I was at the Dentist yesterday, and as I went into the room, my hygienist looked crestfallen. That’s not the look you want to see on the face of a man that is about to put his fingers inside you. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember his name. (Yes, a MANgienist. Because it’s 2016!) I want to call him Tang. The first thing Tang said to me was “Did you hear about David Bowie?” Woah. This guy must have been a fan. Three days after his death and it’s what he opens with.
“Yeah, it was such a shock. Even people close to him didn’t know he was sick.”
“Well I just found out this morning.”
Let’s just stop here for a second. This was Wednesday. David Bowie died late Sunday night, or early Monday morning. In any case, the word got out Monday. I mean, this is a big deal. Even people not into music or art or whatever knew who David Bowie was, and it was front page headlining news this whole week. I first found out when I was on social media (of course) and Bono posted this delightful photo (from a few years ago. Bono looks like he was in his “Elevation” phase, so let’s say 2001?) of Bono kissing David Bowie on the cheek and David Bowie had this huge joyful grin on his face like it was goofiest thing happening to him that day (and it probably was) and I just thought: “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” thinking maybe it was a holdover from the week before which saw David Bowie turn 69 and also release a new album.
But then I started reading the comments and there were all these “so sad” and “RIP”s and what have you, and then on twitter David Bowie was trending and I was eating breakfast and my daughter was yelling and my wife was asking me something and I didn’t really hear any of it and I looked up and just said, “David Bowie died” and I went quiet. So did my daughter, actually. My wife said that he was like “a single Beatle”, which I thought was a lovely way to put it, in terms of his creativity and cultural significance. I almost called this post “The Single Beatle” but I went with one of his song titles that I thought was appropriate on this occasion.
That was Monday, and here we were at Wednesday. I can’t even begin to figure out how my hygienist was in the dark for two days, but then I remembered that last year he had never heard of the Rocky Mountains. I was in for a cleaning at the beginning of the summer and he asked me if I had any plans, and I told him about our plan to go West, to the Rockies. “The Rockies? What are THOSE?”, Dong asked. (His name might be Dong, actually).
I mean, come on. Right? I can sort of see living in Western Canada and not ever VISITING the Rockies. Just because I have a weird obsession with them and would go there every year if I could doesn’t mean everyone else does. But to not have HEARD of them? Well, that’s just basic geographical ignorance and I can’t tolerate it. But that’s classic Dong. Or Tang.
To be perfectly honest, I came to love David Bowie’s music very recently. Growing up, I knew who he sort of was, but I was a bit young for his 1970’s stardom, and when I started being aware of stuff in the 1980’s, his biggest days were arguably behind him, musically speaking. It wasn’t until a few years ago (MORE than a few years ago, my wife reminded me), that I was over at a friend’s place playing board games or something and I asked him what CD he was playing. (This was before iPods and MP3s). He looked at me a little funny and said, “That’s David Bowie”, like I should have known. I really liked what I was hearing, but I was hearing it for the first time. I had to listen to about three for four songs before I recognized anything, and this was a “Best of” CD we were listening to, people! The music sounded so new and modern, it could have been released that year. The next day, I went to Future Shop and bought my own copy. It became one of my favourite CDs. I think because it didn’t sound especially like it was from any particular time or place meant that different people at different times and in different places could discover his music and have it ring true to them. Even a 20-something, hetero, pretty well adjusted, white dude living in his mom’s basement.
I remember standing outside our local stadium with my Dad in 1987. David Bowie’s “Glass Spider” tour was coming to town, and the set up included 3 stories of scaffolding to support a giant “Glass Spider” thing. I don’t think my Dad really knew much about David Bowie. He was strictly a CBC man, back when the CBC only did talking, (and classical and jazz when it had to). But he liked weird things, and I’m guessing that the CBC did a report of the tour coming to town and he wanted to see it for himself.
“Apparently David Bowie comes down out of that Spider on a trapeze during the first song. That’s how he makes his entrance.” My Dad was talking like he was the show designer or something, but I think he was just repeating what he heard on the radio. I wasn’t into David Bowie then, (my board-games playing epiphany was still a good decade ahead in the future), so I didn’t stand outside the stadium the night of the concert. Still, though. I remember marvelling at this crazy structure being built in my city alongside my Dad.
Years later, in 2011, I was reminded of this when U2 came to town and was building their massive 360 stage in the same spot where David Bowie’s Glass Spider stood two and a half decades earlier. I’m sure if my Dad were still alive then, he’d be out there, saying stuff like “That screen comes right down to the floor at one point, and those walkways move” to any passerby that was willing to listen. In fact, if you go back to the post I wrote about that concert in 2011 (how cool is it that there is a continuous record of blog posts going back five years?), you’ll see that I was standing next to a guy who was at that Glass Spider concert and he was telling me about it, and then when David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” started playing over the speakers to indicate the beginning of the U2 concert, my neighbour got all confused and had a bit of a flashback or something until the familiar opening notes of “Even Better Than the Real Thing” kicked in and the show began for real.
One of the things I liked about David Bowie was that he wasn’t really trying to be “cool” or
“trendy” or what-have-you. He seemed happy to do his own thing, and sometimes it resonated with the wider culture and sometimes it didn’t, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to create his whole life. How many artists can say they released something new two days before they died. I guess NO ARTIST CAN because they are DEAD but you know what I mean.
I know you can’t really compare David Bowie to anyone, but I do think of him in the same vein as Prince. I can’t really imagine a world without Prince, just as I can’t really imagine a world without David Bowie. Two artists doing their own weird, cool things, that sometimes intersect with pop culture, but often do not.
I also like how David Bowie permeated culture beyond music. His style was seen and felt in the fashion world, in movies, in books. We used to have an American Library Association poster of him up in my local library growing up. One of those ones that just said “READ” in big letters and had a famous person holding a book. Here’s a link to an article that has that poster, plus a list of David Bowie’s top 100 reads. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, there’s a strip club called “Suffragette City”, which I thought was pretty clever at the time. I remember watching “The Last Temptation of Christ” as a kid and my friend saying, “Hey, isn’t that David BOWIE?” in the role of Pontius Pilate. It was. And how about a couple of years ago when Arcade Fire released “Reflektor”? Towards the end of that song, you hear an otherworldly voice sing, “Thought you were praying to the resurrector, turns out it was just a reflektor..” Yep. Bowie again. And how about in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”? Not only do we get “Life on Mars?” on the soundtrack during one of Wes Anderson’s signature slo-mo sequences, we get a Belafonte crew member singing David Bowie songs throughout the movie in Portuguese. And what about Canadian astronaut and ISS commander Chris Hadfield? He recorded a version of “Space Oddity” with David Bowie’s blessing while orbiting Earth on the ISS and it is pretty damn great. I’m sure you can find it on Youtube if you haven’t seen it yet, but based on the millions of views that video has, you probably already have. I know I’m missing a ton of references. Apparently he was in this movie “Labyrinth”. I movie I HAVE NOT SEEN. He played the lead role in “The Man who Fell to Earth” as a humanoid who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet. And yes, it pains me to mention that he appeared in Zoolander, but let’s not hold that against him.
Another new year, another life celebrated. Like many of us, I put my “Best of Bowie” CD on repeat Monday. (Actually, it was the MP3 version of that CD I bought all those years ago, converted to a space-age technology file format so I could play it on my iPod). It was playing all morning as I puttered around, but it was when THIS song came on that I finally had to stop what I was doing, sit down, and fully listen. I was listening to the original with Freddie Mercury, but check out this cool live version with Annie Lennox singing the Freddie Mercury part. Something about this song. I’m not saying it’s my favourite David Bowie song, I’m just saying it’s the one that stopped me in my tracks and demanded my attention. Art can sometimes have that effect.
“This is our last dance. This is ourselves….Under Pressure.”