The first time I heard Under Pressure I was a sophomore in high school. 1981. The bass line. The scat. The lyrics -- a love letter to the world, written just for my generation and for me, this I still believe.
David Bowie found his creative match made in Heaven with Freddie Mercury, but I read that Queen’s own drummer and guitarist revealed to biographer Mark Blake in Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury and Queen that it was Bowie who suggested they write their own song that night in Switzerland by improvising, and he fought to make sure there were no artistic compromises when their legendary duet was released.
Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you
No man ask for
Under pressure that brings a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets
Under Pressure was my seat at the empty glass dining table. My mother’s chair would remain unused for the majority of 1981. Normally, she was the one who sat with me the most there, especially before school. She’d poor milk over her Cream of Wheat, spoon out sections from her half grapefruit, and feed me stories about her childhood on the fruit ranch and her college years at Stanford where she met my father. But that year she was too depressed and tired to make it out of bed most days, and the only stories she wanted to tell me were ones about how her life had lost all meaning. 1981 was also the only year my father would ask me, his sixteen year-old daughter barely passing Algebra, for help.
“Can you go in, talk to her? She says she’s not hungry, that she’s got nothing to get out of bed for. Tell her about school, about the musical you’re in.”
I was the finale, the eighth, and as one of my high school friends would write to me years later, “the last in a long line of narcissists.”
Two high-achieving academic parents, three older sisters and one brother with college degrees and good jobs secured, and three more hopefuls at Catholic university while I tried not to flunk out of Algebra II, sitting at that cold desk near the clock also trying very hard not to picture the brains of my best friend’s cousin all over his bedroom walls. A gun went off during a ‘pretend’ game of Russian roulette, though his friends told the police none of them knew the gun was loaded.
It's the terror of knowing
What the world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming "Let me out!"
Pray tomorrow gets me higher higher
I thought about getting high to escape it, but I was too clumsy and old-fashioned to go through with it, even when a college guy offered me part of his private stash of cocaine after a party one night. I wanted to call myself a “rock and roll chick” but that would have been a grotesque lie, nothing that I was above telling, mind you, but I was nowhere near that level of cool. I’d grown up mostly eating what my seven siblings were having: James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, Jim Croce -- all folk artists born from The Sixties, the decade from which I also came into the world.
My oldest brother played acoustic guitar really well and had taught himself to play all their songs in high school. I would sit on the floor in his room and turn the pages of his songbooks as he played and sang, a job that also bought me time with him and he didn’t seem to mind if I sang along. There were the Beatles, of course, Mick Jagger’s Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull even, Van Morrison, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Peter Frampton, The Police, U2 but I was also drawn to jazz, the music that played in the background of the black and white movies I gobbled up before the age of ten, music from my parents’ generation, what they listened to while they were studying at Stanford after the war in the late 1940s.
Betty Davis and Henry Fonda, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn and Clark Cable, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth. Leading women and men, leading men and women, kissing, dancing, singing in black and white and color. My siblings had a special name for these movies and musicals. They dubbed them, “beautiful lady movies"; their inside joke for the little sister who liked to sing and dance, the artsy-fartsy last hope who snuck time in front of the television when she was supposed to be studying.
I must have been nine or ten when I first saw him on the Dinah Shore Show. Dinah was on in the afternoons usually before my parents got home. By that time, the glass table was growing more and more fragile and empty, just one, maybe two, brothers and a sister left who were barely home. And when they were home, they never wanted to sit with me for long.
He had flaming red hair with streaks of gold, his pale high-cut cheekbones looked like they were powdered with orange blush. His silky blue shirt with the flowing wide sleeves and wide-legged pants looked like a gown, and he moved effortlessly around in it on a little stage like a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies. When he flashed a smile endless rows of big jagged teeth popped out and they looked like they could cut straight through the belly of an apple. He talked softly to Dinah for a long while with the most sophisticated voice of any rock star I’d ever heard. He said he started out as a painter and was very shy but that he wanted to overcome his shyness and learn how to defend himself in the world. Then he found out he liked being a ham. I was transfixed. I couldn’t look away. He was exotic, glamorous and fascinating. Through my young years I clung to his lyrics, lyrics I didn’t understand but they fueled my imagination, took me places I wanted to go, far away from that empty glass dining room table.
When I heard Young American I thought he was talking about one of my boyfriends. They were young, about ten, and American. I had already had my first kiss in fourth grade during folk dancing. I knew a lot about president Nixon, and the hotel where he didn’t pay the bill and got fired for it. I knew what a falsetto was, sort of, and the ghetto was a place where the Harlem Globetrotters lived. I had lots of idols I wanted to sing like, no songs about leather I don’t think, but the part about how he laid her down and kissed her, all night behind the bridge? That image still gives me goose bumps. Not exactly a tune my Catechism teacher would have sung in The Seventies, but I noticed that every time I saw David Bowie on television he was usually wearing a big gold cross. My Catechism teacher wore the same one.
Ain't there one damn song that can make me
break down and cry?
That was it. In one perfect line. He was beautiful – a leading man – but also a leading woman, and to me the consummate "beautiful lady movie" rolled into one elegant body with the legs of Fred Astaire; Bowie's low, crisp smoky vibrato so much better than Frank Sinatra because he delivered it with the eloquence of Lawrence Olivier and with a full rock and roll orchestra behind him on stage. His wild black pupil seemed to look right at me when he sung Heroes. “It’s all right to stare,” it said, “You’ve never seen someone like me before, have you?”
I could be curious and lonely, and it seemed to be perfectly all right with him if I broke down and cried. I could dance any way I wanted and dream about life on Mars. He was from another era or planet, and it looked like he wasn’t even trying to be great, please anyone else, except maybe himself. I saw him light a cigarette on stage and during the song he smoked it slowly and lovingly, while singing about being a hero, even if it was just for one day.
He was a singer, a dancer, a storyteller, an artist, everything I wanted to be but couldn’t in a family that thought artists were not something or someone you grew up to be. That was just in the movies.
* * *
My son is the same age I was when I first heard the name David Bowie and his songs. This week, just the two of us sitting at the dining table, I told him what I remembered most about him from my childhood.
"Well, sometimes he wore makeup because he felt like it. He had two different colored eyes."
"Like that Karma Chameleon guy?"
"Boy George?" I asked.
"Yeah, Yeah. That guy."
"Boy George has amazing eyes, too, for sure, but David Bowie, well, he kind of started a trend and made it so that if you felt like wearing makeup and you were a born a guy, it was totally cool -- especially, if you were a rock and roll musician."
"Who do you like better, Mom? Mick Jagger or David Bowie?"
"Oh, Bowie, hands down. Jagger is cool and all, but Bowie, Honey... he was and still is, the coolest. And his songs were stories, stories that made you think."
A few minutes later from another room I heard my son belt it out.
Pushing down on me, pushing down on you
Um ba ba be
Da ba ba be