I remember when the needle first dropped onto the soundtrack record of my life. The specific day was a typical Saturday morning late in my adolescence. The place was my childhood home in Boston, MA. While mowing down bowls of Alpha-Bits breakfast cereal, I spun around the box and noticed one of the many attention getters cereal makers used to entice young pancreases. It was a blue plastic 45RPM single from the Jackson 5. As the sugary pebbles began to wind me up, I became psyched to cut the single out of the box and get jamming.
My older brother walked into the kitchen. As he did I blurted out, “Hey, I have a new Jackson 5 45! Can I play it on your record-player??” With a glare dually formed by what I’m sure was a successful evening of brain cell killing and the early morning blathering of his younger brother, he responded with a gruff and emphatic, “Hell no. You’re not listening to that shit on my stereo. You need to listen to some real music.”
With that, he snatched the little blue ring and, under the false pretense of testing the quality of its tensile strength, snapped it in half. Damn, I thought to myself. Thanks a lot for destroying my record collection before it even began! After stuffing a handful of Alpha-bits in his mouth and swigging a gulp from the milk carton big brother motioned me to follow him up to his room.
My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. Is he talking to me, I wondered? Invitations to big brother’s lair were few and far between. It was The Temple of the First Born. The mysteries behind the often closed door to that portal were seldom revealed. When I ever got the chance to enter this domain, it was like receiving an offer to time travel. Count me in.
I bumbled up the stairs behind him like a slightly glazed over pre-teen monk heading towards the revelation of a great truth from a master. When that portal door creaked open it usually was for the bestowal upon me of bits of elder brother wisdom. Things such as learning how to punch more effectively with a roll of quarters in your fist and the healthful and protective benefits of swinging nunchakus. He was on the verge of exiting his teen years. I was on the precipice of entering mine. But with each fraternal lesson he shared in that black light poster adorned room, we became closer as brothers and contemporaries. It was there two of the most important of his revelations were imparted to me: rock and roll music and David Bowie.
We piled into the room single file. I flopped onto the bed. My brother started handing albums to me like a dealer tossing cards to a gambler. I held them with reverence as if I were holding valuable talismans. My hands shuffled through albums by The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolen and T-Rex, Black Sabbath and The J. Geils Band. “This is what you need to be listening to,” my brother said. “This is rock and roll.”
As he said that, I stared down at an album cover upon which was the face of a person I couldn’t quite tell was a man or a woman. The figure’s eyes were closed as if engaged in some sort of extra-terrestrial meditation. The most striking feature was a large, red and blue stripe lightning bolt that reached from forehead to chin. The face belonged to David Bowie. The record was Aladdin Sane. “Can I check this one out?” I asked.
My brother took the album from my hand and slipped the disc from its cover. He handed the cover back to me and turned to drop the vinyl on the turntable. I continued to stare at the face of this almost alien looking being. Then, as the old Emerson amplifier blasted out the first chords of the song, ‘Watch That Man’, I felt like I’d rediscovered my ears. I had certainly heard music before but this was the first time that I ever really felt it. Each song that I listened to drew me further in until by the time ‘Panic In Detroit’ came on I could sit no further. I was on my feet, bobbing my head, guided by some unseen force I’d never experienced before. Instinctively, even before the song finished I knew I wanted to hear more, feel more. Much more. Music had begun to seed itself into my soul.
Thus fate dictated that some of the very first tracks of rock and roll music I ever listened to were those of David Bowie. In that moment, a bond was formed between me, an art form and an artist. Music, particularly Bowie’s unique and inspiring brand of it, went on to indelibly shape and sustain my perspective on life and self exploration at that turning point and many others to follow.
Bowie’s music opened up to me the whole wild, intense world of rock and roll. And, his world and his art were another galaxy unto itself. From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to Aladdin Sane and beyond, I followed Bowie’s travels through his changes. His music was a constant as I grew up, headed out and turned to “…face the strange” as he once sang in a song about – changes. The boldness of the steps he took on his journey was a source I drew from to propel me through mine. From adolescence, to adulthood and even now through middle age, his art has been omnipresent in my life.
When I first arrived in Seattle fresh from the East Coast, he brought my best friend and me together. We were two transplants – he from Michigan and I from Massachusetts. When fate crossed our paths, closely shared musical tastes cultivated the bonds of our friendship. And, Bowie fed it energy. We spent many of the first hours of a multi-decade long brotherhood listening to some of our favorite Bowie albums. We were young Americans listening to his ‘Young Americans’. Now, despite being older Americans, we still do.
Bowie and his music was there again for me many years later, with a healing, musical hand. It was during the period of the first emotionally debilitating weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I’d reached a point of saturation. I turned off the TV, stopped looking at newspapers and logged off the Internet. It wasn’t until the broadcast of The Concert for New York that was held in honor of the victims that I had regained the will to tune in again. The first performance was by Mr. Bowie. At this point in his life, by his own account, he’d lived in New York City longer than anyplace else. He was a New Yorker. He opened by thanking his local New York firehouse and humbly expressing his gratitude for being able to perform. Then, he launched into a rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s, ‘America’, followed by his own song, ‘Heroes’. Once again, Bowie’s music stirred feelings deep within me. This time they were feelings of hope for humanity.
Then came the day when Bowie went from The Man Who Fell to Earth to one who soared away from it. The day he died. Thanks to the ostensible benefits of the modern world, the news of his death came to me via text message: “OMG…oh no…David Bowie died today.” As my eyes took in the words and my brain struggled to process them, my shoulders slumped and my chin dropped to my chest. I felt the years vacuumed away from me.
This wasn’t the first time I felt deeply the loss of a musical icon from my youth and life. I felt it many years ago as I watched my older brother write the word ‘Late’ before Jimi Hendrix’s name on the ‘Are You Experienced’ album cover. I felt it upon hearing the news of Bob Marley’s death. I felt it as I held my head in my hands when learning that Joe Strummer took his final bow. And, I will always remember being dumbstruck when hearing about John Lennon’s murder from none other than Howard Cosell during a Monday Night Football game.
Bowie’s death was different, though. Upon hearing the news, I was compelled to look into the tunnel of time and realize how far along I’ve traveled through it since that vinyl epiphany in my brother’s room. The world of music has definitely changed. I have definitely changed. It’s been a long time since I last felt the same intensity, the same newness, the same challenges from the world of music as I did when rock and roll first seeped into my consciousness almost 40 years ago.
A feeling of melancholy rose in me as much due to the fading of a time and place in my life as it was to the loss of his voice and his art. I was forced to accept the reality that sooner or later we find ourselves on the opposite side of the generational divide: more reminiscent about the past instead of propelled towards the future. As I read the message on my phone announcing his death I was booted from one side to the other. The record of my life had been flipped to the B side.
A number of weeks after Bowie’s death, I once again found myself in a room with my older brother, listening to the latest vinyl recording from Mr. Bowie. The room this time was the living room in my home in Seattle. The album was Bowie’s latest and last, ‘Blackstar’, which was released on his 69th birthday, just days before his death. Even his finale was grandly unique. An extraordinary self-requiem. Its songs contain veiled references to his imminent demise. In the song ‘Lazarus’ he sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.” It is the crafty farewell message of a master musical poet. One more time, I felt his music. I remain inspired by him.
As my brother and I listened to Bowie’s music, we still rocked. Not as wildly, just steady. While we did, hanging on a wall nearby was a framed picture. It has hung there for a long time. I see it every day. The frame displays the art of an album cover. The album is Aladdin Sane.