Monday, January 11, 2016

Musical Memories: David Bowie, "Life On Mars?"

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.


At 7:32 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed. He created so much music yet I'm either unfamiliar or not a fan of most of it. But some it moves me like the Cyclone at Six Flags.

At 7:36 am, Blogger warnersworld said...

Nice to see you writing again, Matt.


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