David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar, drops January 8. So far I’ve only heard a handful of tracks from it: “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” the shuffling, urgent jazz number that opens his 2014 singles compilation Nothing Has Changed; the album’s nearly 10-minute title track, whose landscape of dissonance and schizophrenia can rightly be called an acquired taste; and “Lazarus,” a moody downtempo number which recalls Morphine at its best. I’ve got nothing left to lose … I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl, sings Bowie against wailing saxophones. From first listen, “Lazarus” has the feel of a late-career highlight.
Normally, when I get new music from an artist I love, I listen to it intermittently until it catches. It’s the moment when I think, wow, what was that? Once I’ve passed that milestone, the album goes on repeat and stays there until I’m tired of it. But I’ve never done that with Bowie. My approach to his albums has always been to cultivate an appreciation for a few tracks at a time, leaving some for later discovery. As a result, there are some David Bowie songs I flat-out missed the first time, even though I’ve lived with his music for literally my entire life. (Bowie’s debut album came out in June 1967—a scant five months after I was born.) The man has 25 studio albums and God knows how many non-album tracks. There are just too many fish in that sea to know them all.
One of those omissions, the most glaring one, was “Teenage Wildlife,” released in 1980 as part of Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) LP. The record came out while I was in seventh grade. Those were strange, isolated times for me. I grew up in Orange County, which I remember as being screamingly white and Republican—two things I am (mostly) not. My religious upbringing—I was a Jehovah’s Witness until 1985—steered me clear of both rock ’n’ roll and androgyny. As a result I was only aware of David Bowie as a concept.
Besides, in those days, the big bands were REO Speedwagon, Van Halen and, distantly, Devo. Musically speaking, we were caught in the space between (real) dinosaurs and (imagined) mohawks, and Bowie was neither of those. Perhaps it’s just as well; if I had learned of David Bowie at that tender age I might have been afraid of him, as I was afraid of most things back then.
In any case, I didn’t discover “Teenage Wildlife” until I was my late 20s, and even that was kind of a drive-by: I bought the Rykodisc CD reissue of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) at Record City, but stuck mostly to its hits (“Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion”) and those tracks that agreed with my current listening, which was mostly grunge (“It’s No Game [Part 1],” “Panic in Detroit”). I didn’t fall in love with the Ronnie Spector-like pleasures of “Teenage Wildlife” until years later, in the summer of 2008. Today, I can’t believe I ever lived without it.
I wish I could tell you how good it felt when “Teenage Wildlife” finally caught. There are some songs that find a hole in your sense of self and plug it up … and all at once, you begin filling up with the exultations to which you were once immune. It’s almost as if all that good stuff was bleeding out of you until you discovered your new favorite song. If I had heard “Teenage Wildlife” in seventh grade, I wouldn’t have understood it; if I had listened to it when I was 27, back when I truly was as ugly as a teenage millionaire/pretending it’s a whiz-kid world, it wouldn’t have registered with me in any way that mattered. I had to grow up to meet it.
It’s become my favorite Bowie song, hands down. I love “Wildlife’s” steady and determined buildup. Bowie sounds like he could launch into the chorus two or three times before he actually does, and when it comes it’s like a summer downpour, sweet and perfect. It’s a talky song: old Davy Jones has a lot to get off his chest in those seven minutes, and I can’t help but smile when I imagine him nearly tripping over himself as he hastens to speak his mind against the also-rans appropriating his style: “One of the New Wave boys … same old thing in brand-new drag,” Bowie sings, metaphorically shaking his head.
The “catch” caught me unawares. One day in August 2008, as I walked around downtown Seattle, the song came up in shuffle. It was a perfect afternoon, hot and cool at once. People were bobbing up and down in time to the music, wholly unaware they were doing so. Albino spiders chased whiffs of cotton across a swimming-pool sky. Closing my eyes, I could imagine that Bowie was sitting at a cafe table, singing his piece between tugs on a cup of coffee and a cigarette, while Robert Fripp and Chuck Hammer stood on opposite sides of Second and Pine and traded riffs back and forth like volleys of ammunition.
It was a moment. That’s why I’m so grateful for the iPod: Every once in a great while, this soulless piece of sweatshop junk somehow finds the perfect song for the perfect occasion and lets fly.
On January 8, I’ll listen to David Bowie’s Blackstar in full for the first time. Maybe it’ll cement my feelings for “Lazarus,” or another track will pop out. Or it might lead me back to Bowie’s Heathen or hours… LPs, neither of which I’ve given a fair shake. Or perhaps, five or 10 years from now, Blackstar’s title track will come up in shuffle as I wait in an airport, or as I’m driving up Sunset Boulevard. The world will syncopate to its off-kilter beats; passers-by will appear to mouth its words. The song will finally catch. And I couldn’t be more grateful to David Bowie for continuing to stock those waters, even when I’m finicky in the way I choose to fish them.