“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster)”
David Bowie died this week.
I never understood, really, why people got upset over the deaths of famous people they had never met. I guess the right person, for me, just hadn’t died yet.
And then David Bowie died. And I feel a little worse about it with every passing day, not better. I cry a little bit more about it, every day, not less.
I never met David Bowie. Never wrote him a fan letter. Never sent away for an autographed picture. Saw him perform live many times in the 70’s (and never since then), and bought nearly all his records … and that’s about it. And yet no public figure who was alive during my lifetime had more of an influence on me. I am who I am at least in part because of David Bowie. How the hell did that happen?
Everything about him was new. And we were looking for something new.
Bowie had written a song for a band called Mott the Hoople. In the middle of “All the Young Dudes” were these lines:
And my brother’s back at home
With his Beatles and his Stones
I never got it off on all that revolution stuff
It was such a drag … too many snags!
That. That was what we were looking for. It wasn’t even on one of his own records and yet it helped define him as someone for whom rock royalty was … irrelevant. We sensed the coming bloat of stadium rock, felt the first stirrings of ‘what else you got?’ when confronted with the musical behemoths of the 60’s, wanted something of our own. That something was David Bowie.
His “breakout” record was released on June 6th, 1972—The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Ziggy was a rock opera in which Bowie simultaneously celebrated and lampooned rock and roll. The music was glorious, and we took very seriously the admonition printed on the back of the LP jacket: TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.
Bowie played the cadaverous snaggletoothed Ziggy with spiky orange hair grabbing guitarist Mick Ronson’s ass and kneeling before him in mock fellatio. This was the heroin chic velvet underground iggy and the stooges Bowie. When no one knew him and before he was a star. A skeleton of the night. He was a mainlined androgyne, a small scurrying warm-blooded thing in the midst of lumbering dinosaurs. And he was ours.
The final song on the Ziggy Stardust album was “Rock and Roll Suicide.” It also concluded his live performances on the fabled Fall 1972 tour of North America:
“Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone!
Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on and be not alone
Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful”
I know people whose lives were saved by those words. Who decided to go on because they’d found a kindred spirit. Some of them were gay men; others were not. We were odd, or “arty,” or didn’t fit in, and David sang to us: I’ve had my share. I’ll help you with the pain.
At the conclusion of Bowie’s live shows in 1972, kids would rush the stage and David would scream “gimme your hands,” and audience and performer alike would stretch and reach toward each other, sometimes grasped, sometimes fingertips grazed.
The summer of 1972 was a big one in my world. The Rolling Stones at the Long Beach Arena. High school graduation. Led Zeppelin at the Long Beach Arena. I turned 17. More pot and hashish than you could shake a stick at. We were misfit kings, my crew and I, masters of all we surveyed: we were in the summer before we all went off to college. And we were obsessed. There is nothing as unbearable as a teenager with an obsession. And mine was David Bowie.
We spent every day that summer in the water on either the north or south side (depending on where the swell was coming from) of the Huntington Beach pier, our Voit duck feet swim fins propelling us onto the faces of beautiful lefts or rights … and when the waves weren’t breaking we’d swim around the pier, keeping just out of the reach of the lines of bonito fisherman and hollering out “whale piss” and “polar bear piss” whenever we’d hit a warm or cold patch of ocean water.
Almost no one had heard of Bowie. He was ours. Ziggy had just come out. That record led us backwards, to explore Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World and Space Oddity. And we bought the Mott the Hoople record in order to hear “All The Young Dudes.” But it was Ziggy we came back to that summer, always Ziggy, ultimately.
The beach was our home, had been for years. We were bodysurfers. We laughed at guys who used boards, considered ourselves the true “watermen,” learning to windmill our ways onto waves that other kids couldn’t catch. Learning when to be patient, when to explode, when to risk a hurtle “over the falls,” and when to pull back and re-position for the next set.
I’d seen The Stones right before graduation. People were envious, but it wasn’t really about The Stones, anymore. It was more about Zeppelin, my god, they were huge and if you wanted to stop people in their tracks you told them your Zeppelin stories, about how you scored your tickets, or the way they perforated your eardrum or how high you’d gotten by the time they came on and roared into “Immigrant Song,” and how Plant really did hit the high notes in that opening wail. Plus, chicks. All the chicks were into Zepp.
But Bowie. He was a secret. He spoke only to us. This was a difficult, troubled, haunted young man who at the conclusion of a glorious rock opera nightmare pleaded with us to give him our hands because we were wonderful. This was the underground rock’n’rollin cryptkeeper who was a science fiction horrorshow come to life.
There were radios every day that summer on the beach—but no David Bowie. And so one day in August, 1972, I decided to do something about that. I’d combine these two worlds. Bowie. And the beach.
I came to a high place of darkness and light.
And, oh, David got dark. He led us to Roxy Music, back to the Velvets and The Stooges, forward to Kraftwerk and Eno, and rejuvenated solo careers for Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. He produced great scary ground-breaking records while he was strung out, coked out of his gourd. He described one day in LA in the mid-70’s: he blew his nose and it was as if half his brains came out. He retreated to Europe and made more great records.
And then got less interesting as he became more mainstream. We got the tanned, healthy Bowie of Let’s Dance. He exploded then and became more popular than he had ever been. But after an uninspired 80’s he had the sense to go back underground, although he never quite again managed to capture lightning in a bottle. His tours became smiling, almost wholesome affairs and he reveled in his history and basked in the adulation. There were some good records and some bad ones but not until The Next Day and ★ (pronounced Blackstar, in spite of the red ink of the WordPress link) did he regain his form, truly, as an artist who reveled in the certainty of his vision, who did not chase trends, or pander to tastes.
He was never that popular. He went off on weird self-effacing tangents like playing keyboards and singing backup vocals in Iggy Pop’s backing band, or deconstructing his entire career by starting a hard rock band called Tin Machine with the sons of comedian Soupy Sales. He didn’t have a top-10 record in the U.S. until Diamond Dogs in 1974. ★, his final, nearly posthumous, record, was his first and only U.S. #1. Ziggy, often cited by critics as his best album, only cracked the top-100, peaking at #75.
He became world-famous, of course. But he was still a bit elusive, a bit of an acquired taste. And there was still something secretive about him. Something just between you and him, no matter how well-known he was. That was one of his gifts.
He disappeared for nearly 10 years, after a near-death “coronary event” while on tour in 2004. When he returned, three years ago, with the single “Where Are We Now?”, followed by the album The Next Day, it was as a mystic elder dispensing snarling dispatches from beyond time:
Here I am, not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me
And the next day, and the next, and another day
Which brings us to darkness become black in ★. That record, viewed posthumously, is beyond hope and hopelessness. It takes blackness into a realm so black it might, just might, evoke a light at the center of it all. There is a spirit of courageousness, of unblinking resolve, of a wisdom gained by experience that makes this new record a spine-tingling achievement. David had always lived in that “high place of darkness and light.” And at the end of his life, he found yet another remarkable new way to make art of that dichotomy.
There is darkness at the beach, too: when you miscalculate, or get cocky, or just don’t get to the right spot in the wave, when you wipe out, when you are pummeled and held under by the power of the sea. You know that only a few feet away people are tanning themselves, kids are yelling, radios are playing … but for that minute or so you are not entirely sure you can make it back up in time before your lungs burst. It’s dark down there. It can even seem black.
I wrapped my vinyl copy of Ziggy Stardust and my sister’s portable record player in my beach towel, grabbed my fins, and threw the lot into the back seat of my car and headed out. Picked up the gang. Drove to the beach. Parked. Got high around the corner from the Surf Theatre on 5th. Headed for the pier.
—What’s in the towel?
—Nothin. It’s a surprise.
We got to our spot. It was a raging summer day. Periodic nice sets rolled in outside, and there was a fair amount of decent shore break action, too. I spread my towel out, revealing the record and the turntable.
—Gentlemen, behold, I announced.
—No fuckin way. Bowie at the beach.
Set the player up. Slipped the vinyl from the sleeve and fitted it on. Dropped the needle on Side One, Track One … and Woody Woodmansey’s stoned intro drum pattern from “Five Years” began to play on the sands at Huntington Beach. People started to come over to our towels. One girl asked “Is that Bowie?” More chicks. “You brought Bowie to the beach?” This was going very, very well.
But, by the time “Soul Love” kicked in, something felt weird. Maybe it was the waves, the chatter all around us, the tourists and fishermen up above on the pier. No. Something was wrong. Ronson’s solo on “Moonage Daydream” sounded off, sounded … wobbly.
—Your record. It’s melting.
And that indeed was what was happening. The merciless summer sun was warping the Ziggy platter beyond all recognition. Murmurs of appreciation turned to howls of laughter as I knelt to take the wavy disc off the turntable.
Tonight I sit in a warm home, surrounded by love and light, and I am a very lucky man. I myself descend into the darkness now and again, to find a nugget, to pursue an idea, to retrieve a dream I might burnish into something worth telling you about … but I return by morning and am welcomed into the silver arms of a wonderful girl. But now something is gone. Irretrievably gone.
Why is it so sad? Why am I so sad? I can still listen to all of his music any time I want. So, why? At least part of it is the quality of ★. To have no more music after that pinnacle seems a crime. What new wonders might the man have revealed, given more time?
Is that it, though? No, not really. It’s my own mortality, of course. Someone who helped make me who I am has died. And now one day it will be my turn. That’s what we’re really mourning when we hashtag R.I.P. on our social media pages. We know our turn is coming. And we hope that we will all rest in peace.
This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me
I couldn’t have been more impressionable than when I first discovered David Bowie. He was new, largely undiscovered, and 25. I was 16 and looking for … someone who’d had his share, who could help me with the pain. You did that, David, you helped me with the pain of being alive and aware and goofy and weird, and right now, at this very moment, I smile through my tears and would like to say, simply: thank you.
Months after that bleached-out day by the HB pier, in October of 1972 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, he strode onstage to strobe lights and Wendy Carlos’s synthesized intro from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy off the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack. I swore to my friends he was an alien. The way he moved, the way he cocked his head, the way he jerked under the lights. He was an otherworldly marionette who put us on notice, right up front:
If you think we’re gonna make it, you better hang on to yourself
An hour and a quarter later, I was there, at the front of the stage, reaching up, trying to give him my hands. Our fingers never quite got there, our eyes never quite met. But David Bowie touched me, all the same …