January 17, 2016

How David Bowie Influenced Me

David Bowie - TopPop 1974 04
By AVRO [CC BY-SA 3.0]
As you know, the world lost a great one recently in the form of David Bowie. I thought it was time for me to join the chorus of voices expressing sadness at his passing and attempting to communicate how he affected me.

I always tell people that David Bowie was the first rock concert I ever attended. Technically, this isn't true. I had seen 3-4 other acts live before Bowie. But I've always thought of Bowie as my first. Why? His was the first concert I was allowed to attend that required a 90 minute drive to the big city. It was the first that caused me to come home late at night reeking of tobacco and whatever else was in the air that night. It was the first one for which I was excited and the first for which I went out of my way. The previous ones were at the state fair on days I had already planned to be there or at one of a couple nearby parks. They featured acts I'd never heard of or that I didn't care for. I went only because a friend wanted to go. Bowie was different.

I think I was about 15 when I saw Bowie. My exposure to him up to this point would have been limited to what would have been played on top-40 radio during the mid-80s (e.g., Let's Dance, Blue Jean, China Girl). My exposure to contemporary music up to this point was mostly limited to top-40 radio. I recognized that at least half of what I heard there was crap, but I didn't know where to find what I sensed I was missing. The first time I had heard an entire album of Bowie's was a few days before the show. I was going to the concert with a friend and his older brother and sister. The older brother was into Bowie, had several albums, and insisted that I hear a couple before the show. "You know he's not just going to play the few songs you've heard on the radio, right?"

The concert itself was fantastic and blew away anything I'd seen up to this point. While this may not have been my first concert, it was the first to involve elaborate staging, lights, costumes, and other effects. It opened my eyes to what I had been missing and would be the first real concert of many I would attend. But the lasting influence did not come from the concert itself as much as it did what happened next.

On the car ride home, my friend's older brother went on and on about how great the show was and how much he loved Bowie. I agreed with everything he said. His sister was positive but not overly enthusiastic, and his younger brother - my friend - was lukewarm at best. I think the older brother and I must have bonded over this experience. At the very least, he seemed happy with the fact that I enjoyed the show. As we got close to home, he said that the next time I was over to their house, I should borrow some of his Bowie albums.

I was there within two days to take him up on the offer. He wisely started me off with some of Bowie's more recent and accessible stuff. I liked it, but the revelation came the first time I heard The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. That one blew me away and taught me a lesson that has been with me ever since: buy albums because what one discovers on them is likely to be far better than the couple of tracks one might hear on the radio. I credit this experience with getting me started buying albums, turning off the radio (at least until college radio came along), and seeking out new and different styles of music. My entire approach to music would never be the same.

This is probably the part where I should say that I became a lifelong Bowie fan, collected all his albums, and so on. But that didn't happen, at least not yet. I didn't have any money to buy albums. By the time I did, my musical tastes had moved into metal. I spent countless hours in a used record store seeking out promising albums by bands I'd never heard of, but it wasn't Bowie's style of music I was after at that point in my life.

I didn't come back to Bowie until I was nearing the end of graduate school and picked up the Changesbowie compilation. It might have even been my ex-wife's idea, but it reignited my interest in Bowie. Still, it would take me a few more years to collect some of Bowie's influential albums from the 1970s and listen to them all the way through like I had all those years ago. Just like before, there were undiscovered gems on each of them. Every time I listen to Bowie today I have the same thought: I really need to do this more often.