainly inspired me. It’s no coincidence that I launched my blog on the day I learned he was gone, and I’m writing more now than I have in far too many years. This post is even longer than my debut post; go figure. Whether or not it’s the inspiration of David Bowie, or if I’ve just finally decided to get off my fundament and do something I was meant to do, I’m eternally grateful.
Thank you Ziggy Stardust, thank you Jean Genie, thank you Thin White Duke, thank you Starman and thank you David Bowie. I only met you through your music, but I know I’ll never forget you. And to borrow from you if I may, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” Take care and be good, wherever you are…