Turn and Face the Strange

My daughter wanted to listen to music from my youth and I wanted to listen to music from hers. Bridging the gap seemed impossible.

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Before my daughter Christina got her driver's license last spring, we spent countless hours in the car together; and invariably we'd end up in an argument over music. Though born in 2000, she generally eschews current musicians in favor of "older" artists like Bob Dylan, Queen and David Bowie. As soon as she'd get in the car and pull out her iPhone, saying, "Can we listen to my music?" I'd tense up and say, "Do we have to?"

Christina couldn't understand why her mother, born in the '60s, had such an aversion to 1970s rock. She viewed it as the golden age of music, while to me it was the soundtrack of my parents' acrimonious divorce and my depressed, lonely childhood. It represented pain and loss.

As a teenager, I swooned to the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra or bopped to Elton John and Billy Joel. Conversely, my sister—who was five years older—was fully immersed in counterculture music, and her favorite was Bowie. I remember going down to her basement bedroom and seeing posters of Ziggy Stardust on her walls, while the bizarre music blared from her stereo. Bowie scared me.

Though my sister eventually grew out of her Bowie phase—studying music in college, where she played classical piano—I thought of her every time I heard a Bowie song. After she passed away at the age of 42, my previous distaste for Bowie commingled with my grief, and I avoided his music as much as possible.

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So, the first time Christina played Bowie's "Changes" as we drove to horseback riding, I had a visceral, almost violent reaction. Memories of my sister swirled with the music in my head, and I fought back tears as I nearly shouted for my daughter to turn it off.

Not surprisingly, my teenage daughter interpreted my rejection of the music as a rejection of her, and dug in her heels. I too dug in, refusing to allow her to play Bowie and much of the other 1970s rock she favored. Instead, I'd tune in a pop music station and try to engage her by discussing Adele or Taylor Swift. This usually resulted in a heated argument, the radio being turned off and us driving in silence.

Ours was an ironic generational dissonance; she wanted to listen to the music from my youth, and I wanted to listen to the music from hers. Bridging the gap seemed impossible.

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One night, she asked if she could show me a video of a David Bowie interview. I grew agitated, and my first reaction was to say no. But I knew this was important to her; during a period when we were often fighting, Christina was reaching out to me, so I said yes.

Up until that point, my impression of Bowie was that of a drug-using, wild rebel who thumbed his nose at mainstream society: all things that made me uncomfortable and made him an unsuitable role model for my impressionable daughter.

In the 1975 interview, British talk-show host Russell Harty was condescending and dismissive of Bowie's artistry as a musician, and he asked a number of questions that were clearly designed to make Bowie look stupid. In response, Bowie was exceedingly polite and respectful. He deftly turned the questions on their heads and revealed himself to be the superior intellect, without ever resorting to rudeness.

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The interview cast Bowie in an entirely different light and sparked an engaging conversation between Christina and me about how he had masterfully controlled the exchange. We ended up laughing at how foolish and irrelevant Harty looked, compared to the astute and soft-spoken Bowie.

Seeing Bowie through Christina's eyes gave me a fresh outlook, and allowed me to surrender some of the pain I associated with him. After that night, we started to listen to Bowie together, and while I still found some of his music a little dark for my tastes, I learned to appreciate his genius.

Before long Christina also had me listening to Queen, and enjoying it. We marveled at the band's use of orchestration, and their brilliant fusion of different genres and musical styles. I learned that Christina had spent countless hours analyzing lyrics and researching their meaning.

She had also developed an encyclopedic knowledge of not only Bowie but of the various band members of Queen. She spoke of Brian May's work as an astrophysicist and his Fellowship at a British university with the kind of reverence teenagers usually only feel for, well, rock stars. We went through a period where we were constantly trading tidbits about Bowie or Queen, and for the first time in a long while, we were on common ground.

Throughout all of this, Christina said she wished that she could go back in time, to live my teenage years and experience the music from a contemporary perspective. Her greatest desire was to see both Queen and Bowie live.

Of course it was impossible for her to see Freddie Mercury and hear that sublime voice, but Queen still toured with "American Idol" runner-up Adam Lambert on vocals. Bowie had retired from large tours, but we began scouring the Internet in hopes of finding him playing a small venue somewhere.

When Bowie died unexpectedly last January, I became determined for my daughter to see the surviving members of Queen. The next month, we learned that they were touring Europe in the summer, so in June, she and her father flew to Brussels for the concert.

A week later, I picked her up at the airport in Boston and, on the two-hour drive home, she played video from the concert and talked a mile a minute about the transformative experience. Her excitement was palpable and infectious. As I listened, I reflected on how far we had come, and about how my daughter had given me a great gift. She had replaced the pain and grief I associated with the music from my youth with fresh memories and joy.

The other day, I walked into my daughter's room and looked up at her Ziggy Stardust poster, and thought of my late sister. My big sister, who taught me so much in her short life, and who, in death, still had lessons to teach. And I thought of my daughter, so like her late aunt, who led her stubborn mother through her pain and out the other side.


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