Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
In the history of popular music, no artist has been more of a chameleon than David Bowie. This applies not just to his appearance (fey long-haired British folkie, Ziggy Stardust, glam superstar, Thin White Duke, androgynous pop star, MTV idol, etc), but also to the various stylistic shifts his music has taken over the years. Growing up, I was vaguely familiar with Bowie’s music, especially the songs “Changes,” “Young Americans” and“Space Oddity” (which I probably knew as “Ground Control to Major Tom”), but I didn’t know anything about him and wouldn’t have considered myself a fan. In fact, I don’t think I owned any of his records until either my late teens or early 20s. One year at summer camp, when I was about 11 or 12, someone had a giant poster of Bowie on the wall. Compared to the bands whose posters adorned my walls (Kiss, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin), he seemed like an alien. I wondered, “Who is this guy, and what kind of music would he make?” It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the image on the poster was from the US album cover for The Man Who Sold The World (and yep, he still looks like he’s from another planet, even though he’s just kicking up a storm on stage).
I was 16 when I got my first job at a record store (Music Factory, in the Staten Island Mall), and one of the few records the store manager played nearly every day was ChangesOneBowie, an 11-song compilation that became my true introduction to David Bowie’s music. I was immediately impressed by the variety, from the manic pop of “John, I’m Only Dancing” to the glam-rock of “Ziggy Stardust” & “The Jean Genie,” from the straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll of “Rebel Rebel” (which I would later perform with my college band) to the blue-eyed soul of “Young Americans.” Little did I know that this compilation barely scratched the surface of his recording career up to that point, let alone what he would go on to record. Also, that same year Bowie released his most commercially successful album, Let’s Dance, which featured the MTV hits “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl” and “Modern Love.” So even though I still didn’t own any Bowie albums, his music was a major part of my life at that time.
I don’t recall which Bowie album I purchased first. It might have been the 1989 box set, Sound + Vision, since box sets are a great way to delve into an artist’s catalog without having to purchase every album, and this particular set was visually stunning & contained hits, album tracks & rarities. Not only did it include most of the songs I already knew (sometimes in alternate versions), but it also introduced me to such great songs as “The Man Who Sold The World,” “Panic In Detroit,” “Cracked Actor,” “TVC15” and his version of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City.” Within a year or two after getting this box set, I probably purchased 5 or 6 of his individual CDs, and in the years that followed I ended up with just about everything he’s officially released (with the exception of soundtracks and a couple of live releases).
Although I’m more familiar with his music than someone who just knows the hits, I never spent enough time with each album to really get to know them. I know I love albums like The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Hunky Dory, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and even later ones like ‘Hours…’ and Heathen, but over the next month or two I want to further explore these and other albums that I’m less familiar with. Since each album has its own sound, I’m extremely excited to finally delve deeply into his catalog, more so than any artist I’ve covered here so far, believe it or not.
For those who don’t know my process for revisiting every artist and album, I make it a point to listen to each record at least once without reading anything about it (even the liner notes & credits), just so I can hear the music without any preconceived expectations. Only then will I start to learn more, by paying more attention to lyrics, reviewing the historical context, reading the credits for guest musicians, producers, etc. This enables me to have a better understanding of the music, and really get to know each song. I recently purchased a special edition issue devoted to David Bowie, from the makers of UK music magazine Uncut, with in-depth interviews, stories, and reviews of every album. I expect it to be an excellent companion as I revisit his sizeable catalog.
I’ve already started listening to his first few albums, and I hope to be back soon with my first post on these records. As always, I invite you to share your thoughts in the Comments section, as your input is always very helpful, and I hope my comments inspire you to dig out your seldom-played records and give them another spin. Thanks for stopping by.