For a long time David Bowie’s artistic genius flew over my head, partly because much of his most brilliant work came before my time and partly because, like most straight men. I tend to have a hard time seeing past guys dressing like this. At some point, though, I stopped dismissing him as “weird” and decided to at least try to get what all the fuss was about. It was a good decision.
The news of Bowie’s death surprised almost everyone. Nearly as surprising were the superhuman lengths he went to leave a parting gift of his genius. I still don’t completely get Bowie, and it’s doubtful I ever will. I do know, however, that these six Bowie songs – along with many others – are welcome on my playlist any time:
Rebel Rebel (1974). A girl I had a crush on kicked off a mix tape she made for me with this jam when all I knew about David Bowie was “Let’s Dance.” The opening guitar riff hit me with a jolt, and while the tape is long gone the girl isn’t. In fact, she’s my wife, and she’s still the coolest chick I know. That’s a pretty good trade.
Lazarus (2016). I paid only a little attention when I saw this single drop from Bowie’s new album, Blackstar, last week. I paid a lot more when I was stunned at the news it was also his last album and realized its implications. Nobody seems to know exactly when this video was filmed, but it was certainly after his terminal diagnoses. Watching a man who is months if not weeks from dying and knows it raging against the end one final, futile time is sobering, and you don’t have to wonder what he’s thinking – it’s all right there in the chilling lyrics.
China Girl (1983). “My little China girl, You shouldn’t mess with me, I’ll ruin everything you are” – and this after visions of swastikas in his head. As a kid, I didn’t understand the menacing tone or the completely intentional politically incorrect nature of the video, but a guitar riff that borders on parody coupled the blues picking of a then-unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan makes the song endlessly listenable and unrecognizable from the original that appeared on Iggy Pop’s 1977 album The Idiot.
Space Oddity (1969). You can tell from the opening guitar strum and the foreboding Stylophone in the background that things aren’t going to end well for Major Tom, but your heart still breaks every time he asks ground control to tell his wife “I love her very much, she knows.” Gravity did its special-effects best to capture the pure terror of being alone in space, but there was no ridiculous ride to safety on a refrigerator door or whatever the hell Sandra Bullock did at the end of that movie for the doomed protagonist here – only a hopeless, drawn-out and very, very lonely end. “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.” Yikes. Curiously, the BBC played “Space Oddity” during its coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It made Bowie a household name, though he wondered if they’d ever actually listened to it.
Under Pressure (1981). In high school, the world is a limitless possibility of fantastic futures. Then you hear “it’s the terror of knowing what this world is about, watching some good friends scream ‘let me out!“, and from that moment on you can never shake the nagging feeling that maybe it isn’t and you just don’t know it yet. Technically a Queen song that I first heard on my dad’s Greatest Hits cassette, “Under Pressure” was a revelation I played endlessly. The closing crescendo is even more striking in this recording of the song’s isolated vocals.
Modern Love (1983) is the opening track on Let’s Dance, the record that earned Bowie tens of thousands of new followers of which I was one. Little did I know at the time he and his longtime fans loathed the album as a giant sellout, but like many things ’80s and all things Bowie (well, except for that unfortunate duet with Mick Jagger) it has aged well. There’s nothing vanilla or poppy about the blues power chords Vaughan uses to announce the single to the world, and if there’s one Bowie song my daughter will have to suffer through for as long as I’m around it’s this one.