As a child of the 80s, no musician made as big an impact on me as David Bowie. That sounds like a ridiculous claim from a half-Italian, half-hillbilly kid from New Jersey, but hear me out. Between 1969 and 1980, Bowie amassed a body of work encompassing at least as many styles as calendar years, and his shadow loomed large over punk, post-punk, new wave, hair metal, synth pop, Ricky Gervais' brief foray into music, you name it. Though no one was giving him much credit, by the time I hit my teens there wasn't much going on in pop music that wasn't in some way indebted to the Thin White Duke. Lifting (and sometimes stealing) a bit of everything from Little Richard to the Stooges to GEORGE ORWELL, Bowie came out (and kept) swinging, using the Seventies to create a body of work that was inspired, diverse, and insanely influential. His first hit ("Space Oddity") happened a year before I was born, and by the time I was ten, he'd released 14 more albums. 14 full-length albums. In ten years.
I was two years old when Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; obviously I was not his target audience. But thanks to four older siblings who were always playing Changesonebowie or David Live, I truly did grow up with him, listening to him create, fuse, and discard genres with wild abandon. In a five year span, the toothy, smiling face of glam rock turned more arch and theatrical, detoured into disco for a hot minute, spiraled into fascistic iconography, and eventually awoke from a cocaine bender in Berlin to create a trio of groundbreaking electronic pop albums with Brian Eno.
Bowie's constant gear-changing during this time was almost too much for American audiences to keep up with. But thanks to TV shows like The Midnight Special, and my own burgeoning completist mentality, there is no time in my life when I can recall Bowie not being in some way present. I spent the 80s wearing out his back catalog on cassette, and my Bowie mania culminated with seeing him live at what was arguably his worst live show - the 1987 Glass Spider Tour:
Yeah. I know. Squeeze AND Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam opened for him. Still, I powered through, attending his 1990 Sound + Vision tour twice, scoring tickets to his 50th birthday party concert at Madison Square Garden, and last seeing him live at The Electric Factory in Philly, a show which, at long last, didn't feel like a major sports event. It was a spectacularly intimate show (at least compared to my seats a half mile from the stage at Giants Stadium in 1987).
Bowie turns 65 today, and he's been out of the spotlight for nearly a decade after emergency heart surgery in 2004. We can wail and gnash our teeth about his absence, and sometimes I do, but as this great article in The Guardian points out, Bowie knew better than any of us when to take his final bow. While his peers staged reunion tours and engaged in self-congratulatory, legacy-bolstering ceremonies, Bowie protested his own induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by not showing up for Madonna's induction, dodging what he saw as a distasteful effort to legitimize rock and roll. He declined both a knighthood and the Commander of the British Empire honor. And he seemed to stand alone amongst his peers in having the sense to know when to call it a day, tapering off and retiring without fanfare in the middle of the Aughts.
That Guardian article linked above says just about everything I'm compelled to, but leaves out the one thing that makes David Bowie, without reservation, my all-time favorite rock star. Aside from his considerable musical contributions, what Bowie really meant to second-generation Bowie fans like myself had nothing to do with the gender-bending stuff which put him on the map (and which he later blamed for his comparatively limited success in the States). Beyond the the trend-setting glam, blue-eyed soul, and art rock, what Bowie represented to fans from my generation was the idea that you could reinvent yourself not only at will, but as many times as you wanted. As a 14 year-old, that was tantamount to a superpower, serious comic-book fantasy stuff, and I suspect it got more than a few of us through some rough times in adolescence. Bowie's talent for image manipulation and reinvention taught us not to worry about who we were today; as long as we put some effort and showmanship into it, tomorrow we could become anything we wanted. I suppose that's a universal lesson we're all supposed to get from places like school, or sports, or movies. I got it from The Thin White Duke. Happy birthday, Mr. Bowie.