An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
DAVID BOWIE: “Life On Mars?”
I am sorry that I’ve never written to you before. I’m sorry that I never took pen to paper to scribble a fan letter, and I regret that I didn’t write about you at all during the decades I spent writing about pop music. I wrote about Gary Glitter. I wrote about Toni Basil. I wrote about Stars On 45, for cryin’ out loud. How silly does that seem now?
The thing is, I always considered myself just a casual David Bowie fan. I mean no offense when I say that you were never one of my very favorite artists. Because, casual or not, I was still a fan. I heard “Changes” on the radio, and had to own the 45. I delved a bit deeper when I got to college, starting (perhaps incongruously) with a used copy of Pinups, and falling hard shortly thereafter for “Suffragette City” and your magnificent Ziggy Stardust album. I knew a couple of other disaffected teenagers who were big Bowie fans; one was a high school pal who adored the sense of alienation conveyed in the lyrics of “All The Madmen” on The Man Who Sold The World, and the other was a college acquaintance into hard rock, metal, and David Bowie. The high school pal killed himself in 1979; the college acquaintance was a kleptomaniac with a heart of gold, and I betrayed his trust in a manner I still regret, almost 40 years later. Let me collect dust. Memories….
But if I was just a casual Bowie fan, why am I so sad that you’re gone? The news was a true shock, delivered to me in an email from my friend Gretta, under the subject heading “Bowie Departs.” I have even found my eyes stinging, watering–just a little–in memory of this artist, of whom I was just a casual fan.
And I think I’m starting to understand the reasons why.
More than any other artist, performer, or public figure I can think of, you made it okay to be different. You made it okay to be weird, or strange, or left-of-center. You made it okay to be gay, or straight, or neither, or both. You made it okay for anyone to be whomever his or her inner muse wanted to be. Sometimes it was a struggle, and sometimes our efforts would fail, but you made it okay for us to try our own way. Maybe you even made it okay to be a lonely, chubby teenager from the suburbs of Syracuse. Casual fan? I loved your music more than I even knew. I still have my copies of your ‘70s LPs; they have survived every drastic purge of my record collection, over a span of many, many years. Although I stopped buying your albums after 1979’s Lodger–casual fan, that’s me!–I had a chance to see you in concert in 1983, and you were terrific. I’ve been listening to your stuff again all week, including a few things I never really played much before. You influenced so many other artists I love, and you made wonderful, timeless music that will live on and on and on.
I took you for granted. I miss you now.
Many of us believe in forever. In your new digs, I’m sure you’ve already had a chance to re-connect with Mick Ronson, with old friends like John Lennon and Klaus Nomi, maybe Freddie Mercury, Lou Reed, or Andy Warhol, perhaps Bing Crosby…because, why not? I bet you’ve chatted with Salvador Dali and Arthur Rimbaud, and with Einstein, too. I hope you’ll have a chance to meet Buddy Holly, and James Jamerson, and Elvis, maybe play with all of them. You can play with Miles Davis, and Count Basie, and Hank Williams, and Bob Marley, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Caruso, and Leonard Bernstein–that would be really, really cool, and each would consider you a peer. Lemmy’s probably got it all set. Heaven must indeed have one hell of a music scene. We wish we could hear it down here.
But now, there’s a Starman waiting in the sky. Our minds have already been blown. And we mere mortals can only gaze upward, and note that the stars look very different today. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.
There is one thing you were wrong about. Unlike the spat-upon children you mention in “Changes,” I was not quite aware of what I was going through. I know better now. And I wanted to write you, just to say thanks. Thank you, David. Thank you for everything.
I didn’t see it coming.
David Bowie’s death in January of 2016 had far more impact on me than I would have ever thought likely. There were external factors in play; my daughter had just begun a semester in London, and it would be, by far, the longest time I would ever go without seeing her. I felt fragile, mortal. I felt sad, my pride in her accomplishments and delight in her opportunities not quite sufficient to ease the ache inside. Bowie died. I wasn’t even all that much of a fan. Yet his passing hit me harder than any celebrity death since losing Joey Ramone on Easter Sunday in 2001.
I needed to release the feeling. Somehow. I wrote this open letter to David Bowie, intending to use it as commentary for the posted playlist of our This Is Rock’n’ Roll Radio tribute to Bowie, which played on January 17th of ’16. My 56th birthday. Look at that caveman go.
It wasn’t enough. I couldn’t email the playlist out and just let it go. I needed more. I started my blog on January 18th, with this letter to Bowie as my inaugural post. It had been ten years since I gave up freelancing; it hadn’t been fun anymore. I promised myself I would post something, however slight, every single day. Every. Goddamned. Day. No excuses. I had largely stopped writing. I needed to get back to writing. Immediately.
Although I had always liked the track “Life On Mars?,” particularly when I saw Bowie perform it in concert, it had never been one of my top Bowie tracks. “Rebel Rebel,” “Panic In Detroit,” and “Suffragette City” had been my go-to Bowie tunes. That changed in 2016, as I found myself listening to “Life On Mars?” obsessively, clinging to its…what? Its artiness? Its desperation? The smoke and mirror of its implied depth, the verve of its execution, the simple beauty of its being? Yes. And Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, tickling the ivories so expressively on that recording. Sailors fighting in the dancehall, a lawman beating up the wrong guy. The song felt like a connection to what was lost, to what could still be recovered, to what could always be remembered.
The drumbeat of mortality seemed just incessant in 2016. Prince’s death in June felt like the last straw, but it wasn’t. Trump’s election was a vicious blow. On election night, Meghan texted me from college, looking in vain for reassurance as we both watched the electoral results with growing dread and horror. Jesus, 2016 wasn’t even two weeks old when Bowie died. We should have taken that as a sign to return the damned year to sender, postage due.
We survived. Not intact, not good as new, but…survived. As I mourned David Bowie here, my daughter was in England mourning actor Alan Rickman, so beloved by her for his role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies. We commiserated with each other’s loss. She wrote Rickman a touching thank-you note, which she placed at Charing Cross Station in his memory. I wrote a letter to David Bowie, and I started a blog. I cried. I wrote. I wrote more in 2016 than in any single year before that.
And I played a song called “Life On Mars?” Is there life on Mars? Is there life anywhere? The ache we feel is part of it. Talking about it helps. Writing about it helps. It’s about to be writ again. It’s a God-awful small affair. That’s life.
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Hey, Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 100 essays (and then some) about 100 tracks, plus two bonus instrumentals, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).