I woke up to the news that David Bowie had left us over the weekend. Part of the surprise comes from not knowing he was ill (he was always intensely private, for which I respected him) and part because his latest album had just been released on Friday, which was also his birthday. I tended to think of him as a perennial, a rock star who managed to age with grace and dignity and who used that longevity to inform his songwriting. I admit I have not always followed Bowie's career closely, but I have always been aware and appreciative of his work.
There have been other musician deaths that hit me particularly hard (Joe Strummer comes immediately to mind), but Bowie's significance in my life was due to another reason. My interest in music developed early, thanks to my father's albums: Motown, soul, R&B. There was music playing in our house a lot, and the sense of it is one of my earliest memories (though I realize it's not a memory of a specific person, thing, or event).
My first music purchases were 45s. The first album I bought with my own money was a Partridge Family LP. There were a couple more of those, and a John Denver album. But the first rock album I ever bought, at age 11, was Bowie's ChangesOne, a hits collection that came out in 1975. For me there has always been tremendous significance in that choice. It was informed, as was almost every other music purchase I made at the time, by what I heard on the radio. (The 1970s was truly a golden era for Top-40 FM radio, with a variety reflecting the sales charts.)
David Bowie's music showed me, for the first time, that there could be deeper meaning in a song beyond the melody and lyrics. I'm sure I didn't understand everything that was being conveyed in those songs at the time, but that album was the experience that taught me how music could make you feel. And that's really the whole point of it, right?
Some time back I read an article about him, and his wife Iman was quoted as saying that he liked walking around in New York, where they lived, because he typically went unrecognized. After that I used to fantasize that I might encounter him on one of our visits to the city. I wouldn't make a big deal about it, I'd just smile and nod in his direction as we passed on a sidewalk. It would have been tempting to talk to him and tell him what his music meant to me, but I think verbalizing it would have diminished its significance. Thank you, David, for all the doors your music opened to me.