“I can see it. This one moment when you know you're not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you're listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.”
Those words belong to Charlie (Logan Lerman), the socially awkward teenage protagonist of Stephen Chbosky’s 2012 coming-of-age film The Perks of Being a Wallflower (adapted from his own novel). It’s a voiceover during the movie’s final scene, spoken as Charlie stands in the back of a pickup truck, his arms outstretched, howling at the city.
The song Charlie speaks of is relatively new to the three friends in the truck, having only been introduced to them by a serendipitous radio broadcast earlier in the film while Sam (Emma Watson) performed a similar stunt.
Bowie was like a chemical that couldn’t keep from finding new reactions, new sparks. His absurd talent and sense of songcraft meant he ended up among the best at nearly every scene or sound he immersed himself in.
“In the early ‘90s, David Bowie was ‘Let’s Dance’ to me; he was that guy,” said Chbosky. “The whole ‘70s Bowie, because I was more into grunge, I came late to him.”
It’s easy to forget that music used to work that way. Yesterday morning, teens and adults alike who woke up to the news of Bowie’s passing at the age of 69 could track down any one of his iconic songs or groundbreaking albums in mere seconds, with complete control over how and to what they listened. The internet, essentially, became one giant David Bowie jukebox at the touch of a button. Chbosky’s use of “Heroes,” in contrast, is a reminder of the way a musical life used to be, a callback to a time when one of the greatest songs ever recorded could stay hidden, out-of-reach, undiscovered.
Until just the right moment, when it suddenly becomes that song.
I don’t know when I first heard David Bowie, let alone “Heroes.” The idea of Bowie having a beginning is every bit as strange as that he had an end; he seems far too elemental to be concerned with such trivial human matters as birth and death, beginnings and endings. (Though I suspect, as was the case many ‘80s kids, my first encounter was likely his performance as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth.)
I do know when I discovered Bowie though: following my third year of university, during a summer in which I decided to deep-dive into Bowie’s discography beyond the small handful of MP3s I’d accumulated. It began with Low, because that was the album that Pitchfork had just placed at the top of its “Top 100 Albums of the 1970s” list, piquing my curiosity. “Low?” I asked, “Not Ziggy Stardust?" (as I’m sure Rolling Stone would have argued for). I dove in and never looked back.
There’s been a great deal of (digital) ink spilled over the past 36 hours about how influential David Bowie was, about how you can’t find a corner of popular music today that doesn’t bear his mark in some fashion — from sound to a sense of identity and performance. None of this is wrong, but it’s not the real story to me. What’s more important, as I see it, is how influenced Bowie was.
Take, for example, the above promo campaign for Bowie’s "Heroes" album in 1977. Its tagline — “There’s old wave, there’s new wave and there’s David Bowie” — presents Bowie as the sort of iconoclastic musician who existed outside of traditional paradigms, separate from both the classical order and emerging trends.
The reality was quite the opposite. Bowie gleefully dove into the latest trends, feverishly seeking inspiration and, once he found it, reshaping it in his own image before moving on to his next curiosity. When he was done being a celestial-focused folk singer, he became glam rock’s greatest icon. Following a detour in soul revivalism, he joined Brian Eno in Berlin and made some of the most influential electronic-tinged pop music this side of Kraftwerk. When it seemed like the 1980s might leave him behind, he hooked up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and jumped with both feet (and a trench coat) into the MTV era. In the 1990s, teaming with Trent Reznor seemed totally at-place with everything else Bowie was doing at the time.
Hell, even the sense towards the end that Bowie was going to become a comfortable elder statesman (as he seemed on 2013’s wistful The Next Day) was shattered by last week’s release of his final statement, ★ — a dense, jazz-infused album that strongly features New York saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his band, and which producer Tony Visconti says was influenced (at least spiritually) by Kendrick Lamar.
The extent of Bowie’s interest in being influenced meant there were some dark corners in his life and career. His descent into drugs in the mid-'70s (a heavy cocaine addition, plus some heroin use) and his flirtations with fascism are well documented. Less publicized, but now generating attention following his death, are accounts of his engaging in what would have been statutory rape with noted LA groupie Lori Mattix when she was a teenager. That Bowie’s behaviours, confirmed and accused, were somewhat commonplace in the music scenes he frequented helps explain why he succumbed to them; it doesn’t necessarily justify them.
So add Bowie to the long line of deeply flawed musical “heroes” whose worst and best qualities play like different sides of a coin. Because what that eagerness for influence also created arguably the most compellingly diverse discography in the history of popular music.
To discover Bowie as I did was to discover the rock era itself: its twists, its turns, its peaks, its valleys. As I collected album after album, I got to hear Bowie explore soul, folk, electronic music and dance, industrial and indie rock. His career’s vastness enveloped some of music’s most important creative forces across the decades: the likes of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and Trent Reznor, Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio. Bowie was like a chemical that couldn’t keep from finding new reactions, new sparks, but his absurd talent and sense of songcraft meant he ended up among the best at nearly every scene or sound he immersed himself in.
There were other artists of his era who had more impact on me personally, but none exposed me to popular music’s possibilities the way Bowie did.
Clearly, though, young people in the wake of Bowie’s death are going to be discovering his back catalogue in a manner quite different than I did, and certainly in different fashion than the teens in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Bowie gleefully dove into the latest trends, feverishly seeking inspiration and, once he found it, reshaping it in his own image before moving on to his next curiosity.
Plus, there’s no one obvious starting point (though, pound-for-pound Ziggy Stardust is probably his strongest, most accessible set of songs). Just as I began with Low, someone else might start with Young Americans or ★. There’s something worth discovering at nearly every end of his catalogue, even on the mostly-forgettable records. And in the late 2000s, a time in which culture increasingly looked backward, when every legacy act was expected to play to self-curate their greatest hits on the nostalgia circuit, Bowie disappeared from public view, offering no such easy guideposts to navigating his career.
The digital age may have put Bowie’s collected works at your fingertips, but it’s still your job to discover your way through it, to find that song. And after this week, a whole new generation of kids reading the headlines are going to find theirs and, in the process, open up a whole new world of musical possibilities.