The word “genius” is grossly overused, especially in the arts world. Many many people are very very good at what they do, but does that make them a genius? No. In music especially, people toss around phrases like genius producer, genius songwriter. It’s mostly bullshit. Have they changed the world? Reinvented the wheel? No. They’re just very good at what they do. And honestly that’s enough.
But today we lost someone who did change the musical world. Who did reinvent the wheel, then reinvent it again, then again, then again, and again. Today we lost David Bowie. And David Bowie was a genius.
I was twelve years old. I didn’t understand the concept of the corner record store yet, but my very cool aunt and uncle would take me to the local Caldor Department Store in Waterbury, Connecticut where they actually had a massive record section. The manager of that department was named Dave. I had heard this song on the radio about an astronaut, Major Tom. Dave knew the song I was talking about. He sold me Hunky Dory. And when I went back in a few weeks later looking for more, he sold me that same artist’s new record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
I fell in love with David Bowie at that point in my life. I probably didn’t know what most of the songs even meant, but still, they spoke to me on some level. A level that would morph as I grew older. And as a surprise, that very cool aunt and uncle, who were always taking me to concerts, took me to see what would be the final performance of Ziggy Stardust at Carnegie Hall later that year.
I would wait in line overnight in front of the New Haven Coliseum at the age of 14 to get tickets for the Diamond Dogs tour. (Anyone who lived in New Haven in the 70s knows my life was at risk.) I would see him from the front row in Radio City Music Hall on the Young Americans tour. And again in New Haven for the Return of the Thin White Duke. There was no opening band on that tour, but instead he played the Luis Bunel/Salvador Dali film Un Chein Andalou before taking the stage amidst walls of white light. I have never seen anything quite like that film or that tour since.
As a teen I endured countless hours of what we now refer to as bullying from the Lynyrd Skynyrd-loving fucktard jocks in high school because in 1974 I had spikey hair when they had mullets. But I never really gave a fuck. David Bowie was calling. And instead of playing the same song over and over, he always had something new and interesting to say.
My love for Bowie never stopped. I saw every tour. And though there were certainly later day records, post Let’s Dance, that didn’t speak to me on the same level as Ziggy or Aladin Sane or Station to Station or Heroes, I never stopped playing those older records. Because Ziggy Stardust, like any genius work of art means something different to me today, just as it meant something different when I was in my 40s, something different in my 30s, and so on. It changed with me.
And if there were an artist who influenced me more than any others in how I do what I do, that artist was Bowie. Constantly changing. Never repeating. Never allowing himself or his fans to feel comfortable. I’ve often said I don’t ever want to make the same movie twice. That was the Bowie influence. I love reinvention. That was Bowie. I love rock & roll that breaks my heart. Goddamn, that was Bowie.
Of course he made the changes seem easy. (Hell, he had a song about it.) Even up to his final musical breath with his latest record Black Star. So haunting now that he’s passed.
I loved this man. Everything he stood for. He was a God to me. As much a teacher as anyone I’ve ever met personally. I am saddened by the fact that I will never again get to see him perform live. And I am thankful he left us with one final beautiful gift of a record.
I didn’t cry when Elvis died. Nor Lennon, or Cobain. But I cried today. Today a genius died. Today David Bowie died.