When I was not much older than my oldest son is now, either fourth or fifth grade, the older girl next door who spent several years slowly initiating me to both the secret worlds of rock'n'roll and kissing, thus assuring those things would forever be linked in my mind, played me one of the many 45s she kept in a big giant carry-around box with the Rolling Stone lips on the cover. This one, she assured me, was “mind-blowing.”
She was right.
The first time I heard “Space Oddity,” it felt like I lifted off the ground with that countdown, infinity in endless mandala opening above me, as that strange voice, so thin at times, so powerful at others, sang with such longing, such powerful desire to both reach back to a humanity left behind and rocket on into whatever cosmic possibilities lay ahead. I must have played that record a hundred times in the next month, until she finally gave it to me so she wouldn't have to hear it anymore. I didn't know music could do that, and in a house where my parents listened to country music and Hooked On Beethoven and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, playing something as singular as “Space Oddity” felt like I was claiming a space for myself, declaring an identity that had nothing to do with theirs. It felt like I had heard a new language I liked better than English, one that finally had all the words I needed.
The first full-length album I ever bought that was not a soundtrack was “Let's Dance.” It was a few years later, and every single song on that album meant something to me. I played it over and over and over. I still hear the guitar from the start of “Modern Love” or the way he practically moans the title of “Let's Dance” or the wobbly whisper from the middle of “China Girl,” and it takes me back to particular tactile sense memories of times and places where I played those songs, of the person I was each time I came back to that record over the years. Bowie's music is foundational to me. It is part of the entire fabric of my conscious identity. From the moment I started making choices about what I did or didn't like, Bowie has been an important part of that, one of the standards of cool by which all others must be measured. While his next album wasn't as uniformly great, it meant so much to me when it came out, and “Loving The Alien” and “Blue Jean” were originals that ended up in my constant Bowie rotation, while his cover of “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys is one of my favorite versions of that song now, which is saying something because it's one of my favorite songs of all time. More importantly, the album led me to Iggy Pop, and it expanded my musical vocabulary again.
I say all of this as preamble just to say that I could go on talking about the way his music impacted me and never once mention his film career, and it's a hell of a film career, which is sort of mind-boggling. There are a number of rock stars who crossed over to movies, but few of them did it with quite the same panache as Bowie. In fact, it was “Loving The Alien” along with Danny Peary's Cult Movies 2 that led me to Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, which was one of those movies that sort of caved my head in when I first saw it. It became the first DVD I bought, the movie that forced me to upgrade from laserdisc when I realized it was available. What's amazing is that he did not make many films, comparatively speaking. He worked, but never to the point of overexposure. Roeg's movie, where he played Thomas Jerome Newton, was both beautiful and horrible, experimental and deeply emotional, a film that almost defies easy description. It is the story of an alien who comes to Earth in search of water, hoping to save his dying face on a distant planet, only to be seduced into apathy by the numbing assault of human culture. It is a horror film about how we would win any alien invasion by overpowering them with how empty we are. It is an ugly mirror, and while Roeg's filmmaking is a big part of what is so brilliant (and his cutting in particular), it is the actual image of Thomas Jerome Newton slowly melting into his televisions, absorbed and conquered by everything we are, that haunts me. Bowie didn't feel like an actor playing an alien; he felt like an alien playing at being human. That same otherworldly quality was perfect for The Hunger, and when a film contains a graphic lesbian scene between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve and it's Bowie I walked away remembering the most as a 13 year old boy, that is saying something. That same year was the year of “Let's Dance” and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and I remember being somewhat awed by Bowie that year, by anyone who could bring so much to many different projects in a year.
It felt like he never really got his proper due as an actor, and it baffled me. I loved his work in the John Landis film Into The Night, where he is sort of delightfully sleazy, and he was super-cool in Absolute Beginners, even if the film never quite caught up to him. I cannot say enough good about his work in Labyrinth, and I remember thinking at the time that people just weren't paying attention to just how much fun he was as Jareth The Goblin King. I am not remotely surprised that the performance is now beloved, a cult icon, and that people love to recreate his look in the film. My god… the codpiece alone is one of the most startling things in any film Jim Henson created. He's in one of my ten favorite films of all time, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ, and he's a spectacular Pontius Pilate. In a film where accents are quite literally all over the map, it always feels to me like Pilate was cast so specifically British as a sort of elbow to the ribs of all those studio epics where British meant aristocracy, period detail be damned. One of the master-stroke details in Julian Schnabel's Basquiat was casting Bowie as Andy Warhol. How many people can truly approach Warhol's ethereal strangeness without putting it on as an act? You have to cast a Crispin Glover or a David Bowie or you just get a pale carbon copy. I feel the same way about his work as Tesla for Christopher Nolan in The Prestige. He owns the film every second he's onscreen, and he make an amazingly creepy Tesla, playing him like a time traveler come back to fix this rotten world before it rots, a man who simply was too great for his time. His final great onscreen appearance was in the Ricky Gervais series Extras, and watching Bowie drop some nuclear force genius on Gervais in song form is one of those great TV meta-moments that Bowie seemed to love from the beginning of his career. While the joke would be good no matter what the song is, the way it seems so effortlessly scathing only makes Bowie seem cooler, exactly what you would hope David Bowie would be like if you met him.
Bowie is tied to the strangest memories for me. In the early '90s, I shared an apartment with a phenomenal musician named Dave King, now the drummer of the Bad Plus, and when the first Tin Machine record came out, Dave went insane for it. Speaking as a musician, he thought Bowie was insane in the best possible way, and he couldn't believe that someone so established would blow up their own style so completely. It struck me because it was great to see a truly gifted artist absolutely melt down over something another artist had done. Years later, I remember sitting in a field somewhere between Usti nad Labem and Prague in the Czech Republic, on the set of the second Narnia movie, and the film's director had them set up a way for him to play his iPod through giant speakers that could be heard from one end of the enormous open green space to the other. The cast was taking turns picking songs off that iPod and one of the kids picked “Ashes To Ashes,” and as the sound of Bowie rolled across that lush expanse, I looked up at the stone steps where there were minotaurs dancing and remember laughing at how perfect it seemed. On another occasion, I was at Pinewood Studios for the production of Stardust, and Matthew Vaughn asked me near the end of a day if I wanted to see some footage cut together. He told me he'd picked a special song to cut it to, and he wouldn't give me any hints as we walked through the editorial building. I remember the look of those long hallways, and I remember how pleased Matthew seemed with what he had to screen. When we finally got to the editing room, his editor Jon Harris cued up the sizzle reel, and as soon as it started playing, I laughed while that terrific bounce that is “Starman” filled the room. It was the perfect piece, and the song had me grinning before the footage even began. I've made love to his music, I've nursed heartbreak to his music, I've had him as my companion on road trips and during all night writing jams and he's been the score to many of the most experimental chemical moments in my life. When my kids got Rock Band 4 from Santa Claus this year, Santa was good enough to download a ton of extra songs to the Xbox One to fill out the initial titles, and sure enough, “Modern Love” was one of them. Just last week, Toshi and Allen and I played a terrible, ramshackle version of the song as I bellowed along to it, and as the boys sang back-up with me, the sound of them cutting loose on this song that meant so much to me so many years ago brought happy tears to my eyes.
There are plenty of rock stars who are great doing their own material, but who don't really work as cover artists. Bowie was a phenomenal singer, and it didn't matter if he wrote a song or not; he could make it his and he could find things in it that no one else did. He was the ultimate comment on pop stars, and before Madonna ever put even her first look together, much less her thirty-third, Bowie shifted from one identity to the next effortlessly. Gender fluidity? Bowie never did it for shock effect or as style, but simply as an honest expression of the multitudes he contained, and he existed as a persona beyond any binary idea of what sexuality could be. I can't imagine how important he was to people who felt genuinely different or unloveable or outside, and what made him truly significant was the way he never seemed to care what anyone thought about the person he projected. He expected the culture to keep up with him, and if it didn't, that was the culture's fault. He was vast. He seemed like he would live forever. I feel bad that I had not purchased his new album yet, but I loved the way he recorded it and released it with absolutely no hype. It was such a Bowie way of handling things.
I could keep writing, but it hurts too much. There is a cascade of words and sounds washing over me right now. The Man Who Fell To Earth has finally been called home. Major Tom is out there in the stars. Ziggy Stardust became the special man. It feels like every song of his is speaking to me at once, even if the way these lines land might not make sense to anyone else. It is raw emotion right now, and I wish I could play them all at once, because that's how they exist for me. I can call them all up in this amazing shuffle, and the sheer volume of it, all of this remarkable art he created, hits me like a fist in the throat.
He was awful nice, really quite out of sight. We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when. I'm just gonna have to be a different man. He's in the best-selling show. I'm an alligator. I'm a mama-papa comin' for you. 'Cause there's a starman waiting in the sky. He'd like to come and meet us, but he thinks he'd blow our minds. Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise. Perhaps you're smiling now, smiling through this darkness. Got to get a rain check on pain. What will I be believing, and who will connect me with love? I'll dance my little dance until you smile. Every thrill is gone. Pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to do, nothing to say. We can be heroes, forever and ever, what do you say? “I'm happy. Hope you're happy, too. I've loved. All I've needed: love.” Prayers, they hide the saddest view. Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry? Somebody send me. Oh, somebody send me. Oh, god… somebody send me.
All love to his family and friends and to the legion of fans he leaves around the world. There is no way to overstate the mark David Bowie made on people, on art, on the very way we think and live, maybe because he never felt like he was completely of the world. Something special has dimmed today, and I feel hollowed out by it. Thank god he left so much of himself for us to share with one another today, and forever.
Bowie is gone. Bowie is timeless. Bowie will always be.