today i find myself in a bit of a state of shock. david bowie is gone. i spent this morning wandering around in a sort of daze. and then, i felt the need to get in my car and drive. i picked up my son and my copy of hunky dory and got in the car. when i turned the car on i realized that what i was looking for was right there: the radio station that i had on played a steady stream of bowie songs, one after the other. then the dj came on and said a few words about the man, and i started to cry. it was a funny thing: i felt a sort of relief. i had found the very specific kind of connection that i needed.
i have been thinking lately about the radio. fm radio. am radio too, but especially fm radio. a dying thing. for my grandparents, radio was all that there was. god was in the radio for that generation. for my parents, who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, radio was just as important. to this day my parents still speak with stars in their eyes and giant grins on their faces about radio in the 60’s. they name off the stations and the dj’s, they imitate their voices saying the call letters. they talk about the records that they heard, about what they discovered there. for my generation, the mtv generation, radio was still massive. i have so many memories of listening to the radio in my bedroom, throughout my childhood and adolescence. and i have to admit that i still listen to the radio, despite its corporate-ness. despite the insane amount of crap that gets played over and over. i still listen for those little pearls, those little moments where a song that is buried in my subconscious will jump out and touch some part of me that i had forgotten about. i think about all of this because i think about kids today, about my two year old son, who will likely have no connection to radio. and i wonder. on days like today, where my connection to radio delivered me some kind of comfort, i wonder what will be there for my son.
david bowie is a god-like figure in my life. i grew up with david bowie, but not in the way that people a decade or two older than i did. by the time that i was a teenager bowie was already two thirds into his discography. but as long as i can remember, there was bowie. there was bowie on the radio. i was in my late teens when i really discovered him, when i really delved into his incredible catalog and i didn’t come out for a good decade. i spent hours and hours listening to songs on repeat. i spent months on certain records. i spent entire years on an era. when his “best of bowie” video compilation was released in 2002 i was quite honestly changed. i would watch that collection of videos endlessly. i’d invite friends over and ply them with drinks and say, “you have got to see this.” i’d sit them down and i’d play them the video for ashes to ashes and i’d wait for it, for that moment when they would look back at me with amazement in their eyes and i’d nod back at them and proceed to play them the entire collection until they were sufficiently drunk and mind-blown. i’d pull out my copies of heroes and low, of iggy pop’s the idiot and lust for life. i’d line the record covers up next to each other on the floor. i’d try to explain. i’d try to explain with every ounce of my being how utterly, completely, astoundingly brilliant it all was.
but i digress. i think it’s probably pretty well understood that david bowie was a genius. an incredible musician, singer & lyricist. an unbelievable performer. a fantastic producer. a brilliant painter and artist. a fashion icon. an absolute visionary. a true original. but today as i listened to some disc jockey praise his ability to stay out of the spotlight despite iconic status, and to have a sense of humor about it all, i felt something strange and new to me. i felt very clearly a sort of generational divide. i suppose there are moments in a person’s life where they feel their age, where they see clearly the gap between their experience and the experience of those coming up. this is one of those moments for me.
i was a teenager when kurt cobain died. 15 years old, to be exact. and i can tell you that that was a very tender age to experience such a thing. i remember that day very, very clearly. i remember the dazed, wandering, lost feeling that i had that day. i remember not knowing what to do until i turned on the radio. i remember hearing david fricke and kurt loader talking about it. i remember courtney love’s voice reading his suicide note, shaky and cold like the bottom had dropped out of it. it was the sound of devastation. i remember hearing that the man who found his body called a radio station before calling the police. i remember the camera crews and creepy journalists camped out outside of his house. i remember the first time that i saw the image that someone snapped through the window of kurt cobain’s dead body. i remember flinching when i saw it. i remember wanting to look away. i remember understanding on some level, even then, how strange and invasive it all was. i remember understanding that this was the very thing that kurt cobain did not want. it was the tabloid era. it had only just begun.
david bowie’s first record came out in 1967. he reinvented himself countless times throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s and in the 2000’s he quietly retreated into his own life. he stopped doing press, he stopped touring. he lived in new york with his wife and he continued to make records and art and to act in films, often unannounced and with little or no fanfare. david bowie survived a 50 year career, and he did it with more grace than any person at his level of celebrity has. david bowie was a cultural icon, but he understood the difference between his work and his personal life. like all great storytellers, he knew how to create a character. in this age of reality tv and social media, of paparazzi and snapchat, where every moment is documented and digitized and shared, we’re losing something. we all have something to learn from david bowie, the man. david bowie kept something for himself. it is with heavy heart that i say goodbye today, but i have the vastness of his discography (and his parting gift: the brilliant blackstar) and my own memories and interpretations of his work to keep me company.