Remembering David Bowie

Many people are writing memorials for David Bowie today, remembering how he gave voice and empowerment to the weird and unconventional among us who didn’t really have anyone else to look up to. For a lot of people, Bowie was more than a musician, and while I loved his music, I came to it so late in life, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate what he meant in the 70s.

But he was still an important part of my life, and I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach when I heard that he was gone this morning. I’ve been listening to his music all day, even more than usual, and thinking about what he and his work mean to me. I’m reprinting two pieces from my blog here, written eleven years apart, that are my effort to remember the man who fell to earth.

a godawful small affair.

I woke up earlier than usual this morning, probably because I went to be earlier than usual last night. It’s all part of Operation: Reboot, and while it’s been a challenging adjustment, it’s worth it.

I sat up in bed, next to both of my dogs who looked confused. Dad doesn’t get out of bed for at least another three hours. What’s going on? Marlowe made a curious sound. Seamus grunted and buried his face into the covers.

I got out of bed, and shuffled into the living room. Anne looked up at me from the couch and said, “David Bowie died.”

David Bowie died? That’s impossible. I must not be entirely awake.

“What?” I said.

“David Bowie died,” she said, tears in her eyes.

I took a moment to run those words, in that order, through my brain. “How?” I asked. It still didn’t make sense to me. Sure, I’d only been awake — and barely, at that — for two minutes, but even if I’d gotten the news in the middle of the day, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“He had cancer,” she said.

Cancer. Well, fuck.

“I … Jesus.” I leaned against the kitchen counter.

It’s three hours later, and I’m awake. I’ve been listening to Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory, and I still can’t believe this is real.

David Bowie isn’t a mortal like the rest of us. This doesn’t make sense. This isn’t possible.

The Seat With The Clearest View.

Little me, in The Buddy System.

Anne and I took a long walk today, and while we were on our way back, I remembered writing this post for my blog, a million years ago. The game I’m talking about, Kangaroo, was the subject of a column I was writing for The AV Club at the time, called The Games of Our Lives:


Even though Kangaroo is sort of a forgettable game, it will always be special to me because, like Wizard of Wor, it reminds me of a specific time and place in my life: the set of my first feature film, The Buddy System. We shot that movie at 20th Century Fox during the summer of 1983, and the art department had both Kangaroo and Turbo set on free play, and because the sound was turned off, I got to play them whenever I wanted to. That movie was a lot of difficult work. Richard Dreyfuss hadn’t gotten sober yet, and many days he just didn’t show up for work, so I spent a lot of time playing gin rummy with my aunt, racing cars, and beating up the evil pink monkeys. The director didn’t know how to talk to kids, so he just gave me lots of line readings (which annoyed me, even as I neared my eleventh birthday) . . . but when I look back on that summer, what I really remember is the time I spent with Susan Sarandon, who played my mother in the film, and how much fun we had together. She took me under her wing, and treated me like I was her son, colleague, and friend. When the director was a dick, she made it okay. When Richard was looney on the cocaine, she made it okay. But more than anything else, she never talked down to me. She made me feel like I was part of the cast, and I deserved to be there, even though I was just a kid. The only other person to treat me that way when I was a child working in movies was Rob Reiner.

I remember one afternoon, while we were on a break between scenes, I walked through an empty set, and saw Susan listening to her Walkman (like an iPod, but it uses these things called “cassette tapes,” that you may have seen on “I Love The 80s.”) She pulled off her headphones, and said, “Do you want to hear some cool music?”

“Sure,” I said, and walked into the room, which was her character’s bedroom in the movie. They’d built an entire house on the stage, and even though I’d been on lots of sets before, it was still magical to me. There were lights and catwalks and cables and all the elements of movie magic just outside the camera’s view. Some lights, flags, and C-stands crowded the corners of the set, and our chairs were pushed up against one wall. The room was dimly lit by the reflected light from the shooting set, a few rooms down the hall.

I sat down next to her and heard music coming out of her headphones.

“How are you doing today?” She said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I saw Superman III last night.”

“Oh? How was it?” She said. She paused her Walkman, and the tinny sound of a guitar was replaced by the voices of the crew setting up the next shot.

“It was really stupid,” I said. “They tried too hard to be funny, so it wasn’t cool like the first two.”

“Do you know who Richard Pryor is?” She said.

I shook my head.

“He played Gus.”

“The guy who made the machine?” I said. “Oh god! I hated him.”

“He’s a famous comedian.” She said.

“Well, he’s not very funny,” I said. Compared to the antics of Jack Tripper, or Arnold Jackson’s Watchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis? which was the height of comedy as far as I was concerned, Richard Pryor just didn’t rate.

“When you get older, you should listen to his comedy albums,” she said. “I think you’ll change your mind.”

She was right. When I was fifteen or sixteen, my friend Pat and I picked up Richard Pryor Live in Concert, and I laughed so hard I almost forgave him for Brewster’s Millions. He went on to be a comedic influence in my life, joining Bill Murray, Bill Hicks, Bill Cosby, and a few comedians who are not named Bill, including Chevy Chase and Steve Martin.

“If I do, I’ll call you,” I said. Unfortunately, by the time I did, we’d lost touch. That has always made me feel a little sad.

“We’re ready for first team!” The first assistant director called out.

She picked up her headphones and put them over my ears. “Quick! Before they find us!” She said. I giggled as she pushed play.

A man started to sing. His voice was deep and beautiful. The music was soft, and felt sort of sad. If I’d known what “haunting” was, that’s how I would have described it.

After a minute, she said, “Do you like it?”

I did. It was unlike any of the music my parents listened to, and was very different from the pop music I heard on the radio.

“Who is it?” I said.

“It’s my friend,” she said. “This song is about an astronaut who blasts off and never comes back.”

“It’s really cool,” I said, as an assistant director poked his head into the room.

“I have first team,” he said in to his walkie talkie. “We’re ready for you on set,” he said to us.

We got up and went to work before I could find out the title of the song. As the day went on, and the work took over, I never thought to ask, and by the end of the day, I’d forgotten about it entirely.

Later that year, I helped my dad repair a gate on the side of our house. We listened to KMET (the greatest rock-n-roll radio station in history, which was tragically replaced in 1987 by the worst light-jazz pile of shit in history) while we worked, and that song from Susan’s friend came out of the radio.

“Dad!” I said, “This is the song that Susan played for me when we filmed The Buddy System! This is her friend!”

My dad stopped hammering, and listened.

“Do you know who it is?” I said.

“Yeah,” my dad said. “This is David Bowie.” The song was Space Oddity.

To this day, whenever I hear it, I can see my eleven year-old self, sitting in that empty, dusty, dimly-lit set on stage 18 at Fox. I can feel the rough pads of Susan’s headphones on my ears, and remember how happy I felt to be part of a secret club.