What did David Bowie mean to you?

What did David Bowie mean to you?

Illustration: Nick Wanserski
Illustration: Nick Wanserski

Erik Adams

With the possible exception of The Beatles, no artist has bonded me with more people than David Bowie. I never got to see him live, and I didn’t get to witness his art evolve and mutate in real time, but I do get to remember the many times his talents sparked a personal connection, be it reveling in Labyrinth with my future wife, loading The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars on to my mom’s first iPod, or performing “Under Pressure” at A.V. Club karaoke. (Original version: Sean O’Neal as Bowie, me as Freddie Mercury. 2016 vintage: Gwen Ihnat takes the high notes, I do “’Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word.”) In college, my friends and I would get sloppy drunk and dance to “Young Americans,” everybody getting it together long enough to hit the “break down and cry-hy” in unison; now we attend each other’s weddings, imbibe in a slightly more responsible fashion, and kick up our heels to “Modern Love.” It’s all in the spirit of my favorite David Bowie lyric, shouted to the heavens with Ziggy Stardust’s dying breaths: “Oh no, love! You’re not alone / No matter what or who you’ve been.” Thanks to Bowie, we never were alone—and never will be, either.

Gwen Ihnat

Erik, I also have your karaoke rendition in our version of “Under Pressure” as one of my many Bowie high notes. I also feel extremely lucky that I got to see the Bowie exhibition at the MCA last year: I was a fan before, but that exhibit raised everything to extreme levels as David Bowie’s influence in not just music but art, film, and fashion was so amazingly evident. (Also made me feel like a total slacker, compared to Bowie’s astonishing and consistent output.) Hunky Dory was my Bowie gateway album, and you better believe that every single mix I made for the kids’ birthdays had “Kooks” on it, with the best parenting advice ever: “If the homework brings you down / Then we’ll throw it on the fire / And take the car downtown.” I even love how in later years he would drop in for great cameos like the walkoff judge in Zoolander, or singing “little fat man” to Ricky Gervais in Extras. He was the coolest person on this planet or any other, and there is no one to take his place.

A.A. Dowd

I’m going to piggy-back a little off of Erik’s answer and double down on the sentiment that David Bowie always made karaoke awesome. He had the kind of voice that’s impossible to equal but fairly easy to emulate without totally embarrassing yourself. He wrote genuinely stirring glam-rock anthems that were also proudly weird, allowing for a barroom-singalong communion between indie kids and the “Don’t Stop Believing” crowd. And he was a true showman, inspiring all who dared attempt one of his tunes on a boozy Friday to also throw a little theatricality into the delivery. If a karaoke book includes “Modern Love” or “Life On Mars?” or “Starman” or “Under Pressure,” it won’t be a bad night, no matter how bad you or your friends or the strangers around you sound warbling out those hits. I never got to see Bowie live either, but I did get to see Erik and Gwen and countless others do Bowie, and the magic of those songs survives in every 1:30 a.m., hole-in-the-wall rendition.

Josh Modell

For the past month or so, my 5-year-old son has been obsessed with David Bowie. For the past couple of weeks, whenever he burps or farts, he blames it on David Bowie, by simply exclaiming, “David Bowie!” It started late last year, when he heard a cover of “Kooks” by children’s artist Elizabeth Mitchell. He liked the song a lot—who wouldn’t?—so I asked him if he wanted to hear the original version. I don’t want to say it was a lightning-strike moment for him, but he was definitely entranced by Bowie’s version of the song, along with a bunch of other songs on Hunky Dory, including “Changes” and “Life On Mars?” It was a proud dad moment for sure. Now he walks around the house singing “Kooks” all the time, though he changes the line “Will you stay in our lovers’ story” to “Will you stay and I love your story,” which is adorable. When I woke him up on Friday morning, I told him it was Bowie’s birthday, and he was surprised and delighted. Being a wuss, I’m not going to tell him just yet that it was Bowie’s last birthday on this planet.

Kyle Ryan

I was a young kid during the early days of MTV, but I watched a ton of it, particularly around the time 1983’s Let’s Dance was released. My introduction to Bowie was suitably varied, as he made videos for the soulful rave-up “Modern Love” (the one I remember best and still my favorite song), the moody crooning of “China Girl” (baffling to my 7-year-old brain), and “Let’s Dance,” which perfectly reflected the post-disco, new-wave sound of its era. As I grew up, it was a delight to discover all the other incarnations of David Bowie, especially when my young mind would be like, “Wait, that’s the same guy?” Even during my most elitist, punk-as-fuck adolescence, when I could ascribe selling out to just about anyone for anything, I knew to keep my mouth shut when I saw Bowie working with one of my heroes, Trent Reznor. Even my dumb, cynical brain knew David Bowie was the coolest motherfucker alive.

Laura M. Browning

I unfortunately didn’t discover David Bowie (or most good music) until I was in my early 20s, so I don’t have a good “Bowie helped me through my teens” story. But he’s doing something great for the next generation: When my niece was 4 (she’s now nearly 8), her dad, being a good parent, was playing David Bowie for her. At one point she paused and said, “Daddy? Is David Bowie a boy or a girl?” Her dad thought a minute and said, “Well, what do you think?” My niece thought about it and said, “MY David Bowie is a GIRL!” We’ll be hearing a lot this week about how Bowie was a chameleon and the father of reinvention, but I think my niece summed this up better than all of us. My David Bowie will live forever.

Matt Gerardi

Looking back, it’s hard to believe there was point in my life where I flat-out thought I didn’t like music, but that’s where I was at as a snobby teen in the early ’00s. Sure enough, that all changed when I learned about the wonders of the internet as a tool for exploration and discovering music I didn’t hate. Like a lot of people my age, the first phase of this expedition was into classic-rock radio mainstays—Zeppelin, The Who, Hendrix, and early David Bowie. But where my appreciation for those other acts began and ended with their rock standards, Bowie and his tremendously varied discography represented something bigger. For me, he was a musical bridge, an invaluable intermediary between the straightforward rock I quickly tired of and the diverse, multifaceted music I’d find myself enamored with for years to come. Devouring nearly 40 years of his music in chronological order was an eye-opening experience for a cynical 13-year-old. He took me on an endlessly twisting journey that brought together all kinds of sounds and feelings that I’d never once thought could fit together, let alone could have sprung from the mind of a single artist.

Katie Rife

When I was a teenager, I used music as a way to connect to other people. Ordinary social interactions, especially high school ones, filled me with paralyzing anxiety, but talking about music, I could handle. So I spent my Saturday afternoons hanging out at the record store talking to the clerks; they seemed amused by my presence and would feed me LPs, which is why I have the musical taste of a fortysomething rock snob. Anyway, one of those LPs was Ziggy Stardust. Bowie in the jumpsuit on the front cover, the lyrics about sexy space aliens, the note that the record was “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME”—it was awesome, and no one my age seemed to appreciate it. (Pop-punk was all the rage back then.) Then I met a girl who, when asked to bring a poem in to English class, brought in her copy of Ziggy Stardust and played “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide.” We started talking about records, and she became my best friend, the first of several times in my life that Bowie brought me closer to someone. What made David Bowie more than just an ordinary rock star was his ability to unite the outcasts, to reach out to everyone who felt different and let them know that they were not only okay, but wonderful and precious. I’ve never cried over the death of a famous person before, but listening to Ziggy Stardust—which I know by heart at this point—this morning and reading the outpouring of grief on social media from all the beautiful kooks who are in my life now, I admit I lost it a little.

Jason Heller

When I was 15, I stood in line for eight hours to buy a ticket to a concert. It was the ’80s, and that’s what people did back then when they wanted good seats. And this was going to be a huge concert for me: It was the first that I was going to attend alone, and it the first time I was going to see my favorite artist, David Bowie. The line was worth it; I scored a seventh-row seat to see him at the massive McNichols Arena in Denver. As much as I loved both opening acts (Duran Duran and The Outfield), they paled before Bowie himself. It was the Glass Spider Tour, which was critically derided at the time for its outlandish extravagance. But for me, a shy, poor kid on food stamps and hand-me-downs, I didn’t see wastefulness paraded across that stage; instead I saw a spectacle that made my imagination go supernova. That spectacle also fused my two favorite things in the whole world: rock music and science fiction, the escape hatches that made an otherwise unbearable adolescence full of poverty, neglect, and violence somewhat close to bearable. From there, it was just a short time before I got into more and more “weird music,” as my truck-driving uncle liked to tease, and then punk rock. I also started playing in bands of my own. And writing. The notion of expressing myself in public no longer seemed horrifying. It seemed like the way out. To where exactly, well, that was always the mystery of Bowie. He was going somewhere, sure, but up to and including Blackstar, the destination was always unexpected. Over the years, as my love and appreciation of Bowie’s music has deepened, I still feel that sense of awesome possibility every time I hear him. And I hope I always will.

Will Harris

Like a lot of kids who came of age in 1980-something, my first exposure to David Bowie was via MTV’s constant airings of the Let’s Dance video trifecta: the title track, “China Girl,” and “Modern Love.” Little did I realize at the time that I was seeing just one of the many musical guises that Bowie had worn over the course of his career, and many years would pass before I really delved deeply into his back catalog, but those videos were more than enough to cause me to start paying attention to whatever new material he might have to offer, and not only did that desire never go away, it only grew stronger. Why? Because you never knew what his next song might sound like. The path from “The Laughing Gnome” to “Blackstar” is one I can’t imagine anyone else making, and that’s because there’s never been anyone else like Bowie. Once upon a time, I bemoaned that the only time I ever got to see him live was on the Glass Spider tour, but now I’m just glad that I got to see him at all, because the next closest encounter I had with him wasn’t very close at all. It did, however, provide me with a cheap thrill that I’ll hang onto for the long haul: I wrote a Buzzfeed piece about “Life On Mars?” after Jessica Lange sang it on American Horror Story, and Bowie’s official social media accounts shared it. Did Bowie himself actually read it? Supposedly. The reality, though, is that your guess is as good as mine. But I’m going to pretend that he did. And then I’m going to put on my red shoes and dance the blues.

Molly Eichel

My sophomore year of college, a high school acquaintance suddenly passed away. We weren’t close, but she was sweet and personable. We were in the same theater group together, and she once screwed up a costume she was working and was so upset she sat under the table with the scraps of ruined fabric. So I sat with her and told how were going to fix it and how I also liked to sit underneath tables sometimes. And she got up from under the table and she fixed it and kept going and because of that I always liked her. I was home from school when she died, and I attended her funeral. It was packed. This girl was loved. Later that night, I got drunk and a (sober) friend of mine drove me around in her car as we listened to the radio. I was fine, really, until “Starman” came on and I started to cry. Because this girl, this really lovely and wonderful girl, would not be able to hear this song again. She wouldn’t hear the ice cool opening verse, that build of anticipation and excitement, that epic wailing chorus. She would never get to experience it again. To me David Bowie meant life and vitality. He could make me feel even when I was pretending not to because it was complicated and messier. Every time I listen to “Starman,” which is often, I think of her. So David, maybe you could find her up in the great beyond and give her a private show.

Jesse Hassenger

My first David Bowie album was Earthling, his 1997 drum-and-bass-influenced sorta-techno album. Remember when EDM was called techno? No? Well, I’m old. But not as old as David Bowie when Earthling was released; he was 50. I knew, at the time, that he had been famous for years, and that he was the Goblin King in Labyrinth, and that he was cool. Eventually, that vague awareness turned more clear, as did the quality that inspired me most about him: his ability to transcend notions of aging. I knew, empirically, that David Bowie was older than other musicians I listened to back in 1997, just as I knew that he continued to age in the nearly two decades since then. But if he wanted to try techno at age 50, he tried it; if he wanted to play Tesla in a Christopher Nolan movie at 59, he committed to it; and if he wanted to rock out again at 66, he did it. He must have been working on Blackstar, his latest and final record, while he was sick, when I’m sure it would have been tempting to just take it easy. But something in him wanted to keep working on something that sounds like exactly none of his other records (well, okay: I can hear bits of other records in there—including Earthling!). That’s what resonates with me, perhaps even more than the fact that he made so much amazing, perfect music when he was younger. His death surprised me because I took it for granted that he would always be out there, trying new things at any age. What a gift that must be: to have people be surprised, even confused, by your death this late in such a rich and full lifetime.

Drew Fortune

Bowie will always have a special place in my heart and mind’s eye as the Goblin King from Labyrinth. The film was my first movie, in the sense that it’s the first film I truly remember experiencing. It was 1987 and I was 5 years old. I remember driving to Applause Video, a small mom-and-pop outfit in Omaha, during a February snowstorm specifically to rent it. I remember her being excited to rent it, as she was a diehard Bowie fan. I just liked Muppets. I remember curling up next to my mom in the basement to watch it, the first pangs of movie love being instilled in me. I remember first seeing Bowie and thinking that he didn’t seem like a man but some kind of beautiful, inhuman oddity that my young brain couldn’t comprehend. It’s the film that my mom and I shared together, and will forever share. R.I.P. Mom and Goblin King.

Oliver Sava

My mother is Romanian Baptist, a religion that combines the hyper-conservatism of Baptists with the hyper-conservatism of Eastern Europe. They don’t like people that break from the strict mold they have in mind. My mother and her side of the family hated David Bowie and everything he stood for, and referred to him as “dracul,” which translates to “devil.” I first learned about her staunch anti-Bowie perspective when I was about 8, after my siblings and I had already fallen in love with Bowie thanks to repeated viewings of our cousins’ Labyrinth Betamax video. Our parents never watched with us, and they never connected the man on the cover to the queer, androgynous rock star that unnerved them decades before. I became even more fascinated by Bowie when I found out that my mother thought he was an agent of hell, and he came to represent a culture that wasn’t willing to conform to the restrictive rules I was raised to follow. He was an especially important figure as I struggled with my closeted homosexuality, and I believe my dive into Bowie’s music catalog in college helped me feel comfortable with coming out. He was an outsider who took pride in being an outsider, and in the process made the world accept him for everything that made him different. It was a lesson I needed to learn, and Bowie was essential to my education.

Mike Vago

I could talk about having my mind blown by “Suffragette City” as a teenager, or “Space Oddity,” or “Moonage Daydream,” or “Rebel Rebel,” or a dozen more songs. Or the later more challenging work I’d discover as I got older. Or his acting in films as disparate as The Last Temptation Of Christ, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Basquiat. Or his hilarious turn on Extras. But the most important thing David Bowie taught me was, you don’t have to be one thing. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, his Berlin phase, his production work for the decidedly un-glam likes of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, his coked-up collaborations with Queen and Mick Jagger, his second career as an actor, his declarations at various points in his life that he was alternately gay, bi, or “a closet heterosexual”—Bowie was anything he wanted to be, and no matter how much comfort success no doubt brought him, he never stopped searching for something new. When he found out he had cancer, he did exactly what you’d want and expect David Bowie to do: He came up with another new sound, and went back into the studio, striving to the very end.

Nathan Rabin

One of my most vivid adolescent memories is of riding my bike to Evanston so that I could scour used CD stores in search of David Bowie’s 1970s output. Although for me, that glorious golden age lasted through the 1980s through the terrifying, electric and transcendent New Wave theatricality of Scary Monsters And Super Creeps and the glistening pop of Let’s Dance. Bowie was the history of 20th-century pop music in one irresistible and irresistibly mysterious package. From the literate bedroom folk majesty of Hunky Dory to the blue-eyed soul of Young Americans, the title track of which is a strong contender for my favorite song of all time, and as far as outsider depictions of the unique majesty and horror of American culture goes, ranks right up there with Nabokov’s Lolita. From the moody art-rock of his Berlin trilogy with producer and kindred spirit Brian Eno, to the damn near perfect glam rock of Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie did it all, and he did it better, and more soulfully than just about anyone else. Beyond his music, he stood as an example: Every geek, every freak, every person who didn’t fit in felt like Bowie was one of us, that he not only understood our pain, but that he shared it, and was able to alchemize it into timeless art. Shit, I bought the fucking Absolute Beginners soundtrack on tape because it had Bowie on it. Bowie was a brilliant, charismatic actor, as much on-stage and on record as he was onscreen. Bowie was a god, Bowie was a space alien, Bowie was a rock star, Bowie was a movie star, Bowie was sex personified, Bowie was achingly, poignantly human. Bowie is dead and Bowie will live on for all of eternity.

Dennis Perkins

Growing up, I was always drawn more to movies than to music. I knew Bowie first as just another “classic rock” artist that I always felt inadequate for not knowing enough about, and was drawn to the exquisite, mysterious theatricality of “Space Oddity,” but it wasn’t until I became aware of his movie career that I finally took real notice. My sisters loved Labyrinth (and I admired both his drollery and his ability to maintain villainous authority amongst Muppets), but I was drawn to his ethereal turn in Nicholas Roeg’s trippy, meditative Man Who Fell To Earth, where it seemed no one else on earth could have better embodied the film’s unnervingly strange and too-fragile visitor from elsewhere. His provocative, dress-wearing performance on 1979 Saturday Night Live (alongside Klaus Nomi) only furthered my perception of Bowie as visitor from an artistic plane my 10-year old mind simply was not capable of comprehending. Those performances provided a focus that led me to seek him out in music and his other film roles—this sense of otherness, that Bowie was simply a dabbler in not just acting, but, well, Earth. I began to notice how people I looked up to were almost universally drawn to him—a college friend had spent innumerable hours applying the lyrics to an entire Bowie song (which one it was escapes me now, sadly) on his bedroom ceiling in electrical tape. And it didn’t seem pretentious, or, you know, insane—it seemed like my friend was channeling his admiration in an appropriately Bowie-esque manner. Working as I did in a video store for much of my life, I could see how people’s wavering interest in taking home a movie like The Prestige or The Last Temptation Of Christ was tipped into action once I mentioned Bowie’s involvement, no matter how small. But it was his deliciously odd, ultimately touching turn as David Bowie in Julian Schnabel’s outstanding biopic Basquiat that was always a winner. Just the picture of Bowie in his dark glasses and Warhol wig was enough to make almost anyone smile in something like recognition—and take the movie home.

Noel Murray

From time to time I try to think of what musician’s death would shake me up the most. Mostly I dwell on the ones who already seem like they’re fading, like Neil Young, or Joni Mitchell. This might sound strange, but the thought that David Bowie could die had never really occurred to me—perhaps because he always looked so vital in his public appearances, or perhaps because I’ve always secretly thought of him as an immortal, like the characters he so often played in his movies. Like a lot of people, I got the news about his death via Twitter. I’m going to guess that unlike a lot of people, I was actually listening to Bowie at the time. I was taking my morning walk on an indoor track, locked into a lane where I could scroll through my phone without endangering myself or others. I was finishing up my third spin through Blackstar, and had reached the part of the last song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” where Bowie sings the title as a refrain. And then I saw what had happened. Ever since, I’ve been finding this loss hard to process, because Bowie’s music has been a major part of my life for about as long as I can remember. He was there when I was into classic rock in the late 1970s. He was there when I was all about Top 40 in the early 1980s. He was there when I got into art-rock and New Wave. Bowie recorded a hefty handful of classic albums (my personal favorites are Station To Station, Hunky Dory, Lodger, and Let’s Dance), but he was also the kind of artist represented well by his greatest hits. Even people who have no interest in the avant-garde or the experimental or the transgressive can probably name a few Bowie songs they like. And that matters to me, as someone who thinks of music as something that can be intensely personal or can be shared with the masses. David Bowie did both. He was always there. He always will be.

Zack Handlen

I didn’t grow up listening to David Bowie—my teenage musical tastes could most charitably be described as “soft rock sensibilities”—so I’ll admit, I’m not feeling his loss as intensely as so many of my colleagues and friends. But that’s partly because of what Bowie came to mean to me as I got older, and was able to appreciate his music as well as his quicksilver persona and fascinating pop-cultural footprint. Here is an artist who managed to stay interesting his entire public life, creating a series of images that never degraded into tedium or mundanity; here was was someone who managed to consistently be greater than the sum of his parts. I’m sad that a man that I’ll never know died, because I know he left behind family friends who’ll miss him, and we’ll never have any more new David Bowie music to savor. (His final album is fantastic.) But I’m happy because the icon managed to stick the landing, ensuring his legacy as something for us all to aspire to: strange and marvelous and endlessly reaching.