It was 1973, Tenth grade, Norland Senior High School in Miami, that’s when I found my tribe. It was in, of all places, Phys Ed class. That’s where I met Michael Powell. Michael was another long-haired guy who was not the least bit interested in participating in any thing that had anything to do with physical education. Our mutual disdain for the “Jocks” in the class bonded us. I was thrilled. I was a pretty quiet kid and just wanted to play, listen and discuss music all the time. That’s it. I was really relieved to meet someone who was like me.
Michael told me that he had a killer stereo at his house and invited me over. At the time I did not know anything about “killer” stereos. I listened to my records on my parents Magnavox combo TV/stereo in the living room, most of the time using my Koss Pro4AA headphones. You know when you play Sweet Child In Time by Deep Purple out loud in your living room, no matter how loud it is, your parents tell you to turn it down.
I rode my Schwinn Varsity 10 speed all the way over to Michael’s house in Scott Lake, a whole three miles away, and rang the doorbell. He let me in and immediately took me around back where his room was. His room was an ultra-cool, separate structure in his parent’s back yard. “You have got to be kidding me” was what I was thinking. I may have even said it out loud. Inside Michael’s “pad” there were black light posters, a water bed and one of the most intense, radical, high-tech looking stereo sound systems I have ever seen. It was marvelous. It was badass. It was LOUD!!
Now, I knew who my favorite bands were, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Led Zeppelin. So, when Michael asked me what kind of music I liked, I had to stop and think. This guy was cool. What if he thought my taste in music was too heavy and not cool. Maybe I should ask him to play me his favorite record so I could hear the system the way he heard it. Plus, that way, I could gage how he would react when I told him I liked the kind of music that at the time that was not considered hip. Pretty uncharacteristically [at least at that point in my life] socially savvy of me.
Michael walked over to his stack of vinyl and pulled out the record that was in the front of the pile. Carefully removed it from the paper sleeve and gingerly placed it on the Dual 701 turntable. He lifted the arm and situated it on the record. He carefully chose the third track on the record and turned the volume up. What came out of the custom JBL wood speaker cabinets was like nothing I had ever heard….
“I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you
I’m a space invader I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you
Keep your mouth shut, you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird
And I’m busting up my brains for the words
Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe
Put your ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine, love
Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah!”
Moonage Daydream by David Bowie. I could not believe what I was hearing. I had never heard anything like it before. It helped that it was on Michael’s rad stereo but even so, it was transcendent. Musically it was pretty cool but it was the vocal that astonished me. David’s vocal performance was nothing short of breathtaking and here’s why; I believed everything he sang and I had no idea what he was singing about. I was listening to an artist that was not asking for my approval. Not even caring if I ‘got it’. He was absolutely, unabashedly telling you that “ the church of man, luv, was such a holy place to be.” And he sang in an actual English accent. I was in! Sure the track had the genre-defining Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mick Woodmansey on the drums and the visionary Mike Garson on those avant-garde piano parts but it was David’s performance that made me feel like I was experiencing something else. The song created the aura that I was in on a secret that not everyone would “get” I was part of something unique.
The music was amazing but the real shock came when Michael showed me the cover. Part of the experience in those days was to stare at whatever graphics were available on the album cover while you listened to the music. That was the only clue you had as to what the artist looked like or what their visual identity was all about. When I took the album cover from Michael’s hand, that’s when the world really changed for me. David looked like nothing I had ever seen before. He was dressed in, what looked like, a one-piece outfit with groovy purple trimmed boots with a guitar slung over his shoulder. He had one foot propped up on a stoop. The photo looked like it was in taken an urban environment somewhere, possibly in an English city [the photo of David was actually taken in front of #23 Heddon Street by photographer Brian Ward in London on a rainy night in 1972]. But, what really got me was the hairstyle. That iconic dyed red, punky shag hairdo. This was really different. This was kind of scary. This was amazing. This was a Rock Star.
Michael looked at me to gauge my reaction. I could not help myself, “This is fukin’ cool” was my response. Well, I don’t actually remember what I said exactly, but I do remember what I felt. Hearing Moonage Daydream for the first time, looking at Bowie on that cover was one of those moments you look back on and realize that I had to do this. There was no question about what my path would be. If David’s music was the same and he hadn’t made such a huge visual artistic statement, I would have liked it anyway. But, the fearless way Bowie committed to the entire vision was what made it resonate with me. The bar had been raised. I guess what I should say is, “The bar was now so high it was in outer space.” This was the future and it really looked like the future.
I left Michael’s house and immediately rode my 10 speed to Vibrations Records And Tapes and bought my own vinyl copy The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spider From Mars.
I know a lot has been said about Bowie’s ability to re-invent himself. I loved all the personas that David dreamed up to push his art forward. But, the one that meant the most to me was the Ziggy Stardust character. Music for me was forever changed. You couldn’t just get up on stage wearing what everyone else was wearing. You had to look like you belonged on the stage. This philosophy led to many a strange look from my dad as I left the house to go play somewhere with my band at the time with one of my mom’s cap sleeve t-shirts on, way too tight Sassoon jeans, spangly bracelets and guy-liner. “Looking the part” became just as important as being a great player. You had to be as fearless as David. If you weren’t you were letting yourself down and more importantly, I felt, you were letting the audience down. It was a performance every time you got up on any stage. Didn’t matter if it was the third set at a Big Daddy’s lounge, a backyard beer party or Madison Square Garden, you had to perform and you HAD to look like you belonged on that stage.
Bowie’s Ziggy character spoke to the alienated, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the kids who weren’t quite sure who they were; David was sure who they were, they were his fans. He was making the statement that those kids could not. He spoke for them and they spoke back.
Because of David’s fearless belief in who he was and what his artistic statement should be, he pushed the envelope of what was possible. You could be yourself. You could be another character. You could be weird. You could be different. You could be arty or you could just be yourself – It didn’t matter, everyone was welcome. After all look at David, he’s wearing a Kenzo onsie, a flame-red shag haircut, more makeup than a pinup girl from the 40’s with more confidence than anyone has ever seen on a stage. He owned it. If he could do it, so could you, if you wanted to.
David has passed, and his impact is being testified to by everyone. Over 100 million interactions on Facebook alone.
The world has changed a lot since the days of Ziggy Stardust, but what hasn’t changed is what it really takes to be successful in anything you do. Especially, if you are a musician, It’s the same thing that David showed us all; Give your audience music to believe in. Something to cherish. Something to wish for. Give them music that changes the way they feel about their lives. Give them hope. Give them a flame-red, punky shag hair cut.
If you think it’s too hard, you’re right, it is!
It’s too hard because – maybe that’s your belief system and if you are not willing to change it, you miss the real message that Bowie was delivering. Or, maybe you just haven’t found the thing that will drive you to that level of ardent commitment. The cliché is “Find what you love to do and you will never work a day in your life”. Not true. You have to work. And sometimes it will be hard. But, that’s a great thing. Without the “hard” it will not mean as much. And you will not learn and you will not get better. I am sure David had his moments of not being sure, but it didn’t matter, he did it anyway. He had to, he was David Bowie. He was “Ziggy Stardust”.
You learn by putting things into the world in a way that satisfies you. That you believe in. That you know will be great. Let the work speak for itself. Make the choice to stand for something. And that too can be pretty scary. When you make the decision to matter and be fearless the world gets much clearer.
So then, where is your fear and how are you going to use it instead of hiding from it? When you hear that voice in the back of your head that says, “ This just might not work”, “someone may not like this” that’s what you run towards. That’s what you embrace. The only way you do work that’s important is you do the work that scares you. Sometimes it works out sometimes it doesn’t but, it’s the only way to get to what has value.
The world is waiting for you to create something that matters. Something Fearless! You owe it to yourself and you owe it to David. So, thank you Mr. Bowie for the inspiration and showing the way for all of us weirdos, freaks, misfits and those of us who just aren’t sure.
As the official NASA twitter account read yesterday; “And the stars look very different today.’ RIP David Bowie.”