David Bowie 8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016
I don’t cry much, as a rule, when people die. Not out of any hardness of heart, but because to me it doesn't seem a thing for tears. Though there are exceptions. Jim. President Kennedy. Princess Diana. My Grandma McDonald. My friend Mary. And now David. When I saw the news online, it was like a kick to the solar plexus, an actual physical jolt. And then tears. Can’t stop weeping. It just doesn’t seem possible. And so, as I always do in such moments, I decided to write about it.
I would not say I was a huge fan of his music, because I wasn’t. I didn’t understand a lot of it, and a lot of the rest I just found unappealing, which was probably my fault, not his. I could see that he was a spectacular innovator, sure, and totally appreciate and admire him for it, but loving the songs? Maybe fifty, tops. But those fifty deeply move me, and always will.
I would say I was rather a huge fan of HIM, of the reality of him and of the idea of him, knowing that he was always around being insanely creative, being artistically and personally brave, shattering rules and conventions every step of the way, showing so many a real and different way to be. And every now and then, like an unexpected cosmic flower, he’d fling out music that genuinely rejoiced me.
And of course because I knew him, when he and I were both at RCA Records. I met him several times, worked with him several times more. I will never forget the moment we met: in the new rock-dedicated recording studio at RCA, in the fall of 1971. We were there to tape some radio spots for his debut album for the label, "Hunky Dory.” He was already in the control booth when I came down from my office upstairs, and as soon as I entered he came right over to stand in front of me and shake hands and introduce himself. I looked up into those extraordinary eyes and smiled back at the irresistible smile, and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I immediately thought, “This man has come to Earth to kill the Sixties.” I could feel history swing past, the whistling wind.
It was the same kind of shock that I had the first time I met Jim, that jolt of startlement you get when you know something deeply significant from far outside your everyday ken has just crossed your path, like a rogue comet entering your personal solar system and pulling you along with it, and you know you will hold onto the moment forever. It felt as if there was sunshine filling the room, though of course there were no windows in the studio and that was not possible. But I remember us, somehow, drenched in sunlight.
We were both so young: 24, 25. I’d listened to his earlier work, and was intrigued enough to be really pleased to be assigned him as an artist, to get to write his ads, and I wanted to do my best for him. But that afternoon in the studio, I absolutely knew I was standing there holding hands with and looking up at and smiling back at a Personage. His charm was blinding, and not one scintilla of it was bogus. We exchanged pleasantries for a bit, so easy to talk to, and then we started discussing my scripts for the radio spots and his own ideas. He went into the live room and I took my seat at the desk, and we got down to work.
A few hours, that first session ran; we recorded three or four spots, and we were both much pleased with the job accomplished. The best spot was the last one we recorded: after we were done with my own scripts, he asked me if he could just try something. I said sure, of course, whatever you want, and the result was terrific: a music bed of all the best hooks, and his voiceover saying in a rapid-fire delivery, with laughter in his voice, “MY name is David Bowie, my NAME is David Bowie, my name IS David Bowie, my name is DAVID Bowie, my name is David BOWIE. My new album is “Hunky Dory”, and it’s on RCA Records and Tapes.” We congratulated each other on our good work, he kissed me on the cheek and we went out for lunch. I can’t really say more than that, and I’d rather keep the rest private in any case. But he did call me beautiful. Twice.
Over the next couple of years that comprised my RCA career, there would be other sessions and meetings and print ad discussions, for “Hunky Dory”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Aladdin Sane” and “Pin Ups.” He was never anything less than a pleasure and a joy, professional and fun to work with, never any prima-donna nonsense, mannerly, charming and courteous always. He knew about advertising from his own brief ad career in London and his art-school education, and he knew about branding before any other rocker. We collaborated on some ads; some others I wrote and submitted for his approval, which I always got.
And my GOD but he was intelligent, and well-read, and curious. On a level with Jim, the only other rocker I met that I can say that about. Which again was a plus, and than which there is no higher praise I have to offer. I didn’t hang out with him, though—I didn’t do scenes—and once I left RCA I never saw him again except in concert, and only kept track of him sporadically through the trades and rock rags.
But I really liked “Hunky Dory”, and told him so, even though it wasn’t the kind of Sixties music I was accustomed to, and I told him that too. And even though I could hear and feel the change as well as the “Changes” he sang of, it wasn’t until “Ziggy” that it was borne in upon me and all of us just what monster changes this guy was actually bringing.
We continued to work together through “Aladdin” and “Pin Ups” and his production work on Lou Reed, for whom I also wrote the ads, and a year after we met he invited me back to the studio to listen to him lay down tracks for “The Jean Genie”, which knocked me out. But by then he had begun to change himself, and the change in him didn’t make me happy. The drugs and booze were beginning to kick in, and the scene he was mixing in seemed insalubrious, and I could see where it all was heading, and I was sad. I left RCA before “Diamond Dogs” was released.
As we all know, it got seriously bad for him, and I honestly expected to hear today’s news on numerous occasions through the Seventies. But I always retained a proprietorial fondness for him, and when he finally cleaned up, and coincidentally gratified my musical taste with some incredible songs along the way, it was a wonderful thing. He’d escaped: he’d saved himself where so many others had not, and that said as much about him as it did about those others.
I saw him in concert three times, starting with Carnegie Hall, and though the super-duper production style of tricked-out prop-laden performances he later delivered wasn’t really my bag, I have to say he put on an amazing and groundbreakingly impressive show, and I regret that I never went to any of the shows of his last tours, the simple ones of the 90s and early 2000s. I was lucky enough to see his stunning Broadway turn in “The Elephant Man”, and anyone who claims he had no acting talent needs to have their head thumped. And I was absolutely staggered by his participation, as a grieving New Yorker like the rest of us, in the concert for 9/11.
Oddly, it was his film performances, more than the albums or concerts, that held my interest over the years. Starting of course with “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Labyrinth”, roles he was born to play. But even strange little acting gigs like Pontius Pilate and an aging vampire and a gentle semi-immortal with a secret and a lounge lizard and a gunslinger and a rebellious WWII prisoner of war and Nikola Tesla were well worth seeing. I never thought he got anywhere near enough credit for his acting chops, but maybe he just never chose parts that would have brought him general kudos of that nature; perhaps big and serious roles like that, even though he would have been perfectly capable of bringing them off, even though he could probably have had them for the asking, would have required too much of him, that he preferred to save his creativity for his music. Or maybe it just was never a priority for him, the way his music and his painting were.
I went to see his play “Lazarus” only a few days ago, on New Year’s Eve, and I was severely underwhelmed, to say the least. It seemed self-indulgent and cacophonous, but I still gave him props for giving it a shot. The best thing about it was the use of some of his iconic songs, even though I didn’t care for what seemed cynical appropriation calculated to suck in the audience, by guaranteed emotional resonance. I wished so much that it could have been better.
I’d been thinking about him a lot lately, probably because of the play and the new album “Blackstar”. Though I’d heard all the rumors about him being seriously ill, it still seemed strange that he wasn’t giving any interviews about either work, so I did wonder, though the last photographs of him show a man not visibly dying and in fact looking pretty darn good, if a little gray and gaunt, for someone who would in fact die mere days later.
But, eerily, the fleeting thought occurred to me only last Friday, when it was all over the media that he turned 69, and he and I would be the same age until my own birthday in March: the thought What if he died on his birthday? It wasn’t a big full-on precog, as I’d had with Jim, but it was a chilling moment all the same, a brief brush of the raven’s feather, and maybe I should have taken more note of it. Or maybe I didn’t want to. And two days later, there it was. And “Lazarus”, and the video for that and “Blackstar”…now it all seems like markers that he was leaving for us, shadowing the heavens and thick upon the ground. I hate that stuff.
Now, of course, we can see that he was saying goodbye, very deliberately: he’d known for a long time that he was dying, and—control freak to the last—he got to go out his way, on his terms, death as a creative work of art and a gift to his admirers. That’s no bad obituary. I wonder too if perhaps he chose the time and the way himself—o happy dagger!—and I would not be at all surprised to learn that that was the case.
He managed to keep his illness secret, for a year and a half, like the intensely private person he was—even his best friends didn’t know about it, and were just as shocked as the rest of us—and he did creative work right up to the end, which was stupendously brave. Still, apart from the messages he himself was leaving, there were cryptic online notes from his wife this weekend, whispers that could perhaps be taken as warnings to the world, so that the news did not come as a total shock. But however the truth may prove, and even though another ten or twenty years would have been nice, for him and his family and all of us, what we got was pretty damn fine.
So yeah, I’ve been weeping all day, and it’s okay that I am. I am so devastated, I think, not only for the personal loss, though we were never friends, merely happy acquaintances, or for the loss of him as an artist, but also because his death is another piece of my own self gone. His death is in a very real sense “the funeral of my youth”, though I can’t see myself being grief-stricken for, say, Grace Slick or Paul Kantner or any other sharer of my early years, not beyond a momentary sadness. And I guess I never really thought he could die, certainly not before me. I see all the coverage online, the loving tributes which he so deeply deserves, and I can hardly bear to look and read, and yet I feel I must, for him and for me and for all of us, to honor the fact.
Nobody is like him now. Nobody will be like him again. Nobody can do the kinds of things he did for fifty years. He was a towering artist and a great English gentleman, who would have been “Sir David” if he hadn’t rejected the offered title as totally irrelevant to his life, who changed many things for many people, and though he had moments of lesser grace every now and again, as do we all, he was a very bright and very brave soul.
So I will not listen to any of the songs of his I love today, I’m crying too hard as it is, and maybe not tomorrow, maybe not for a week. But I will indeed listen again, and sooner rather than later, and with joy; and I will remember how lucky I was to have met him and known him and worked with him and enjoyed his presence and his company, and to have had him call me beautiful. Twice. Move along home, David. And may God’s love be with you. Ours as well.
“But whatever lies behind the door
There is nothing much to do
Angel or devil, I don’t care
For in front of that door
There is you…”