So it seemed that authenticity and the natural form of expression wasn’t going to be my forte. In fact, what I found that I was good at doing, and what I really enjoyed the most, was the game of “what if?” What if you combined Brecht-Weill musical drama with rhythm and blues? What happens if you transplant the French chanson with the Philly sound? Will Schoenberg lie comfortably with Little Richard? Can you put haggis and snails on the same plate? Well, no, but some of the ideas did work out very well.
So, I learned enough saxophone and guitar and what’s euphemistically called “composer’s piano” to get my ideas over to proper musicians, as we have here today. And then I went on a crusade, I suppose, to change the kind of information that rock music contained.
From David Bowie’s 1999 Berklee Commencement Address
When commencement addresses are good, they’re great – ie; David Foster Wallace, Steve Jobs, and David Bowie. When they’re just okay, they’re terrible – ie; mine. There’s many things to love about David Bowie, however, one thing that really comes through in his 1999 speech to the Berklee graduating class is his humanity. He’s appreciative of their time, and never takes himself too seriously. In addition to the above passage, the recounts of his time with John Lennon were extra special. I’ve got to imagine any scene with the two of them together had to be next-level inspirational.
Here’s another snippet from the speech:
Towards the end of the 70s, a group of us went off to Hong Kong on a holiday and John was in, sort of, house-husband mode and wanted to show Sean the world. And during one of our expeditions on the back streets a kid comes running up to him and says, “Are you John Lennon?” And he said, “No but I wish I had his money.” Which I promptly stole for myself.
[imitating a fan] “Are you David Bowie?”
No, but I wish I had his money.
It’s brilliant. It was such a wonderful thing to say. The kid said, “Oh, sorry. Of course you aren’t,” and ran off. I thought, “This is the most effective device I’ve heard.”
I was back in New York a couple of months later in Soho, downtown, and a voice pipes up in my ear, “Are you David Bowie?” And I said, “No, but I wish I had his money.”
“You lying bastard. You wish you had my money.” It was John Lennon.