Despite being a huge music nerd as a kid, I can only say I
liked David Bowie back then, as opposed to being a fan. I knew most of the hits
and when the album “Let’s Dance” came out along with its music videos on heavy
rotation on MTV, I liked that a lot. I was also aware of Bowie’s influence on
most of the music I liked as a teenager (David Gahan’s performance of Bowie’s “Heroes”
was what convinced Depeche Mode to make Gahan their lead singer).
But that respect and enjoyment didn’t translate into
complete fandom. I didn’t own any David Bowie records and didn’t obsess over
the various personas Bowie took on at various points in his career.
That all changed when I was 33. I had gotten a Border’s gift
card for Christmas and I used it to buy a “Best of Bowie” CD because it was a
little embarrassing that I owned none of his music. About a week later, I started
a solo drive from Los Angeles to Washington DC, so I had some time to listen to
a lot of music.
I got around to listening to the Bowie CD just outside of
Memphis. It started with “Space Oddity” (everyone knows that one), then “The
Man Who Sold The World” (oh, that’s right, that Nirvana song was a cover), then
“Changes” (great to sing along to if there’s nobody else in the car).
Then came track four, “Life on Mars?” I was caught
completely off guard. I’ll admit, my mind was drifting a bit when the song
started, but by the time it ended I was entranced. I hit the “back” button on
the CD player and listened again, trying to make sense of the inscrutable
lyrics and epic scope of the arrangement.
I’ve no doubt there are online message boards where people
argue endlessly about what exactly the song means. But like many great works of
art, you can see whatever you want in it. For me, it was pretty
straightforward. “Life on Mars?” is about alienation. It’s about looking around
you in disgust and wondering if there’s anything better anywhere else and
fearing you won’t ever have access to it. It’s exactly how I felt as a teenager
growing up in Rochester, New York.
I hit the “back” button on the CD player and listen again. I
think, “How could I have gone 33 years without hearing this song? Where were
you during puberty? I really could have used you during puberty.” Despite this,
my teenage years all of the sudden seemed retroactively less lonely. After all,
someone else wrote a song about the same thing when I was just a few months
old, this sort of feeling must be pretty common.
I hit the “back” button again.
The experience of listening to the song is similar to riding
a rollercoaster. In fact, if you close your eyes, you can even see the dips and
turns. It starts off quiet and slow, like you’re rolling out of the loading
area. Then you slowly creep up the hill. When Bowie belts out “Sailors…” that’s
your first plunge. It takes your breath away in the same way. By the time he
sings “oh man”, you’ve bottomed out and the momentum is carrying you up the
next hill. Then he sings “take a look at the LAW MAN…” and you’re down the
second hill. By the time you hit, “Is there life on Mars?” you’re rounding a
banked turn. After more twists and turns, you’re returned safely to the place
where you started, dizzy, out of breath, and ready to take the ride again.
I hit the “back” button again, and again, and again.
After about an hour, I pause the music and call my go-to guy
for all things Bowie: Sam. I ask him about the song, why he’d never played it
for me before (I think the answer was something like, “you’ve really never
heard that song before?”).
I stop for lunch outside Knoxville. Then I get back in the
car, and turn on the song again. When it ends, I hit the “back” button. I
repeat this process for another 9 hours as I drive towards Washington. I feel
like I need to make up for the last 20 years of not listening to this song.
After that, I went back and dove more deeply into the rest
of the catalog and really started to appreciate the staggering influence Bowie
had on much of the music I loved and how much great stuff he himself put out.
And now, all these years later, I still come back to “Life on Mars?” on a
regular basis, whenever I need it.
So now, when the unexpected news of Bowie’s death is in the
news, it’s his own song and his voice that’s helping to soothe the sadness.
That’s quite a gift to give a stranger. Thank you.