David Bowie, The Beatles, and How Not “Getting Them” Helped Me Grow

“There’s two kinds of people in this world,” says Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction, ” Elvis people and Beatles people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like the Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice tells me who you are.”

For me, there was never any question. I was an Elvis person. Yeah, the Beatles were fine, and I didn’t dislike them, but given a choice between the two? I was for The King all the way down to my blue suede shoes, baby. In fact, I could almost, allllmost, say that I really didn’t like the Beatles after all. I found them “meh.” And this was, obviously, because I did not know what I was talking about.

I remember going to a Phish concert at the end of high school (remember I am from Vermont) and hearing an amazing song I thought I had never heard before. It was called “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and it blew me away. It was my favorite new Phish song, hands down. In fact, I said so to my friend who I was with. He informed me that this was, in fact, a Beatles song, to which I responded (pretentiously) that I really only listened to “The White Album.” (The only Beatles album I could name) “Yeah,” he said, catching me in the act of talking out of my ass, “this song is on The White Album…” Boy, that was embarrassing. Note to future non-high-school-aged Tenor Dad: if you don’t know what you are talking about, shut up. And as you can see, I have never learned.

Over the years, I discovered that when I listened to the Beatles I was mildly, but consistently, underwhelmed. I also began to notice that many of my favorite songs were just other people singing Beatles songs. Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work it Out.” “Helter Skelter” by U2. Robin Williams’ “Come Together” that he recorded with Bobby McFerrin (still one of my favorites). Heck, Bobby McFerrin’s version of “Drive My Car.” A stunningly beautiful Gaelic version of “Blackbird,” sung by friend of a friend, Julie Fowlis. What was I to make of these facts? Well, I came to the conclusion that The Beatles were great songwriters, but a terrible band. They were the George Lucas of music, much better off handing their brilliant ideas over to someone else to bring to life. I had figured it out. 19-year-olds are very smart, as I’m sure you are probably aware.

I had a very similar experience with David Bowie. I grew up thinking that he was very strange, and uncomfortably so. I mean, I loved him in Labyrinth, clearly, but trying to listen to “Space Oddity” seemed more trouble than it was worth. I knew that, for many, he was a symbol of the outcast and the outsider, the individual and the consummate artist, staying true to himself no matter what the world might say, and I have no idea why that never connected with me. I certainly embraced my inner weirdness as an adolescent, to the point where I was attacked and bullied for being myself, but maybe I never connected with David Bowie because, even amongst the chaos and the turmoil of growing up as a self-professed weirdo, I never truly felt outside, or alone. I can probably thank my mother, and my church, for that. I never felt the need to look for someone to represent my feelings of societal rejection, because I just didn’t feel that way. Looking back, I think I ought to have, but I never did. So I decided that David Bowie was for “other people,” but to me he made no sense at all.

It was apparent to me however, that he was admired and respected by a lot of people I admired and respected. Tributes and parodies and nods and winks popped up all over popular culture, and my soul just kind of fast-forwarded these moments as they arrived. No Bowie for me, thanks. I never listened to one of his albums. I never watched one of his videos. Instead I found other music that really spoke to me. I instantly fell in love with “Heroes” by The Wallflowers, and it became one of my favorite tunes of all time. Beck’s “Diamond Dogs” was another great track, along with Nirvana’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” hauntingly played as part of the Unplugged set. And thinking back to the Phish concerts I was attending back in ’95 and ’96, I really loved that song “Life on Mars” that they included. Yeah, you figured it out. It had happened again. Or rather, it was happening at the same time. It turned out that I liked David Bowie a lot more than I thought I did.

Part of growing is admitting that you were wrong. I want to take a moment, right here and now, to thank all of those artists who loved and covered the songs of John Lennon, and David Bowie, and George Harrison, and probably many others, because without your help to see things in a different light, it’s possible that I might have permanently missed out on some truly great and trans-formative things in my life. It turns out that The Beatles were a good band after all! Going back to some of the songs that I loved as covers, I was able to follow that trail of musical breadcrumbs into a deeper understanding of just how brilliant some of that music really was. And, you know, some of it was still terrible. But really, it’s hard for me to hear a Beatles track these days without enjoying and appreciating it. Are they better musicians than Elvis? Yeah, I think they are. Do I still enjoy rocking out to Elvis more? Yes. Suddenly, Uma Thurman, you haven’t quite got me as pegged as you thought you had. I am no longer black or white, one or the other. I am complex. Or I have a complex. Hard to tell.

When the news of David Bowie’s death spread yesterday morning, I started to see tweets and tributes pour in. I read the articles. I watched the videos. I re-listened to the “Life Aquatic” soundtrack (which was the best thing about that movie). I posted the original video for “Heroes,” still one of my favorite songs, and I watched David Bowie sing it to me. This was not a person I did not care about. This was not a person who I did not “get.” Suddenly, this was me after all. And then I watched the devastating (and brilliant) “Lazarus” video. And then I watched it again. And again. And I started to become angry at how people pay more attention to the dead than to the living. I know it’s not just me. I know that whenever a singer dies, their iTunes sales shoot way up. It’s as if everyone in the world suddenly says “oh yeah,” a few minutes too late. Psychologically, I know why it happens. It makes sense why it happens. It just sucks sometimes. It feels bad, in a way, to spend the day enjoying some excellent music for the sole reason that the person making it has died.

But I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel ashamed for listening to David Bowie all day, and trying to comprehend some of what I had missed over all of these years. There’s just so much to it. Maybe I was too shallow before. Maybe I still am. Maybe I’m working on it. But I can say with some confidence that I have grown, and it is the people who I have not understood, but who I took the time to try to understand, that have provided that growth. And that’s not just true in music; that’s true in life. So if David Bowie has taught me anything, it’s that we should reach out to the unfamiliar, confusing, and even oppositional, and try to see it in a new way. That’s what art does. That’s what music does. And that’s what makes us all better people. Thanks, Goblin King. Rest in peace.

Or, if you don’t feel like resting in peace, do something else wherever you are now. It’s your call.

Posted in Beatles, David Bowie, Music, Tenor Tuesday.

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  1. Pingback: The Tragedy of Unfulfilled Potential and Unmet Expectations | Tenor Dad

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