Tuesday evening I wrote the blog post, “Is That Seat Taken”, where I used the new Star Wars movie as basis to discuss the bumpy road traveled by innovators and those considered “different”. After reading the post, a friend of mine suggested I write about ground-breaking musician and artist David Bowie, who passed away this week from liver cancer at age 69.
While I probably know more about music and musicians of the 20th century than the average guy on the street, I am far from an authority on Bowie’s life and career. There are hundreds of better places one can go to discover the facts and figures of his unique life and talent. What I can write about is how his talent, creative output and complete belief in himself influenced me. He showed me that being weird, different, smart and experimental was cool, and approval by others, while nice, doesn’t define you or your creativity.
While I was born in South Dakota an d returned here in 2007, I grew up in Plainview, MN, a small, prosperous farm town/bedroom community some 20 miles north and east of Rochester. Just as life in a small rural town in the 1960’s and ‘70’s was very different from life there a generation earlier, life in that small town today is very different than it was in the 70’s. Historical epochs are generally measured in years BC and AD. I like to measure 20th century life in the rural Midwest in terms of BC (Before Cable) and AC (After Cable). The world was smaller in a small town before cable TV came in and exposed kids to the much larger world. That’s not to say growing up BC was inferior to life AC. Life AC showed you what was possible, but was also prone to imitation rather than innovation, and while it broadened a person’s life in general it also made it more generic. Being smaller, BC gave you time to focus and experiment, make it up as you go, invent, and be original. Some of the smartest, artistically talented and skilled problem solvers I’ve ever met, such as Peter Pretzer, Tom and Peter Harlan, Jerry Anderson, Joel Dean House, my bother Mike Tlustos, Cullen and Neil Senska, Leigh Talley, Paul Talley, Pat and Tim Carter, Bob Rice, David Mussell and Greg Gentling just to name a few, are friends who grew up in small towns and farms BC.
David Bowie was smart, innovative and without fear. Every few years he’s junk it all and invent a whole new original brand of “out there’. It’s hard to know what goes on in a person’s head, but it was easy to see Bowie was fearless, cared little about what RCA Records, producers, critics and even fans thought of his changes and made it big on his own terms.
Radio had the strongest influence on how I discovered music and musicians pre 1979. Since little of Bowie made it to mainstream radio until the mid-70’s, I totally missed the whole Zingy Stardust era, which was probably as “out there” as music (and stage performance) got up until the early days of punk. Or George Clinton, but that’s a story for another day. Bowie hit my radar when songs like “Fame”, “Golden Years” and “Young Americans”…and a re-release of 1969’s “Space Oddity”…became Top 40 hits, and we heard them all, over and over. Since it was BC, however, we never SAW Bowie until the earl 80’s. And SEEING David Bowie was just as much if not more of an influence than only hearing his music.
For me, EVERYTHING changed in 1980-81 with the release of Bowie’s album, “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). More specifically, it changed the first time I SAW Bowie’s video for “Ashes to Ashes” on MTV. Visually it blew my doors off, and the music was other-worldly. This was long before on-demand video. In fact, boys and girls, it was SO long ago that MTV spent nearly all day every day playing music videos! “Ashes to Ashes”, was about the coolest thing I had ever experienced. It was more than just songs. It was Art. It was the future right now.
From there I backtracked to the Ziggy days, and the cocaine addicted “Thin White Duke” of the mid-late 70’s. Not too long after came mega-stardom with “Let’s Dance”, some fun with Mick Jagger on “Harlem Shuffle”, and much more. But for me, my life changed…REALLY changed…when I saw and listened to a morose, surreal and other-worldly white clown with two different colored eyes, surrounded by four…mourners? witches?…playing the part of a heroin-addicted astronaut who is never coming home? This wasn’t just rock and roll. It was painful and crazy and desperate… and beautiful. It was art, and it talked to ME.
Fans didn’t always like it when Bowie totally re-invented himself. Most wanted what most fans want…the familiar, more of the things they knew. Had he “given the fans what they wanted”, kept playing the same songs over and over, not ruffling feathers, not taking chances, and just “doing what I did last year”, David Bowie might have gone the way of Gary Glitter, squeezing himself into a silver jump suit every night, playing his “hit”, then fading away. But Bowie didn’t care about what he was “expected” to do. He followed inspiration, then challenged the audience to peddle faster and catch up. No research, or focus groups or song testing.
I don’t love every piece of music or video David Bowie created. If his biographers are correct Bowie was not an easy person to be around for chunks of his life, and may have stepped on a lot of people on his way to the top. However, he was fearless, confident, immensely talented and utterly unique. There won’t be a “next Bowie”, but finding him cemented for me the importance of always keeping my eyes, ears and mind open for the unexpected and unusual that inevitably comes along.