The glow of a radio, playing after bedtime, is a most magical thing. A station in Philadelphia, sometimes frequency-scratched with static, sang me to sleep as my body rapidly mutated into adolescence from an innocence that wasn’t. Sometimes, the music wasn’t the point, it was the lulling, the glow, the imploring tones of men and women for emotions that weren’t yet named, but seeping, a slow leak in the hull of desire. Yet there were voices that caught me- I prayed to them as I’d pray to the amorphous God-thing that was assured to bring me good grades, Mom a better job, and get Dad to stop drinking. I made a point to watch the very first second of MTV, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and in ways yet incomprehensible knew I was on the edge of something. So many times I’d watch history happen, but not like this.
“Now we meet in an abandoned studio
We hear the playback and it seems so long ago
And you remember the jingles used to go…
You were the first one
You were the last one
Video killed the radio star, video killed the radio star
In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far.” 1
These people were outrageous, and there was outrage. Where was the harm? By the time music videos had become a force, I was inwardly in a bloody knife-fight between hormones and morals. There were a few stand-outs of the video rockers that distracted the warring sides long enough for a calm, a hope, a shape for a secret inner me to say, yes, I know what they’re doing there. Bodies were for reinventing, just assortments of singing shapes, clothes were sleek and shiny and permissive
, a crow’s delight. Hair was no longer the thing you parted along the middle, it was the crest of a wave on a Fantastic Planet, dreams made by falling asleep to Night Flight… which had way too many secrets to give up for a 13-ish astronaut pretending to be lost in an alternate Universe, bereft of school, rules, taboos.
“When I was a very small boy,
Very small boys talked to me
Now that we’ve grown up together
They’re afraid of what they see
That’s the price that we all pay
Our valued destiny comes to nothing
I can’t tell you where we’re going
I guess there was just no way of knowing.” 2
No matter how complex social dramas pick away at the fading innocence of youth as adolescence becomes teenage years, nothing could ever pry away my sense of awe and wonder about the stars. I’d come to learn that at some point I had to “take my protein pills and put my helmet on,” in order to hang on to that love. The glow of that radio, in between Madonna, Cheap Trick, and Chaka Khan, would occasionally illuminate a dreamy diorama about a “Starman waiting in the sky” and it gave reprieve from bullying and bullshit. And then his videos- peak weirdness and inventiveness and yes, he was beautiful. It didn’t feel right to have a crush on him, I seemed to have established age boundaries, but his charisma and jumping from one experiment to another had me swooning- a vicarious alter-ego, if I could only sing, if I could only be as nimble, if only my eyes could captivate as his did. Then, the words made a two-dimensional sense. After a life lived, as a forty-something hunched over in his pajamas, warmed by a cat and having surmounted uncountable peaks of frightening mystery, do they truly carry heft now.
“Once there were mountains on mountains
And once there were sun birds to soar with
And once I could never be down
Got to keep searching and searching
Oh, what will I be believing and who will connect me with love?
Wonderful, wonderful, wonder when
Have you sought fortune, evasive and shy?
Drink to the men who protect you and I,
Drink, drink, drain your glass, raise your glass high.” 3
My looks began to change, change as quick as the Thin White Duke. I became less of an inkling and more of a somewhat, my shoulders rubbed other shoulders, breaking taboos once unleapt. I discovered music was no private affair, but a flag to be waved. As in war, some flags get shot at. But tribes often assembled based on their colors, cultures contrasted, merged, and the balladeers among us took up song. We learned the words, traded tapes, blew our minds on riffs and wordplay. The Goblin King was more epic than I believed him to ever to be. Before I was born, “the tactful cactus by your window survey[ed] the prairie of your room,” and how many times have I sung those lines in exultant verdant reverie since then? By then, it was a crush. Cat People, Goblin King, Ziggy Stardust, The Man Who Fell To Earth I loved all- there was something about his sensuality, synesthetic words, chords made from my very sinew and loin that made him my artistic proxy. If only I could be that: brilliant, sexy, well-spoken, alluring, inspiring, passionate, and at times maudlin (but with such glitter)… the me of the second decade didn’t know how to be himself, so he collected other selves, vast big selves like Bowie, until that epiphany hits that these are muses, but without a you, they’re hapless stimulus in your life, collecting dust. The creation of you begins- the songs are still there, but they take on more meaning then they ever had before.
“Oh, ‘It’s the madness in his eyes’
As he breaks the night to cry:
‘It’s really Me
And really Me
It’s so hard for us to really be
And really Me
You’ll lose me though I’m always really free.’” 4
Decades pass. You remember the first time you heard that song, and like unwinding a Slinky you get to see its impact on your life in context. Since this coil to now, it’s been with me. David Bowie. Do you know how many millions of kids and lost ragamuffins your music gave affirmation to? You gave me a confidence that didn’t even have a name yet. Your heartful songs, playful or indicting, gave hope to the queer, the weird, the artists, the square pegs. I only use past-tense to mark this moment in time; it’s been just about 24 hours without you being alive in this world, in the bodily sense. Yet your music, from your first demo to the last cut on Black Star (below), is a living thing- it acts upon the world, alters it, eardrum by eardrum, one share at a time. You’ll be heard for the first time by young bodies who cannot comprehend the marrow, because their grasp is on the outward world forming, growing, bones that will dance, make love, recoil in fear, uncoil in epiphany, become, and dance again. I cannot see the end of my own coil, but I know you’ll be with me. I just have one question- rather, one request:
“Will you stay in a lover’s story?
If you stay, you won’t be sorry
Because we believe in you…” 5
- The Boggles, “Video Killed The Radio Star”
- New Order, “True Faith”
- David Bowie, “Station to Station”
- David Bowie, “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”
- David Bowie, “Kooks”