David Bowie is dead.
That seems preposterous. And if it seems like he’s always been there, it’s because, of course, he always has. Musicians and songwriters hold a special place in our psyche. It’s one thing to remember actors or sports heroes or world-shakers when they die. They remind us of moments in time. But musicians…the iconic ones…transcend time…accessible whenever and wherever because we can, at the very least, hum. We don’t NEED a device…or even access to a book. They simply exist in our imaginings and our daydreams, our losses and our discoveries.
But Bowie, for me, meant more than all the music makers combined, not because of how his music plays in a never-ending, continuous loop in my head, but in all the ways my life would not be the same without his existence. Listen, I’m aware everyone has their own “Bowie” – which I’m not sure can be said about any other artist, because he was never the SAME Bowie for more than a year at a time. I mean, Iggy Pop is always gonna be THAT Iggy Pop, Bruce is always going to be Bruce, etc. And this isn’t meant to show how my Bowie means more than yours. I just feel I owe him a huge debt of gratitude and fulfillment. And as I began to listen to him after I heard the news, I noticed I was gravitating toward certain songs, not because I liked them more than any other, but because those songs had made very real, and lasting effects on me…signposts. And since he took the time to impact me in so many different ways and at such distinct times in my life, and because I’m absolutely certain many millions of others feel the same way, the least I can do is detail them, testify – share my stories in hopes you will share yours.
1976, eleven years old: The second boy-girl party in our sixth grade class took place at the house of a friend whose name I can no longer recall. I had hosted the first make-out soiree in our basement on Fern Street, in West Hartford, Connecticut. The record changer was set to repeat KC and his Band de Soleil’s “That’s the Way I Like It” ad nauseum as we smooched whomever we had asked as our “dates”. The only detail I can recall about my date was that she was a tall, lanky blonde girl named Shelly something-or-other (and perhaps more importantly, that she wasn’t Sherry Drady, who I was deeply in love with). But the second party…and I can recall absolutely nothing else about it…had as its soundtrack a crazy song that featured a sexy groove, a weird vocal descent down three octaves in the middle – and a vibra-slap!
Now, obviously there are songs which bring you back to a certain time and place…but, in that moment, “Fame” had the opposite effect…it was the first song to push me forward. I KNEW, after buying that single and listening to it over and over again, that my taste in music had to become my own…and not what was on K-Tel records or WCCC, not what my parents or my brothers said I should like, or even what the cool kids were listening to. This song cried out for me to find my own taste, my own way…even if the only reason to go that way was because no one else did. And in this manner, my first notion of subversive thought and individuation came from Bowie. Fitting, that.
“Young Americans” (1975)
1977, thirteen years old: By this time I had become an All-Eastern viola player, which, as you can imagine, made my parents very happy. I even spent the summer of ’77 at Interlochen music camp in the Berkshires. At about that same time, we moved from West Hartford to the biggest city in western Massachusetts, Pittsfield, a G.E. factory town that didn’t offer a whole lot of cultural opportunities for a seventh grader…especially when that kid liked to perform on stage, read vociferously and was one of about seventeen Jewish kids. Soon after, my love for the viola had shifted to mere parental obligation, and, eventually, to outright hatred for the instrument and the classical music it forced me to play. So I quit.
My brother, Howie, suggested I play the saxophone. When I explained I didn’t want to take lessons ever again, he said the most influential sentence anyone has ever said to me (other than “Yes, you can kiss me”): “You don’t need to take lessons…just play along with records.” So my folks rented a Conn Alto sax for me, and amongst the Tower of Power and Steely Dan records my brother had, there was a record called “Taking Off” by a guy named David Sanborn. And so I came home from every horrible and lonely day at South Junior High, locked myself in my room, and played along with those records…for hours. Within four or five months I could play most of that Sanborn record note for note.
And then I made the discovery that Mr. Sanborn played on the same album that featured that crazy “Fame” song from a year earlier. It also released me from the constraints of written music and that I could, by simply using my imagination and my emotions, play ALL kinds of music with my sax. So, two David’s and a Howie are at the heart of my most joyful activity. Thanks, fellas.
1979, fifteen years old: After two long years, we had finally made our escape from Pittsfield, MA to a town on Long Island, thirty minutes by train from Bowie’s Manhattan. There I quickly became friends with many people who were actually like me (and liked me). But, among them were Kurt Feldhun and Paul Doliner. I may have been primed for a new kind of music by then, but those two fellas single-handedly opened my eyes to what had been hidden from me in Pittsfield…namely Bowie’s early catalog, The Kinks, and punk rock. And which of David’s twelve albums released by that time (thirteen if you count “David Live”) was it that opened the way for all others? “Alladin Sane”, of course! It was dramatic, complex, musical, emotional, theatrical, and had a song on it called “Time” that felt like I felt…apprehensive over the finite and temporary nature of time. It instructed me…made me newly aware…that all things must be tried, played, written, tasted, kissed, smelled, fucked, read, understood, as quickly as possible…because “time is waiting in the wings”. And after spending my early teens in a small town that rewarded sameness and punished individuality, spending weekend days and nights wandering the crazy, dirty and authentic streets of Bowie’s New York City, the idea that the world was only limited by my ability to carry out what was in my imagination was both powerful and overwhelming. Looking back from thirty six years hence, it’s pretty obvious I have managed to muck most of it up, but I’m not sure the arrival is as important as the means by which I got here. In a phrase, the man taught me to see.
“Letter to Hermione” (1969)
1980, sixteen years old: This will sound mundane, but if anyone has a first love that ended, they must also have a first breakup song. This is a misnomer, because the song doesn’t accompany the breakup. It actually accompanies those moments that linger well after the breakup. And, of course, my first breakup song is a Bowie tune.
I went to a performing arts day camp in the summer of ’80. Usdan Performing Arts Camp, out in Suffolk County, was a lovely place to do a couple shows with like-minded kids, be instructed by professional, artistic souls, and get a head start on figuring out if performing was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life (a decision aided by seeing a beautiful David Bowie play “The Elephant Man” on Broadway). It is also the place I met Siouxsie Hanna.
Siouxsie was stunning, and smart, and petite. She reminded me of the ballet dancers my parents had surrounded us with through my early childhood (as they were close with many members of the NYCB). Most of all, she thought I was funny and cute and smart. She made me feel…normal for liking to sing and act, which when you have two older brothers who were outstanding athletes, and you are not, “normal” is a delectable feeling. I started to take the train in to the City to go see her at her family’s Upper East Side apartment every weekend. And then, when I got my license, I spent even more time there. She felt deeply, as I did. She was willing to cry in front of me, as I did with her, and it felt beyond real…not like any other relationship my friends had. And, of course, she met another boy at her school. The calls came less and less, her voice sounded…seemed…more and more distant, and, eventually, she ended it. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully rebounded from that loss.
But eventually we became friends. I even went to her wedding. At the reception, I remember coming up behind her while she was talking to someone, and I put my arm around her, and she collapsed in to me, thinking I was her new husband. Seconds later she realized it was not her husband. It was a fleeting moment, but an important one (at least in my film version). And it solidified all the reasons “Letter to Hermione” has remained my ode to her since the winter of 1980-81.
They say your life is going very well
They say you sparkle like a different girl
But something tells me that you hide
When all the world is warm and tired
You cry a little in the dark, well so do I
I’m not quite sure what you’re supposed to say
But I can see it’s not okay
He makes you laugh, he brings you out in style
He treats you well and makes you up real fine
And when he’s strong, he’s strong for you
And when you kiss it’s something new
But did you ever call my name just by mistake?
I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do
So I’ll just write some love to you
“Letter To Hermione” – David Bowie (1969)
The remaining years of high school were filled with so much living – with Bowie very much along for the ride – that its difficult (and redundant) to mention specific moments. What I can tell you is that as we discovered and embraced new music throughout high school, the worthiness of that music was always gauged in my mind by my lodestones: Messrs. Bowie, Davies and Townsend.
(I would be remiss not to mention the beginning of what I referred to as Bowie’s Dark Period, exemplified by our excitement at the release of, and abject disappointment at the contents of, “Let’s Dance”. Remember, this was right after he released the great “Scary Monsters”. So we put the vinyl on the platter and slowly began to wonder what the fuck we were listening to. He’d OBVIOUSLY sold his soul. The joke, of course, was on us, because I love that record now…it’s a perfect time capsule for the Reagan years…and it introduced the world to another lost-way-too soon love of mine, the late and oh-so-great Stevie Ray Vaughn.)
And then, of course, there was our Senior Prom…
1982, seventeen years old: All Senior Proms have a theme song. It’s usually something corny, or sentimental, as it probably should be. Ours was no different. My unrequited love of the day (there have been many, it seems), Ellen Greenfield, was the head of the Prom Committee, and she announced that the theme would be Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days”. Not a bad choice, at all, really. However, it had been used by the previous class, or the class before that. Details are fuzzy. Concurrently, our school was in the midst of a student protest that shut down the school for a week when the administration decided to end a program many of us credited with helping us become young adults. So, with protest in the air, I asked Ellen (I think she would say demanded) that we hold a class-wide vote to find a more appropriate theme. When enough people bugged her about it, she literally threw her hands up in the air and shouted “fine! I don’t care!” – at least that’s how it happened in my rewrite of “The Breakfast Club”. She asked people to put forth songs for the vote. I added a song and one other person did as well. When it came time to vote, the ballot had the following:
- I’ve Loved These Days – Billy Joel
- The Theme From Ice Castles – Melissa Manchester
- Changes – David Bowie (obviously my contribution)
I think there was one more song on there…Zepellin, maybe? I wish to hell I’d had the sense to keep the ballot. Anyway, the vote came back something like 1 vote for Ice Castles, 5 for Billy Joel, and like 89 for “Changes”…and just like that, our Prom’s theme would be a paean to the Chameleon. But that’s not the end of the story.
Since no one on the committee knew anything about him, and since there was no internet back then, they asked me for the lyrics to put on the program. BIG mistake. Kurt and I sat down, and rewrote the lyrics, to make the change in “Changes” not about life or society, but about discovering one’s sexuality…mostly as a laugh. This was during the heyday of the AIDS crisis in NYC, and we had more than our fair share of homophobia in our school. So it was also a way to subversively tell that element to grow up. But most importantly, they printed the FAKE lyrics on the program!
The prom was at The Plaza Hotel in NYC, and it was a lovely night, with a DJ and a band. When the end of the bash rolled ’round, we still had not heard our “song.” So I asked the band to play it. Alas, they didn’t know the song well enough and the DJ hadn’t brought it. Unbowed, I walked up to Andy Gaines (we had been the leads in all our musicals for the previous three years) and said, “Let’s go!” We went up to the balcony where the DJ was setup, took his mic and sang “Changes” (with the correct words), a capella to the crowd below as our prom’s last dance (well, Ms. Summer’s “Last Dance” was the actual last dance). At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to cap off my childhood by singing that song to a captive audience. But, I assure you, it was all downhill from there. Regardless, once again, the Thin White Duke had given me the tools and permission to be my most me at the best possible moment.
1984, twenty years old: I went to a big school on a lake that cost a lot of money to learn to be an actor. I’ve always loved the irony of that sentence and how it feels like a Bowie-ism to me…a man who achieved all of his success without any of the schooling. In addition to being a fledgling actor, I was also a DJ on the punk rock radio station at school. By my Junior year I began to see cracks in the foundation of my views of both the acting scene and the society of punk rock. There were signs everywhere of pretention in the former, and poseur artifice in the latter, which began my descent in to a dangerous kind of self-doubt. I had a workload of a million different characters (between classwork and shows), I was constantly trying to impress a girl (who would have none of it) and was the school’s mascot, all of which were taking a toll on keeping my public persona intact. And then there was the private persona, in which I had convinced myself that I was liked by everybody. And, of course, that began to peel away, as well. And by the summer of ’84, I no longer was in contact with a whole sense of being. I began to doubt everything, to cry a lot – more than usual, anyway. And then I started to talk to myself. And THEN it got bad. I failed a couple classes. Was put on academic probation. Came as close to suicidal thoughts as I’ve ever had, or ever will. If not for the love and care of two people, a couple, one year older than myself, who took me under their wing that summer, I’m not sure I would’ve recovered. I confided in no one else but them and when alone, I suffered in silence.
A year later, after I’d somehow regained a renewed sense of self, I was thriving once again. I knew what was bullshit and knew how to see it, and avoid it, and even how to take advantage of it. The couple from the previous year and I had drifted apart as is bound to happen in school situations, but we were all still friends. Then one night, as I was bartending at a local restaurant, our manager walked in, white as a sheet. He looked at us and told us that a former coworker had just been found dead, a suicide. I quite literally dropped the glass I was holding. As you can guess, the young woman in question was one of my saviors from the previous year. I had never understood why she was so invested in my situation. Perhaps she saw something of herself in my descent. Regardless, she had been there for me. I, on the other hand, except for a visit to her hospital room when she had “accidentally” been seriously cut months before, was nowhere to be found on her worst night….a night just days before her graduation. Apparently, she could no longer stomach the mask she had been trained to wear.
A few days later there was a memorial service. I sat toward the front, and my shame and guilt at abandoning my caretaker was overwhelming and I could not control myself…sobbing so hard I had trouble breathing. One of my classmates, sitting behind me, said – loud and purposefully enough so I would hear it – “Jason’s laying it on a bit thick, dontcha think?” Looking back on that day now, I can’t blame them for thinking I was doing just that. No one knew of my relationship to Beth, except for her beau. But in the moment, I quietly seethed and wanted to turn around and say, “fuck you, you arrogant piece of shit!” Instead, I quite unsuccessfully tried to put myself together, went back to my apartment, and blasted “Fashion” over and over. Whirling around my room as I imagined Beth and I laughing at the ridiculousness of needing to act like we were something we weren’t just to survive. But mostly, it reminded me of nights spent with the two of them at the long-since-shuttered Paradise in Boys Town, dancing to the song…and how I wished I could’ve made that summer friendship more permanent, so she wouldn’t have felt so alone.
“Slip Away” (2002)
2002, thirty-seven years old: On September 10th, 2001, myself and a couple thousand other hearty folk, completed a 500-mile bike ride from Montreal to Maine, to raise money and awareness for an AIDS Vaccine. My parents and brother, Bob, came to watch me cross the finish line and take part in the closing ceremonies. As we drove back to my parents home in Narragansett, Rhode Island, I was very conscious of a pronounced feeling of dread, instead of the elation that had accompanied my completion of my previous AIDS Ride experience. I was exhausted, temperamental and sad, and I believe I cried in the car. The next day I was to drive in to New York City to see some friends since I was thinking about moving back to the city of my youth. That night I kept dreaming I was flying a jet in between the buildings of the city – which is not nearly as prescient as it sounds. When you ride your bike a hundred miles a day for a week, your equilibrium takes some time to adjust – to stop feeling like you’re on a boat…and, as I was going to the city the next day, I’m sure I had it on my mind. What was bizarre is that when I awoke at 5am, I grabbed a book on the guest room nightstand. I had never read it and I thought I’d see if I might want to. It was Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” and these are its opening phrases – and what I read that morning:
A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall–soon–it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.
I fell back asleep, and awoke around 8:30am, pissed because I had hoped to be in the City by then. I pulled myself out of bed and got in the shower. Not soon after, my Dad knocked on the door and shouted, “Honey, I don’t think you should go in to the city.” “I’ll be fine, Dad. It’s not that long a drive.” “No…something happened in the city. You need to come see this.” Obviously, we didn’t move for days, staring in silence at the coverage and the horror. When the first building came down, my mother screamed like I’ve never heard. Me? I was speechless, stoic even. It was too big for my mind to comprehend. Three days later, I finally got a rental car and drove back to Chicago, and immediately made plans to move to New York. A weird sort of survivor’s guilt had taken over. I was supposed to be south of Houston Street that morning…at that time. And I knew I had to go there, to live there. You see, those buildings were a distinct part of my minds eye-view of my childhood – the southern compass for our trips to all the punk rock shows. And by January I had driven to the city to dump my stuff at my temporary digs in Brooklyn and then on to my folks house in Rhode Island, to leave my car.
I hadn’t really been a huge fan of Bowie’s output during the nineties (with the exception of “Earthling”), but as I flipped around the radio stations during that New England drive, I stumbled upon a college station playing some advance releases of his new songs from “Heathen”. The first one, “Slip Away”, started with an aural soundscape that reminded me of something. I couldn’t quite place it…then, like a shot, I recalled the noise. It was the sound of the fire truck sirens after the buildings had collapsed. You remember…that high pitch swooshing sound…like dozens of echocardiogram machines joined by a chorus of mourning women. The lyrics of the song proceeded to bring me back to my high school days when my friends and I used to watched the Uncle Floyd show, the crazy precursor to Letterman, on channel nine. And then for the first time since that awful day, my eyes welled up and, quite involuntarily I began to howl. A deep and resonant noise accompanied by storms of tears. I had to pull over, I couldn’t see. I sat on the side of the road, screaming and crying and screaming some more. The song ended, with that sound once again…and I remember shouting at the station, “NO!!” as if screaming loud enough would get the DJ to play it again and again.
Mr. Bowie had once again been the conduit to me recognizing, and having the courage to express, my true feelings. When Beth died, I had easy access to my sorrow, but not my rage. I needed Bowie for that. In this instance, I had no problem with admitting to, and showing my anger, but I had been afraid to express my sorrow, for fear it would never go away. I was right. As with so many people, it has never left me. Fitting then, that the only time I saw Bowie live (other than the Serious Moonlight Tour from the last row at MSG, which I don’t count) was during his Five Burroughs mini-tour, when my brother got us tickets for his show at Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe. Standing fifteen feet from the man, I was overwhelmed, and, of course, started crying when he started the show with “Sunday”, the opening track on “Heathen”.
2016, fifty-one years old: I’ve been reading a lot about how such a great pop artist will be missed, and no doubt, that aspect of his imprimatur is singular and iconic. In fact, there are only a handful of music icons that can hang with him in the conversation of the best of the best. But you will never be able to convince me that there has ever been another who did more for…SPOKE for…the madmen, cracked actors, dogs, young Americans, heroes, D.J.’s, super creeps, cat people, spaceboys, earthlings, heathens, disco kings, dirty boys and whores of the last fifty years.
And, as only a man who has forever been two steps ahead of everyone else can, he created and bestowed upon us his own sendoff. So, because he told us to include it, this song, and this moment, belong on this list – if for no other reason than…
…there shall nevermore be a return of the Thin White Duke.
Thanks, Mr. Bowie.
Thanks for reading.
Written on 1/10/2016