When I was in college at Northeastern University in Boston, I became the campus radio station's first female disc jockey in late 1968; I also became the station's music director, an incredibly fun and rewarding job which introduced me to some wonderful record promoters (a few of whom I'm still in contact with even now); but more importantly, it allowed me to hear the new music first. And so it was in 1969 that I received a copy of a single and an album by an artist I'd never heard of-- David Bowie. He was British, and his music was released on the Mercury label in the US. No offense to the fine folks at Mercury Records (for whom I ended up briefly working after they signed Rush in 1974), but back then, the label did not have a lot of hits. Still, I always tried to listen to as much new music as possible, so I put the single, "Space Oddity" on the turntable in the music library. And because our campus station was transitioning from top-40 over to a progressive rock format, I also gave the album ("Man of Words, Man of Music") a listen. To this day, I have them both in my collection, but I admit that at the time, I had no idea how influential David Bowie would become.
There was something about "Space Oddity" that I found compelling-- the American version of the single had been cut to 3:26 (in top-40 back then, a song was expected to be no more than about three minutes long), so it ended with the haunting lines "Ground control to Major Tom/your circuit's dead, there's something wrong/ Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you hear me Major Tom?" That was it-- the song faded out with ground control desperately trying to re-establish contact with Major Tom. I had never heard a top-40 single so disturbing-- clearly, Major Tom was depressed about something; clearly, he felt helpless, despite being a famous astronaut-- people admired him and wanted to know what brand of shirts he wore, yet all he could see was that "Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do." It was the Vietnam War era, and despite American optimism about putting a man on the moon, the ongoing war was casting a shadow on so many of us, especially those young men of draft age who were about to be sent to fight. But whatever Major Tom was referring to, I couldn't get the song out of my mind.
I was evidently one of the few who thought the song was amazing-- while it was a hit in England, it never even got into the Hot 100 charts in the US. Nor did the album get much airplay either (I still like "Cygnet Committee" and "Memory of a Free Festival," though neither has aged very well.) But while "Space Oddity" was soon forgotten, it would find a new audience a few years later: as sometimes happened in top-40, a song that had gone absolutely nowhere in its initial release (check out the history of "Dream On" by Aerosmith or "Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues) was championed by a particular radio station, and the re-release became a huge hit. And so it was in 1973 that US audiences rediscovered David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and it ended up a top-15 hit, plus becoming a staple at album rock stations, which played the longer version (the one that had an extra verse).
While many people assume that David Bowie's best known (and most widely played) song "Changes" was a number one song, it never even reached the top twenty (it was first released in 1972 and only got to #66; the re-release did slightly better, getting to #41 in 1975). But its introspective lyrics, and its commentary on the generation gap ("And these children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ Are immune to your consultations/ They're quite aware of what they're going through...") resonated with many of us. In fact, throughout the 1970s, no matter what kind of radio station I was working at, I could just about always find a David Bowie song that was thought-provoking ("Life on Mars" and "Starman" were favorites of mine), or a song that was fun and radio-friendly ("Suffragette City" always got a lot of requests).
David Bowie was the master of reinvention. There was his blue-eyed soul period in the mid-1970s, with songs like "Fame," "Young Americans," and "Golden Years." There was his interesting collaboration with Queen in 1981, "Under Pressure," and his equally interesting (and surprising) collaboration with big band-era crooner Bing Crosby, "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy," recorded in 1977 and still played during the Christmas season by numerous radio stations. (And yes, he also collaborated with Mick Jagger for the 1985 hit version of "Dancing in the Streets.") And speaking of dancing, Bowie had his share of 1980s dance hits, with songs like "Modern Love" and "Let's Dance." And I must mention one other 1980s song: "Absolute Beginners." Recorded in 1985, it never really became a hit; but it has always been a favorite of mine, because it makes me think of my then-boyfriend (who became my husband a year and a half later): "... As long as you're still smiling/ There's nothing more I need/ I absolutely love you/ But we're absolute beginners/ But if my love is your love/ We're certain to succeed." Fads changed, fashions changed, Bowie himself changed. But he always remained relevant, and his music remained important.
As many of you know, I am a cancer survivor (so far); so, I must admit that whenever someone I respect, especially someone who is around my age, succumbs to the disease, it worries me. But in the case of David Bowie, there's an important lesson to be learned from how he lived with cancer. Here was a man who knew he had this disease, but he didn't let it stop him. He continued to live his life; he continued to do what he loved. He was turning out new music right up until the end... because what better way to fight your disease than to live each day to the fullest, doing what you most enjoy... And that is exactly what he did. It seems amazing to recall that I first heard his music nearly five decades ago, but throughout his career, David Bowie proved repeatedly that he was someone worth listening to and someone worth remembering. May he rest in peace, and may we find the cure for cancer speedily, soon, and in our lifetime.