Despite listening to a lot of music growing up, David Bowie wasn’t a guy that I really knew. I knew he existed; but I never heard any of his songs, or what he looked like. I grew up on an unhealthy dose of Green Day and Blink-182, with a side order of Simple Plan and Sum41. Something happened at the end of the millennium – rock and roll was on the defensive, and faded from the radio For some reason, our generation decided we rather hear shabby dressed dudes singing about how much our life sucked and how we should hate our parents.
My first real exposure to Mr Bowie was through the 2013 movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It was about a boring desk worker trapped in the monotony of life who explores the world in all its beauty and ends up with Kirsten Wiig. So I could relate to it pretty well. There’s a scene where Kristen Wiig is on the guitar playing David Bowie’s – Space Oddity. Something about the song stuck with me – it wasn’t your generic pop or rock song. It was different. There was a story unfolding with the words about Major Tom and Ground Control, and a weird bit after the first two verses where all the instruments sort of space out for a bit, as if they forgot what they were doing, only to come back into focus and pick up the pace.
I had that song at the back of my head for awhile; I learned it on guitar, and saw Chris Hadfield’s version on the ISS when his video went viral. And that could have been it. I might have only known him for one song, like how I know AC/DC for Highway to Hell or Nirvana for Smells like Teen Spirit. But earlier this year, David Bowie died. It was big news everywhere – the death of a Rock Legend, an icon of a previous generation. I searched him on Spotify to understand his popularity, his appeal – his legacy that he left behind when he passed.
First thing I thought – why was he obsessed with space so much? He kept singing about it. Like in every other song. Then I got more familiar with his classics – Life on Mars, Starman, Heroes, Under Pressure. I realised that a couple of them have already appeared in some of my favourite movies – Starman in The Martian, and Heroes in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In each and every one of his songs, they were unique – both compared to each other, and compared to your typical rock ballads. My absolute favourite of his right now is Life on Mars, so naturally I tried learning it on guitar. This song is hard, not least because its chord progression is just so very interesting. It goes through so many key changes that it should sound discordant and unpleasant – but instead it makes a seamless transition from a tone of nostalgia to an air of triumphant, back and forth between verse and chorus. The lyrics are interesting – I have to admit, they don’t make sense to me. Maybe I would understand them one day, when I’m high or delirious. But lyrics don’t have to make sense to be beautiful. They seem to capture short vignettes of life in one or two lines, making it feel like a whistle stop of an individual’s journey through the years. Or something like that. Let me think about it.
Above all, his songs were a refreshing look at rock and roll at its peak. A glimpse into an era very different from today’s world of soul-less factory-made music, forged from the same four chords, the same beats, and the same fifty words put in different orders. It was the era of the bona fide Rock Star: a time come and gone, one that we may never see again.
Personally, David Bowie’s death did not make me feel sad in the same way as most people. I did not feel like I lost a musical hero; how could I, when I never really knew the guy until now. Rather his death means that I have become a fan a little too late. I will never have the experience of seeing him perform Life on Mars live, get excited for his new album, or follow his latest antics as a coked up Rock God.
Goodbye, Starman, you’re waiting in the sky. I wish I could have met you, but I think you’d blow my mind.