Sometime in 2007 — after I’d spent three, non-consecutive weeks at a psychiatric center, but before I considered myself “cured” — a friend and I attended something called BowieBall in New York City. Or at least we tried to. We were both under 21 at the time, and therefore blocked from entering the apparently boozy tribute to all things Bowie, where we planned on dancing to “Teenage Wildlife” amongst fellow freaks wearing face paint and glitter.
This was a huge disappointment, not only because I loved David Bowie, but because I wasn’t used to doing this kind of thing. I barely knew the friend and rarely went out for an evening of public celebration (which is to say, I was too self-consciousness to let loose). But I made a vow to ignore my suffocating introvert tendencies and go Full Bowie. And Full Bowie, I went. At a now-defunct clothing store on slimy St. Mark’s Place, I bought a feather boa, tight pink-and-purple shirt, and tighter pants. It was not a good look.
But I didn’t care. Bowie helped get me through the toughest time of my life, and this (wearing makeup) was my small way of saying thank you. I don’t remember what my friend and I did after we were denied entry, but I assume it involved dejectedly walking back home, getting looks from people who only knew Bowie as the “Major Tom guy,” and trading Thin White Duke stories.
There are the ones that everyone knows, like how a fight with a friend led to him having different colored eyes, for instance. Then there are the personal anecdotes, like how I sang “Life on Mars” the first time I did karaoke, or when I got stoned with a buddy and we decided Station to Station was the “coolest” Bowie album to say is your favorite (I still believe this). We think of these minor moments in our lives when someone monumentally important dies, because what else can we do? The smallest events seem gigantic once they’re gone. And these tiny events can lead to something huge.
The first Bowie song I ever heard was probably “Changes,” or “Space Oddity,” or “Fame.” Something you can find on any Greatest Hits album. I didn’t become a hardcore fan until high school, when I borrowed The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars from my local library. But from the moment I heard “Five Years” while sitting in my car in my neighbor’s driveway, below a basketball hoop that I hadn’t used in, well, five years, I was hooked. Next came the raw Aladdin Sane, then pleasantly dreamy Hunky Dory, paranoid Diamond Dogs, the Berlin trilogy, and so on. Within a year, I owned every album and found something to admire, if not love, in all of them (yes, even Never Let Me Down — the title track is pretty good!).
Through my Bowie obsession, I discovered the Velvet Underground (and through them, the solo careers of Lou Reed and John Cale), The Stooges, Brian Eno, New York Dolls, Roxy Music, and T. Rex. David Bowie, the person and the concept, was daring and supernatural, but his weirdness was almost relatable. (This, I suspect, was part of his good-natured allure, that despite him seeming like an alien, you could still share a space-beer with him.) No one was as cool as David Bowie, but we could pretend we were while singing “Heroes.” The Velvet Underground’s weirdness was far more polarizing; apparently the mainstream doesn’t like the grim specter of death looming over songs about heroin abuse. I gravitated toward the darkness of the Velvets and the pulse (and literal) pounding of The Stooges. You know how most Star Wars fans want to be Han Solo, when really they’re Luke Skywalker? Well, I knew I wasn’t David Bowie; I was David Jones. And that’s fine!
David Bowie was an inspiration to “the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, [and] that most dangerous creature of all: the artist,” to quote comedian Sara Benincasa. But he also encouraged us stay-at-home, solitary types, through his own music (“Cygnet Committee” is meant to be listened to on headphones in the dark) and the music he indirectly led us to. Bowie was a gateway to the truly weird, an introduction to the abstractness of Fear of Music, the sonic daydreams of Another Green World, the baroque pop of Paris 1919.
David Bowie was respected by the misfits and mainstream alike. That’s a hard act to pull off, but his entire career was a performance. His true self was probably the loner looking for an original copy of Mott on vinyl. Then he became David Bowie (who transformed, with the grace of a chameleon with a makeup team, Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke — personas on top of personas). For one night, that sometime in 2007, I felt like David Bowie.
God knows it felt good.