By Brent Terry
Ziggy played guitar. I played left field for Wyoming Tradesmen.
1972, and I was a skinny little-leaguer in a baggy uniform, cherished Rawlings fielders mitt dangling from my left hand, standing sunburned to a crisp in the remotest regions of the outfield. Under an endless Western sky I took my stance: feet shoulder-width, hands loosely cupped on my bent knees. I pounded my fist into my well-oiled glove, attempted to add my voice to the far-off infield chatter, eyeing our pitcher as he wound-up, prepared to deliver the ball to a batter I prayed would loft a deep, lazy fly in my direction, that I might drift under it, make the safe, two-handed catch, then nonchalantly toss the ball back into the infield, tugging twice on my hat brim, a modest salute to my dad, who never missed a game, and for whom watching my ineptness at the plate must have been pure torture. I was pretty fast, had a decent glove and a good arm, but no eye whatsoever. I never had a hit that entire summer.
David Bowie, however, had a hit that turned the world on its ear. I remember riding home shotgun in my parents’ Chevy Impala after another outing untainted by the sound of hardwood striking rawhide. (I wonder if I had stopped swinging the bat by then, realizing I would walk far more often than strike out, or if I was licking my wounds and trying to feel proud of a rare foul ball). I was enjoying my usual post-game snack of Choco-Malt and Pixy Stix, probably nodding respectfully, daydreaming, half-listening to the words of instruction and encouragement wafting over from the driver’s seat, when the most amazing sounds I had ever heard drifted from the radio (KATI, an AM rock station I had just taken a preadolescent shine to, and to which my parents would sometimes allow my younger sister and I to listen) and clobbered me like an errant Louisville Slugger. I’m sure I cut my father off mid-sentence, hollered something like, “Listen!” or asked him who was making such amazing music. It was Bowie, of course. The song was Ziggy Stardust, and I was instantly mesmerized: bewitched by the slithering guitar intro, completely slain by the wall of noise that Bowie rode in on with the chorus (yes, where indeed were the spiders?). My dad was (and is) a quiet man, so the radio was surely turned down low, bass register probably nil through the speakers imbedded in the dash. Still, the song blew me away. It pulled back the curtain to reveal a glimpse of a whole new world, and though I could not have known it then, this music sounded just as weird and new and exhilarating to everybody else as it did to musical neophyte me.
Androgynous, painted Englishmen did not go over well in Casper, Wyoming, a wild-west town two-hundred miles north of Denver surrounded by oilfields and cowpokes, pronghorn antelope and sagebrush. In the early seventies the two famous people most regularly disparaged by the adults I was talked at by, and whose conversations I eavesdropped upon ravenously, were indisputably David Bowie and Muhammad Ali, both of whom (and in secret) I adored. Their physical, verbal and artistic eloquence blew apart my blossoming brain, my curious heart, and I was incredulous, stupefied by the blindness of adults. Did they not have ears with which to hear, eyes with which to see? And so, thanks to Bowie, I at ten had belatedly come to the same realization that had given rise to rock-and-roll in the first place, and to which the war in Vietnam had awakened the disgusted and disenchanted youth of the previous decade: grownups were full of shit.
Baseball became less and less important. Art became transcendent. I sang in the choir, bought countless records, slicked-back and sculptured my hair as I crooned and shimmied and struck poses in the shower. I was Ziggy, Aladdin Sane: I was the Thin White Duke. I also sang Elton John songs. Feigning embarrassment, my equally hammy sister and I were often dragged out of our rooms by our mother to perform Benny and the Jets for dinner guests. I took up running, which to me seemed like an art form. Sprinting over the countryside, I was the brush that painted the world. My thirst for books and images and songs became unquenchable, and always Bowie was there, adding texture and flavor to the fountain I happily splashed about in. I did not begin writing poetry until I was nearly forty, something that seems inexplicable and slightly tragic to me now—who knows, maybe my inner Starman needed time to reach escape velocity—but when I finally began to write, Bowie was there, gazing down from a framed 1987 Rolling Stone cover hung upon the wall over my desk, the one that had no headlines, just the impeccably pompadoured and enigmatically-visaged singer, his image graced by a single word: Style.
And substance, of course, of a kind unmeasurable by any manmade device. There on my wall he embodied a standard I would always try (and fail) to hold myself to. David Bowie was the Whitmanian ideal; (how strange to write of him in the past tense) he contained multitudes. There is a Bowie for every Brent, from the ten-year-old ballplayer standing lonely in left field, to the junior high choirboy, the high school and college cross country runner, to the middle-aged poet who sits, grateful and astonishingly devastated, penning this essay, listening to Blackstar, and for now, anyway, refusing to say goodbye.
Brent Terry is the author of two collections of poetry: the chapbook yesnomaybe (Main Street Rag, 2002) and the full-length Wicked, Excellently (Custom Words, 2007). He has two new manuscripts making the rounds and is writing new poems, a collection of essays and a novel. Terry lives in Willimantic, CT, where he scandalizes the local deer population with the brazen skimpiness of his running attire. He teaches at Eastern Connecticut State University and at Steppingstone Academy Hartford, but yearns to rescue a border collie and return to his ancestral homeland in the Rocky Mountain West.