David Bowie is an English singer and songwriter. Bowie’s greatest trait was his ability to change his stylistic approach to music. After modest regional success in the latter part of the 1960s, Bowie found his audience, and achieved broad popularity throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Steven Thomas Erlewine offers a fine summary to David Bowie’s musical approach in The All Music Guide To Rock:
“The cliche about David Bowie says he’s a musical chameleon, adapting himself according to fashion and trends. While such a criticism is too glib, there’s no denying that Bowie demonstrated remarkable skill for perceiving musical trends at his peak in the ’70s.”
— Steven Thomas Erlewine
So I turned myself to face me,
But I’ve never caught a glimpse,
Of how the others must see the faker,
I’m much too fast to take that test.
— David Bowie
Fast forward to today. Popular music is a mature field of expression; the artform has been fully explored. When we look back into the past — thirty, forty years ago, the music is judged on merit, not past popular trends. We compare the artist’s songs against history’s entire collection. Looking back, we might conclude that David Bowie’s appeal was more style than substance. Some of his songs, like “Changes” and “Space Oddity”, have aged well, while others seem dated. In many songs the music overwhelms his voice, making lyrics difficult to comprehend.
On the other hand, Bowie’s work in the early and mid-1970s helped shape the direction of popular music. The use of synthesizers (“Heroes”), the robotic rhythms, the androgynous stage persona — all integral components of the New Wave music in the early 1980s.
In 1983, David Bowie released the successful Let’s Dance, which three top 20 hits: “Let’s Dance”, “Modern Love”, and “China Girl”. I don’t like any of these enough to include them. “Let’s Dance” becomes the second #1 hit during the artist countdown that fails to make the cut. The other? “Tell Her About It”, by Billy Joel.
As a youth growing up in Palo Alto, California, David Bowie was not part of my musical universe. I knew and liked “Space Oddity”; American space exploration was very hip at the time, and the song was unusual and innovative. Why weren’t my friends aware of him? By then he was quite a popular figure. Perhaps it was the company I kept. My friends were outgoing and athletic. We liked sports and girls; some of us liked to party. Top 40 music was excellent. Great guitarists were in vogue. Soul music effectively conveyed a sweet, earnest of love and affection. I think jocks from Palo Alto, California had no interest in some guy in makeup or drag singing introspective tales of fantasy. This was 35 years ago, before androgyny and homosexuality were even thought about. We wouldn’t have thought he was queer. Just weird. I’m sure there were other students at my high school that knew and enjoyed his music, but it would have been the thespians, those artsy kids.
Coach Tom Henderson
Fast forward to the fall of 1976, my freshman year at U.C. Davis. I’m riding in a team van to a basketball game somewhere. The song “Changes” comes on the radio, and the driver, Tom Henderson, recognizes the song and turns up the radio to revel in its beauty. Coach Tom Henderson was my coach that year. Just a few years older than me, Tom also played basketball at U.C. Davis, starting at point guard on a league championship team. The first time I came to the gym to say hello and play a little pickup ball, Tom was there and we matched up against each other for a few games. After a while I was starting to feel it, and though Tom was trying hard to defend me, I was scoring regularly and easily. I could sense he was frustrated, but also that this was a type of audition for the incoming player.
My freshman year was magic for me. I thrived under Tom Henderson. He was just beginning his career as a coach, and he motivated me to work hard with his quiet enthusiasm. Tom Henderson is now the athletic director and head basketball coach for a high school near Sacramento.
While researching how to contact coach Henderson, I also looked up another early mentor during my college basketball days, Leonard Shepard, another graduate assistant for coach Hamilton that year. I was pleased to see his current job is “Chief Enthusiast” for a northern California company, producing an innovative, high altitude wind power generator. That’s so cool!
Here’s David Bowie singing one of my favorites, “Young Americans”. That’s a young David Sanborn on saxophone. If we knew the names of the band members, we might recognize them as top session musicians from New York City. Bowie’s voice is quite hoarse here, but the performance is lively.
I have included two songs from his early days, when he was searching for an audience, and only two from the 1980s, one with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.
David Bowie Songs:
Space Oddity (Live), David Bowie ✭✭✭
Space Oddity, David Bowie ✭✭✭
Changes, David Bowie ✭✭✭
Young Americans, David Bowie ✭✭✭
Rebel, Rebel, David Bowie ✭✭✭
The Jean Genie, David Bowie ✭✭
Panic In Detroit, David Bowie ✭✭
Fame, David Bowie ✭✭
Sound And Vision, David Bowie ✭✭
Golden Years, David Bowie ✭✭
This Is Not America, Pat Metheny Group & David Bowie ✭✭
Heroes, David Bowie ✭
Under Pressure, David Bowie ✭
In The Heat Of The Morning (Live), David Bowie ✭
Suffragette City, David Bowie ✭
When I Live My Dream, David Bowie ✭