I watched the Golden Globes on a Monday morning two weeks ago in our shores, then took a brief afternoon nap when after I woke from my nap I checked my Facebook feed and found out about David Bowie’s death. I was shocked about this as two days before he released his latest album Blackstar (on his 69th birthday) and most of the public (including myself) thought besides not doing press to preserve his health after his heart attack over a decade ago, there was no indication or news that he was dying. It was disclosed upon his death that he was actually battling terminal liver cancer for over 18 months, and the lyrics of his latest album now turned from the typical cryptic and enigmatic we expect from him to finally being more explicitly elegiac, as it turns out David was actually saying goodbye to everyone.
Growing up I wasn’t as big a Bowie fan as I am right now. I only first learned of him via his song “Let’s Dance”, which was promoted in the form of a boxing-style dance contest in Vilma Santos’s variety show (I suppose inspired by the album cover) back in 1983, when I was starting high school. Then I saw the video in one of the video clip shows they used to show on broadcast TV in our shores then (shows like Video Hot Ones aired during the weekend mornings and weekday afternoons, among other shows). Well, there was the very blonde David Bowie singing his song in the sweltering heat of a dive bar in what I later learned was Australia, interspersed with scenes of native Aborigines. My naive, ignorant 13-year-old self was not aware about the Aborigines and their plight at the time, so my reaction to the characters in the underlying storyline was like, “What it the hell were those homely people doing in the video?” I basically treated that plot as a distraction in those days. Now, of course, I’m more enlightened and now get the commentary of the Aborigines’ plight and the onslaught of consumerism pervading our society (which rings especially true these days).
I had a similar kind of reaction when watching the video to the follow-up single, “China Girl”. I was raised on my mother’s 1950’s notions of classical beauty so I thought–“Why did David Bowie think this plain looking girl is desirable?” Admittedly to this day, the leading lady Geeling Ng would still not fit my notions of Asian beauty, but I’ve become more tolerant and respectful that different people have different tastes, and I have appreciated after seeing more recent pictures of her that she is looking good these days. I also of course took notice of the Time magazine cover, that indicated what a big deal this recent success must have been.
His third single from the Let’s Dance album, “Modern Love”, I liked as a catchy tune, and though it’s basically a concert video, what I found notable (and slightly baffling to this day) was why did David after receiving a bouquet of flowers from a fan, then threw it back on another side of the stage? I also remembered it being prominently featured in an obscure, now-forgotten TV series about a family who traveled to alien planets, and the teenage son became a big Beatles-level superstar in one of them by basically by playing a cover of this song.
The year 1984 was the year I became a voracious music enthusiast, listening to as many artists and genres that I could get my hands on. Around this time David Bowie released his first single from his follow-up album to the mega-successful Let’s Dance, “Blue Jean”. I wasn’t aware of his previous legendary personas at that time so I was enthralled at the stage guise he assume, “Screaming Lord Byron”, and I dig those neck moves in one of those close-up shots. It was accompanied by a long-form version called “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” where the dual role that David played “Vic” made more sense, though when I first watched it all those years ago, I found the ending headscratching (and a tad sad since the protagonist Vic didn’t get the girl). Now, I understand the concept of “meta”, and how this video is a bit of a send-up of the legendary personas David assumed back in the 1970s.
In my teenage voracious music-phile phase, besides religiously listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 I also regularly buy and collect Jingle chordbook magazine. This was probably my chief source of learning any music information in those days since imported magazines were a bit hard to come by (and beyond the reaches of my allowance), and finally this was where I saw pictures of David’s Ziggy Stardust persona. There was a Book of Lists in our school library and in the 1977 edition of that book, I was a tad surprised then to discover that David Bowie and Elton John were featured in a list of homosexual celebrities–but then, we live in such a repressed age then, and it was considered a “rare” thing in those days (I’m glad more have come out of the woodwork since then). As I entered my third year in high school in 1985, there was the legendary Live Aid event and a major worldwide music video premiere–David Bowie and Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger dueting on a cover of Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing In the Street”. It was lighthearted fun, and I enjoyed it immensely.
In 1986, David made a couple of films and sang in their respective soundtracks. Therre was the retro 1950s film Absolute Beginners and the Jim Henson-directed film Labyrinth. Little did I know that the main protagonist, Jennifer Connelly, would emerge as a major actress (like earning an Oscar for the Russell Crowe biographical drama A Beautiful Mind 15 years later), but I have to say I appreciated her classic beauty even then–but David Bowie was a major scene-stealer as the Goblin King. Both films were deemed unsuccessful, unfortunately, (though Labyrinth is now a well-regarded cult classic) and I know “Underground” was not likely going to be a Top 40 hit (because the sound was simply not as contemporary as what was playing on radio at the time) but I enjoyed watching the “Underground” video with those nice special effects.
Actually since “Dancing in the Street”, David Bowie was largely absent in the Top 40 airwaves. So I was glad when as I started college, he returned back to the Top 40 with “Day-In, Day-Out”. I actually loved this song at the time, but I know these days, this song and the album Never Let Me Down are regarded as one of his weakest works. Still despite the obvious dated-ness and overproduction, I still like this song and the follow-up title track single.
I haven’t really heard any of Bowie’s more legendary early output except a casual glance of some TV specials and retrospectives until he released his greatest hits album Changesbowie with “Fame 90” promoting the collection. I was hoping the remake would chart, but well I now discovered why songs like “Space Oddity”, “Changes”, and “Ziggy Stardust” were so referenced so often, but I also loved listening to “Rebel Rebel” and “Young Americans”. It also dawned on me how his earlier stuff have more accessible melodies and lyrics (even if they are high concept) than his later work.
With the exception of his Earthling album in 1997 and his last two albums (The Next Day and Blackstar), I wasn’t that keen on his later material (Tin Machine, anyone?). But I started becoming obsessed with him much, much later, around 2009, triggered by a casual web article on the Entertainment Weekly website which featured this old 1975 video of David Bowie singing a free-association medley of songs with Cher in her variety show. It triggered me revisiting and absorbing and rediscovering many of his 1970s work, and they never left my psyche ever since. More on those in the next portions of this three-part essay.
On a last note for this section, I have to talk about his video for “Jump They Say”, from 1993’s Black Tie, White Noise. When I first watched the video back then, I found it visually riveting with the early 1960s retro look (with David looking pretty crisp and dappe), though I dislike the melody and thought there has to be a way to rearrange it to make it, well, more “accessible” or more melodic. On the surface, it seemed to almost glamorize suicide with those very pretty visuals. However, i read that the song and video is David dealing with his older brother Terry’s death back in 1985. With that in mind, when you look deeper, the “pretty” visuals had a darker message–it represents oppressive conformity, and we all know living in such a society is unhealthy as people are so different that to dictate and force one to fit a narrow mindset is inherently wrong. The video now resonates to me more and to me it represents what is dangerously oppressive in the corporate world, and I feel this oppressiveness claimed a victim with my brother, Jonathan–just like in the video he jumped from a tall building, but I have to note David’s older schizoid brother Terry actually lay down on the train tracks to be run over.
COMING UP: HIS INDELIBLE INFLUENCE IN THE WORLD