“But don’t forget the songs that made you cry,
And the songs that saved your life,
Yes, you’re older now
And you’re a clever swine,
But they were the only ones who ever stood by you.”
–‘Rubber Ring’ , The Smiths
This last month and a half as been incredibly rough for music fans. Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead passed away just at the end of December 2015. Shortly after that we lost Natalie Cole on New Year’s Eve. Those deaths unfortunately might as well have been omens for the New Year to come because in the first month of 2016 we would come to lose David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and Paul Kantner to name just a few.
As the death announcements came and music websites and blogs struggled to keep up and post tributes to them, each time I would go in and find myself reading the comments section to gauge readers reactions. I personally was most shaken by the loss of David Bowie and later, to a lesser extent, Glenn Frey. Sometimes I read fan comments out of curiosity, but mostly I read them in search for a communal comfort. Losing these artists like this, especially back to back, was very upsetting to me. Coworkers and friends alike questioned why I was taking it all so personally.
Music is a powerful, and popular, force that brings people together in a way few other forms of media do. A song or an artist can unite us in ways politicians and activists only wish they could. Music has been a tremendous and important source of comfort and strength in my life, especially the music of David Bowie. I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted to honor the musicians we lost this last month, not until I read various heartfelt tributes and came to realize that the best way I could eulogize the artists behind the songs that have come to mean to much to me, was by explaining why they meant so much to me in the first place.
I can count on one hand how many ‘celebrity deaths’ have made me cry. (For the record, it’s three.) David Bowie’s untimely passing is definitely one of them. I’ll try, but I honestly doubt I can truly articulate just how much his music means and has meant to me over the years. In fact my relationship with the music of David Bowie and the Eagles are tales that are almost complete opposites and in a way. Both Bowie and the Eagles are iconic 70s era musicians and both went a long way to shaping me as a person.
Some of my first musical memories, or really memories of anything, are of the Eagles. I recently joked to my aunt that my parents probably loved the music of the Eagles and Eric Clapton more than they ever loved me. A shared musical taste is probably one big reason my parents ever even hooked up to begin with. One of the few things that ever united my family when I was growing up was a shared love of music. It was game and a ritual whenever we were in the car to “name that tune” on the radio (of course we’re talking classic rock radio, to hear anything more current I had to turn to my sister and older cousins when I was growing up). ‘Bonus points’ to whoever could name the artist, the members of the band, or some kind of interesting six degrees of classic rock trivia to go with it. The clear favorites in my household were bands like the Eagles, Heart, anything Eric Clapton contributed to, and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
The Eagles were probably the musicians my parents played the most while I was growing up. My father was an alcoholic and whenever he’d get a couple of drinks into him he had a tendency to sit me down and give me some long winded, slurred speech lectures on a range of topics from “the aliens built the pyramids” to “why Ronald Reagan is Satan”. His favorite lecture topics though, actually centered around his opinions on rock and roll. Thanks to him I knew every member of most classic rock era bands and their major hits, without even hearing them. It was during these drunken lectures that I not only was given a history lesson on the Eagles, but also surprisingly on David Bowie. I had never heard a David Bowie song in my life before I was 12 years old, but I sure as heck knew that he was cross dressing British singer who apparently loved science fiction so much that he created an album called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
Before I get ahead of myself and introduce Mr. Bowie, I’ll wrap up my childhood Eagles indoctrination by saying that not only am I probably on this planet because of their music, it was also thanks to them that my parents ever attempted to keep up with some semblance of the times. I can vaguely recall hearing Eagles records on my dad’s record player, my parents cassettes, and certainly the radio –but it was the 1994 reunion album Hell Freezes Over that pushed my parents into getting a cd player. My clearest memory of the spring and summer of 1995 is of my parents playing the Hell Freezes Over album over and over and over again. Thanks to them falling in love with the new cd player and falling in love all over again with the Eagles, I’ve probably heard that album more than any other in my life. When the cd ended, there was always someone around to hit ‘play’ again.
As I got older, went to school, and found myself going through all the typical adolescent pangs of growing up and trying to fit in with my peers, I quickly discovered that music was a sticking point. Classic rock was so ingrained in me that it was difficult to shake off. I grew up in a small, culturally repressive town (ask Taryn, she was there) where the most popular genre of music was top 40 country. Country didn’t appeal to me, regular ole Billboard top 40 didn’t appeal to me, I tried and gave up on boy bands, Brittany Spears, pop-hip-hop, and on and on. When I would talk about music to other kids at school, I just didn’t fit in. I once was mocked and made fun of in 8th grade because I could name all four members of The Beatles. I can remember trying to explain the greatness of Queen to kids in middle school and mostly getting blank stares as a response. For the few non country listeners around, classic rock was the unhip genre your parents listened to.
Local Chattanoogans can also confirm that we have only one classic rock station that services the entire listening area. The occasional oldies station has come and gone over the years, but there is literally only one station that is devoted to the classic rock genre. As a result, for the majority of my adolescent years, I had only one station to really listen to. Until recently, said station wasn’t exactly big on playing a variety of classic rock songs beyond Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and you guessed it, the Eagles. By the time I hit high school, despite the Eagles being the basic soundtrack to my life in general, I found myself seeking out something different to identify with musically.
I’ve written here in the past about how my early high school years I was purposefully out of the loop when it came to contemporary music. Part of it was because I was pretentious, part of it was because I had limited access to it, but mostly it was because I discovered the first band to ever speak to my soul, The Beatles, while concurrently going through a massive Nirvana phase (refer back to my Foo Fighters review to reacquaint yourself with the ‘Nirvana Phase’ we all go through). In the midst of all of this, my best friend in high school happened to also have come from a classic rock reared background and was also deeply invested in Nirvana. It was on this common ground of musical love and interests, which we would set out to explore the roots of our favorite bands.
Any fan of, well anything, can tell you that when you love someone’s work you find yourself not only wanting more, but wanting to know who were their influences and who did they in turn influence. So it was with us when it came to The Beatles and Nirvana. Naturally as we dug deeper, we found the ultimate middle ground –the artist that was directly influenced by The Beatles and who would directly influence Nirvana: David Bowie.
The thing about David Bowie though, is you can easily replace The Beatles and Nirvana with countless other bands and artists and still be right. Here was the ultimate musical mish mash, the premier artist who had so many influences and who in turn influenced so many others in his wake. Over the years I’ve come to realize how incredible it is that David Bowie is the direct link between so many of my favorite artists. It’s almost mind blowing when one considers just how much he has contributed to modern art. But this isn’t a story about that, this is a story about how much his art influenced and shaped me.
I’d heard the occasional Bowie song while growing up, and I was certainly aware that he was the original artist behind Nirvana’s “The Man Who Sold the World”, but my lightning moment with David Bowie was so powerful and my initial head over heels reaction of love was so strong, that I still remember the summer of 2006 as ‘the Summer of David Bowie’. Like it was yesterday, I can still remember sitting in my friend’s living room and her using the ancient and forgotten technology of Limewire on her dial up internet to download the song “Ziggy Stardust”. When we eagerly tried playing the first 30 seconds of it, and Mick Ronson’s guitar kicks things off and David Bowie’s voice sails in with the words ‘Ziggy played guitar…’, I knew then and there that David Bowie was ‘my guy’.
I can’t explain it in any way that makes logical sense, but on an intuitive level, I had an instant connection to Bowie’s music from that point on. I became obsessed with David Bowie in a way I rarely became obsessed with other musicians. He dominated my free time for almost a year or more afterwards. I spent countless hours trying to either bootleg his music off the internet or buying it second hand at McKay’s bookstore (not because I believe in stealing from musicians, but because I was poor and because the only place in the town I grew up in that sold music was Walmart and they didn’t exactly keep Bowie cds in stock in 2006 or 2007, so I had to do what I had to do). I sought out any and all films he had anything to do with, any appearances he made on other people’s albums, read any and all interviews I could find on the internet or in old magazines. My love was so deep and well known, that the friend who’d discovered him alongside me once even tore out pages from a glossy magazine in Walmart for me because it gorgeous black and white photos of Bowie and his wife the model Iman. (Said pictures promptly went up on my bedroom wall for the next couple of years and are currently stashed away safely in a folder with other music memorabilia in my current residence. One doesn’t just lose beautiful pictures of David Bowie!)
Because of David Bowie, I watched films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth, The Hunger, The Prestige, Zoolander, and Velvet Goldmine to name just a few. Because of David Bowie, I listened to Iggy Pop, The Stooges, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, and almost anyone who claimed to be garage rock, glam rock, punk rock, post-punk rock, new wave, and the list goes on and on. If Bowie had a hand in it, I sought it out. My complete obsession with David Bowie’s music, films, and even his fashion sense opened up a whole new world for me. David Bowie was the first artist that truly gave me the confidence in myself that teenage me was sorely lacking. He made me feel ok to be ‘weird’ and unconventional, to like whatever it was I liked without shame, to be brave and explore different types of music and films, and he helped me open up my mind to different ideas and ways of thinking about art and even philosophy. His death didn’t make me look back and realize “oh, he was a big influence on my life, wasn’t he?” No, his death only sharpened the truth I already knew –that he was one of the chief influences on my life.
I can remember hearing the song “Life on Mars” for the first time and realizing that song was about me. Of course it wasn’t literally written for or about me, but I connected so deeply to it, that I once put it on in the car and proclaimed to my mother that it was my song and that Bowie was singing about my life. (Much like Peter Quill claims 70s pop songs for himself in Guardians of the Galaxy, seventeen year old me was staking her claim as well.) It seemed so many of his other songs were about me as well. Never before and so rarely since has one artist seemed to be so on point about me and my life. Bowie’s music was a magical, science fiction laced escape for what was otherwise a dreary high school and early college experience. He offered not only fun and excitement, but comfort and consolation.
He sang about his heroes and idols, he sang about dancing and partying all night, he sang about his son, his wives, his lovers, his friends, he sang about the shenanigans he and his friends got up to, and he even sang about fashion (how could he not?). But he also song about loneliness, drug addiction, fears of failure, fears of betrayal and heartbreak, he sang about paranoia, the ravages of time, he sang about giving up and starting over, he sang about loss and grief, and of course he sang about aliens, both literal and metaphorical. You can go through his catalog of work and live an entire lifetime in it. His songs told stories of lonely teenage girls (of which I was definitely one), lost astronauts, dying planets, alien rock gods, sex hungry crackheads, paranoid actors, fashionistas, unemployed DJs, heroes, villains, average people, and of course scary monsters, and super creeps.
Bowie’s music was literally transformative. He’s praised and will be remembered for all the innovation he brought to music, films, fashion, and art. But his music was the soundtrack to so many of the transformative events of my life. His songs got me through awkward teenage blues in high school and late night study sessions in college. His songs gave me solace when my mother suddenly died, and were the soundtrack to my recent heartbreaking trip to visit my grandmother before she passed away. His songs serenaded me during the stressful times I had to move, during the times I was frustrated or depressed at my job, and even when I had to change jobs.
But you know what? Despite my trying to run away from adolescent past, I also had the music of the Eagles during these times as well. I’ve loved them, been burnt out by them, and loved them over and over again throughout the years. Because no matter how I felt about them or if I was seeking them out or not, they were always there too –whether it was on the radio or in the background when I was at work or especially when I was hanging out with my sister (because no matter what, we can always agree on having some classic rock on in the house or in the car).
I knew after his heart attack in 2004, Bowie would never tour again. I use to argue with people on various websites about his potential to do so, and each time I was the naysayer in a sea of optimists trying to explain that the man had an unknown health condition and was likely to never put out another album, let alone tour again. Hope springs eternal and he did release an album in 2013, a fairly good one I might add. I still knew he wasn’t about to tour again, but I took it as a sign that perhaps he was at least still going to release albums and do his thing.
Some obsessions never die, and he was on my mind these last few months. First because his music was coming to my rescue yet again as I faced a personal family crisis, and second because I knew he had a new album coming out soon. I remember driving to work on Friday January 8th and hearing “Changes” on the radio. The DJ came on and wished him a happy birthday and mentioned his new album had dropped that very same day. I was in the middle of an eight day work week and made a mental note to purchase his album the following Monday. Monday morning came, and so did the unfortunate news. It couldn’t have been 10 seconds after I first read the headline of his death when I had a friend texting me the shocking news. It was then that I realized in the background on my radio player, that the local NPR station was running a story about it and soon afterwards there was a 30 minute block of his music being played in tribute. I was devastated and in utter shock. Work that day was like a daze. It felt unreal. I hadn’t really ever lost a music icon before.
That night, sitting at home, I watched the BBC News on the local PBS station to sort of gauge what the global reaction was. Did others feel the anguish that I did? Were there any fan tributes to be seen? It was the top story that night and the BBC did a lovely tribute piece that took up nearly 15 minutes. I held it together during most of it, until it was almost over. They ended their coverage with a clip of fans gathered in his hometown of Brixton –the crowd spontaneously broke into the chorus of “Starman” and the next thing I knew I was sobbing.
I felt all out of sorts for the next week or so. It wasn’t helped that soon afterwards a favorite actor of mine, Alan Rickman, also passed away. But almost a week after losing Bowie (and struggling to think what I might write for Concert Hopper about him), we lost Glenn Frey of the Eagles. I found out from my sister who texted me during my break. She told me she was in shock, she had just seen them live this past summer, and that she was even more surprised to find herself crying over it. I didn’t cry over Frey like I did Bowie, but I didn’t need to cry over him to feel sad over another loss to music. My tears for Bowie, my sister’s tears for Frey, and all the tears from all the fans all over the world for them and the many other artists we’ve lost recently just honed in the fact that art is as intrinsic to human nature as ever. When a beloved artist dies, we mourn them because a part of us has gone with them. Their art touched us and captured something in us in ways that we can’t always understand, but in ways that we needed it to at that time. I can’t tell you exactly why David Bowie was so instrumental to my life, but I know that he was and I know that there was and is no one else who could’ve filled that role at that time. The same goes for the Eagles and heck, even actor Alan Rickman.
I quoted The Smiths at the beginning of this piece because I think the lyrics to their song “Rubber Ring” perfectly capture that strange phenomenon of loving something (in this case a song or, knowing Morrissey, perhaps pop music in general) when you’re young, but finding that you’ve outgrown it when you eventually grow up. That’s true about things in life, we do outgrow stuff –clothes, favorite tv shows, books, albums, people, places, etc. and so on. Sometimes things are meant for a season and not for a lifetime, it’s rare that we carry something with us throughout all of the phases of our lives. That’s why when we do keep something with us, it’s all the more special. In different ways, I’ve kept both the Eagles and David Bowie with me throughout all the changes that I’ve faced in my life.
Their songs have been the soundtrack to my life, in good times and in bad. They’ve been my friends and comforters, my allies and supporters. They’ve pumped me up for work, hyped me up for road trips, excited me about projects. I’ve forged friendships, reconnected with family, gushed at length in the middle of night to strangers about their music. Through thick and thin, sickness and health, better or for worse, just like a marriage –I’ve had their music. Yes, it is indeed ‘a sad fact widely known, that the most impassionate song to a lonely soul is so easily outgrown’. But I won’t and I can’t forget the songs that made me smile, that made me cry, and most importantly, I can’t forget the songs that saved my life –because sometimes, they were the only ones who ever stood by me.
“Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
And take it easy”
-‘Take It Easy’, The Eagles
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie“
-‘Starman’, David Bowie