David Bowie always paid tribute to his older brother, most famously in "All the Young Dudes," for changing his life as a teenager by turning him on to rock music and the Beat Generation. So it makes sense that Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would become a musical gateway drug for many listeners—including me. When I was fifteen, my own older brother handed me a discarded, unopened copy of the 1972 Bowie classic—a Columbia House freebie he didn’t want. And it changed my life.
Yesterday as social media overflowed with tributes to Bowie in the wake of the British music legend’s surprising death due to cancer at age 69, I wondered why—even in an age when the deaths of rock icons such as Lemmy garner much-deserved flashes of social-media attention—it appeared that the widespread reaction to Bowie’s death was the most inescapable and emotional since perhaps Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994.
As I read post after post about how introductions to Bowie and his music influenced the trajectory of so many interesting people, I remembered hearing the sci-fi glam-rock of Ziggy Stardust as a teenager. Becoming a hardcore fan of Bowie, following the signposts in his lyrics and the fascinating evolution of his music from album to album and genre to genre, meant so much more than being a hardcore fan of other classic-rock musicians because it inevitably meant an education in music and literature outside of David Bowie himself. Not to mention an education in being an artist—or even a person—without limits.
Take just the opening lines to “Moonage Daydream,” for instance: “I’m an alligator / I’m a mama-papa coming for you / I’m a space invader / I’ll be a rock ’n’ rolling bitch for you.” By 1972 Bowie had already traversed cabaret, kitschy pop, hippie folk and even dirty blues. According to several biographers, Bowie’s introduction of the character of Ziggy Stardust was also the autobiographical introduction to Bowie’s first musical peak: the edge of Alligator Records’ blues, the elegance of the Mamas & the Papas, the spacey sheen of glam rock and the strut of his American hero, Iggy Pop.
After my Ziggy Stardust obsession, I moved backward to Hunky Dory, which featured a longhaired Bowie on the cover (the polar opposite of Ziggy’s spaceman-in-platform-shoes look), and was turned on to Bob Dylan via “Song For Bob Dylan.” After discovering it was a play on Dylan’s “Song to Woody,” the world of folk music was opened to me as well. Add the song about Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground tribute that Bowie scrawled in Hunky Dory’s liner notes, and that’s one hell of an education for a fifteen-year-old who’d spent the last couple years fixated on pop-punk. David Bowie’s catalog is a series of rabbit holes.
Diamond Dogs, Bowie’s dark, drug-fueled 1974 concept album inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, quickly became one of my favorite records (and still is). Digging around the nascent internet with AOL, I found a 1974 Rolling Stone conversation between William S. Burroughs and Bowie. Just a month before Diamond Dogs was released, the two discussed the similarities between Burroughs’ apocalyptic psychedelia (Nova Express, The Wild Boys) and the apocalyptic androgyny of both Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.
I quickly consumed nearly all of Burroughs’ books before making my way to Allen Ginsberg—who, coincidentally, shared a Buddhist inspiration (Boulder's own Naropa University founder Chögyam Trungpa) with Bowie. By the time I made it to senior year—by then also a big fan of Talking Heads and Brian Eno thanks to Bowie’s landmark trio of Eno-produced late-‘70s albums—I was writing a final English Literature thesis on Ginsberg and playing in a punk band that covered "Diamond Dogs" alongside G.G. Allin and the New York Dolls.
David Bowie was a far more powerful and effective gateway drug than marijuana.
One night outside the gritty punk venue 31st St. Pub in Pittsburgh, having to step outside after my band’s set because we were underage, the guitarist from the headliner gave us a lecture. “You need to pin yourselves down so people know what the fuck is going on,” he said. “You’re doing Johnny Thunders, and then a reggae thing and a hardcore punk thing, and then you’re playing…Bowie?”
He had a point. But to me, we hadn’t been brave enough, as he’d described fewer genres than Bowie had traversed in “The Width of a Circle” and “All the Madmen,” let alone the whole of 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World.
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Yesterday I thought of that guitarist’s rant when a gay friend posted about how Bowie made it easier for him and so many others to come out. Others described how Bowie made it not only okay but cool to change your fashion sense from year to year or even day to day; how Bowie paved the way for pop stars like Madonna to act as well as make music; and, more than anything else, how Bowie’s iconoclastic 1970s run of beautifully strange albums pioneered the kind of captivating album-to-album genre jumps that bands such as Radiohead engaged in decades later.
Bowie's work with Adrian Belew helped me and many others discover Frank Zappa and King Crimson. He also collaborated with Queen, Arcade Fire, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Luther Vandross, John Lennon and, yes, Bing Crosby. Bowie even played “Heroes” at the Berlin Wall in 1987. In the ‘90s Bowie made a serious resurgence when he rekindled his musical partnership with Brian Eno and embraced industrial music, touring with Nine Inch Nails and releasing two seriously underrated albums (Outside and Earthling). Bowie’s stunning evolution from “Space Oddity” to Scary Monsters represented perhaps the musical highlight of the ‘70s, along with what came out of New York’s CBGB’s scene. And when Bowie and Mick Jagger teamed up for “Dancing in the Streets,” it may have been the lowlight of the ‘80s.
The memory, and the lesson, Bowie leaves can’t be summed up in a clever meme, a greatest-hits album you’ll soon see at Starbucks, or even a biography. Like Miles Davis, Bowie made his mark not by successfully “adapting” (as NPR wrongly said of Bowie yesterday) but by repeatedly inventing new sounds and visions, surrounding himself with talent, blazing trails and knowing that failure is part of being creative.
There’s nothing wrong with having fun while paying tribute to Bowie by watching The Labyrinth or cheering on someone’s karaoke version of “Let’s Dance,” but to do justice to the Thin White Duke’s legacy—as he did by capping off his life with mysterious avant-jazz album—dig a little deeper into his 25 diverse albums and the countless signposts within. Or at least give your little brother a copy of Ziggy Stardust.