We Are Infinite: Remembering David Bowie
In the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, three friends, played with devilish delight by Ezra Miller, Logan Lerman and Emma Watson are driving in Pittsburgh when a revelation comes on the radio. They don't know what it is or who it's from. The book and film are set in the early 1990s so Shazamming a song wasn't an option, neither were googling lyrics. The friends sit there mesmerized by this mysterious song when Sam played by Emma Watson asks to be driven through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. She stands up in the back of the truck and dances in a way that only a teenager with their whole life in front of them could. Watson radiates unspeakable beauty and "'Heroes'" blasts from the speaker. The hair on my arms stood up, my heart skipped a beat and I wanted to jump out of my seat to play air guitar. It was a rare musical cinematic moment that felt like a page from my life.
Speaking to a friend who grew up in the UK, he found the scene unrealistic, because he couldn't fathom a world where everyone doesn't have David Bowie's music as part of their DNA. Author and director Stephen Chbosky explains on the commentary track that growing up Bowie was the Let's Dance guy and I completely understand this, because my introduction to Bowie and his music wasn't sexy or surreal, it happened in 1987 during a period many view as the nadir of his illustrious career. In retrospect, the 80s material Bowie crafted holds up stronger than many give credit to, but at the time, he came off as more of a cool crooner from the past than someone who was vital and relevant. His music came to me in bits and pieces throughout the 1990s until his catalog was remastered in 1999 when I started buying them, but the moment I went from admirer to life-long obsessive occurred in January 16, 2004.
I met my wife in December of 2003 and while perusing her CD tower in her condo, she had a few Bowie albums and we discussed him briefly. After a few dates I knew she was more than just a beautiful woman, but someone with whom I could share my music obsessions. I surprised her the night of the concert with tenth row tickets to the Rosemont Theatre, right outside of Chicago, for Bowie's third and final night. I didn't witness a concert on this night, I witnessed a life-changing event that would define how I look, see and feel all art. I watched a man at the peak of his powers own the crowd and his extensive catalog. Bowie's standard shows were approximately twenty-five songs, but this show came in at thirty-one songs which was one of the longest of the tour and of his entire career. The intimacy of the theater setting fit this show perfectly as the building heightened the music. I was able to delve into Bowie's latter day modern material with gusto because I could see the emotion and expressions with which he was performing these songs. From the opening chords of a reworked "Rebel, Rebel" to the finale of "Ziggy Stardust" Bowie captivated the Chicago faithful with a performance that showed he was not only commanding of the material, but that he still had something to prove. When it came time for "Life on Mars", after the piano opening, Bowie called off the band. Years later, I'm not quite sure why, but my gut feeling is because he wasn't "feeling" it and did not want to call the performance in. The band cheered him on, especially the brilliant bass player Gail Ann Dorsey. Bowie returned to the microphone and proceeded to belt out a tour de force vocal performance I will never forget. It was as if he wrote the song earlier in the day and not thirty-years earlier. Everything about this evening was taken to another level from a driving "Under Pressure" to a smoking "Suffragette City" to the spellbinding extended encore, the night hit on all cylinders.
More than anything else, what I loved about witnessing Bowie live in 2004 was the elation and exuberance with which he gave each performance. He appeared to be at peace with his legacy. The most spellbinding aspect of this concert was that I didn't just go home wanting just to buy Ziggy Stardust, The Man Who Sold The WorldAladdin Sane but Heathen, Reality, Earthling and Black Tie White Noise as well. Within a few years I had physical copies of every single David Bowie album with the exception of David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht's Baal for which I settled for a digital copy.
The electrifying live performances on that tour did not rely solely on hits but what truly was the best of Bowie. While the performance of "'Heroes'" was tour de force, it was preceded by the equally prevailing "I'm Afraid of Americans" (which was recorded with Trent Reznor) which in essence is the flip side to "'Heroes'", two decades later. "Sunday" and "Cactus" seemed as essential to the set as "Sound & Vision" and "Hallo Spaceboy". What Bowie managed so exquisitely on the Reality tour was affiliating the new and old meticulously so to the average fans ears, they sound like forgotten favorites. Anyone who saw the tour in support of Reality they would have witnessed one of the most invigorating performances of their life. The truth is that David Bowie did not get experimental in the 1990's. He merely continued to do what he has been doing for nearly forty-years; grow. The only difference is that we weren't listening as closely as we had in previous decades.
A few months after the Chicago show, I scored front row tickets to the Milwaukee show and I was astonished as the passion put forth by Bowie during "The Loneliest Guy", an ominous philosophical track from Reality. Bowie sung each note with his eyes closed as he gripped the microphone as if he was holding on for his life. When he finished the song, he wiped away what appeared to be tears from his eyes. It was a philosophical moment which left me thunderstruck and it motivated me to go back to Reality to rediscover this gem. Once again, here is where a concert performance can send you back to the record indicating you missed something on previous listens. "The Loneliest Guy" is one of those deep album cuts that will probably get lost over time, but when he performed it with a force few bands can muster today. The somber piano driven song is downcast but when Bowie sang the lyric, "I'm the luckiest guy, not the loneliest guy in the world….not me", he stepped away and cleared his eyes with what appeared to be a few tears. To this day, "The Loneliest Guy" has more pays on my iPod than any other Bowie song.
I awoke on Monday to the news that David Bowie no longer resided on Earth and this was something I had not planned for. How can someone I never met leave such a gap? His music has been so intrinsically a part of my life I can't fathom a world where there will never be another album, another video or a final concert. I was reading Brian Eno's thoughts on their last email exchange which occurred just seven days ago and as I read it out loud to my wife, the same woman who has smiled and encouraged my obsession, I teared up. I don't know why but the world seems smaller without him. Then again, we have the music. As I look down at my iPod, it houses 588 Bowie songs which will keep me company for a long time. I think back to Perks of Being a Wallflower and even though me and my friends didn't drive through a tunnel cranking "'Heroes'", it feels like a part of my life. His music may not have entrenched itself into my life until I was beyond my teen years, but it became integral to understanding life. Throughout dozens of albums, I learned how to make my love stronger. David Bowie didn't release albums that were digestible immediately upon release, they required intense introspection. I will forever bow down to authors Thomas Jerome Seabrook and Nicholas Pegg who have written brilliant books on Bowie that have taken me closer to the music than I ever could have imagined. David Bowie was a man who made sense of chaos and confusion. He showed the world that music can be more than mere entertainment but art. I feel fortunate to live in a world where art is there to enlighten and educate me and David Bowie showed me different shades and hues of life leaving me in awe and wonder.
When writing about the best films of 2012, I placed The Perks of Being a Wallflower at the top of the list. It hit me straight through the heart and a part of it is due to the placement of "'Heroes'", which made me fall for the characters in the film even more. As we left and went back to our car, my wife asked me if I was going to crank "'Heroes'" which I did with one fist through the sunroof. It was a rare moment of lucidity where every friendship I ever made could be felt as the sentiments flowed through my veins. Music is something we can rally behind, define an experience and drive us towards the light. We live in a world defined by repulsion and fear and yet Bowie's entire discography is a rare glimpse into a world of wonder where anything is possible in a cavalcade of musical styles that inspires you to be something bigger and better. Music will come and go, as will I, but David Bowie's music will still be discussed and dissected decades and possibly even centuries from now due to his audacious and honest nature. Few of us will ever have the wide inspiring reach of David Bowie, but if we listen close enough, we can strive to find the best version of ourselves, be aware, be present, be alive share it with our friends, our family, our children and prove to the world that with the right soundtrack we are more than heroes for just one day but that we…are…infinite.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
We Are Infinite: Remembering David Bowie
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