Remembering David Bowie

From issue 51 • Words by Jeff Castelaz with illustrations by Matthew Burton

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I am crying as I write this. I am sad. Yet I am filled with passion, wanting to describe to the world how much this man’s music has affected me. He defended me a million times. He gave me courage to kick against the pricks. He made me laugh with intellectual delight. And he introduced me to his guitarist Mick Ronson, one of the greatest mystics to ever walk this earth.

For years, David Bowie…looked…straight…into…my…eyes.

And, yet, I never met him.

His songs made me feel that revenge on those who held me and my friends back was right around the corner. His songs made me dream of distant lands I’d never been to. Listening to Bowie, I reached for the dictionary and the encyclopedia more times than with any other artist. I needed to know what “Rule Britannia” was; I couldn’t sing along about the “Norfolk Broads” unless I knew what the hell that was.

The impossible, aching, driving, searing edge of “Changes,” “Queen Bitch,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Space Oddity”  and the two songs that have come to mean more to me than all the rest—“Kooks” and “Life On Mars”—are a complete life instruction for me. All the other music I feel so passionately about, including The Smiths , pales next to the body of Bowie’s work.

When I was a kid, Bowie’s songs made me feel like there was a distant world where everything was better, where everyone was sharp-witted and free, and that if I continued listening to his music I would eventually gain entry to that world. I determined that, at the very least, I would have to know all of the words to “The Bewlay Brothers” and that I would have to know how to play “Ziggy Stardust” on the guitar.

When my son Pablo was a baby still in his crib, I would sing “Kooks” to him when he woke in the middle of the night: “Will you stay in our lovers’ story / If you stay you won’t be sorry / ’Cause we believe in you / Soon you’ll grow so take a chance / With a couple of Kooks / Hung up on romancing.”

As Pablo got older, my wife Jo Ann and I began to play the “Hunky Dory” album for him, and he, like millions of kids, latched onto “Life On Mars.” With its story about a girl who’s being yelled at by her mom, who wants to go to the movies, who sees pirates and cavemen. The song goes on to tell us that “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow.” That line hooked Pablo. He sang it, he laughed his ass off, he wanted to go back and replay it. He was never old enough to tell us his subjective thoughts on the song, but I got the impression he was as completely wrapped up in it as either of his parents had been when we were kids.

Pablo was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, just before his fifth birthday. He went through treatment for 13 months. During that period, everything he was into took on a heightened significance in our lives. Bowie’s music was at the top of that heap. There’s something otherworldly about the science and machinery of cancer treatment—especially through the eyes of a little boy. Otherworldly, too, are the images and sounds in Bowie’s songs—particularly the “Hunky Dory” album.

At Pablo’s memorial in 2009, Garbage front woman Shirley Manson sang “Life On Mars” accompanied by the artist Charlotte Martin on piano. Shirley knew Pablo for most of his short life, and she was omnipresent during his treatment. I still do not know how Shirley made it through that song without shattering inside, and breaking down. But she did make it through. And by doing so, she helped the 1,000-plus attendees crammed into the memorial to see David Bowie through the eyes of our young son. I still listen to a recording from that day all the time.

When I was a little boy, scouring Bowie’s lyrics, trying to keep up, I had no idea where his music would take me…where it would end up in my life…. Little did I know that one of his songs would be the exit music to my son’s life.

David Bowie was a reliable narrator. So much of what he sang about in the ’70s came true—the outer space stuff, the gay stuff, the fame stuff. Most people use a camera to capture the chunks of life he illustrated in his songs. Think about it. He wrote about broken youth, and we stopped to look around, searching for a hidden camera that might be reporting our real lives directly to Bowie’s recording studio. He was us and we were him. He correctly conveyed us in his lyrics, so we never had no choice but to be his fans.

He wrote about the underground and outer space. We didn’t know whether to pack our NASA bodysuit or polish and lace our boots. But we always knew that Bowie was leading the way.

CASTELAZ TOP FIVE DAVID bowie studio albums
1. “Hunky Dory” (1971)
2. “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” (1972)
3. “Low” (1977)
4. “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” (1980)
5. “Young Americans” (1975)

He wrote an album about someone we never met—a character he only told us about—yet the triumphs, trials, failures and self-destruction of that person rattled our mindscapes and shifted our emotions for decades. I was one year old when he killed off that character, Ziggy Stardust in July 1973, but the myth around it all loomed large in
my childhood.

David Bowie never stopped the slow reveal. We never saw the full him. We never knew if we were looking at the man, or if we were looking at a reflection, perfectly placed in our presence by the artist. Because of that, we will always have David Bowie in our lives. He will always be here…on the radio, and in our hearts.

What else could we ever ask for?

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