“Paddy, will you carry me? I think I’ve lost my way. I’m already five years older. I’m already in my grave. I’m already…” ~The Hearts Filthy Lesson, David Bowie
I met David Bowie in late 1995, at a time when I was a young adult trying to find my way in the world. That’s when many people met him, maybe not in 1995, but perhaps in 1972, or 1983, or 2002, or whenever, but they needed guidance just like I did. And David Bowie was there for me, for them, for US, just like he always had been, just like I knew he always would be. While I didn’t shake his hand, or look into his eyes, or even have a chance to ask for his autograph, I did hear his voice for the first time, and I cried.
Late 1995 was a time of change for me. I had just started college the year before, but I was floundering. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing right then, or with my life, or what was going to become of me in the future. All I knew was that music was my life, that lyrics made up the complicated fabric of my emotions at the time. I knew that there was so much out there that I didn’t know. Instead of looking to those around me for support I went inward. I went to my favorite place to meditate on the music. It was always the music.
David Bowie snuck up on me back then. I was into darker stuff at the time, having just discovered KMFDM, Nine Inch Nails, and Portishead. So it was a bit ironic that my introduction to the Thin White Duke took place because of Trent Reznor and his influence on “The Hearts Filthy Lesson.” I first heard the song over the speaker system at one of my favorite hole-in-the-wall record shops, the same place where I had listened to the entire The Downward Spiral album some few weeks before, purchasing it on the spot. When I walked in that time the song was blaring loudly and petulantly, and I liked it at once.
If you have never heard “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” then you’re missing out on a masterpiece. It is the perfect marriage of industrial, drum-machine throbbing bass, and the voice of an angel, with a bit of grunge thrown in for good measure. If there was ever anything to be said about David Bowie, it was that he was a chameleon, changing his music to suit his mood, to suit the place he had gotten to by that time. I didn’t know it then. Right then all I knew was that that one song was dynamic, that I had to hear more, so I bought the Outside album without hearing anything else. It wasn’t until later, on my bed, with my headphones on, that I was introduced to a concept album.
It was trippy. Something about Bowie’s voice grabbed me and made me want to pay attention. Something in his tone and in the words he used filled a void in me that I didn’t even know existed. I absolutely loved the album from start to finish, even the strange disembodied vocal tracks that weren’t even traditional music. I felt like a ghost in the machine, hearing the inner workings of the form without missing a beat. In fact, every single time I have listened to that record since I’ve felt the exact same way. I was hooked.
So I worked my way backward. I knew at once that I wanted to have more, that I needed another hit of that drug that was David Bowie. But the record store where I had purchased Outside wasn’t the place to go. It was the only album they had of his, focusing as they did on the industrial music that was so popular at the time. I went instead to a small place downtown that sold Boyz II Men, The Beatles, and Mark Knopfler. In their B section I found a virtual goldmine of Bowie records, and I realized for the first time the breadth of the man’s work to that point. That first trip to the store I picked up Space Oddity and loved it from the start.
In bits and pieces I began to build my collection with those first two CDs as cornerstones for what was to come. Every other payday I would head back downtown, to that little shop, and pick up another David Bowie album. Until, a few months later, I looked inside the crate where I kept my albums and I noticed that there were more Bowie records there than I even knew. I had built a collection of 12 albums in a matter of a few months, and by and large I loved what I heard, from the “Moonage Daydream,” to “The Memory of a Free Festival,” to “Ziggy Stardust,” to even “I’m Afraid of Americans” (from an album — Earthling — that was released while I was busy collecting).
I was in love. It was such a rush to get each new record, to put on my headphones, and to immerse myself in what was to me new music. I would listen to each album over and over again on a constant loop until I knew every single word, every note, every beat even, until it became part of my very marrow. I kept buying album after album in this fashion until I had every single one of the 20+ in my collection, and I have to admit that it felt a little odd when there were no more to buy. It was as if I was an addict, and my dealer was out of the drug. So I did what I did later with Harry Potter books. I kept going back to the well and experiencing each of the volumes again, as if for the first time.
Eventually, though, as with most things, other music came in to take over some of the real estate in those crates in my room. I began listening to Bowie less than I had before, but it didn’t mean he had lessened in my eyes. It only meant that music shifts and changes, and Bowie continued to change along with it. Every time he released a new album I was there at that moment, buying it and listening to it like I had in late 1995 when I first unexpectedly found Outside.
And I have to admit that he fell off my radar between those new albums, probably because the time he took to release them grew ever larger over the years. I was excited a couple of years ago when The Next Day came out, and I knew he was releasing another one this year, so I was excited, anticipating another brilliant record from one of my favorite artists. Then I woke up this morning, turned on the television, and received an absolute shock. David Bowie was dead. I thought my eyes had blurred, that I hadn’t read the screen correctly, but the anchor was saying it again, and I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t pretend it was happening to someone else.
20 years after I discovered the man, the myth, and the legend, he was gone. And the music remains. But it’s not the same. Just knowing he was out there, that any time now he could be releasing another album, that I could curl up on my bed again with my headphones, it soothed my soul. Now my soul is in chaos. For the first time since I’ve been alive, David Bowie is not, and I have to make my peace with that. But first I need to pick up a copy of his new album — his last album — and immerse myself in him one more time. For the first time.