Monday, January 11, 2016

A few words on Bowie

I've already said quite a few over the years.

This piece details the only time I saw him live, on the Serious Moonlight tour.

And here's an embarrassing photo of me poorly mimicking the Heroes album cover.

But when it comes to Bowie, I have to give it to Brother M, who was the first Bowie fanatic in our family.  It didn't take me long to catch up to him later in the 70's, but no doubt by sheer dint of age he was there first.  One of those bizarre teenage memories that shouldn't stick in my head, but does:

I didn't know exactly when Brother M's teenage rough patch began.  Probably about 1975?  Surely by the time he could drive in 1976, although I think he was feeling his way into a stormy teenage rebellion before then.  A lot of factors, I guess.  As I've noted previously, the older kids in our neighborhood, the teenagers of the early 70's, were a surly bunch.  Drug addled, often not very bright, some really screwed-up kids who would have pissed me off terribly had I been a parent at the time.  Brother M came in on the tail end of that crew and somehow went from that straight-A kid to a surly pain in the ass in the span of a year or two.

The basement was his domain, where he had his massive cabinet stereo, with a cardboard drum filled with all our 45's, and a scattering of vinyl albums that were pretty much ruined after he got hold of them.  It's probably for this reason alone that I got into Queen, ELO and ABBA as I knew he had zero interest in more pop/rock bands like that.  He was a hard-rock kid.  Think Foghat's "Slow Ride." Nazareth's "Hair of the Dog."

But we could both agree on ChangesOneBowie, that ubiquitous greatest hits album we both owned in various formats in the 70's.  I'm not sure if Diamond Dogs or Young Americans was the first non-greatest hits Bowie album he bought.  I'd guess not Diamond Dogs as I bought it myself a few years later and don't recall him owning it previously.  Thus, I had dibs on discovering "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family"!

But that summer of 1975, Brother M was just on the wrong side of the fence.  Breaking bad, but not totally broke.  Yet.  He was wearing goofy shit, too, like Depression-era hats and bib overalls with no shirts.  I guess the sort of things a rock star would wear, but looked strange on your brother in the safety of your home.  Something had clicked in his mind, and he was hanging out with all the wrong kids.  Even though doing so in our town at that point simply implied walking out the front door.

He made one last valiant stab at purity, hanging around with some Christian-based youth group in Hegins, the farm valley that was synonymous to us with the public swimming pool and hillbillies.  Farm kids always struck me as obtuse, never trusted them, they got strange ideas in their heads surrounded by corn rows and barnyard animals.  But a whole gang of them found Christ and, for a few weeks at least, Brother M was along for the ride.  Prayer meetings where the kids could really "rap" about "reality."  Guitar masses.  All that shit.

How did I know this?  Well, because simultaneously, he was freaking out over the Young Americans album.  I'll have to ask him if that was his favorite -- it's probably his sentimental favorite, if nothing else, for the time it represents in his life.

The key song for him on that album was "Somebody Up There Likes Me."  Any fool knew "Fame" and the title track were way beyond anything else on the album, but I gather the vaguely religious undertones of the song really spoke to him that spring and summer.

How much?  That teenage memory ... of Brother M, in the kitchen, with his newly purchased iron-on letters, carefully laying them out on a white t-shirt, to spell out "Somebody Up There Likes Me," with the "u" in "Up" having an arrow extending upwards.  The hot iron, the summer heat, his determination to make this t-shirt perfect, to show his new-found faith in the Lord.  We were tie-dying shirts routinely at the time, but I don't think he did with this shirt as he wanted the message to come through, loud and clear.

It was sort of a relief when he decided to get stoned again a few months down the round and throw down with the bad kids.  The strange intensity he felt towards Bowie, that album, that song, at the time.  That was rock and roll in the 70's.  What those people meant.  The roles they played in teenagers' lives.  I'm not sure if kids now, or in the past few decades, can grasp it.  Maybe they can.  But a recording artist guides you through a strange time like that in your life, you tend to not forget it.

Nor have I.  Although I was much more affected the first time I set needle down to "Five Years" on the Ziggy Stardust album.  Or that first time I heard "Heroes" on the radio and couldn't believe how good it was.  Give the man credit, he had a few dozen moments like that, not just with me, but with millions of people.  The man spent a lifetime blowing people's minds routinely.  I guess it's only fitting that he went out the same way.

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