The first time I heard David Bowie, I was 12. I lived in a central Pennsylvania town called Wellsboro, population 3,000-plus. The nearest “big” city was Williamsport – the home of the Little League World Series.
I was a Little Leaguer myself. There were long days of practice, followed by wasted hours at the local arcade playing “Defender” and “Donkey Kong.”
One day – while I was shoveling quarters in a game – something came out of the inordinately loud jukebox that got me right away. It was the bass line first: “Dum-Dum-Dum-da-da-Dum-Dum” – the opening notes of a new song by Queen called “Under Pressure.”
It’s a famous groove – made even more famous by faux-rapper Vanilla Ice in the early ’90s – but what really caught me was the tone of the “other” vocalist; the one singing with Freddie Mercury.
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“It’s the terror of knowing
what this world is about.
Watching some good friends
screaming ‘Let me out.’ ”
Now, at 12, I was strictly an AM listener. Queen, for all its androgynous styling and guitar-heavy anthems, was an AM band – “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”
But this other voice – this hovering, ethereal voice – was not an AM voice. For all I knew, it was from another planet. It sounded worldly and knowing to me. He pulled me right in. I’d call it “arty” now, but really, that vocal is just so cool.
I strained hard to remember this moment when I heard David Bowie had died Jan. 10 – this is 34 years ago, after all. I know rock fans are also lamenting the passing of Glenn Frey. When I was kid in a garage band in Chico, I played a punk rock version of “Peaceful Easy Feelin’.” But the Eagles and Frey never spoke to me in way that Bowie did.
We have a tendency to mark time by the comings and goings of people. I was 35 when I became a father, 33 when I became a husband, and 12 when I became a David Bowie fan.
Bowie’s passing makes me contemplate how my oldest son is changing. At 10, he’s showing interest in music and repurposing outdated family iPods for his own use. The headphones are in, he stares into outer space, and I hope his mind is being blown. I hope he’s being inspired.
Allen Ginsberg once said of Bob Dylan, “It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox.”
Quite clearly it can. Bowie’s voice grabbed me over three decades ago and hasn’t let go. During his career, he sang about being different, an alien or a freak. His is an aesthetic of individuality; of “otherness” as high art. Our culture didn’t always celebrate that. But in Bowie’s death, we will.
I hope my sons can find some beauty among the banal, as I did. There seems to be less of the former and more of the latter these days, but of course I say that because I’m old. The more important point is that I hope my kids, and all kids, trust themselves and their individuality. That to me is the lesson of David Bowie.
I started with “Under Pressure,” so I’ll end there too:
“ ‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word;
And love dares you to care
for the people on the edge of the night;
And love dares you to change our way of
caring about ourselves.”
Jim Evans, a former Bee reporter and former spokesman for Jerry Brown, is chairman of the California Gambling Control Commission. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.