What I noticed immediately, upon seeing the Diamond Dogs illustrated album cover for the first time at my neighbour’s house across the street—incidentally my first exposure to David Bowie—was the posture of David’s human paws crossed in a relaxed, feminine, almost fey way. A fey male pooch? As an indeterminate, 10-year old latently queer bisexual outsider—fluid is the composite word one uses these days—living in a tiny village in southwestern Ontario, I had never seen anything quite so perplexing—and striking—before, or since for that matter. On this wraparound package, the dynamically illustrated lower half of a canine attached to the top half of a shaggy-haired David was, if not erotic/exotic, an electric visual that incited nothing if not discourse.
Later on in the 1970s, I borrowed my cousin’s Changesonebowie on cassette, and I was, as they say, forever changed.
Learning of his passing late Sunday night on January 10, 2016—it was just before bedtime, early Monday morning on January 11 in my time zone—was a moment to be sure. As I sat perched in front of my laptop, the news proclaimed from Bowie’s official Facebook page, appearing at the top of my news feed, a mere four minutes after it was posted, I immediately thought, as many others did, that it was a hoax. Then Bowie’s son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, confirmed the news on Twitter.
After the shock began to permeate my being, I started to formulate a list of the songs that have most resonated with me throughout my life. There are too many from which to choose. For years I had touted Bowie’s Heathen album from 2002 as one which belongs in the pantheon of his greatest work. Opening track Sunday is a prime example of his genius at aural setting and atmosphere. And Sunday is now and forever the day he passed from this mortal plane.
These songs are a selection that come to mind as I reminisce on how his music has touched me. My favourites list is, of course, much longer. Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy already comes to mind as I review this blog post, having recently shared with old friends, during the most recent holiday season, both his duet with Bing Crosby, along with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s hilarious parody of that classic duet from 1977.
Below are the ones which hold a place in my own life soundtrack.
ASHES TO ASHES
This sound and vision blew me away, both the song and the promo video. It was so original, quirky, weird, and awesome.
Along with Ashes To Ashes, my favourite Bowie song. I love the voices-only acapella version too. When radio stations first played this, the surprise came not only from the notion of a collaboration between Queen and David Bowie fully realized, but as a listener, in the awareness of absolute collective genius behind the show piece they were able to conjure up together.
THIS IS NOT AMERICA
This is a mood piece, a collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny
, from The Falcon And The Snowman
film soundtrack (1985). It is something Bowie has always done very well. The “no!” shouted in the chorus cuts through in ways I find hard to articulate. “Sha la la la la.”
GOD ONLY KNOWS
I purchased the Tonight
(1984) album on cassette the week it was released, on the first week of my art college days at Sheridan College. I brought it to a house party, and we listened to it over and over, as fellow students got to know each other by sharing our diverse musical tastes, minds opening and expanding. Our love for Bowie was a unifier. I think I was more familiar with Bowie’s interpretation of God Only Knows first, although I knew it was a Beach Boys song. It wasn’t on the Endless Summer
(1974) or Spirit Of America
(1985) hits compilations with which I was familiar, and at the time, Pet Sounds
was not again back in print. Bowie’s version strayed far from the original, some misinterpreting it as his foray into lounge music. There were detractors who believed it to be filler, as Tonight was a rushed follow-up to Bowie’s massive Let’s Dance
(1983) album, to capitalize on all the publicity and success that Let’s Dance and its subsequent tour enjoyed. I loved that Bowie seemed to be trying something different yet again: acknowledging a great song by one set of composers—Brian Wilson
and Tony Asher
—as one which should be recognized as a standard; yet recording and arranging it in the style of another composer he adored: Scott Walker
LOVING THE ALIEN
By the time I discovered the music of Scott Walker in the mid-90s, I was already familiar with David Bowie’s crooning style on the Tonight album. It was easy to make the correlation and immerse myself in the work of Walker, especially his first five albums; although my entry point was the fine Razor & Tie compilation from 1996: It’s Raining Today: The Scott Walker Story (1967-1970)
. I realized Bowie wore his influences on his sleeve here, shortly before I started to read others make the same connection, from where I then came across Bowie acknowledging the influence himself. I’ve always considered David’s singing style on the Tonight album to be an homage to Scott Walker, once I heard Walker’s early work. Loving The Alien had that same crooner vocal style Bowie was developing. The subject matter was otherworldly, something we expected from David.
UNDER THE GOD
A tough, uncompromising, and not always pleasant album, the song Under The God, from Tin Machine
(1989), made with the Sales Brothers, nevertheless stays with me. It was playing as part of a cassette curation I made—or perhaps my cousin made for me—in 1989. It played on repeat, with a bunch of other indie songs from the same period, as I romanced a lover late one night in a car parked near the water of Lake Ontario, after leaving a wedding we went to together. A ridiculous memory, with such a tender moment juxtaposed against such an aggressive tune, yet it is one that will nevertheless live with me forever. I was under the goddess, the serious moonlight glistening off her long, beautiful, brunette mane.
I saw Bowie live twice. The first time was during his 1987 Glass Spider tour
, at the Canadian National Exhibition stadium, with Duran Duran
and the Northern Pikes
supporting. We were so far away from the stage, all we could see was the spider installation. Carlos Alomar
, Charlie Sexton
, and Peter Frampton
were little dots on stage. It didn’t matter.
David Bowie, CNE Stadium, August 24, 1987
I saw Bowie’s Heathen tour, at Molson Amphitheatre, in 2002. That was a remarkable and memorable show, to be sure. He opened with Life On Mars?, then performed Ashes To Ashes, my favourite Bowie song.
David Bowie, Molson Amphitheatre, August 5, 2002
I recall in the fall of 2003 watching my old Sony Music colleague Jeff Woods interview David Bowie in a ‘Large and Live’ event, simulcast via satellite to all Famous Players Cinemas throughout North America. We watched the show on a huge screen at the Paramount Theatre, now Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. Bowie was his gregarious self, in great spirits, self-effacing in answering Woods’ questions, and in fine form playing songs from Heathen and his most recent album at the time, Reality (2003).
DAVID BOWIE IS
I saw the David Bowie Is
exhibition at the Art Gallery Of Ontario
in 2013. I spent three hours in there, mostly reading and marvelling at how someone could express one’s life in such a diverse, provocative, and meaningful way.
David Bowie Is, Art Gallery Of Ontario, November 1, 2013
Orientation and gender fluidity is symbolized throughout many of his live performances, film promos, and videos. This fluidity in his art kept everyone guessing, as each new work was released. It felt inclusive. He spoke to me.
Lastly, here is a great swan song video, gifted by Bowie to his fans. I looked hard to see if his button eyes matched. Blackstar, his final album, released on his 69th birthday, is available now.
David Bowie remained artful all his days. He is an inspiration to all musicians and artists, and lovers of exploratory music. I, for one, am thankful.