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David-Bowie-in-Berlin

I heard of David Bowie’s death this morning and the concept has been reverberating with me all day. Not that I knew him personally. I didn’t. It’s a strange thing when you grow up alongside someone that you’re never truly intimate with. They’re always there like an estranged family member. The fact that Bowie’s music was the soundtrack to my life (and most everyone else’s) for decades gives the illusion of a kind of intimacy.

The first record I bought on my own–that wasn’t one of the folk or pop records that my mother and I shared–was Changes One Bowie. As an outcast and miserable teenager transplanted from Los Angeles to a small rural town in the south, music was my escape and my lifeline. I remember finding the shrink-wrapped album in a stack at the local IGA supermarket while grocery shopping with my mom. I knew some of the songs from the radio. He looked weird. It spoke to me. Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I still too young?

Most of my friends at that time were into rock-n-roll so I hadn’t been exposed to his music yet, other than his hits that were played on the radio. The cashier with big hair and small town attitude eyed the album with disgust. I knew I was going to like it. Is it any wonder I reject you first?

In high school back in Los Angeles, his androgyny had been a balm to many of my gay boyfriends. By this time we devoured his edgy arthouse movies and fashion, as well as his music. So the days float through my eyes, but still the days seem the same.

My first job as a bartender was at my uncle’s restaurant, Stratton’s. It was located in the building that also housed the Westwood Playhouse (now the Geffen Playhouse). In 1988 a much anticipated play called Hurly Burly came to the playhouse with a cast that included Danny Aiello and Sean Penn. Opening weekend was a star-studded event with Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Barbara Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Mikhail Baryshnikov–I waited on Madonna. But it was the couple on the patio that I wanted to see. 

I got one of the waiters to cover me for a “bathroom break.” Then I walked slowly through the crowd to get a good long look at Iman and David Bowie sitting quietly at a table in the corner. I’m not one to bother celebrities–the only autograph I’ve ever asked for was Ray Bolger’s–and I respect their privacy. But I needed to see this beautiful freak whose music and art had nearly saved my sad teenaged life. Look at that sky, life’s begun. Nights are warm and the days are young.

In 2004 Bowie’s Reality tour brought him to the Santa Barbara Bowl. My friend and I marveled at his high energy, his self-effacing humor and his charm. He bounced all over the stage like a teenager the entire show. He looked like he was having a blast, performing songs he’d been doing for decades but clearly enjoying it. He was a true original. And the loss is cataclysmic. Ground Control to Major Tom: Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me, Major Tom?