Of course the public never knew David Bowie was sick. A man who controlled his image so artfully, so thoroughly, who moved from one personage to another and was famous and adored for nearly a half century, well, naturally, he’d slip away without fanfare, leaving us to burst into applause to an empty stage.
Me? David Bowie helped shape my world. There’s no other way to say it.
When I was 16, I was a junior counselor at a summer camp in Ohio. The room my buddy and I found ourselves in had a small turntable and just one record, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” We played it continually, all summer.
By fall I was a Bowie fan, for his flair, the drama of his music — “Ziggy Stardust” is a dark tale of apocalypse, a theme continued on “Diamond Dogs.” His bleak worldview helped me navigate the self-generated crisis of adolescence. I would come home from high school, put on the “David Live at Tower Philadelphia” album to the “Diamond Dogs” track, clapping on a pair of headphones and crawling under the desk to listen at full volume. I remember doing that a lot. It helped, somehow.
The Stones were commercial, disco sucked and punk had too much anger and spittle. But Bowie was cool, so fabulously hip that just listening to him imparted a bit of contact coolness, even to a chubby teen with acne and a Prince Valiant haircut. Or so I thought.
I only saw him sing once, around 1980. In my recollection, he stood motionless behind a synthesizer and never so much as said, “Hello Cleveland!” True to form, he disliked having to perform. But also disappointing as a fan. Too cool to notice us.
Bowie kept putting out hit albums. “Heroes” was another one of those songs that was a soundtrack to my life. “You, you can be queen. And I, I’ll drink all the time….”
His star kept getting bigger. “Let’s Dance” was elegant and sinuous, showing a song could be a hit and have a beat while avoiding the idiocy of most dance music. And then he just went away, living on some island, it was said, with his wife, the Somali fashion model Iman.
But he kept circling back, on Broadway in “The Elephant Man,” on Saturday Night Live, in movies like “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Seeing Bowie was an event.
In recent years, he returned. New music. A retrospective of his life that toured art museums, a living scrapbook, tribute and not coincidentally, record promotion. He always was a savvy businessman. People lined up for hours to see it at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2014.
I did too, not so much in tribute to Bowie or to memorialize my teenage self, but because my older son loves him. The boys grew up watching “Labyrinth,” a kid’s movie that had him playing a goblin king with the Muppets and a teenage Jennifer Connelly (“Poor girl,” I marveled, pitying her. “Making this film was probably the highlight of her life. Must be working in a Church’s Fried Chicken somewhere….”) Bowie did that sort of off-beat thing — he was cool enough to pull it off, whether singing “Little Drummer Boy” as a duet with Bing Crosby, of all people, or recording Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
I remember my boy at 16, playing “Ziggy Stardust” on the stereo and shooting me a “What is dad making of this?” glance. I smiled and said, “Given that I had that album memorized, word for word, when I was 16, and can sing it for you now, if you’re looking for me to be shocked, I’m not.” And then I began singing the album’s first song until he begged me to stop.
Just Friday we were in Vintage Vinyl in Evanston — records are back; my kids buy ’em. They had the brand new Bowie album, “Blackstar,” which came out Jan. 8, his 69th birthday. I held it up for him to admire, though, at $38, that’s all he did.
“I can get it online,” he said.
So Bowie, the man, ended his story Jan. 10, to the sorrow of his friends and family. But the musician, artist and cultural figure will continue, so long as there are teenagers looking to see their turmoil reflected somewhere, and adults looking for something intelligent to listen to, and maybe hoping to borrow a bit of bottomless cool and something good to dance to.