A Letter in Your Handwriting Doesn't Mean You're Not Dead

At 7:30am on the morning of January 11th I woke up to an email from one of my editors that read, “David Bowie died, any ideas?” Almost instinctively I wrote back, “Are you sure?” But I knew they were sure because my editor’s job is to be sure about this sort of thing. Also the email was sent around midnight and I assume if it had been a hoax there would have been another email that said, “nvm.” From the outside, this kind of knee jerk “any ideas?” journalism seems ghoulish, but after I laid in bed and tried to understand the ramifications of the email. David Bowie was dead, and yes I had ideas. As I waited for my coffee to brew, I relived every drunken sing along, all the painted lightning bolts, and every debate about which albums really were the best. 

But I also had to write about the Golden Globes (it was the other thing that happened over the weekend) and all of a sudden I was weeping uncontrollably at my desk while trying to take screenshots of audience reactions. Five minutes passed, then ten, I was crying so much that I began to laugh, cackling at the absurdity of life continuing in the face of such a heartbreaking moment. No one, even David fucking Bowie can stop the lurching frame of time as it bares down on our shoulders.  Young Americans was playing and I heard myself saying, “this is so fucking stupid.”  David Bowie was the only artist that was one thing to me at age 6, another at 16, and something else entirely at 30. I remember seeing him for the first time. It happened twice. The first first time, as it probably was with most people my age, was when I watched Labyrinth on VHS. Afterwards, it was like someone had picked me up and rattled my insides into a new diagram of reality. The second first time was 1997, and he was playing on Saturday Night Live. Neve Campbell was hosting.  All I wanted to do was stay up late enough to watch Weekend Update, and I really didn’t care about the musical guest, but that night Bowie played “Little Wonder” a breakneck drum and bass freak out with a full band and I was hooked. I didn’t know what electronica was, or that the guy with the very cool hair was Jareth the Goblin King, and it took years to figure out what I heard that night. By the time I was able to fit the two David Bowies together I was in high school, nurturing a serious pop punk habit. But Bowie was there, stretching out an elongated alien hand, waiting to blow my mind.

The thing that’s the most confusing about the sadness that permeated my bloodstream after I heard the news of Bowie’s death was why I was sad in the first place. I didn’t know him. I never met him. He’s released enough excellent music that he could never put out another album and I could still listen to nothing but Bowie for months if I wanted to. It was as if, as a society, we learned that Santa Claus had died after giving out his last collection of gifts. Sorry folks, but Christmas is over. There might be a few Santa acolytes kicking around, the Arcade Fire’s still out there, but Santa is no more.

From 8:30am to 6:30pm I wrote about David Bowie. I read stories about him, and each time tears welled up in my eyes it became easier to fight them back. The one memory that stuck with me all day was from around 2007. I was drinking at the Chat Room in Fort Worth on a Thursday night ($2 wells!). It was the kind of night where the morning seemed as distant as the peak of a mountain (and in Texas there are no mountains). The years I spent in Fort Worth were my prime juke box monopolization years, and I probably spent as much money on booze as I did on playing albums worth of material on the Chat Room’s digital juke box.* For whatever reason, my friends and I were playing Station to Station in full, and when Golden Years came on the singer from Flickerstick (he was a co-owner of the bar) began to strut around the dance floor in a mock shimmy that was delightful in its childishness. Everything about that moment made me so happy.

I think about that night quite a bit (at least in terms of my memories of Fort Worth – I think about pizza, the collected works of Sarah Vowell, and the dance scene from Ex Machina about ten times more often) and remember being happy. Truly, unequivocally happy. And when I break down the night into what made that moment so good, it wasn’t my friends, or the cheap drinks, or the singer of a forgotten band that won a reality show that I religiously watched when I was 14 dancing to a song that I also loved. It was the music. Bowie cast a spell on everyone for four minutes and one second (or 69 years if you want to carry the metaphor all the way home) and when the magic ended we all went back to our lives, and the clock continued to count down.  



*Digital jukeboxes are a mistake by the way. First of all, they’re hideous. Secondly, they inspire assholes like myself to play the entire first disc of New Order’s greatest hits (a great collection of songs, but other people probably want to hear The Replacements or something – it is a dive bar after all).