By Dana Cann
In June 1972, men tied to President Nixon’s reelection campaign were arrested when they broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex, while my older brother turned twelve and received, as a gift from our parents, a stereo, the first in our house. It was purchased at Sears, like nearly everything our family bought, and consisted of a record player with two small speakers, eight-inch cubes encased in avocado-green plastic, the color of our kitchen appliances.
My brother had a birthday party and invited his friends from sixth grade, one of whom gave him a dozen 45s that came in a carrying case, like a small lunch box, with a black handle and a mod-looking pattern—black lines drawn at various angles over a white background—and a top with a clasp that fastened when you gave it a quarter-turn. I remember this gift—the records with the case—as the best gift any of us ever got. One of the 45s was David Bowie’s “Changes.”
Pop music was new to our house, or so it seemed. Our parents had a hi-fi, a free-standing cabinet with a record changer and a built-in bin that held about thirty LPs. They’d stopped buying records circa 1965, with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. No one played the hi-fi or the Herb Alpert records. I remembered the girls in fourth grade swooning over Tom Jones. I remembered rumors that the Beatles were through, that Paul was dead. But none of that had mattered to me. I didn’t care for music. Until I heard “Changes.”
The verses were slow, the vocals expressive. “I still don’t know what I was waiting for.” Here was an introspective song, an introspective singer. So much more than boy meets girl. Then the drums kicked in. A snare picked up the beat and the singer stuttered—“Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes”—then splashed down into major chords and a beat you could dance to, as the kids used to say on American Bandstand. The overdubbed vocals—“Turn and face the strange”—invited me to embrace the unknown.
I was almost eleven, finishing fifth grade. The Vietnam War dominated the news. Two years earlier my family had been teargassed when we went to the National Mall for the fireworks on the Fourth of July and got caught in the crossfire between protesters and police. We fled. Questioning authority had been on the rise my entire life, but I wasn’t aware. But now the singer, this David Bowie, was calling out adults, admonishing them, advising them to let the children find their own way, because they’re “immune to your consultations.” Because “they’re quite aware what they’re going through.”
In another year I’d reach puberty. The year after that Nixon would resign. The next year the United States would pull out of Vietnam.
“Pretty soon, now,” Bowie sang, “you’re gonna get older.”
By ’75 I was. Fourteen. Authority was tainted. I wondered what would happen next.
Dana Cann’s debut novel, Ghosts of Bergen County, comes out this April from Tin House Books. His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Florida Review, among other journals. He teaches fiction workshops at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland.