How many days must the music die over and over again? Now it’s David Bowie’s turn, and while the eulogies pour forth from a generation in pain, I can’t share that pain because his death brings new music to me. We have often heard of the “children of the 60s,” but that conjures up teenagers and young adults protesting, parading, and partying. But what about us? What about those who truly were children during the 60s? My sharpest childhood recollection began on November 22, 1963 as a six year old released from school early and told to go home. This was way before text alerts and robo calls to parents and before the days a parent would sue your ass for sending their child home unattended. But what could be done? The teachers, the nuns, they were just as shocked, numb, and clueless as their young charges. I remember the loneliness and scariness of walking home alone for six blocks on that November afternoon. We watched it all on TV for the next three days: the pain, the funeral, the loss, the shock. There was no need for a rallying cry to bring this country together. It needed no leader, no pundit, no talking head to tell us that we were one in our pain and anguish. And then it was gone. Just like that, three months later on a night in February watching four guys from Liverpool make the best damn music ever. I remember the build up and how nervous I was that I would miss it because we were going to a cousin’s house that Sunday for dinner. I was a small child of the 60s, not a flower child, not a protestor, not a hippy, but simply a child. In the Bronx, your friends were on your block, and you played on that block. There were no parents to set up play dates and drive you places. You played with kids within your walking range. On my block there was one girl, a year older than me, my best friend. We were never without a radio. That was just standard for my childhood. Same I guess as my son with his IPhone and before that the Walkmans and the IPODs. For us it was AM radio and Cousin Brucie and the Good Guys. They brought us the soundtrack of our childhood. You never went to play without your transistor radio. And so I knew what was coming that Sunday in February, the whole country did. We ate dinner and then my parents started to put their coats on. Something had to be done and quickly. There was no way to make it back to our own house in time to see it. My unbelievably annoying persistence, which has followed me into adulthood, besieged my parents to stay ten more minutes so I wouldn’t miss it. The adults knew of this strange group about to cross Mr. Sullivan’s stage. The cousins had an older son and he was waiting with just as much anticipation as my nearly 7-year-old self. And so sitting cross-legged on the floor as my parents stood behind me with their coats on, we said hello to the Beatles for the first time. My father sneered and focused on their long hair of course. My mother said not much. I think she knew that she might not be able to continue pushing the Connie Francis records and accordion lessons on me. The very next day I dragged her (she didn’t need much persuading actually) to the Catholic card store down Morris Park. There amidst the Mass cards, rosary beads and holy water were bins of records for sale. And so my very first album was Meet the Beatles. My very first 45 was Little Peggy March’s I Will Follow Him – obviously a pre feminist movement selection but hell, I loved it as a child. Feminist power firmly in place later on with Leslie’s You Don’t Own Me. But I digress- a favorite pastime.
The November cloud was truly lifted that February night. The gloom of the country turned to music from the East and England in particular. One after another, one better than the next. To name them all would be superfluous. My imaginary playthings as a child from that February on were Beatles, Beatles, and more Beatles, with Dave Clark 5 thrown in for good measure. There was a wealth of Beatle toys and things for us kids; lunch boxes, games, Colorforms and the like. But we didn’t need them really. My friend and I simply used the best toy of our generation: our imaginations. We played Beatles all day long. She, more dominant, was always Paul while I was John and other times we played Jane and Cynthia. Our Ken dolls were Beatles as well. And the music, all of that amazing and fantastic music of the time was our backdrop. A fond memory is running around her living room singing WILD THING at the top of our lungs!
My musical education is always as a sponge. Later various men in my life would provide it, but for those formative years from 7 to 13 we followed her older sister and the older brothers of the boys on the block. We got to borrow all her albums. We were so scared that day in August when we took our portable record player out in the sun and melted her sister’s Disraeli Gears album. I also loved her Mom’s cleaning records as I called them. Ronnie would put on her records, clean the house, get dinner started and then dress and do her hair for her husband’s return home from work each evening. I loved the transformation of curlers and housedress to elegance and make up. Her soundtrack was Dean Martin and Engelbert Humperdinck. I ended up loving this music as well and never forgot it, buying my own copies many years later.
We loved it all, especially Jimi and the Doors and Janis and Cream and Woolly Bully and Midnight Hour and a host of other amazing bands and songs of the time as we went into our pre-teen years. David Bowie was not on our radar at the time. I was shocked to find today that he released his first album in 1967. Poor boy. I listened to a bit of it and it was very far down on that year’s musical Richter scale. Some songs sound like a bad copy of a Sgt. Pepper song. Speaking of Sgt. Pepper, we 10 years olds parted company with The Beatles around that time. We were just too young for that kind of music really and it was too much of a departure from the Beatles we played with I guess. I recently downloaded my favorite Beatle songs, 27 in all, and most don’t go past 1966. It would be mundane to talk about the Paul’s death scare and the playing the record backwards. Of course we all did and of course we all heard it.
Then the rumors began. The Beatles were breaking up. No way, not possible! I was 13. The end of my childhood and my childhood toys and my childhood soundtrack. We looked for blame and reasons and the easiest of course is always the ‘other woman’, in this case Yoko. To this day I can’t listen to anything of hers, a form of PTBS I suppose (post traumatic Beatle syndrome). And just like that it was over. That one moment or seven years in time that would never be repeated ended. I can’t say I liked anything they did as individuals. A good song here or there but nothing more really. I have never believed that anything they did ever again could equal the sum of their parts. I moved on musically I suppose. A new high school and new boyfriend who was four years older than me and not a hippy, more of a car guy. The music changed because in succession after losing the Beatles we lost the monsters of rock in quick order, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. I adored Jimi as a child. We listened to Electric Ladyland over and over and over. We weren’t big on The Beatle’s White Album but loved Jimi and the Doors for our rock. David Bowie in the 70s for me? Not at all, maybe the current top 40 hit of his is all.
Music for me in the early 70s was what my boyfriend and high school friends liked. From him, Blood Sweat and Tears and anything soul (back then Marvin and the Stylistics, etc., was considered soul, not R&B). From myself, Rod, Rod and more Rod. I discovered him at around 14 and had every single album and a poster shellacked on plywood so it did not ruin. Fourteen was also the year of my first stereo, complete with an 8-track player as well. Bob Dylan was always around and I liked the anthems, but he hadn’t really done anything I liked in quite awhile.
None of this could ever take the place of the music in my life during the 60s. I have always wondered about that. Why did that period in time mean so much and was so different that you could touch it in the air. This week with David Bowie’s death I believe I got my answer. So much posting on our current social media on his life and work. Last night I watched an interview of his done with the BBC in 1999. The topic was the Internet and the future of music. First I was astounded by his look. To say he sported many looks over his lifetime is to state the obvious. But his hair was long and shaggy, and he was simply dressed as himself really, and I found him to be the most beautiful man I had seen in quite awhile. My apologies to the fans that love the theatrics, but for me, just being himself is the best. David explained the phenomena of music in the 60s as it being the last and only time when music was singular. That one word, that one sentence brightened the entire experience and gave voice to what I have not been able to express for almost 50 years. He went on to say that the 70s was the beginning of fragmented music, where you had all these types of music and people flocked to different ones. The singularity of popular music in the 60s was gone. That is the best way I have ever heard it explained and it’s the solid truth. We all went our separate ‘me’ generation ways, never to return to collectiveness or singularity ever again.
It goes without saying that the Beatles were primarily responsible for the singularity in that era. And those of us who mourned that feeling of collective camaraderie in the music kept looking for its return. The Holy Grail of that return was for the Beatles to reunite. Rumors would surface occasionally for 9 or 10 years, more frequently in the beginning. We would hold our breaths and look for clues that THIS time it would truly happen. It never did. Then in December of 1980 the possibilily of the Beatles ever reuniting was killed forever. The Beatles ended all over again in 1980, and that was the most hurtful of all because all hope was gone completely. I have never felt that any taking of the stage by the other three meant anything more than their individual careers did. It just was NOT a Beatles reunion in any way, shape or form. That brilliantly sunny cold day of collective sadness and joy at John’s memorial in Central Park is a memory seared forever in my mind.
I understand today the feelings of those teenagers whose lives Bowie touched deeply. I simply could not be one of them in the 70s. “Changes” I loved because it is truly anthemesque (yes 37 years of government work authorizes me to create words as I see fit) and was the theme song of my summer in the Hamptons in 1975. The open bar where we hung out on the beach played this all the time. I was surprised yesterday to find out that it was released in 71. In any event, 1975 was the year I met my first husband. To say this boy of 22 at the time was the most musically immersed person I had ever met doesn’t even come close. He had a record collection of over a thousand albums, I counted them once as it was always my job to pack and them move them from apartment to apartment. But he was of the mind that music absolutely ended in 1970. He listened to nothing in rock that came later, or if so, did it in passing to proclaim that they are nothing but pretenders to the thrones of Jimi, Jim, Janis, Bob and a host of others. The worst heretics were Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. At least Zeppelin had the redeeming quality of being a one hit wonder with “Stairway To Heaven.” My first husband gave me the most amazing musical education one could ever have but at the same time made me a 60s purist or snob as some would say. Alexis Korner with the Stones and John Mayall and Traffic and Blind Faith and Cream and Eric and Buffalo Springfield and the Animals and on and on in this basement in Queens with four foot high Marshall amps for speakers and a wall to write your every thought on in markers and pens and lightening colors. It was an amazing experience. Yet he wouldn’t listen to a Bruce record. He, along with myself and much of the rock media aristocracy at the time, thought Bruce was just another Dylan wannabe. Now, while trying to get a ticket to see him at the Sports Arena next month, I laugh at all the times I could have seen him around New York and Jersey in the 70s. No, we were of the mind (my boyfriend then husband and his brothers and friends) that music had surely taken a turn for the worst. And so despite my teenage years being firmly in the 70s, my musical tastes remained even more firmly in the 60s, but this time not as a ten year old child limited to Beatles and Jimi and the British invasion, but also exposed to all the other major greats of the era.
My drummer husband with the door firmly closed on new rock and roll turned to jazz during the rest of the 70s and provided me with another amazing musical education. Besides going to the arenas to see the best and brightest of the 60s (The Who right before Keith died, Rod many times over, Linda Ronstadt in a college gymnasium and more) , we spent many nights at Sweet Basils or the Village Vanguard seeing the likes of McCoy Tyner and Ron Carter (who has the biggest hands of anyone I have ever seen). I loved that music as well and soaked it up like the musical sponge I am. All those pre teen how-to books of the 60s telling you how to get a boyfriend by being interested in what they are, paid off in music, music and more music. And so I missed Mr. Bowie again, both music and movies. I was immersed in Coltrane ( A Love Supreme being the most purely beautiful piece of music ever) and Thelonious and Herbie and Weather Report! What a group that was.
Bruce was a heretic as far as we were concerned and no new Dylan was he, and we were proved more than right in 1975 when Bob came roaring back with “Blood on The Tracks”, which to me and to this day is the best Dylan album since Highway 61, with Desolation Row as simply his best song in my not so humble opinion (yes I know it’s not on the BOTT album.)
1984 saw the demise of my marriage and musical mentoring and my time travel to the 60s. Left to my own devices, I found disco which saved my life really during those newly divorced years and also Phil Collins and Genesis through a casual boyfriend so that wasn’t too bad. But in 1984 I also found BRUCE!! A love affair that continues to this day. Heresy to the Bruce faithful, but it was “Dancing in the Dark” that did it for me. It sent me back in my musical time machine to listen to everything since he greeted the world from Asbury Park. It would be 8 more years until I saw him in concert at the Sports Arena after I moved to Los Angeles.
My musical muses come in all shapes and forms now. A move to LA in 1987 and a chance encounter with a piano player in a bar in Hermosa Beach doing the most amazing rendition of “Thunder Road” led to a lifetime friendship and a doctorate in Dylan. I loved Bob but no one does the way Andy does, and what a great education in that man’s music I got from that friendship. But Bowie? No, not even in the late 80s or early 90s. Talking to Andy this week, seems he loved him in the early rock and roll “Rebel, Rebel” days but parted company with Ziggy. Me too I guess. “Changes” and tears is what his death brings to me today because of that singular song in my time and for a life gone too soon.
A return to life and to music a few years ago and a teenager who turns me on to all sorts of cool hip and pop hop. You know, when they take a pop singer and she sings part of a song and the hip-hop guy sings the next verse. Rhianna and Mikky Ekko, Beyonce and Jay Z. I like it. A lifetime of music has gone by and I never really listened to much Bowie music but he died this week and nothing like death to make you pay attention. As I said this week, as a marketing ploy, death is genius really. His parting musical gift of “Blackstar “is nothing short of brilliant and courageous. I am astounded at the body of work he left, 26 albums and the movies. And so my deepest heartfelt sympathy goes to those men and women to whom he gave pleasure as teenagers and young adults. To whom he gave the courage to be different and celebrate their uniqueness and art. Those are the ones in deepest mourning. I know the feeling. But for me, I’m lucky this week. I have just discovered a brand new artist to explore. Bittersweet? Yes, but wonderful as well.
POST SCRIPT: Thank you Michael, a huge Bowie fan, and my writing polisher for polishing this one up a bit for me. This is also dedicated to Patty Russo, you know why. And to Debbie Bain who is doing a David Bowie tribute tonight with her band. Another huge Bowie fan. To the Pink Floyd and Zeppelin fans, I’m sorry.