Life continued in the Chicago suburbs. My baseball skills improved, and I started holding my own in fights. I made a best buddy. We’d play Evel Knievel and Hot Wheels and listen to his Monkees records every day after school. He had a Labrador named Sunshine, named for his only 45: John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”
My father was around less and less, and when he was he was in a bad mood. He spent his weekends in the garage now, tinkering with an old Austin-Healey. I stopped hanging out with him while he worked on the car because I felt like a nuisance.
We still stayed up Friday nights and watched “The Midnight Special” while we waited for him to get home. The television was upstairs in the formal living room / dining room, just off of the kitchen. I’d sit near the stairwell so that I could feel the blast of cold air when he came in the front door.
Which brings us to Bowie. If there’s one single artist who weaves like a musical thread through my life’s soundtrack it is David Bowie. Yes, The Beatles have been there since I was a pup, but they are a band. It’s these little semantic distinctions that are critical to the music nerd. We are every bit as bad as baseball geeks or Star Wars fans, at least my generation is. Every b-side and bootleg is essential; every alternate pressing and cover variant a must have. Who was the line-up on that album? Who produced? On and on. So yes, Bowie would be the one, and it all began while waiting for my father to get home from his third shift job.
Honestly I don’t remember much about that evening. I could cheat and visit Youtube, refresh my memory. That doesn’t seem quite fair, though. What I remember is being half asleep on the couch, looking over and seeing this insect-skinny man with shocking orange hair. He was half naked, or more specifically half of his chest was naked, and he had on huge bracelets. Most alarmingly, he was wearing make-up, lots of make-up.
Now, pretty much everything when you’re a kid is a revelation. Rubber Soul was a revelation; “Goodbye Yellowbrick Road” was a revelation; Frampton was a revelation. But nothing prepared me for this. There was no corollary in my suburban world to this person. He looked so feminine, but he commanded the stage in a very masculine way. He projected sex, but not in the same disturbing way as Jim Dandy from Black Oak Arkansas, thrusting his tights-covered junk at the TV camera. (Never heard of Jim Dandy? Imagine David Lee Roth fronting Lynyrd Skynyrd.)
It’s a cliché, but Bowie/Ziggy really looked like an alien. He didn’t even have eyebrows. It was like witnessing a car crash – the emotional impact wouldn’t manifest itself for some time.
A couple of years later, Bowie showed up on Bing Crosby’s Christmas special for a duet of “Little Drummer Boy.” I think I was ten years old at the time, and even I knew how bizarre that was. The old guard meets the new guard, but their voices blended so well. Later in the show they played a promotional clip for “Heroes,” and that’s what sealed the deal. I was a Bowie fan.
The power of that song is immense. It’s hard sometimes when a song becomes ubiquitous to remember what it felt like the first time you heard it, or at the very least when it wasn’t associated with a television commercial. Better minds than mine have picked “Heroes” apart, and I don’t want to compete with them, but I remember exactly what the ten year old me felt. The way it builds to an almost manic emotional peak, Bowie’s voice reaching to hang on, desperate.
A couple of years later, again half asleep in front of a late night television, I caught sight of him on “Saturday Night Live.” This time he actually wasn’t human; well, his head was human, but his body was a puppet.
Bowie was a revelation to a suburban kid who didn’t quite fit. He was a little crack in the pop culture facade, a little glimpse of art. Out in the provinces where America and Paper Lace figured heavily, where John “Records” Landecker ruled the WLS playlist, I wasn’t going to come into contact with King Crimson or Captain Beefheart. But Bowie walked the line between art and pop music, so he got through. He was a gateway drug.
And the fact that he reinvented himself so often certainly impacted a kid like me who moved a lot. Each move was an opportunity to be a different kid. If Bowie could do it then so could I.
But back to that Friday night in Chicago, sitting near the stairwell while watching “The Midnight Special.” The cold blast from the front door never came. The next morning I walked into the living room and found my mother, back turned to me, crying.
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
“Your father is leaving us.”
I should have gone to her. I should’ve hugged her while she cried, but I didn’t. I ran out the back door and to the garage. My father was standing next to the Austin-Healey.
He looked at me, and without a word put down his wrench and grabbed me in a bear hug. It’s the only time I ever saw my father cry.