The generation born in the years just after World War II in England was absolutely pivotal in the development of much of the good music and cultural underpinnings that have changed how we currently look at art. These people ushered in a very fertile time for change and the growth of expression and a new openness in how we view and understand the world. Our conceptions of love, gender, conformity, and the solidity of social norms turned, if not upside down, at least a little sideways due to the efforts of this group of artists. A big part of that was due to one of those people, born on this day in 1947 as David Robert Jones, in the London Borough of Lambeth; also home to such artistic difference makers as William Blake and Charlie Chaplin.
From primary school age he showed musical and performance talent, singing in the choir, where his hopefully later terribly embarrassed teacher graded his instrument playing as above average, but his voice as “adequate.” Like many future British rock and rollers, his first exposure to American 45rpm record singles changed his life. When his father brought a stack of these records home in the late fifties, it seems that this was a pivotal moment in young David’s life, and he later said that listening to Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” made him feel that he had “heard God.”
From then on, he had decided on the future course of his life. His parents, supportive of his musical ambitions, bought him a white Bakelite plastic saxophone and he got a part-time job that would pay for lessons with Ronnie Ross, a local session player. As an example of how the universe works, when he later produced Lou Reed’s classic album Transformer, he hired Ronnie Ross to play the memorable saxophone solo on the song “Walk on the Wild Side.” After the recording was finished, he walked in to the studio and Ross said “Thank you very much for the opportunity,” to which he replied “No, thank you very much, it’s the least I could do for you.” A surprised Ross asked what he meant by that, and he replied, “Well, you taught me to play saxophone.” After Ross, not remembering, asked him when that was, he said “I was that bloke who came to see you; I was about nine or ten years old.” To which Ross, memory jogged, responded, “Good God! You said you were going to be a rock star, didn’t you?”
And he was. But not just any rock star. After realizing that he couldn’t perform under his given name, due to the current fame of Davy Jones of The Monkees, he decided to change his name to…Tom Jones. Of course that did not work out for similar reasons, so he changed it again to David Bowie, because he liked the sound, and the backstory of the knife that semi-mythical American pioneer Jim Bowie had supposedly invented.
Although I was somewhat aware of David Bowie’s music as a young child, I first actually saw him perform on Saturday Night Live. It was immediately interesting because he was carried out by his stiff arms as if he was a robot, wearing a skirt that was so tight that he couldn’t effectively walk in it. I thought he looked alien, but also beautiful in an androgynous English way. After they sort of leaned him up against the drum riser, and then the music started playing, he exploded into motion, and I remember thinking that he had a mesmerizing voice. He attacked the song, and even his odd retinue of drag queens and pale German backup singers were not as fascinating as he was. For a long-haired teenage Zeppelin fan, it was revelatory. I immediately expanded my idea of what a rock singer was, and saw it as a comprehensive performance in the widest sense of the word.
Bowie was the kind of performer who exuded charisma, even when playing evil characters, and we ended up accepting and appreciating whatever character he was playing, from Ziggy Stardust, who allowed people who felt alien to realize they were not alone, to Jack Celliers in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, where he stole the movie from Tom Conti and successfully conveyed the idea that he was having an affair with the camp commandant with one line delivered just so. He approached his music like a stage performance, and when I saw him on a stadium tour, the performance was akin to the best Broadway show you could imagine, only with far better music. He gave a witty interview, was an artist in mediums including painting and photography, and he made even straight men all over the world tell themselves “I’m not gay, but still, David Bowie…” Not bad for a guy who called himself a “closeted heterosexual.” His music and persona inspired fashion, gave lonely or alienated kids something to talk to each other about, inspired many who felt as if society considered themselves outsiders, and was just plain fun to listen to.
He orchestrated his life, even down to his almost posthumous last album being released two days before he died. I remember feeling an almost physical punch in the gut upon hearing he had died, because I had missed his last concert tour and was looking forward to the next one, and I also could not imagine not hearing what the next album would contain.
Some months later, I was watching The Martian again, as I am wont to do every so often, and when the scene comes on with “Starman” playing as Matt Damon readies the spacecraft to try and rendezvous with the mother ship, I felt myself choking up a bit because that is my favorite Bowie song, and it came to me suddenly that a certain amount of the cool of the world was gone forever.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Jones, wherever you are. You are missed, but what you left behind lives on. Thanks for letting the children boogie.