Saturday, January 3, 2009

The first time I saw David Bowie

Last night I was watching some videos from the '80s, and stumbled across "Ashes to Ashes," which led, as things so, to trains of thought. (I was watching on DVD, but here's a link to a video of decent quality: At the "wanna come down right now" part, doesn't he look like he's plugged into the Matrix?)

It's hard to exaggerate just how contextless I was, back in the pre-Internet, pre-mass media saturation days. You could hear a song on the radio, and you might never find out its name, or who sang it, or, potentially, meet another person who'd heard it. For much of my early life, we had one television channel, then a few more channels trickled in, and then WTBS. There were a handful of radio stations, mostly country-oriented, some oldies (sixties music), occasionally some decent R&B, and on some lucky nights, WLS, which I've talked about before. (Overall, we definitely got better access to the goings-on in the outside world from the radio).

And, of course, a few monthly magazines: Time, Newsweek, 'Teen, MAD, CREEM, and random celebrity gossip magazines, usually focused on the stars of ABC. I still remember the cover of the first Famous Monsters of Filmland I ever saw (it was Darth Vader, and I suspect the popularity of Star Wars was the only reason anyone got a magazine like that on the newstand in the first place).

In this environment, despite years glued to the radio, I was in college before I learned that David Bowie had done various songs I knew ("Fame," "Young Americans," etc.), or even realized that those singers were all the same person. One of my best friends in the dorm had a David Bowie book, and I was startled by a picture of something I wasn't entirely sure I hadn't dreamed: the guy in the weird Pierrot costume.

I had seen the "Ashes to Ashes" video, completely without context, in what I'd guess was the summer of 1980 (the year it came out, when I would have been 15). My semi-educated reconstruction of events is that the video was aired on the show The Midnight Special. I know I was sleeping over at my best friend's house, we were up late, and we had no idea what the hell we were seeing.

When I look at the list of singles from 1980 on the Wikipedia (and surprisingly, there are some really good ones on there), the ones I actually remember hearing at the time were like, Ambrosia's "The Biggest Part of Me" ("ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo no, baby please don't go"), "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin', " and "Funkytown." I'm sure I was pretentious enough, but my knowledge base about art and music and, well, everything, was pretty limited. (And come to think of it, I think the two go together more often than not. My snootiness was based on, "I don't know what I want, but it's not this. There must be something more!" Once I discovered that there really, truly was, I was able to relax and enjoy, without always having to make a big deal out of it in order to differentiate myself. But again, that's just me).

But back to Mr. Bowie. I cannot overstate how weird this was, stumbled upon with no explanation, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, never having seen anything that would put it into any kind of context. I don't know how you could possibly recreate those laboratory conditions, even if you wanted to.

In contrast, for example, the 1987 "True Faith" video by New Order has a similar French theater surrealism weirdness going on, but by the time I saw that, I'd read Beckett, and I knew who New Order were (tongue twister!), so it didn't seem all that weird. It was just, well, that's a video.

( In retrospect, this seems sort of Blue Man Group, and as such, wouldn't even seem that strange to anyone who's watched television commercials. Which is...kind of weird.


Dan said...

Interesting. Our Bowie experiences are quite similar.

Although, I remember Bowie back in his old 'drag' days, which, as a youngster, I found to be a bit shocking.

I would pretty much forget about him until I saw Ashes to Ashes (but not until '82 when we moved to Brainerd and had the old satellite dish and MTV in it's early and far more interesting formative years).

I was absolutely mesmerized by this video. Didn't know what the hell it meant, or if it had any one particular meaning or message. The melody and imagery had an impact though. It put me into a fascinating state of mind.

I became quite a Bowie fan at that point, buying his greatest hits on cassette tape and listening to it every day in college, when I should have been studying Bach and Brahms (I was a music major).

Anyway, I was more than disappointed when Bowie got all 'cleaned up' and Let's Dance came out. Yuck. That was pretty much the end of Bowie as a musician as far as I was concerned. I still get nauseous thinking about that album.

"Put on your red shoea and dance the blues". Shut up, David.

Anarchivist said...

I believe your lending me that cassette tape ("Changesonebowie") was the beginning of my lengthy obsession...