When David Bowie released Low, I was one month away from my 14th birthday.
I’d saved up the money I’d made delivering The Evening (Baltimore) Sun (yes, I was a paperboy — those jobs really existed) and ever-so-carefully purchased a Rotel receiver, a turntable (Technics, as memory serves) and an amazing pair of lightweight Sennheiser headphones. Pink Floyd and Yes demanded total stereo separation!
I’d been a casual fan of Bowie before this record, but that changed almost instantly.
The fragmented songs on side one were catchy and hooky in the strangest manner: This music seemed darker than anything even Black Sabbath could knit together, yet it was somehow still danceable. The crashing percussion kit in the background seemed to have been wedged in the hallway of a subway station — it was the first time I’d heard reverb that sounded claustrophobic. Later I’d learn that the drums had been funneled through a pricey effects processor called an Eventide, a machine that eventually became the envy of radio geeks and sound techs across the globe.
click to enlarge
Channeling my inner Thin White Duke.
Side two was downright terrifying. Ethereal voicing, bizarre lyrics — this was music originally destined for the soundtrack of Bowie’s starring vehicle, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Brian Eno had become involved (not coincidentally, Eno’s produced some of my favorite albums by other artists) and the entire listen hinted at something below the surface, something not distilled in the lyrics.
That something, as it turns out, was Bowie’s struggles as he kicked cocaine — he’d gone to Berlin to get away from LA, where blow was as common as lipstick. Bowie didn’t have a taste for heroin — which, as he recalled later, was the drug of choice in Germany — but Low is infused with a junkie’s weariness, the substance notwithstanding.
I discovered punk and new wave not long after I purchased Low, and soon began looking down my rebellious little snotty nose at those pals of mine who couldn’t get enough hair-metal guitar solos screeching through their radios. Bowie, as strange and otherworldly as he could be, first sporting makeup and then morphing into the kind of graceful Brit James Bond would be jealous of, remained a unfying force, though. I don’t think I can recall ever meeting anyone who didn’t like some chapter of the man’s catalog.
For me? The weirder, the better. Bowie soon began working with Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, whose partnership on the re-formed King Crimson lineup delivered Discipline. The bent wailings and skittering attacks that tore through the work they did with Bowie, on record and on stage, made me a fan for life of all three of those artists, as different as they ultimately became.
Now that we’ve learned today that Bowie’s gone, that he had quietly slugged it out with cancer while cutting new material, I’m putting Low back on the turntable and remembering what a dark comfort this record was. The pain of adolescent rejection — by one or many — isn’t, in hindsight, nearly as extreme as stepping away from substance abuse. But by God, it felt awful then, and The Man Who Fell to Earth seemed to channel and diffuse that pain for me with every note.
Ed Wenck has been writing for NUVO (as well as several other Indiana publications) for nearly 20 years while moonlighting as a radio host. He became Managing Editor of NUVO in 2013. He's authored four books and also reports for WISH-TV's Boomer TV program.