At 48, I am part of a group that did not experience the initial wave of the British Invasion — The Beatles, The Stones, etc. — first hand. By the time we tuned in to music, The Beatles had long been broken up and the Rolling Stones had already recorded many of their iconic hits; not that we didn’t retroactively connect to them, and the Stones still had a few hits up their sleeves, come the ’80s.
David Bowie, who died Sunday, proved to be a vital connector to that era for many of us. His first wave of fame came when most of us were still watching Sesame Street,.
But then came Let's Dance. The 1983 album was enormous and showed us many shades of Bowie from the party elegance of the title track to the provocative social commentary of China Girl and frenzy of Modern Love. Far from the voice of an aging pop icon nearing 40, Bowie’s music was relevant and polished. And it ended up being an arrow pointing us back to the first incarnations of Bowie, Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, through radio — album rock stations couldn’t play whole block parites of Let’s Dance cuts — concerts and the natural curiosity of young music fans wanting to find the roots of their stars.
And previous Bowie was a little surprising. The Serious Moonlight Tour Bowie was an impeccably coiffed beautiful blonde British man, maybe the most mainstream persona he had presented audiences. Looking back we discovered Ziggy and the other personas he presented in music that sometimes crossed the line to performance art. And then there were his movie roles, further cementing Bowie’s place as the champion of outsiders and oddballs everywhere.
It was liberating. Let’s Dance and subsequent ’80s albums just scratched the surface of Bowie’s music that telegraphed the boundless possibilities of fearless individuality. And regardless of how much you bought into the act, the music was great.
When I posted Bowie’s 1985 Live Aid performance on Facebook Monday, a high school friend commented, “This is when I fell in love with Heroes,” Bowie’s 1977 anthem that hadn’t quite become a classic at that time. That same set featured a barn-burning rendition of his 1974 hit Rebel Rebel and the swagger of 1976’s TVC 15. It was set that established Bowie for us as an enduring icon, if we didn’t know it all ready. Friday, grabbing the beautifully odd Blackstar was a no-brainer, and it already seems destined to become one of those haunting albums like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, forever associated with Lennon’s death as it was released just three weeks before he was fatally shot in New York.
And beyond the generations that experienced Bowie as a dominant pop culture presence, he has appeal. When I told my kids, who are in their late teens, that Bowie died, there was no need to explain to them why this was a sad occasion. They already had Heroes and other Bowie classics on their playlists (and not because Dad suggested them).
He has endured, even if they didn’t get to experience Bowie as the present, commanding pop star we did. That was just our luck.