I can't remember which Bowie song I first heard. It was probably "Space Oddity," which I loved (who doesn't?), although I likely didn't know who it was. I do distinctly remember seeing the video for "Blue Jean" and thinking how unbelievably cool and suave this man was, and what an incredible yet subtle groove the song had. (Later I would find that same groove in T. Rex, but let's focus here.) I'm sure I saw the videos for "Let's Dance" and "China Girl" on MTV then too. Never Let Me Down was the first Bowie album I bought new when it came out—no one's favorite, I know, but I was so happy to have new Bowie in my hands that I nearly wore it out all the same.
Older Bowie was difficult to come by when I was a kid, living in a small town and having K-Mart for my main source of music. But one day I found an RCA cassette of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and as they say, that was that. Still an unsurpassed melding of rock, folk, and soul, filtered through Bowie's distinct Britishness into something unique and ethereal, Ziggy is one of a handful of perfect albums. There were many Bowies, musically as well as visually, and I loved all of them, but this was (essentially) my first and will always be my favorite.
As I got older (think high school), I found "real" record stores in nearby towns and bought up cassettes of the other early albums when Rykodisc (finally!) reissued them. Hunky Dory become my favorite, with Space Oddity a close favorite. How could he write such complex music, such odd chord changes, that sounded so different from everything else I'd heard, yet sounded so natural and "right"? (Later I would find the same quality in Mingus and Monk, but to do the same thing in rock? Astounding.) And to write such strange, emotional, thought-provoking lyrics, and sing them in THAT VOICE, that voice that could take on as many characters as he could visually. This man—how could he be real?
But he was real. And he was so many people, whoever he wanted to be at any given time. He created David Bowie anew with every new album, yet it was always the same man. He was nonconformity embodied, rebellion personified, giving a huge f**k you to society's customs and mores—but with class. Always with class.
To a young weirdo who never fit in, Bowie said to me, "who cares?" He said, "be who you want to be." He was my existentialist teacher years before I knew what existentialism was. He taught me that the only thing that was weird was worrying about being weird. Once you get over that, you're free to recreate yourself as the person you want to be, a process that never stops.
Until it does.
Rest in peace, sir.