David Bowie is dead according to Facebook, and it’s noon in Mumbai. It’s 85 degrees, with the sun soaring high in a perfect blue sky. I feel numb. Outside my window, I see massive crowds of people, going about business as usual. A swarm of birds. A riot of color. It’s January and I want it to be bleak and empty — a black and white movie, like Berlin in 1977.
It’s time to go to the airport, to begin the grueling 8,000-mile journey back to San Francisco. “Who is David Bowie?” asks my taxi driver. “He was a rock star,” I explain, as we zip through a maze of cars and trucks and wooden carts and tuk-tuks. “He was from America?” the driver asks. I change the subject to something else and gaze emptily at the sea, as we barrel down Marine Drive.
Marine Drive in South Mumbai reminds me of Los Angeles — a long boulevard along the coastline, studded with palm trees. Drive fast down Marine Drive and you feel like you’re in a 1980s video game. Most of the time the traffic slows you down, giving you time to think — too much time to think. I thought about Cracked Actor, the Bowie film from 1974. There’s a scene in that film that’s etched in my memory. David Bowie is being driven through Los Angeles. He’s high as a kite, presumably, and lip-syncing along with Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like (a Natural Woman)” while glugging a half-gallon of 2% milk.
It’s hard to picture Bowie doing something as pedestrian as drinking milk until you see it on film. There’s an old interview with Bowie that I half-remember, where he talks at length about how milk tastes different in every country. I wonder if he had tried the milk in India. I remember something Andy Warhol once said — “you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think you can drink Coke, too.”
Thoughts flicker in my memory as the taxi winds its way through dusty streets to Mumbai airport. Writers of obituaries will talk about Ziggy and the Thin White Duke and the myriad Bowie personas, the gender-bending and the stage antics and the outsiderism. But my memories are not of the outside, but of the inside. They are not memories of Bowie; they are memories of my own life. Like many good artists, Bowie created a possibility space, the outlines of an alternate world for us to inhabit. The world he designed was seductive but somewhat undefinable, ambiguous enough to allow for a wide range of possibilities. ‘My statement is very pointed — except it’s very ambiguous,” Bowie cryptically explained in 1975. “Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities,” reads one of Eno’s oblique strategies cards, released that same year.
You fill this alternate world with things from your own life, your own mind. A book on German expressionism, a silk kimono, eyeshadow that isn’t right for the office, a pair of silver heels that you will probably never wear. A synthesizer, a Joy Division record. Books, clothes, music, dust. The seeds were planted long ago, but you don’t know where the ideas came from. Bowie integrates so well into your life that he becomes part of the furniture, the air.
It’s 7 am and I’m half-awake, on a layover in Amsterdam. In my head I hear Bowie singing the Jacques Brel song that begins ‘In the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who sings — of the dream that he brings — from the wide open sea.” I pick up two Dutch newspapers and Bowie is on the cover. Perhaps he is dead after all. Dutch is a very odd language if you can read some German: you can partly work out the words, which makes you think you know what you’re doing, and then you make wild and fantastical guesses on what the rest means.
We pile into the next plane, this one to San Francisco, and all I can think about is how much I’d like to listen to those vinyl records in my room, the multiple redundant copies of Low, the weathered copy of Diamond Dogs, the copy of Lodger I bought in London 20 years ago. Memories tumble down in a half-remembered haze: I think of my friends during my teenage years, and how we memorized every record, every shred of Bowie mythos. Bowie’s mythology was our reality, our history — a performance with no beginning or end, threaded so subtly into our lives that it became a part of us.