Modern Love by David Bowie

What’s the first song you loved? A song you would stop everything you’re doing to listen to, tell people to hush so you could hear clearly, memorize every word? For me, Modern Love became a desire, even a bit of an obsession.

By the time the song was released in 1983, I had finally possessed my own radio, a Panasonic RX-5150 “portable” radio (it needed six D-cell batteries, which would only last an hour or so) with AM, FM, and shortwave(!) bands, and a single cassette deck. I could receive any radio station in the area, and my favourite was CHUM FM, one of the stations that played popular music (I wouldn’t discover other FM mainstays until I got to high school years later).

My “stereo” was how I would learn to make mixtapes. Because of its single tape deck, I couldn’t dub from other tapes (it did have an auxiliary input from another tape deck, but the only one I could use — my sister’s red deck — was usually out of reach). So, like countless others, I learned to dub from the radio.

My tape deck had a feature my sister’s deck didn’t: a pause button. I could lock the tape’s motion, start the record, and wait until the right song started. And radio made you wait. I listened to a lot of songs that way, waiting for the ones I wanted to record. And in 1983, that was Modern Love. Numerous times I missed the song, or worse, let the pause go too late and missed the first guitar scratch and the song wasn’t complete.

Actually, worse than that was the radio edit version of the Modern Love. Once I’d heard the full album version, it became a mission to find the proper song and commit it to my (very slowly) growing library. Why not buy the full album and avoid the issue? Mostly, a lack of funds — I was on my own to purchase music, and back in the day you had the buy entire albums, so unless you were sure about the whole thing, you didn’t. That habit would remain with me for years until I had a job … the rule went decidedly out of the window and my music collection exploded.

The day I finally captured the full album version of Modern Love was like winning an Olympic event. I played and replayed the song at least a dozen times, loving every beat, every tone. I imagined myself with Bowie, on-stage (despite having crippling stage fright at the time), belting out a duet (I would not sing aloud until I met my close, musical friends in high school).

And then, it passed out of my interest. I wasn’t quite a Top 10 junkie, but I was beholden to the radio and other things became more important for a time. I recorded over the song, and over those songs, and over and over until the tape was so full of hiss and distortion that it was useless. But I never forgot the song or how it made me feel.

By the time was buying entire albums for single tracks — it was now the age of the CD — Bowie’s Let’s Dance has gone out of print. You can debate me all you like on this, but in the early-to-mid 1990s, you could not find a single current issue album in Ottawa, even at the stores that carried all the Japanese imports. For years I hunted until, buried in a used CD store in the Byward Market, tucked into a black plastic cover, I finally got my hands on the whole thing. I quickly returned to my rented bedroom, plunked in the disc with all the care of handling Victorian era crystal, and let Modern Love walk beside me forever more.

What makes love modern? I don’t know if that’s what Bowie was posing in the song — goodness knows I’ve read the lyrics enough times to guess, they’re fairly cryptic — and it’s a question I’ve weighed many times throughout my life. And, to a degree, has been a caveat or a footnote in my relationships: what should a modern relationship look like? The stereotypes of the Atomic Age, briefly revisited in the 80s, are given way to a different expectation, where modern love is not the one of yore.

Or at least that’s how I’ve seen it. Be different. Be good. I wish that’s how my modern life was like, here in 2020, but the last few years of #MeToo and its effects — not to mention my own experiences as a father of two girls — makes the idea of Modern Love even more of a challenge than ever before.