David Bowie turns 65: A personal recollection

My first memory of David Bowie is when I was a young teenager at the house of two older cousins. They influenced my early musical tastes which featured artists as diverse as Mike Oldfield, Steve Hillage, Rory Gallagher and Rush. Among the collection was a strange looking LP with an unforgettable cover photo.

There was a man and a woman naked from the chest up, the man with big bright red hair staring pensively straight into the camera while the woman, her head resting gently on his shoulder, seemed forlorn. The album was called “Pinups” and the artist was “Bowie”. I didn’t know whether “Bowie” was him or her or both of them but wanted to know more. Her face was familiar but it was his voice that transfixed me from the first listen.

Later my cousin told me he was David Bowie and she was the model Twiggy, whom I remembered seeing on television. Why was she on the cover, I asked? My cousin didn’t know. It would be many years before I found out why though I figured Bowie must have had a thing for “Twig the Wonderkid” who he name-checked in Drive In Saturday on the album Aladdin Sane. That album and Pinups were released within six months of each other in 1973 when I was nine years old.

It was probably around 1978 when I first heard his music and saw his astonishing different coloured eyes. The following year I got my first summer job porting cases around Tramore’s Grand Hotel for ten quid a week. I stayed at my auntie’s in Tramore and for the first time in my life I had spending money. All that summer I spent my wages on David Bowie’s back collection. I immediately loved them all.

Space Oddity (1969) featured the hit single of the same name. The tune was instantly familiar from radio but I never realised it was the same guy who did the album cover with Twiggy. There was The Man Who Sold the World (1971) full of raucous rocking anthems and the album Roy Carr and Charles Murray said in “Bowie: An Illustrated Record” (1981) where the Bowie story really began. The cover art of Bowie in a dress was too much for 1970s Catholic Ireland (as it was for Protestant Britain) and we all had to make do with the “leg up” photo from the Ziggy era.

Hunky Dory (1971) was a personal favourite. While cycling in the countryside near Waterford I would sing loudly each song in the order they appeared on the album, with nearby cows bemused by my squealing out every moment of “Oh You Pretty Things“.

Next up was Ziggy Stardust (1972). While this was the album – and the persona – that made Bowie a household name, it was never one I particularly loved. I thought the concept album idea boring and none of the songs haunted their way into my conscience as did his other albums. I liked the instruction on the cover “To be played at maximum volume” but I never risked the wrath of mum and dad by complying.

The 1973 albums were my entry point to Bowie. I didn’t knew Pinups was an album of 1960s covers and even when I heard Ray Davies blast out “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” my first reaction was the Kinks did a great cover of Bowie’s record. The other 1973 album Aladdin Sane, however, was pure Bowie and utterly haunting from the first listen. I was entranced by Bowie’s apocalyptic vision from the subtitle of the title song Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?) expecting World War III to break out any day. But it was Mike Garson’s piano in the final track Lady Grinning Soul that penetrated deepest with Bowie crooning “She will be your living end” grinning its way into my soul. It’s still my favourite Bowie song.

Then it was Diamond Dogs from 1974, another overrated album by my lights. I was never a huge fan of the singles Rebel, Rebel or Diamond Dogs though I loved the epic sweep of the Sweet Thing trilogy. Young Americans from 1975 was more to my liking. His “plastic soul” sounded anything but plastic and the influence of John Lennon and Luther Vandross made this a very classy sounding album. Bowie’s voice adapted to any style.

Station to Station (1976) was another departure and another Bowie character, the vampire-like Thin White Duke. Bowie was a heavy cocaine user during this period and it drives on the pulsating title track that opens the album. The first few minutes of that song are unforgettable as the train build up speed slowly with a droning guitar before the thin white duke’s voice brings this massive song home with an up tempo conclusion. Well, if it’s not the side-effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love.

It took me a while to love the 1977 albums Low and Heroes. Bowie was in Berlin and under the influence of ambient musician Brian Eno. Low was well named, the pain of Bowie’s splintered personal life brought out in songs like Breaking Glass and Always Crashing in the Same Car. The instrumental side two was difficult listening but rewarding. Heroes followed a similar trajectory with side one distilling in lyrics Bowie’s drug-crazed agonies while an instrumental side two explored the same concepts in music.

Lodger (1979) came out as I was seriously getting into Bowie. It was more upbeat than the previous two and minus the instrumental frenzies but it was still a dark record. Boys Keep Swinging got Bowie back in the British charts but there was not much singles joy in this platter. The Lodger Bowie was not really at home in this music but his travels around world music did give him a better feel for disco he would exploit in the early 1980s.

That decade started with Scary Monsters and Super Creeps which was the first Bowie album I bought as soon as it came out. I was a bit disappointed. The album was successful and the singles Ashes to Ashes and Fashion put him at the top of the charts. Yet I was expecting a bit more. It was another change of musical philosophy, but it just seemed to fall short. Maybe I was just being precious because everyone liked Bowie at the time. Listening again to It’s No Game (Part 1) recently, it is a classic track with Michi Hirota singing the song in Japanese and Bowie spitting out the translation in English as if, as Carr & Murray said, he was “tearing out his intestines”.

My love affair with Bowie ended in 1983 with Let’s Dance. Sooner or later Bowie would release a disco record and this was it, and a great success. By 1983 I was a know-all 18 and getting into more obscure music. Listening to Wire, the Virgin Prunes and the young Matt Johnson (later The The), I was unimpressed by Bowie’s dance sounds. The title track was playing in every disco in the world that summer and I loathed it like I loathed Thriller which came out around the same time. I didn’t buy another Bowie record for 20 years.

Around 2005, all his back collection of CDs was selling at $10 a pop in Brisbane record stores. In a fit of nostalgia I bought all the albums from 1970 to 1983 and fell in love with his early music again. I bought Heathen (2002) but because it had no 1970s or 1980s memories to weave on to, it never impinged on my conscience But Bowie’s voice, dexterity and mastery of various genres makes him a musical genius of the highest order. Happy 65th birthday, David.

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