Monday, January 11, 2016

Bowie and Me

“Something happened on the day he died. Spirit rose a meter, and then stepped aside.”

1. TODAY. Several of my friends and family have left me messages asking me for my thoughts on the death of David Bowie or just intending to commiserate, which feels a little odd to me. They know (as does anyone who I’m close with or who follows me on social media) that Bowie was the closest thing to an idol I have in my life, but the thought of eulogizing him…? We didn’t know each other. I never met the man.

“We passed upon the stair. We spoke of was and when. Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend. Which came as some surprise.”

2. I always thought that I would eventually meet David Bowie. Maybe that sounds odd, but especially in recent years it hasn’t seemed that hard to meet him. My sister has met him. My boss has met him. Several of my friends have met him. I always figured I’d get my shot. That maybe the reason I hadn’t yet was because it would happen only when I had something, anything, I could say to him without losing my cool or seeming like a pretentious asshole or just being “a fan.” From an early age I had a fantasy that maybe we would be...not pals, but...colleagues? I always hoped he’d like me and secretly believed he wouldn’t. I’m so conventional. So boring.

“I feel tragic like I’m Marlon Brando.”

3. 1983. I first discovered David Bowie when I was a small child. It was the '80s, the peak of his career and the beginning of what is universally derided as his nadir (though honestly, in my opinion, the nadir lasted less than a decade. Not so bad). My sister got the LP of “Let’s Dance.” She played it a lot. Then I played it a lot. Bowie and Tina Turner in a Diet Pepsi commercial. Live Aid. Dancing with Mick Jagger and Dennis Miller making fun of it on SNL.

Then, not too long after that, I visited a cousin and found a cassette of “Ziggy Stardust.” I played it so much on the trip that he said, “You can keep it.” I did.

“When all your faith is failing, call my name. When you've got nothing coming call my name. I'll be strong for all it takes. I'll cover your head till the bad stuff breaks. Dance my little dance till it makes you smile.”

4. I started asking for his new albums for Christmas. Cassette tapes of “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down” (Mom and Dad didn’t know any better and neither did I. I loved Bowie’s version of “God Only Knows.” I was a kid).

“Life can be easy. It's not always swell. Don't tell me truth hurts, little girl, cause it hurts like hell.”

5. 1986. Then Labyrinth happened. I got my quarterly issue of “Bantha Tracks,” the “Star Wars” Fan Club newsletter, and there was a big picture of Bowie and George Lucas and Jim Henson. I liked “Star Wars” and Muppets and David Bowie, not necessarily in that order, and I guess Bowie liked Jim Henson and George Lucas, too, right? I swear I never noticed the bulge in his tights until years later.

“Though nothing will drive them away, we can beat them, just for one day.”

6. The ‘90s. The back catalog, in random order, whatever my parents decided to buy me. “Scary Monsters” came before “Hunky Dory” which came before “Space Oddity” which came before “‘Heroes.’” In junior high school I met another fan, Dan Walinsky (shockingly, he came out of the closet in college). We would trump each other by pointing out obscurities that the other didn’t know about. He introduced me to “Absolute Beginners.” I amazed him by producing a rare cassette of “David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal.” 

I read Angie Bowie’s smutty memoir when I'm 15. I adored it. “The Lance of Love.” Later that year I became a junior reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. When my “class” “graduated” from the teen section they gave us a present: Go through the Daily News’ pile of free shit and take one thing you want. “Bowie: The Singles” is right there. I grabbed it. Another teen reporter cursed me out. I was first. Suck it.

“I bought you a pair of shoes, a trumpet you can blow, and a book of rules on what to say to people when they pick on you.”

7. I was not popular as a teenager. The opposite of popular. I was a chubby musical theater performer with a high, over-articulate voice and a funny walk and I went to a jock high school with fewer than 100 students in my grade, who assessed you when you first arrived and that was IT for seven years, until you graduated. No, I was not “out.” But I listened to David Bowie and felt like it was okay to be weird.

“Walls have got you cornered. You’ve got the blues, my friend. And people don’t like you! But you will leave without a sound, without an end.”

8. I never “dressed up” in junior high school. Or in high school. I didn’t wear makeup or have New Wave haircuts. I would have liked to. There was really only one rule my parents had that had total primacy. “Do not embarrass us.” So I was preppy. I would have liked to have dressed up.

By the time I was old enough and confident enough to make my own decisions it felt too late to dress up. And I was never tall enough or thin enough or androgynous enough.

David Bowie probably would not have cared. I did.

See? Conventional. He probably wouldn’t have liked me.

“Don't talk of heartaches, I remember them all. When I'm checking you out one day to see if I'm faking it all. Can you hear me? Can you feel me inside?”

9. But I loved David Bowie. I loved his music, I loved the questionable choices (drum and bass? Tin Machine? “SpongeBob SquarePants”?) as much as the unquestioned ones. The first time I was mugged in Philadelphia, I was wearing a ski jacket and carrying a busted up Walkman with a cassette of “Young Americans” in it. The mugger made me give him the ski jacket. Then he took the Walkman, took a look at it and said, “I don’t want this piece of shit” and gave it back to me. I kept “Young Americans” and had it with me in the cop car. But the cassette case was still in the pocket of the ski jacket. Oh well.

“Love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.”

10. Eventually I have every Bowie cassette. Then I start replacing them with CDs. I love him. Even after he said he wasn’t actually bi. When he says he likes things that I like, I feel like we're connected. He shows up in the “Twin Peaks” movie. Of course he loves David Lynch, I love David Lynch. I stay on the phone for an hour desperately trying to request “Must Be Talking to an Angel” when Annie Lennox is on “A&E By Request.” I can't get through. But Bowie does. What does he request? Guess.

I wind up reading every bio of David Bowie I can get my hands on and EVERY TIME I thrill a little when I’m reminded that he was born on a street called “Stansfield Road.”

I see him in concert more than once. Wait, there’s a story:

Now. Not tomorrow. Yesterday. Not tomorrow. It happens today.

11. It’s the mid-’90s. In college, just moving on from cassettes to CDs. I’m reporting for the NYU newspaper and once again, I’m first to the free pile. This time it’s “1. Outside.” Love it. Review it. To this day I’m haunted by my lack of fact-checking, I refer to one of the characters on the album as “Baby Jane.” She's “Baby Grace.”

I now fact-check for a living. For a newspaper.

But back to the story. Bowie is treating this as a “comeback” (we wouldn’t know the true meaning of that until 2013) he’s performing in Jersey that week, and he’s at Virgin Megastore signing albums. I line up outside. The line’s around the block but I’m going to meet David Bowie! A DJ from some radio station or another asks if there’s anyone in the crowd willing to do “something stupid” for David Bowie concert tickets. I am. He asks me to jump up and down on one leg screaming, “I love David Bowie!” I thought it would be something more stupid, that was easy. I got off easy. I got tickets. My sister came with me. But then they said, “Mr. Bowie is tired now and done signing.” I was 10 feet from the door. No meeting.

They say that at the Outside concert Nine Inch Nails fans left in droves after NIN was done their set. I don’t recall that at all. The concert was amazing.

“I can’t read and I can’t write down.”

12. TODAY. A message from a friend at 9 AM, “I’m so sad.” I’m not ready to get up yet so I put off whatever bad news it is. I wake up and hear “As the World Falls Down” coming from my roommate’s room. Odd. I come out to take my shower and he stops me. “Did you hear the bad news?” “What?” “I don’t want to ruin your day.” It dawns on me. “David Bowie died, didn’t he?” “I’m sorry.”

“There’s something in the air.”

13. 2000s. They’d been predicting it so long I had stopped worrying about it. I am sure I will still eventually meet David Bowie. My sister meets David Bowie. She’s working background on SNL when he performs. She sees him casually leaning against a wall smoking. She couldn’t get me in to 30 Rock. I’ll get my chance.

After a long run of albums that include, in my opinion, some of the best work he’s ever done, (1. Outside,” “Heathen,” “Reality”) I see him in concert again. Again with my sister, this time in Los Angeles. Macy Gray opens. She’s great. But he’s better. Does an entire encore of “Ziggy Stardust” songs, which shocks me and thrills me. On the way to the car afterward we see Dave Foley from “Kids in the Hall” waiting for a bus, which amuses us. We wonder if he enjoyed the concert. Later in the tour Bowie has a heart attack and recedes from public life. The few times he makes an appearance he looks tired. Bloated. I start to worry that I’ll never even get to see him in concert again, let alone meet him. But then he starts showing up again. He’s slimmed back down. “The Next Day” comes out.

“I got seven days to live my life or seven ways to die.”

14. November 2014. I have never been to Chicago. It was never in my top 10 of places to visit. But I fly out to Chicago to see the “Bowie Is” exhibit. No photography allowed, but I sneak a shot of the street sign where he grew up. Stansfield Lane.

“You’re watching yourself, but you’re too unfair. You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care. Oh no, love, you’re not alone. No matter what or who you’ve been. No matter when or where you’ve seen, all the knives seem to lacerate your brain. I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain. YOU’RE NOT ALONE.”

15. TODAY. I read the CNN obituary. It ends with, “David Bowie’s music was a salve for the alienated and the misfits of the world.” I laughed out loud. FUCK YOU, CNN.

My boss texts me, "Let me know if you need to take the day off."

I keep my shit together at the shrink's office until he says, "Just because you didn't know him doesn't mean it wasn't real."

“They say, ‘Hey, that’s really something. They feel he should get some time. I say he should watch his ass, ‘My friend, don’t listen to the crowds.’ They say ‘Jump.’”

16. A digression. It's the 2000s. I’ve told people this and some people don’t believe it, but it’s true. I don’t have recurring dreams. But I used to have SERIALIZED dreams. I have dreams where I see people and they casually refer to events that only ever happened in other dreams. This happened through much of the Aughts and I became semi-convinced that when I was asleep I was actually astrally projecting to an alternate timeline. That's how strict the continuity of my dreams was. In those dreams, David Bowie often appeared. We weren’t best friends, but he knew who I was and that comforted me.

A sample conversation: “I should have known you'd be here, Chris.” “It was a great show.” “Well, thank you. How’s the work coming?” “I’m working on it.” “Well, let me know, I’ll do a backup track. You have to get moving.”

I was in a major depression for much of that decade. The dreams stopped somewhere around 2011, which is when I started getting serious about my mental health. I don’t know what that means.

“Chimes.Goddamn, you're looking old. You'll freeze and catch a cold. 'Cause you've left your coat behind. Take your time.”

17. A few days ago. My colleague at work sends me a link to a website: “What David Bowie was doing at your age.” I tell him, “I know damn well what he was doing at my age. More than I am.” At the “Bowie Is…” exhibit every item around every corner showed me how prolific and prodigious and YOUNG Bowie was for most of his career.

“All the days of my life. All the days I owe you.”

18. I thought I would meet him eventually. And I think now I didn’t meet him because I frittered away my time and my youth and did not make art. If I had made art I would almost have certainly run into David Bowie eventually.

“Down in space, it's always 1982.”

19. 18 months ago. David Bowie, apparently, is diagnosed with cancer. He turns around and records another album, writes music for the “SpongeBob” musical and collaborates on “Lazarus,” which, honestly, I enjoyed but did not love. Some of my friends HATED it. It’s a show about a man who lives forever and cannot die. I can’t possibly imagine what was in David Bowie’s head at the time.

He started young. He made history. He had a body of work spanning 50 years. He inspired me as a kid and now I definitely won’t see him again in concert. Two days ago was the last time I would unwrap a new David Bowie album.

“I know when to go out. I know when to stay in, get things done.”

20. I hurt like I knew David Bowie. I never got to meet him. But I have decades left before I’m 69. Time to get things done.

This way or no way. You know I'll be free. Just like that bluebird. Now, ain't that just like me?

1 comment:

  1. This was lovely, Chris. I'm so sorry. You were the first person I thought of last night, but general consensus was that it was too late to call. Let you get a good night's sleep. And I truly tried to get you in to SNL. I know you know, but I just had to say it anyway. I guess to remind myself. Maybe I didn't try hard enough. I thought I was sad. But I understand your sadness so much better. And you knew him and his catalogue so much better. I have no right to grieve. Thank you for taking me to the concerts. And thank you for this post. I love you. And David Bowie would have loved you, conventional or not. (And I disagree strongly with your examples of conventional, though I wanted to dress up, too and didn't for the exact reason you mention). Do you still have all the old video clips & singles I burned for you? Love, Love, Love