Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
— David Bowie, Lazarus
David Bowie died surrounded by family at his New York home Sunday, January 10, 2016 eighteen months after being diagnosed with cancer. He released his final album, Blackstar, on Friday, January 8, 2016, his birthday. I’m listening to it as I write this article about how he inspired me.
Many have expressed their sorrow at our loss of Mr. Bowie on social media and it is hard to find a news story or obituary about him that is not composed at least partially of Twitter embeds. I’m writing this because while I never met the man, his music and personality played a major role in why I started playing music and how I approach songwriting, and just plain writing, to this day. In other words, I’m making this tragedy about me.
Then again, so are most other folks, I’m just admitting it at the outset.
I was in high school. I had only first picked up a guitar in the last year or so and quickly befriended a couple of other guitar-toting music nerds (Hey Jonny, hey Chris). We were already big fans of the Beatles and the more recent Brit-rock band Oasis. And we delved into Pink Floyd and David Bowie together, finding something like our own voice in that decidedly British amalgam of rock and roll.
But it was Bowie who, more than all of the other musicians who inspired me in the early days of my musical development, illustrated how far the synthesis of personality and art can be taken. There’s no need for me to explain his chameleonic permutations, they’re as iconic as his music.
Throughout high school and through college — even to this day — I remained a pedestrian-looking musician, just another white guy whose long hair got shorter and dyed-black as he entered his twenties and thought he, and he alone, was the saddest, most tortured soul at the party.
Put simply, “chameleonic” is just not a word anyone would use for my appearance. But Bowie’s music was as dynamic as his makeup tray and he seemed to foresee rather than follow fashion and sonic trends. That’s the part of him that stuck with me, consciously, as in I’m not just writing about it today because he has died, but as in I think about it, about him, a lot.
I don’t talk about writing songs very often because it’s become sort of like a diary, a journal. Like most of what I write, songwriting for me is a would-be novelist’s first notebook of character sketches, equal parts selfish unflattering funhouse-mirror style portrayals of myself and people I know and cringe-inducing artistic growing pains.
But I’ve been writing songs since the seventh or eighth grade. They stopped sucking sometime at the beginning of college and I owe a lot of that to David Bowie. When I wrote a particularly shitty song in one style, I’d just switch to another style. Acoustic dream-pop, rollicking early rock, simple quiet ballads, weird jazzy oddities.
This sort of stylistic rotation prevented me from concluding that I absolutely should never, ever write another song in a given style. And as a result, I eventually became pretty good at writing songs in two or three of those styles.1 I also developed my own original voice, both in music and in writing, by emulating the greats and selectively shedding bits and pieces of their approach in favor of my own.
So now that I’ve made it about myself, let’s bring it back to what’s important: there will never be another David Bowie and his loss is a cultural tragedy of a global scale, but he made one hell of a dent.2 Nothing, not even death, can silence a force like David Bowie. So go listen and smile.
- I absolutely should never, ever write another song in the other styles. ↩
- “At Apple, people are putting in 18-hour days. We attract a different type of person—a person who doesn’t want to wait five or ten years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her. Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe.” – The late great Steve Jobs, 1985 Playboy interview ↩