My Bowie was 80s Bowie. Let’s Dance Bowie. The Bowie who shed the stardust and spacesuit for a suit and tie. He was the Dashing Bowie, not the ungendered spaceman that I got to know later.
I was 12 years old when Let’s Dance came out; I was in that liminal period when the sun was still setting on my childhood, but the rush of hormones that would turn me into a brooding adolescent hadn’t started their blitz. I had just moved to a new state and my life was turned upside down. I had no friends yet, and just a few months before, during the summer, I was introduced to heavy metal. My daily music regimen at the time consisted of a steady diet of Ozzy’s Blizzard of Ozz followed by more Blizzard of Ozz..
One day, while at the record store, the manager–a beautiful, late 20 something New Waver–suggested I give Let’s Dance a listen.
There is almost nothing in the world quite as stubborn as an incredulous almost-teenage boy who thinks he knows how much he hates something before he listens to it. A cool older woman suggesting a record, however, cuts through that stubbornness like a lightsaber cuts through a Skywalker’s hand. I bought the record, took it home, and listened to it that evening.
A funny thing happens when you really want to hate something, but can’t. You tend to overstate your convictions. You tend to protest too much. That’s what happened when I put on Let’s Dance. “This is gonna fucking suck!” I said out loud.
However, an even funnier thing happens when you hear music that honestly moves you despite yourself. You keep listening.
The truth is, I loved it immediately. I know I loved it because I listened to the whole album in one go. I must have played the A-Side a good 3 times before turning to side B. The moment I heard “Modern Love”, the first song on the album, the die was cast and I had stepped, kicking and screaming, into a richer musical world.
I had never heard a song like “Modern Love” before. The Hendrixy intro riff (That’s Stevie Ray Vaughn you’re hearing, btw) going into the upbeat piano groove was jarring, I’ll admit. But what a groove! Every time I hear it now, I still can’t help but move my head side to side. Fantastic groove aside, I knew almost immediately that there was something deeper here.
The song marked the first time I noticed that a song could be ironic. Here was a song that was able to bring so much emotion and conflict to what, on the surface, seemed to be a trite and simple dance tune. The lyrics felt incongruous with the vibe of the song. There was pathos, conflict and even a palpable cynicism, but it came, not in the form of heavy guitars, pained vocals, and the dark teatime of the soul lyrics. No, this song–filled with saxophones, 50’s like vocal arrangements and pianos, sounded light and upbeat–as if unaware of the tension in the lyrics. And yet, there was something else. I could sense that I was stepping into a new world. I just had no clue…yet…what that world was. There was a depth here to be plumbed. I didn’t know what the message of the song was (I was twelve for Pete’s sake), but I knew it had a message and that message was somehow not at all what the upbeat packaging was making it out to be.
Over the years I would go on to listen to a whole lot of music, and my tastes grew and broadened. Because of Bowie I would go on to listen to 70’s Prog Rock, discover Punk and New Wave, Floyd, Tull and the rest. Truth is, without the watershed of the the Let’s Dance album, my tastes would have stayed much more cloistered for much longer. Bowie may not have been the centerpiece of my musical experience, but he was, nonetheless, a constant, and the A-side of Let’s Dance with “Modern Love” in particular helped begin that journey that would lead to new, exciting and fantastic musical worlds.
– Story provided by composer Boris Zelkin. Boris Zelkin is a film composer living in Los Angeles. He immigrated to this country in 1976 from what was then Soviet Russia. He seems to enjoy writing about things, especially culture, comics and media. Zelkin has managed to convince an awesome woman to become his wife with whom he has a pretty cool kid. They all live in a house dominated by two cats. Boris wants a dog, but the cats haven’t let that happen yet. His music can be found here: www.notesfromtheplayground.com