Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari has David Bowie's song "Five Years" in his head today.

That's because it reminds him of a specific day when he was a teenager. Bahari was at school in Iran and he had a book that included a picture of David Bowie kissing Lou Reed. He was caught and promptly sent to the principal's office.

"[The principal] was looking at this cross-dresser who was kissing other men in the book ... and he started to slap me and insulting me," he recalls. All the while, Bahari was humming "Five Years" in his head.

Bahari, who wrote about Bowie in a blog post, got in trouble because only a couple of years back, the Islamic Revolution had taken place in Iran and Western music was banned. "You could be arrested for even owning an audio cassette," recalls Bahari.

Bowie represented what all that the clerics were against. "He was different, he was irreverent, he was a cross-dresser, he kissed other men," says Bahari.

So being caught listening to his music or carrying his images would get you in trouble.

But the oppressive atmosphere that surrounded Iranians at that time didn't stop them from looking outward for music, art, fashion and so much more. In fact, it was precisely why the younger generation looked to the West.

Teenagers like Bahari craved something that was different from what was surrounding them. "We could not find anything more different [from] the Mullahs that were ruling Iran at that time than David Bowie," Bahari says.

The first Bowie song that Bahari heard was "Five Years." He had limited knowledge of English, but instantly loved what he heard.

"I was just fascinated by this singer who was singing in a way as if his life was dependent on each note, each word," he remembers. But finding Bowie's music wasn't easy. Bahari and his friends searched high and low to find anything related to Bowie.

They listened to anything they could find, from Space Oddity to Young Americans. He says they watched "The Man Who Fell to Earth" a dozen times without understanding the plot or dialogue and they begged their friends and relatives in the West to send them Bowie's latest albums and the most recent books about him.

Bahari remembers that day in the 1980s in the principal's office as a positive experience. "By telling me that 'when you grow up you will be like David Bowie,' he was kind of empowering me," he says.

For him, getting to know Bowie and other Western cultural icons opened a window into a very different world. A world that was far away from the claustrophobic one he and his friends were living in.

From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International