We didn’t listen to much music at home when I was a kid, so I had to venture out on my own. This was in the pre-internet days — at least, we didn’t have a computer with internet access at home. I did my research at the library, in hopelessly outdated issues of Rolling Stone and a Dutch magazine called OOR.
In town there were three record stores that sold CDs for today’s equivalent of $40. There was no Spotify, no Soundcloud. The only way to hear an album before shelling out $40 was to stand at the counter and listen on a pair of headphones while the store clerks stared at you with either impatience or total boredom.
The library had CDs I copied onto cassettes I bought at the drugstore. They didn’t have much of a selection, though, beyond what was popular in those days: Madonna, George Michael, Paul Young (that all-but-forgotten Michael Keaton lookalike not to be confused with Paul Simon or Neil Young). So one day I rode my bike to the next biggest town and there at the library stumbled upon ChangesOneBowie, an 11-track compilation of David Bowie songs from 1969 to 1976. It didn’t contain the only two Bowie songs I knew at the time — Let’s Dance and Magic Dance from the movie Labyrinth — but it did have Space Oddity, Changes, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and Golden Years.
That album became my constant companion, my north star, my bible. Was it that, as a lonely kid in a small town I was dying to leave, I connected with Bowie’s outsider persona — his Major Tom, his starman waiting in the sky? Was it simply that his music was so heart-piercingly good?
My father didn’t approve of rock music, so I had to listen in my bedroom with the door closed and the volume turned down. Buying rock music was even worse: a crime equivalent to murdering your grandmother. In later years I collected all of Bowie’s work on CD and vinyl, but I never bought ChangesOneBowie. The cassette I lost somewhere along the way. I didn’t need it anymore. I was sold for life.
Trying to explain why you like a certain artist is like trying to explain why you prefer a certain kind of ice cream — it’s a nebulous, magical thing. Let it suffice that Sunday’s news of Bowie having died at the age of 69 was a tremendous shock. Just the Friday before I’d sat spellbound on the floor listening to Blackstar, his new album, letting my one-year-old daughter fend for herself for about 40 minutes.
I’m sad and shocked Bowie’s gone, but I’m also grateful he was here at all: to show a loner kid like me the way.