Waiting for Bowie

My first week in New York, someone — I can’t remember who; a roommate, probably, one of the seven girls I was lumped in with, in an overcrowded dorm, and with whom I enjoyed a few days of friendship before we settled into hating each other for the semester — pointed to a building in Soho and said, with absolute certainty, “that’s where David Bowie lives.”

It seemed like a creepy thing to know about a stranger. I won’t tell you which building it was. Especially not now, when his family is requesting privacy, and everyone is looking for a place to put flowers. But that girl, whoever she was, wasn’t the last one to tell me about it. I was living in a Union Square dorm, that year — I’d heard the name in a Velvet Underground song; if you were going to move to New York, starting from wherever Lou Reed hung out seemed like the way to do it — and within a few weeks, the word was out. It was true. There had been sightings. David Bowie was our neighbor.

You’d see him at the Strand, they said, if you paid attention. The Strand (if you’ve never been) is a used-book store, a block or two away from that dorm, and Bowie was there all the time. It was understood that you were not to approach him, or bother him, or even give any sign of knowing he was there; you just let him go about his business, because if you scared off David Bowie, you would be punished, mostly with the resulting lack of David Bowie. But he did go there. So did I, though I never saw him. He was a smart man, and he read a lot. I hated my roommates, and was in a long-distance relationship, so I also read a lot. I knew girls who saw him, and I went book-shopping more than most. But I just missed him, every time.

It takes a while to see it.

I did see Lou, a few weeks later, which provided my first real clue about how rapidly New York City revises itself. He was giving a reading at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, intoning Edgar Allen Poe in a stern, lethal baritone that suggested we didn’t deserve to hear it. The place was packed; we were hanging onto shelves to avoid being knocked out of our spots, and we eventually climbed them, so that we could see him over the crowd. The contrast between Lou Reed and my position halfway up a Fiction and Literature shelf began to feel deeply depressing, at some point. There he was, the guy who’d told me where to live, but he’d told me in a song about desperate kids getting high and dying. Now he was right in front of me, all black leather and terrifying glare — Lou Reed, in Union Square, just like the song said — and he was standing in the biggest, cleanest, most comfortable and unthreatening chain bookstore I’d ever seen. The New York I’d tried to move to didn’t exist any more. I could never go there. Even Lou Reed couldn’t go there, and he’d invented “there.” Both of us had to live in the city we got.

I wasn’t sure I would take the offer. That first year in New York was miserable. The city was huge; it was crowded; it was cold; it was expensive. There were rats the size of kittens, cockroaches the size of your fist, but the trees were tiny, prematurely withered saplings coated in dog piss and car exhaust, stuck in little iron cages along the sidewalk. The subway was a roaring metal horror show that was impossible to navigate; you always ended up an hour away from your destination, standing in an unfamiliar station that smelled, specifically and intensely, like someone had just taken a shit on the platform. Someone probably had. You were never alone, no matter how badly you needed to be; seven roommates was bad enough, but how were you even supposed to step out on your lawn and cry, with no lawn, and several hundred strangers looking you right in the red, wet, snotty face? I had to cry all the time, with no place to do it. I was brutally lonely. My boyfriend was back in Ohio, and so was anyone or anything I’d ever cared about. Once, I missed a week of school because I’d figured out that I had exactly enough money for a Greyhound ticket; I just took the first available bus, rode the whole ten hours back to Ohio, not intending to return. Someone had to loan me money for a second ticket when I figured out that flunking out of college and giving away all my stuff was not a sane plan.

But David Bowie was my neighbor. I never did pass that building in Soho without looking up, wondering if my roommate was right. I never did go shopping at the Strand without feeling hopeful. That little hope alone was sometimes the only thing that held me in place. I could leave New York. I could give up on it. But if I stayed, I would be living in a place where David Bowie might pop out from around the corner. Not yet. Not today, probably. But someday, when you least expected it. David Bowie could show up at any time.

It wasn’t about seeing a famous person. I saw plenty of those. Crowds of tourists would flock through the street after poor Christopher Noth, screaming “MISTER BIG! MISTER BIGGGGGG,” or someone would bump you for at a table for a crowded restaurant. (“The most you can say about [fame],” Bowie correctly noted, “is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.”) By my third month in the city, I’d lost my gee-whiz Midwestern awe at seeing a Real Live Film Crew, and moved on to the true New York attitude, which is that you can’t believe you’re going to be late for class because you have to detour around Law and Fucking Order again. “Celebrity sightings” were cheap. But David Bowie wasn’t a celebrity. Seeing him wasn’t about fame. It was about magic. Or the future. It was about testing the limits of reality; determining what a human life was allowed to be.

Claiming to have a special relationship with David Bowie’s music always rings hollow. Plenty of people do it; I do it. But it always feels wrong. Everyone has heard at least some David Bowie songs. Everyone, hopefully, has loved at least one of them. Your worst enemy, the person with whom you have the least in common in this world, has heard “Heroes” and fallen in love with it. Or “Life on Mars,” or “Suffragette City” (my go-to; I could play that song on repeat for at least an hour, which I know, because I frequently play it, on repeat, for at least an hour), or one of them, anyway. Even if that person is completely hopeless, lacking in imagination and every finer feeling, there’s still “Let’s Dance.” There’s not much you can say about the music that hasn’t been said, and said recently. So calling yourself a David Bowie fan feels like claiming to own the Post Office. You might send a lot of mail, but buddy, that building is for everybody.

But I still remember the first time I listened to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. It’s #basic in the extreme to admit this, but that one’s still my favorite; there are albums I admire more, even albums from the same period (Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs are both angrier, darker, more fucked-up and sexual and frightening; they both get closer to where Ziggy is going) but first impressions matter, and mine was Ziggy. I must have been six or seven years old, in the car with my mother, driving to Indiana to visit my cousins. The cassette was in the car, and I asked her why there were two names on the side. Was the album “David Bowie” by Ziggy Stardust, or was it “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie?

The album is like a story, she said. David Bowie is the man who sings on the album, but when he sings, he’s pretending to be Ziggy Stardust. Or sometimes he’s telling the story, like in a book.

Why does it say Mars?

Ziggy Stardust is an alien. He comes to Earth to be a singer.

Wow. I want to hear alien music. Does it sound really different?

You can find out, if you want.

I already owned albums that were stories — most kids’ movies are musicals; my favorite was the Wizard of Oz soundtrack, which had dialogue between songs, so that it felt like a short, invisible version of the movie — so I assumed it was an album for kids. I paid close attention, trying to piece the story together. First, the world is ending. They only have five years. People are freaking out and crying because they’re scared. Then an alien comes to save them. Everyone in the world hears him on the radio. After that, the timeline sort of fell apart; the album’s narrative content (suicide! The high cost of fame! Ziggy Stardust fucks everyone in a ten-mile radius, and then they kill him!) was not really something a grade-schooler could parse. But I stopped caring about plot after Track Four. “Starman” had already shattered my tiny child brain.

It was the lift from “star” to “man,” like pure gold light exploding into sound: There’s a star-MAAAAAN! WAITING in the sky. The way his voice squeaked on “waiting” was almost unbearably joyful. I felt like some tidal force had moved through me; if I looked down, I might find my heart, swept out of my chest by the current, floating a few feet ahead of me in the air.

I spent the week in Indiana. The whole time, I was trying to remember that song. I had the idea that if I could memorize it exactly, never stop thinking about it, the feeling would never go away. Plenty of people have already pointed out that the moment I loved so much in “Starman” is lifted directly from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — try humming them; “star-MAAAN,” then “some-WHEEERE” — and I know, now, why it worked for me at age six. I was right; it was like the Wizard of Oz soundtrack. But what stands out is my firm belief, in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, that the Starman averted the apocalypse. Bowie never says that. As far as we know, Ziggy dies, the world goes ahead and ends on schedule, and everything is terrible forever. But that’s not what I heard. I heard “Starman” save the world. After something that beautiful, how can everything not be OK?

It would be nice to tell you I just liked the music, that I was a special and sophisticated child — and I did like it; my mother played it in the car all the time, which must have been a nice break from Wizard of fucking Oz — but there’s a more embarrassing story here. Which is: My grandmother tried to teach me a Stern Lesson, once, by telling me that she’d had the movie Labyrinth specially commissioned for me. Every part of Labyrinth, she told me, was literally true and real, and it could happen to me if I didn’t watch out. She’d tried to shield me from these horrible truths, but I had gotten into a fight with my little brother, and she thought I deserved to know the danger I was in. Then she pressed “play” on the VHS.

Apparently, my grandmother thought I would be moved to horror and penitence by Labyrinth’s depiction of what happens when girls aren’t nice to their younger brothers. Unfortunately for her, what happens when girls aren’t nice to their younger brothers is that David Bowie shows up in their houses and sweeps them away to his world of magic and adventure. I memorized the magical Goblin Words and said them for months, on the off chance that she had been telling the truth. My brother was predictably upset that I was willing to sacrifice him to hellbeasts just to summon Bowie, but I was testing my luck. If there was even a small chance that he could show up, you’d be a fool not to try.

Ah, the wages of sin.

Eventually, the embarrassment kicked in, and I gave up. I’d never really believed that my grandmother was powerful enough to make Jim Henson do her bidding. I knew magic wasn’t real. But losing Labyrinth was just part of the bigger discovery about Bowie: Unlike anything else you’d loved as a child, you never had to outgrow him.

By the time you were too old to admit you watched Muppet movies, Kurt Cobain was covering “The Man Who Sold the World,” or Nine Inch Nails was touring with him. By the time those were embarrassing teenage memories, you were expected to know who The Strokes were ripping off and why Lou Reed mattered, and Bowie was part of that, too. When that was over, we were supposed to love pop music for its simple populist appeal and despise rock for being elitist and pretentious. Surprise: David Bowie, World’s Most Overtly Pretentious Rock Star, turned out to have been making pop music all along, slotting himself into this new canon as easily as he’d always fit in the old ones. There was always a new version of Bowie to like, just as you were asked to discard the old one. He could be handed down, mother to daughter, like an heirloom, and kept for the rest of your life.

You could start as a six-year-old girl in Ohio, and wind up a twenty-year-old woman in Manhattan, still waiting for David Bowie to appear and prove there was magic in the world. I did, anyway. I don’t think I was the only one. My roommates didn’t even read for fun, but they all went to the Strand.

What would it mean, to see David Bowie? To see him as a normal guy, just walking around, picking up a few books on his day off? Using the same sidewalk as everyone else, breathing the same air? What did it mean, to know that David Bowie was an actual human being, with an apartment near yours, where he (presumably) did the same things everyone else did at home — getting a snack out of the fridge, reading his e-mail, napping?

I hated New York, but I had hated Ohio more. You can lecture me all you like about New York narcissism and turning my back on the Heartland and how it’s really getting cool these days and there are worse places and and and, but I’m telling you: I moved there when I was three and stayed until I was twenty, seventeen godforsaken years of my life, and if I hated it, I’ve earned the right to say so. Columbus, Ohio was a chipper, affable, corn-fed, All-American Hell on Earth.

It felt like being raised under a glass dome, cut off from the rest of the world. No-one important came from Columbus. No-one important came to Columbus. Some visited, but they didn’t stay for longer than it took to give a concert or a stump speech. Nothing happened. Nothing mattered. You went to school. You got married, preferably before age twenty-five. You got a job. Then you had kids. They went to school. They got married, preferably before age twenty-five. It just went on forever, a closed loop, with no point, and no meaning, and no change. We had the annual college football riot — once a year, after the Michigan game; whether we won or lost, drunk guys would be vehement about the outcome, and the campus would go up in flames — and we had the opening of a Planet Hollywood in the new mall, and if we all disappeared overnight, Planet Hollywood would lose some money, but Planet Earth would be pretty much the same.

David Bowie flees an Ohio musician. Good call, David Bowie.

Other kids felt it, too; the loop, tightening around them. At parties, people muttered this fucking town and I’ve got to get out of here so often it sounded like like or um, less a phrase than it was audible punctuation. But every day, the prospect of Getting Out seemed less likely. No-one ever made a break for it. No-one even had an actual plan. What people did, instead of making plans, was claim to be Artists. Everyone you met was an Artist, apparently — or anyway, they would be Artists, one of these days, when they got around to doing something. Artists were people who broke the loop. They had strange lives, dramatic relationships, weird, dangerous ways of being. Everyone I knew tried very hard to be strange and weird and dangerous and Artistic; it was hard work, so hard that it apparently took up all the energy we might otherwise have used to learn an art form. Everyone had an idea for the kind of Artist they’d eventually be: Start a band. Write poetry. Paint.

Quick: Name one great band that was formed in Columbus, Ohio in the 1990s. Name the great American poet who lived in Columbus from 1985 through 2002. Name the groundbreaking Ohioan artist who made Columbus a thriving center of the art world in the late 20th century.

Stumped? Yeah. So was I. Everyone said they were going to Get Out, and everyone said they were going to be An Artist, and I did, too. I picked “writer.” But deep down, we all knew it wouldn’t happen. We were just playing pretend. Artists were physically impossible, somehow: No-one ever really got to be one. Not real people, anyway — not you, or me, or people you saw on the street. Artists lived in a parallel dimension, one that you could witness, but not affect. You only saw Artists on television. That was what television was for: To show you imaginary things.

But if David Bowie was my neighbor, then none of that was true. If he was an actual person — someone who slept and ate and shopped for used paperbacks; a mortal man, born with the same equipment we all got, just a body and a mind and some years to use them, who had somehow used them to make those albums — then there was no way to know which dimension I lived in any more. Knowing that he existed in the same world we all did would prove something. You wouldn’t have an excuse to give up. On anything. You wouldn’t be able to comfort yourself, when you failed, with the idea that success had never been an option. But you wouldn’t have to be hopeless any more, either. On the day you looked up and saw David Bowie coming down the sidewalk, you’d have to face facts: People who worked hard, and got lucky, could be exactly who they wanted to be.

They could, for example, be David Bowie. Which was a spectacularly implausible outcome. In all of history, only one person ever managed to be David Bowie. And a whole lot of people tried.

Now that the legacy is being written, everyone wants to know what David Bowie was; what group he fits in, who he belongs to. Not surprisingly, he seems to belong to whoever is writing the piece. Was he an icon of “nerd culture,” someone for the dorks who dress up as Jareth, a saint for weirdos and outcasts? Or was he “high fashion,” a member of the elite, aspirational? Was he the last of the real rock stars? Or was he an underground figure, the man who planted the seeds for punk and post-rock? Or was he a beloved pop star who made danceable tunes, a writer of anthems, universally accessible, universally adored? Was he queer? Did he co-opt queerness? Was he high culture? Was he pop culture? Was he theater, was he music, was he movies, was he aloof and cerebral, was he vulnerable and overflowing with empathy, was he politically reprehensible, was he politically progressive, was he, was he, was he…

People asked all these questions while he alive, too. Even then, they were missing the point. David Bowie wasn’t one of anything; he wasn’t A This or A That. He was a David Bowie. He was what he was: A category of one, the first, best, and last David Bowie the world would ever see. And every project he undertook — no matter how wildly different it was from the other things he’d undertaken, no matter what he called himself for this one, and whether or not you liked it — seemed to be in the service of that one, overarching principle of Bowieness. Everything else changed, but not that. Bowieness was instantly recognizable, and more or less impossible to duplicate, no matter what form it took. You just felt it. You knew it was there.

When someone is so entirely themselves, we think of it in terms of spirit, or giftedness. We assume it dropped out of the sky, or that Bowie arrived in one piece, already finished. We think of it as magic. Yet magic is the one thing it demonstrably was not. Bowieness wasn’t about tapping into some innate spiritual essence — or, if it was, the essence only became available to him after years of study and work. And failure. David Bowie failed a lot, actually, before Bowieness came along. It was part of what he had to do to get there.

He tried being a mod. He tried being a folksinger. He tried heavy metal (almost, almost, “The Man Who Sold the World” is very nearly it, but he’s still not quite there). He tried “Space Oddity,” which he actually hated, and he tried a song called “The Laughing Gnome.” He tried just about everything, and none of it worked, before he tried Hunky Dory and found the beginning of what David Bowie records ought to be. He studied music — studied every art form, really — voraciously, until he internalized it. He found people to model himself on, people who weren’t failing. He learned their work, loved their work, named them loudly and publicly: Lou Reed. Scott Walker. Jacques Brel. Andy Warhol. Marc Bolan. Bob Dylan.

Production and backing vocals by: Some weird superfan who followed Lou Reed around after a concert.

Kids I knew called themselves artists, and waited for it to happen to them — waited for their future selves to drop out of the sky, finished and perfect. But art is not an event. Art is work. And great artists, geniuses, are the people who work harder than anyone else. David Bowie worked so hard it could seem superhuman; he was working, we now know, on his deathbed. Even when he got in serious trouble with cocaine, dwindled down to 90 pounds and started crying in public and thinking the Devil lived in his swimming pool, it was in part because he needed, or wanted, to work more than was humanly possible: “I hate sleep,” he said. “I would much prefer staying up, just working, all the time. It makes me so mad that we can’t do anything about sleep or the common cold.”

Pictured: What it looks like when a man hasn’t slept in about a year.

He opened that quote about sleep with “what year is it now? ’76?” He’d blacked out for the entirety of 1975. Simply couldn’t remember anything that happened. You could do something about sleep, it turned out, but you would lose your mind and a year of your life as a result. David Bowie’s breakdown wasn’t just a story about a rock star getting high because it was glamorous or sexy. It wasn’t about being strange or dangerous or Artistic. It was a story about how far he would go, just to give us that music. The reason Station to Station sounds so much better than “The Laughing Gnome” is because, at some point in that process, David Bowie decided that Station to Station was more important than eating or sleeping.

I don’t suppose we’ll meet, Bowie sings, on “Song for Bob Dylan.” The line is jarring. You see him as an entirely different person: David Robert Jones, some guy who’s made a bunch of failed albums and/or one novelty song about an astronaut that got some radio play. He’s sitting there, contemplating the difference between himself and a Real Artist like Dylan. Imagining how strange it would be, to see that guy in real life. Knowing, even as he thinks about it, that it can never happen; he could never be that guy’s equal, or even interact with him. For one strange moment, carved out of time, you’re forced to realize that even David Bowie once believed that being David Bowie was impossible.

“When I started writing, I couldn’t put more than three or four words together. Now I think I write very well,” David Bowie said. “I’m finding that if I just look at something and think, A man did that, I realize I can do it, too. And probably better. I didn’t know anything about films, either. I mean, nothing at all. So I went out, got hold of a lot of the greatest films and worked it all out for myself. Very logically done. Now I have an excellent knowledge of the art. I became a bloody good actor, I’ll tell you… It’s only a matter of deciding what you want to do.”

He’s speaking through layers here: Cocaine arrogance, breakdown, character. He’s speaking as the Thin White Duke, and the Thin White Duke is, explicitly, an asshole. He said a lot of things in that interview, and on the rare occasion they made sense, they usually ruined his reputation. But there was truth in this bit; it sounds, self-praise included, like an accurate summary of what David Bowie did with his life. His legacy is not something that can be pinned down with a quick label. But if you look at David Bowie and think, A man did that, something changes. You begin to ask yourself what you’re not doing. What you might — if you worked for it, if you were willing to study for it and lose sleep for it and embarrass yourself horribly and painfully by failing at it — one day decide to do.

Time went on, and I moved. To Queens, then Brooklyn. Never out of New York. In time, I began to see the idea of moving out of New York as deeply offensive, a betrayal of this city (this GREAT city! Full of POSSIBILITIES! And ART! And LEARNING! And also HISTORY) that I now, unaccountably, loved.

The city I moved to is not the city I live in now. The Union Square I lived in is not the Union Square I can visit; my favorite restaurant closed, the place where I bought records vanished because nobody buys records, my dorm is no longer a dorm. The real estate was too valuable to have bratty college kids living there; now, they have bratty rich adults. They put up a statue of Warhol, eventually, so that you’ll know it’s where the Factory used to be; I lived with art students, and they thought it was on Union Square somewhere, but no-one could say precisely which building, so the rumor remained unconfirmed. I didn’t know I was seeing Lou Reed only a few feet away from the Factory, when I saw Lou Reed, only a few feet away from the Factory. I just thought Union Square was a name in a song.

New York revises itself, constantly. It prepares us for what the world does: Revises itself, constantly. Takes things out, and puts things in. The world takes away everything we have, and never offers a guarantee that something new will come to take its place. We simply have to revise ourselves. We can never go back to the world we had. We have to become the people who can live in the world we get.

Lou didn’t wear those sunglasses to look cool. They were a public safety measure.

I can’t recognize her today, the girl who hated New York. But I can remember her. I can remember that I desecrated a bookshelf at the Barnes & Noble, trying to see Lou Reed over the crowd. No-one will ever get that chance again, not even me. It doesn’t seem depressing at all, any more. He was there, with his black clothes, his angry eyes, his deadly, rumbling voice. Quoth the raven — Lou Reed pauses to aim one last nuclear-force death glare at the audience; you can feel Lou Reed personally hating you, your friends, your family, your interests and values, and the entirety of the Union Square Barnes & Noble from fifty feet away; Lou Reed has a glare that could level buildings — nevermore.

Never more Lou Reed.

Never more Factory.

Never more Union Square dorm.

Never more of your childhood, of the people you lost, of your home, of the world you lived in and the person you were.

Never more.

Never more David Bowie.

Only the David Bowie we got. The David Bowie that got me through, in the year I spent waiting for him.The story I told myself: You might be lost, scared, far from home, surrounded by monsters, stuck in some terrifying underground maze — at least an hour from anything you recognized, probably an hour in the wrong direction, not knowing where you were or how to get back to where you started — and stuck holding your nose on the Subway Platform of Eternal Stench, cut off from everyone you loved and the world you knew. But when a girl gets lost in a maze like that, she can be sure David Bowie is somewhere in the center of it. If my grandmother taught me nothing else, she taught me that.

Lost and lonely, that’s underground.

I was walking around Brooklyn humming “Ashes to Ashes” the day it happened. Everyone else found out at night, or in the early morning. I had taken a bath, gone to bed. Blackstar had been on the stereo all weekend, but I was waiting to really listen to it, something serious with headphones. Until I could, I sang the songs I knew. It was late afternoon, I was looking for news on something else entirely, when I saw RIP David Bowie out of the corner of my eye — ha, Bowie! You and your wacky concepts! What, you’ve done everything else, so you’re going to be dead for this one? — and clicked. And found an obituary.

I just kept clicking and clicking, waiting for the article that revealed the hoax. Waiting for the clarification, the redaction; waiting for it not to be true. I walked through the city at night and sang “Ashes to Ashes” again. Singing him back to his city. Stood next to a poster for Lazarus on the subway platform. Saw the video of the people in Brixton singing “Starman” in the dark, and that’s when I started to cry.

He’d like to come and greet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds. He’s told us not to blow it, ’cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.

Somewhere, after a long while of clicking, were the final pictures. They were taken (supposedly) on the eighth, two days before he died. He’s in a suit and tie, and he looks… actually, he looks happy. He’s beaming. If you look closely, it seems like he’s laughing at the camera; like he’s just pulled something off, told an incredible joke, and the punchline is just now landing.

What I noticed at first was the wall behind him. The photos were supposedly taken just outside his apartment, and it looked familiar. The first thing I thought was, well, she was right; that was probably where he lived. The second thing I thought was, but I was just there.

I was. I lost my phone, and put off getting a new one. Eventually I dragged myself the unconscionably long distance out of Brooklyn, to Soho and the nearest Apple store, but somehow, getting out of the train, I got lost — how long had it been, since I’d honestly gotten lost in New York? Had the phone spoiled me to the extent that I could no longer figure out where I was going? — and wound up wandering off in the wrong direction. There I was, stomping around SoHo, cold and angry and soon-to-be-broke and just generally convinced that no-one, anywhere, was having a worse day than me. I’d gone right past that wall, on January 7th, and I hadn’t looked up. Then, on the eighth, the last photo of David Bowie was taken.

It was just like the first year. Just like it always had been. One big joke, and this time, I felt like I might finally be in on it.

I just missed him, I thought. I missed him one last time.