There’s not a lot I can say about David Bowie that you haven’t already read or heard. And I don’t just mean that you have read or heard this week after the Thin White Duke’s passing. David Bowie is a guy that has absolutely captivated us for the better part of fifty years. You have heard and read every thought anyone has had about him since the 1960s.
Instead of trying to eulogize him with a piece about what David Bowie meant to pop culture, I thought I would talk to people here in the Triangle that have made a living, at least in part, off of you liking “Heroes.” I reached out to my fellow DJs and other radio folks to get their memories and thoughts on Bowie.
The first person I talked to was Mix 101.5 program director Michelle Williams. She, like a lot of people I talked to, was first exposed to Bowie in the 80s. Forget the genius of the Ziggy Stardust years. That was the pop radio-friendly days of “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl.”
For Michelle though, it was Bowie’s back catalog that connected with her in her college years. “When I was in college I was friends with a lot of what you’d call hipsters, I guess. That’s who really introduced me to ‘Golden Years’ and ‘Changes’ and stuff like that. I went to college in the 90s but our kinda theme song was ‘Golden Years.'”
Brian Maloney, who serves as the general manager of Buzz Sports Radio and 99.9 The Fan had a much more personal memory. Before his success in sports radio, Brian worked in rock radio in Detroit, a town with a great musical history.
David Bowie drew inspiration from that history for his song “Panic in Detroit.” “You know he and Iggy [Pop, punk legend] were good friends,” Brian told me. “That song is about the riots in Detroit, which Bowie kind of became obsessed with after Iggy Pop told him about them. That song is one of my favorites.”
I asked Brian if it was a personal favorite of his or of the entire city’s. Certainly it wasn’t one a casual Bowie fan would know. “You have no idea,” he told me. I feel like I played that song a lot on the radio.”
Brian also had the chance to see David Bowie in concert. “It was the ‘China Girl’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ era. That tour came to Detroit.” When I asked what he thought, Brian simply said “Unbelievable. He was such a show man.”
Radio 96.1’s afternoon jock, Kitty Kinnin’s concert memory is one that will make you pine for the time period where the end of the “wild west” days of radio crossed paths with a healthy and creative David Bowie. Kitty said she had been a fan of Bowie’s since she first started at WKZL in Greensboro back in 1976, so when she had a chance to meet him in 1995 she jumped at it.
“It was 1995 and Walnut Creek. A bunch of us from [W]RDU went backstage.” When asked to describe what a conversation with Bowie is like, Kinnin simply says he was “witty” and “gracious.”
That’s not hard to accept. Anyone that watched the Ricky Gervais show Extras saw Bowie’s ability to not only steal a scene but also land a punchline with expert delivery.
Kinnin then called Bowie a “chameleon” and wistfully added “he was a star who fell to earth and will always remain here with us.”
Kitty’s counterpart on WRDU is Adam Boardman, better known to listeners as Adam 12. His taste in music tends to be a little harder, so I was surprised when he offered a story about how important Bowie was to his journey of musical discovery.
“First heard him in ’83 when ‘Let’s Dance’ came out. Great stuff on the surface, even better when it led me to delve into Nile Rodgers and then Stevie Ray Vaughan, which wound up being the first concert I ever saw.”
I was 15 when I first started working in radio, and the first station I ever worked for was what was called “adult alternative.” Now, that kind of station would play a lot of new music from Mumford and Sons and Avette Brothers and Alabama Shakes mixed with classics from Bowie and Dylan and the like.
So, there I am. 15 and working from midnight until 7 AM on a Sunday morning. I was familiar with stuff like “Changes” and “Golden Years” because my mom has always been really into music. I can’t tell you the exact day, but I remember having one of those OMG moments the first time I played “Young Americans.” The same thing happened the first time I played “Suffragette City.”
I knew Bowie was a guy I could really get into, but never made much of an effort beyond the radio tracks. Then one night a regular caller, a thirty-something that made side money delivering papers on weekends that called himself “Paul the Paperboy” told me “Man, it’s 3:30. No one’s listening but me and you. Play ‘Moonage Daydream.” So, I did and suddenly I had a new favorite song.
Earlier this week my friend Bomani Jones, now of ESPN fame, was on The Dan Lebatard Show to talk about David Bowie and so perfectly explained why “Moonage Daydream” is a masterpiece.
The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is Bowie’s 1972 concept album about a messiah from another planet that comes to Earth. “Moonage Daydream” is the album’s third track.
“Here’s a guy, who in 1972 wrote an album about an alien messiah and by track three has to introduce you to the messiah and make you look at him as a messiah,” Jones said. “And he pulled it off. Who else could do that even before or after Bowie?”
“Moonage Daydream” isn’t great by accident. It had to be great to sell listeners on the idea that this album and this story is one worth investing in. Who else could do that? Even before or after Bowie? Not a lot of people.
And that is both the tragedy of and what is so cool about David Bowie. He is an innovator on the level of The Beatles and Chuck Berry and anyone else in rock’s long history you want to name, but because Bowie wasn’t content to just push the boundaries of music, a lot of people only thought of him as strange.
If America were ready for David Bowie’s fluid sexuality and the androgyny of his various on stage personas there’s no way we aren’t talking about him the way we talk about John Lennon or Bob Dylan.