In the movie adaption of Stephen Chbosky’s YA classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), the elusive song Charlie, Sam and Patrick chase was changed from Landslide by Fleetwood Mac to David Bowie’s Heroes. Aside from the fact that I never really bought that these three alternative culture nerds had never heard of Bowie, the choice struck me as a good fit. Not only did the Heroes intro provide a nice bridge from Charlie’s final letter, it also communicated something which hit me hard and immediately last week, when I read that Bowie had died at age 69: In some sense, Bowie made anybody who listened to his music just a little bit cooler.
Hopefully, the inclusion of Bowie in Perks has already sent many young, searching souls to his remarkable discography. As for my own relationship with Bowie, though, I think I knew of him long before I’d actually heard much of his music; from his supporting part in Julian Schnabel’s biographical drama Basquiat (1997) to the character based on him in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998), or the God-fearing way his name was invoked in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000). In each instance, there was something mysterious, but immediately fascinating about him.
The music came later, I think. When I was about 15, I was ready to make a break with the music I had listened to up until then (which, for reasons having to do with the stubborn, one-sided mind of a teenager, led to an ill-fated absolutism that more or less separated me from contemporary pop music altogether for a few years), and dive into rock history. Embracing Elvis Costello and Elton John, David Bowie was a natural progression, ready to be discovered. In the week since his death, there’s been an avalanche of beautiful tributes and obituaries to Bowie emphasizing how his unapologetic gender-fluidity helped many people see themselves in a different, more positive light. But even though I definitely was once* a searching queer soul myself, what drew me to Bowie was his music; above all the early masterpieces Hunky Dory (1971) and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972). Both have been firmly ensconced in my personal canon for years.
My relationship to the Bowie catalogue resembles that of several other favorite artists of mine. The passion runs deep, but it is nonetheless concentrated around a few albums. By a rough count I own maybe eight-to-ten Bowie records, but at the core, his ouvre is best summarized in Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Heroes, which, taken together with Low (both 1977), marked a new stage in his career. Compared to a Bowie completist, I’m sure this make me look like a fairly modest fan, but the sentiment is real enough.
During a discussion of Bowie’s legacy on Slate’s Culture Gabfest, Stephen Metcalf called him an artist whose true importance immediately came into sharp relief when he died. I was struck by something similar. Bowie was one of those legends you thought you had pinned down, and one who’d live forever. When the brute force of reality set in, I understood that, yes, I have always appreciated David Bowie, but knowing that this is what we got, my gratitude for what he shared with us is even greater.
* In many respects, I still am.