The best moments […] are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
― Alan Bennett, The History Boys
So, here we are a week later, and I still find myself with unexpectedly wet cheeks, unconscionably lumpen throat and ringing ears. I’ve heard every version of Major Tom, watched the International Space Station cover, watched Labyrinth and the Making Of, rejoiced in every snaggle-toothed smile, even as I welcomed the heartache. I questioned whether to write this at all.
I’m not much for celebrity worship. I never was. And yet here I am, here we are, and the pain is unbearable. A friend of mine said it best when he said, “as I sit here stunned by this morning's news, I realise I had genuinely believed that David Bowie was immortal.” And that’s really it. From the moment I first saw Labyrinth, followed closely by my dad presenting me with a CD with the same face on its cover, titled “Let’s Dance” and my realization that, “wait a minute, Jareth the Goblin King is a rock star!” David Bowie has felt less like a celebrity than a member of my family.
I remember presenting my new babysitter with my favorite new film to watch for the evening, and being shocked that she knew the person on the cover was a man, not a woman, even though he had long, sleek blond hair that, I thought, rightfully belonged to a woman. I can’t have been more than six (I always had imaginary friends and scenarios as a child) when I paced back and forth in my bedroom, voicing both sides of a conversation between a Labyrinth film tech guy and David Bowie, who in my mind was only Jareth, and unhappy about the direction the film was taking. He was in my head that early, and as I began to discover more and more of his music, he never let go.
What is it to feel the ache of the loss of something that has never truly been yours? Does mourning along with the rest of the world make it feel better or worse? I have this sense – as I feel sure every single one of his fans does – that I am somehow special because I listened to and appreciated his music. And in a way, isn’t that what we’re really doing when we listen to music? Perhaps that isn’t the whole story – after all, their must be something in the bassline and the beat and the melody and the story that grabs us – but when we’re all alone in a room, or walking alone in a city with the music, we are communing with this person that we will never know and yet know so closely. We feel we have been singled out for his message.
So many people attest to this sense of being an outsider, a misfit uncomfortable in our own skin when we were young. I had my own “David Bowie moment” so to speak, when I was around 16 or 17, and discovered the downtown music scene just beginning to burble over the surface in New York. Places like the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and the East Village, which I had barely ever set foot in although they were each a name and a history and an image for me, were suddenly illuminated, through and through. Backrooms of bars, music venues with stages inches off the floor, lofts and apartments, these become the tiny pinpricks of light that spread out to clarify my mind map. I became a creature of the night, even as I did my homework by day, and kept up my grades and looked towards college.
We were all the same odd people who congregated at the foot of these stages, all intent on sacrificing hours of our evenings just to make sure were in the front row, at arm’s length for the best pictures. There I met a fellow photographer, except he wasn’t a fellow at all because he was a professional. In one of our many meetings he let it be known that he had passes to photograph for the Today Show at Rockefeller Center. Did I know who was performing tomorrow at the Today Show?
I didn’t. The Today Show was the vulgar mainstream. I was a high school rebel rebel.
And even better:
“If you’re willing to get yourself up very early in the morning and come down to Midtown to meet me by 6:45, I can get you in. You can even bring a friend.”
The giddiness of that morning is well documented in a blogpost from the time, back when I was New York Doll and thought that name was just adorable:
When I accepted an invitation from a photographer friend of mine covering the Today Show in Rockefeller Center, I also had to accept an enormous amount of skepticism along with it. He actually gave me his cell phone number, just so I could call him when I woke up at 6:00 in the morning and decided that sleep was a lot more important than Bowie. He acted surprised and pleased when I showed up on time that Thursday morning, friend in tow, but his shock certainly could not match the amount of surprise and delight that would be mine when, after leading us around the back of the stage and past a velvet rope, he placed us in the VIP area and told us to wait. “Wait here?” We thought to ourselves, wondering where else there was to go besides this small barricaded area directly in front of the fans who had undoubtedly been camped out in their spots since the night before. “Does he mean we’re not staying here?” By the time he came back with photo passes for both of us, and led us to the ten feet of space in front of the stage that served as the photo pit, our eyes had glazed over with sheer disbelief. So what if he only played four songs? We were five feet away from Ziggy Stardust and a million miles from earth.
I don’t remember what songs he played, or even if he performed them well. I remember the few moments afterwards when he came down toward us, and began to greet that line of dedicated, all-nighter fans and sign autographs. I came up behind him, put my hand on his shoulder to try to get him to turn around. Felt my hand connect with warm denim over muscle, before I was gently but firmly pushed back by one of several bodyguards who surrounded him.
“Ma’am, you do not touch Bowie. You do not approach Bowie from behind.”
I could hardly have been shocked or even insulted; for a moment my pumping heart had drowned out the cheers from the crowd. “This,” I thought to myself, “might just be one one-hundredth of what it feels like to be a rock star.”
In the ensuing years I would pull out those photographs from that morning to admire them, just as I pulled out that memory and marveled at the fact that all these strange details had come together to get me there. I never saw that photographer again, can’t even remember his name.
Over the years David Bowie and I lost each other, but he popped up now and again, perhaps most surprisingly, when I moved to Berlin and found that Berlin and Bowie had had a special relationship – one that anyone who chose this city above other more glamorous locales will recognize and appreciate. I must have passed Hauptstrasse 155 a hundred times without actively registering it; now I live 15 minutes away by foot, and the garden of flowers, notes and candles spilling out around the door made me feel all whirly inside, but also grateful. That same garden of flowers, notes and candles has been sprouting up all over this past week. It’s the same one that comes around after any death, any tragedy or terrorist act. Yet none of it registered with me the way this did. I briefly considered whether this might indicate a severe lack of empathy or skewed values on my part. If that’s the case, there is a problem with all of us.
In considering what Bowie meant to us, and what he didn’t, there is a tendency to resort to hyperbole. I was not a gay man in 1960s London, yearning for someone to show me it was okay to be different. I have never been an aspiring musician looking for a muse or inspiration. I can’t even really claim to have been the most dedicated David Bowie fan in the world. But I can say that whenever I contemplated his presence on earth, it made me feel a little more joy and a little less sadness. When I listened to his music, it was as if a hand had come out and taken mine.
“You do not touch Bowie.”
And no one ever will.