Frozen in my living room chair, my stomach dropped like a lead weight as I stared down at my laptop screen in horror. Fingers trembling above the cold keyboard, I read and re-read those two sentences over and over again, praying that perhaps it was just some sort of typo, some kind of cruel autocorrect disaster. But…it was no mistake.
David Bowie had just told me to fuck off.
Believe me, it wasn’t the first time my battered ears had heard such colorful language, but from the “Thin White Duke” himself? What could I have possibly done to illicit such a soul-crushing reaction? Was it something I said? Or, had I done that thing that I always do when faced with a bonifide legend, nervously displaying all of my most annoying tendencies? (There are many, trust me) I retraced all of our brief encounters together over the years, digging back into….”My Life with David Bowie” (God, how I wish that were the title of my book….)
Like most red-blooded rock musicians, David Bowie provided an indelible addition to the soundtrack of my life from an early age. His first live album, “David Live” was on regular rotation in my living room when I was a kid, and his classic track “Suffragette City” was quite a hit at the backyard parties I played with my nerdy high school band in the early 80’s (I sang the “Hey Man!” background vocals with the best pre-pubescent shriek I could possibly squeeze out of my skinny little neck) Come to think of it…I can still vividly remember the time I vomited Kung Pao chicken all over my sister’s VW bug after drinking too much cheap beer at a high school party, while the sweet sounds of “Space Oddity” crooned in the background. Ahhhh…..the memories. But, the album that really stole my heart, and I know that I’ll be drawn and quartered by hardcore Bowie fans for admitting this, was his 1983 masterpiece “Let’s Dance”. As much as I want to pretend to be in love with his deeper, darker Krautrock/Berlin phase, I really just want to do the Molly Ringwald dance to “Modern Love” everyday for like, 8 hours a day. (Sorry Pitchfork!) Seriously though, those drums, courtesy of Omar Hakim and Tony Thompson, illuminated many a lightbulb in my feeble little brain, and their influence can be heard in every band I’ve played with since. (Upon meeting the late, great Tony Thompson years ago, I confessed that I had stolen more than a few of his drum riffs in my career, to which he replied, “Oh, I know…”)
Over time, Bowie became a welcome constant in my crooked musical path. Example: when Nirvana was approached by MTV to shoot an episode of their popular “Unplugged” series in 1994, we were faced with a most puzzling challenge: translating our screaming, dissonant, distorted rock songs into something more along the lines of that acoustic ballad by Extreme (you know the one). Practically unfathomable! Having seen other episodes, the thought of performing a song like “Floyd the Barber” or “Territorial Pissings” with acoustic guitars and brushes was so fucking laughable, it almost seemed like a brilliant idea. Clearly, some songs were not going to survive that disastrous transition, so Kurt decided on a few covers to fill out the set. A few classic Meat Puppets songs were chosen, a Vaselines song that we had been performing for years, a Leadbelly favorite, and of course, “ The Man Who Sold the World” by Bowie. (Thank you, Pat Smear for showing us how to play it properly) A standout song from that televised performance, it brought Bowie’s music even closer to my heart, as it not only became a part of the band’s live repertoire, it also became a memory that I still cherish to this day.
Years later, I noticed on our tour itinerary that Foo Fighters were to share a stage with Bowie at an outdoor European summer festival. Ground control to Major Tom!!! LIFE MADE!!! Having never actually seen him in the flesh, I counted the days until I could physically reel in his presence, singing along to the songs that had inspired me so much over the years. Mind you, I still considered him to be almost more than human, practically alien. So when he walked (levitated?) onstage that night, I felt as if I were being visited by another life form. The kind of “Starman” I searched the night sky for as a child, waiting for his gilded spacecraft to descend upon my front yard and take me away from my banal, suburban life. It was my first time witnessing Bowie’s grace and power live, and provided me with a surprising revelation: It’s not the volume, nor the lights, nor the number of instruments onstage that transforms a muddy festival into a field of magic. No. It’s the human being onstage that fills the field with joy. With just the flick of his cigarette, David Bowie had 40,000 people under his spell, dangling their hearts by a string, transporting them into another, more enchanted reality. Myself included. I felt as if I were witnessing history, and I was changed forever.
Now, if there were ever anyone truly qualified to hold their own 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden, it would be David Bowie. And what better way to celebrate such a momentous occasion than to invite Lou Reed, Robert Smith, Frank Black, Billy Corgan, Sonic Youth, and…….us???? (Crashing the party, anyone?). It was January 9th, 1997, and we were on a short holiday break from recording our second album, “The Colour and The Shape” with producer Gil Norton. Arriving at rehearsals the day before, I had the incredible honor to meet David for the first time and was pleasantly surprised (shocked?) to find that he wasn’t an alien space being after all!! He was a kind, funny, strikingly handsome human specimen. For all of my nervousness and annoying social tics, I thought we got along quite well. And when we strapped on our instruments to perform “Hallo Spaceboy” and “7 Years in Tibet”, we made one hell of a noise together. On the night of the show, I remember glancing over mid performance to see his iconic eyes as the crowd roared…and they were looking right into mine. Gives me chills, still to this day…
After returning to Los Angeles to finish our album, our producer, Gil received a phone call from the one, the only, Charles Thompson IV, i.e., Black Francis, Frank Black….the man we all know as the twisted mind behind THE PIXIES. The two had worked together for years, making the classic albums “Doolittle”, “Bossanova” and “Tromp Le Monde”, remaining close friends. Seems that Bowie’s guitarist at the time, Reeves Gabrels was making a solo record and asked if I would join in on the fun with Charles AND Bowie for a track named “Jewel”. Two of my heroes in the same room? How could I resist! Gil and I hastily closed up shop at our Foo’s session and raced over to the infamous Cherokee studios (a rock and roll go-to in Hollywood where Bowie had recorded “Station to Station” back in 1975) This was the chance of a lifetime! A “Rock n Roll Fantasy”, as Bad Company might say.
While setting up our gear and getting sounds, the room suddenly came alive as David arrived, all smiles and warm greetings. After a bit of catching up and small talk, he proceeded to sit on the floor, pulling handfuls of photographs and postcards from a fashionable shoulder bag he wore to the session, scattering them on the carpet around his feet. With pen and paper in hand, he began to write lyrics, line after line, with no correction. The words seemed to just spill out of him. Once finished, he drew a crude, yet beautiful self portrait at the bottom of the page. At the top of the page, he scribbled a title: My Face.
When it was finally time for him to do his vocal, he entered the booth, put on his headphones, and announced to the room that he was ready to sing. I looked up in horror at the empty producer’s chair in front of the console. The recording engineer was gone. David fucking Bowie was standing there, lyrics in hand, waiting for the track to roll, and there was NO ENGINEER to hit record! The silence was suffocating. A tsunami of fear swept over the control room as everyone realized what was happening. Seconds seemed like hours. Then, without hesitation, Gil jumped up to the mixing desk, finger on the red button, leaned into the talkback mic and told David we were rolling. My jaw dropped! “Carpe diem”, Gil! (The extent of my Latin. Thank you, Dead Poets Society) The mighty Mr. Norton had heroically saved the day (once again) and as David’s unmistakable voice flooded the room, Gil turned to me from the producer’s chair and gave the most Academy Award worthy Clint Eastwood wink I have ever seen, as if to say, “we will remember this moment until the day we die”. I still certainly do.
“I believe my face
A girls face
I believe my face is one of a kind
I point to the stars, roll my eyes
They poison my young mind
Believe my face
The charming face
My poison eyes
Believe my eyes
I roll up my sleeves
I’m back on my knees
But I’m nothing without my face”
I can tell you this: it was over much too soon. His voice needed no effect, no sonic sleight of hand. There was nothing to “fix”, no need to over analyze. Clear as a bell, it was the voice we’ve all come to know and love over the years, natural and real, straight from the microphone to the speakers. Again, I was blessed with a beautiful revelation: it’s the purity and raw emotion of the human voice that makes the song. A round of chills for everyone present, to say the least. He did one, maybe two takes. That’s all he needed. And, like that……he was gone.
As we broke down all the gear at the end of the night, I noticed that his lyric sheet with the crudely drawn self portrait at the bottom of the page was still on the music stand in the vocal booth. Now…let he who is without sin cast the first stone….but c’mon, people….I snatched that motherfucker up faster than you can say “Jean Genie”! Surely a treasure that I would frame and keep for the rest of my life, I dove at that music stand like it was a cooler full of Coors Light on a hot summer day. Once in my hands though, I stopped and realized that there was someone I owed this great experience to who I knew would appreciate it even more than me. The person responsible for introducing me to Bowie’s music in the first place with that “David Live” album many years ago: my sweet sister, Lisa. I happily gave it to her, and it will forever be one of the most meaningful gifts I have ever given anyone.
Sadly, it was the last time I would ever see David Bowie. Had I known, I would have thanked him for all the gifts HE had given me.
The world didn’t see much of Bowie from 2006–2013. It was as if he had slipped into the shadows, gliding through our once busy streets and crowded street corners without a trace. An unimaginable feat for anyone in today’s world of surveillance and interconnectivity. You would think that someone of his level of fame and recognition would forever remain glaringly visible as the sun! No. As only he could, Bowie became invisible. Virtually unseen. Until one day, January 8th, 2013 (his 66th birthday) without warning, he released a track called “Where Are We Now”. A song so moving, it proved that not only was he was alive, but still incredibly prolific. A melody and lyric so tragically beautiful, it brings me to tears every time I put it on to this day. (Please listen to and/or watch the video immediately. I defy you to not cry, as well). He had thankfully returned.
Not long after the release of that album, “The Next Day”, I had the honor to work with Bowie’s long time friend / collaborator / producer / bandmate / genius, Tony Visconti on an album by a phenomenal artist named Kristeen Young. We instantly hit it off, working together fast and well, and struck up a friendship filled with stories of Bowie’s life. Having worked with David all the way back from 1968 (including producing “Man Who Sold the World”) to his latest album, Tony shared many inspiring moments of their working and personal relationship over the years. It seemed that he loved David just as much, or perhaps even more than we all do.
Around the same time, I had been approached to write an original song for a big budget, major motion picture. You know, one of those action packed, comic book, CGI type of things. I was hesitant to do a “solo” track, but I had a ripping instrumental that I’d been sitting on for ages, just waiting to complete. Maybe I could record the instrumental, and have another artist sing, I thought….
You see where this is going, right?
I asked my new friend Tony if Mr. Bowie would ever even remotely consider such an unimaginable prospect. He told me that indeed David was up to working again, and yes, he just might! I didn’t get my hopes up, believe me, but I did send the demo to Tony and asked that he forward to Bowie. I was told that David would contact me after listening.
Days. Weeks. What seemed like an eternity, until I finally received a response! I casually opened my email one morning and literally gasped when I saw his name. He had actually heard the track! But, beyond that, DAVID BOWIE WRITES EMAILS!!! WHAAAAT?!?!?!? With the excitement of a hyperactive child on Christmas morning, I held my breath and hastily opened it. If I remember correctly, it went something like this:
Just kidding! As usual, he was very kind, very complimentary, and full of his signature wit. He explained that this particular genre of film wasn’t really his thing (“I’m just not made for these times” he said), but would love to collaborate on something else someday. Damn! As disappointed as I was, I truly felt that just receiving an email from him was enough. My life was made, again. I immediately responded with a brief note saying, “Hey man, thank you for listening to the song…I hope that you’re well, and let me know if you’d ever like to make music together sometime. Love, Dave” Short, sweet, to the point. Not wanting to take up any more of his time, I hit send with a smile.
Within 60 seconds, my inbox chimed with a new email. It was Bowie, responding to the note I had just sent. That was fast, I thought! I opened it.
“Well, that’s settled. Now fuck off.”
My smile immediately went from that of a cat having an afternoon nap on a warm afternoon, to the shock and horror of your first prostate exam.
Not knowing if he was seriously telling me to eat shit and die, or hopefully just another wicked example of his acerbic wit, I quickly responded with something….anything…to see if I were actually experiencing the worst waking nightmare of my entire life.
“See you in another 17 years!” was all I could come up with. I nervously hit send.
“Not if I see you first” he shot back within seconds.
Holy shit! This can’t be happening! What have I done??? What do I DO??? Still stubbornly unconvinced that he was serious, I had to give it one more shot….
“What, no more birthday parties at Madison Square Garden?” I quipped.
Seconds later, another response.
“No more birthdays. I’ve run out of them.”
OK. Maybe he’s just testing me. I’ll try a bit of humor.
“Well, you’re more than welcome to come to my 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden. It’ll be at the hot dog stand out front!” I wrote.
He shot back, “Wait, you’re not even 50! Nobody’s 50 anymore…50 is the new dead! That was a good night though, wasn’t it?”
Phew. The relief washed over me like a glorious baptism. With every muscle in my body loosening from the crippling anxiety of the past few minutes, I sunk back into my living room chair, born again. Hallelujah! I could finally breathe knowing that David Bowie did not actually wish for me to “fuck off” (or maybe he did, but in the nicest way possible, and even that was an honor)
We ended the exchange with pleasantries, hoping to see each other again, and life went on….
Hindsight is a blurry lens, I’m convinced. It’s too easy to slip into dark shades of revisionism if you’re not careful. Moments are moments and should be cherished as such. The world had no idea that David was ill, and when he passed two days after the release of his final album “Blackstar”, I looked back on my memories of him with a great sense of fondness and also deep sadness. Especially our last exchange. It broke my heart to re-read the line “No more birthdays, I’ve run out of them”, thinking that maybe, just maybe he knew something that we didn’t. And, being the gentleman that he always was, didn’t want us to suffer his pain. Nevertheless, it still hurt. Nothing lasts forever, I know, but the best things always seem to end much too soon….
“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
I’m a Blackstar”