Once upon a time, not so very long ago, David Robert Jones was born to Peggy and John Jones in Brixton, southwest London. He was an imaginative child, by reports, and had musical aspirations as well as talent early on. His cousin Kristina Amadeus recently wrote, in a letter to the editors of The Economist in correcting them, that he had a musical heritage — his grandfather was a bandmaster — and that his parents encouraged him in his music: his first instruments were “a plastic saxophone, a tin guitar and a xylophone,” and he “owned a record player when few children had one.” David’s love for American music was early and intense. As children, Kristina recalls that she and David “danced like possessed elves to the records of Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley.”
Jones made his first records – remember singles? 45s? – from 1963 to 1967, in the fashion of the times: pageboy hair, skinny suit, and a sound born of skiffle and of America, rock and roll and jazz, Little Richard and Elvis. But he was different. His first album, eponymous and under a new name, showed you that – if you were one of the few people who listened to it and enjoyed it at the time. He was alone – not the lead singer, or star guitarist, for a band. His face, with those white planes and points, didn’t look like the many British Invasion faces still trailing baby fat and chubby cheeks. Bowie: he’d chosen an American name, the name of a knife, apt for that sharp face, that keen look.
What did he sound like? His voice had a wide, bright range, from clear high tenor to a pleasant depth that shone forth on most of his songs. Bowie pushed the boundaries of voice as he pushed the boundaries of everything else: the high tenor rising to a predatory-birdshriek, the baritone register dropping to a growl.
But it was what he looked like. The hair alone has consumed entire essays, books, probably. It was white, ashy gold, red, neon orange, absent, spiked, long, short, styled, madly free. Along with the hair went the fashion, from the aforementioned skinny suits to clothing akin to that of Ray and Dave Davies – also young men from London’s long reach, playing Edwardian, Wildean dandies in their postmodern mode. Then came long hair and long coats and dresses; DayGlo bodysuits missing parts; a mime who roared; elegant suits with zoot-style shoulders that only emphasized his thinness; movie costumes; whatever Bowie felt like. Ziggy shared his coif with my favorite troll doll when I was a child, and the Thin White Duke looked like a 1930s advertisement for the Last Word in male elegance…or Katharine Hepburn, when she was on her own time.
My first Bowie record was Lodger. Was I born too late? Probably, but at the time it didn’t feel that way to me. I bought it with my birthday money the month it came out. A French girl, with whom I spent the summer of 1979 and who knew almost no English, listened along with me. Her name was Pascale, and we learned every song by heart, though every time we put it on the turntable we were distressed by the cover. We never sat still as we listened. Clear as day in my mind’s eye I can see Pascale dancing, pointing at me every time Bowie chanted “And he could have married Anne with the blue silk blouse.” I wore a lot of blue shirts that summer because of that line, and felt beautiful every time I did.
I grew up and bought many, many more records. There were singer-songwriters with whom I spent a lot more time, but when Bowie released something, you always heard it on the radio – even south of the Mason-Dixon Line. You bought it. You talked about it with friends. Increasingly I was taken by the way he brought the visual into his music; one of the first music videos of which I remember every moment is “Underground.” The song was good; add to it Bowie’s performance, the chatoyant vari-colored eyes and that face; and the madly liberating, then increasingly doomy, weird fairytale scenes through which he and his animated avatar walked, and you had a great song instead.
What a kick it was, what a cool thing, when Bowie moved to New York in 1992. I didn’t even know that he’d been living in America for so many years already – since 1974, off and on. He was married, now, to Iman, a woman whose face was surely as spread throughout the world as was his own – but no one called them DavIman, or ImaBowie – they weren’t the sort of ephemeral celebrity couples we’re so accustomed to now. She kept on doing her own things, and he his, only they were very much together. They didn’t talk to the press about how this was possible, and how it fulfilled them – they simply got on with it, both in terms of work and their lives. Bowie was a New Yorker. Nobody, except for paparazzi, stalked him here in SoHo. He and his friends shook them off in style. I love the Getty Images identification of this photograph as “Musician David Bowie (R) wears a hooded winer [sic] jacket as he walks with friends March 1, 2003 in the Soho neighborhood of New York City.” The two English fashion icons, Ray Davies and David Bowie, surrounded by people who don’t know or even notice them, strolling the street half entirely unrecognized, happily chatting, Davies in a cool gent’s hat, Bowie in the ubiquitous, anonymous outfit of Manhattan in the wintertime — the puffy coat. Talk about fulfilling E.B. White’s celebrated maxim that, for those who desire such queer prizes, New York will bestow upon you the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. Bowie and Davies are clearly enjoying the latter, here. Living in town, Bowie did the stuff New Yorkers do: went out for groceries, wore tennis shoes, held his daughter by the hand crossing streets, leaned on lampposts and watched other people go by. He also did stuff not so many people in Manhattan get to do — he starred on Broadway, wrote plays, and kept on making music.
As a New Yorker, Bowie discovered the Hudson Valley as a grand place to create and record, as well as a place of refuge in the summertimes. Rusticating is an American tradition long honored in the Northeast: if you had the money, you’d find a summer place, in Maine or Cape Cod or the inland mountains.
Artists, in the 19th and 20th centuries — and musicians and writers, in the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries — have been coming to Woodstock, New York, for the summer, and sometimes staying longer.
Bowie, his wife, and their daughter began renting a house in the area years ago, and liked it so well they lay down roots there.
At the Allaire Studios, Bowie made music with friends, including — of course — Tony Visconti. As the news of Bowie’s death, and the scattering of his ashes near Allaire, broke in the press, Randall Wallace, the studio’s owner, spoke simply and elegantly: “My Studio is honored by such news, as I am so honored.” Publicly, Allaire posted on Facebook a radiant photograph of Visconti and Bowie, beaming, together in the Neve Room.
Maybe one of the reasons Bowie flourished, creatively, in the Woodstock area is because local folks left him alone. Celebrated musicians made their homes in the Catskills before Albert Grossman began work on his studio and restaurant complex in Bearsville, just down the flat valley road, but since then, the list has become very long: Bob Dylan, there for awhile; Levon Helm and Rick Danko, there for their lifetimes. Happy Traum and John Sebastian, Larry Campbell and Natalie Merchant, Josh Ritter and Simi Stone … listing musicians who call this strip of the Hudson Valley home would take awhile.
There’s just plain something in the air, a fiddlethread in the sound of the wind, and the water runs like a hymn, hums like a harp.
Woodstock is, I believe, the deepest and most peaceable beating heart of Americana music, but Americana contains multitudes, of course, which is the best thing about it. And, friends, if you can find me a more divinely down-home moment than David Bowie in Woodstock, driving his Mustang down Tinker Street to Catskill Art & Office Supply (he loved painting), or stopping to pick up a book at The Golden Notebook, you’re welcome to try, but you’ll fail. David Bowie was, in all his stage personae, shot with starlight, ethereal, supermortal. David Jones seems to have been a man happy with his family, his art, his friends and the places where he chose to live with them.
People in town didn’t talk about Bowie and his family while they lived near Woodstock, and they are not talking about him now, after the announcement that his ashes would be scattered near the place he and his family, in the end, called home.
English tabloids have sent reporters looking for stories, and they’ve come up with, gratifyingly, precious little. Those who knew Bowie grieve quietly; those who met him or ran into him in town keep their encounters to themselves and friends. Local musicians have done what they do when one of their number is lost: on the last Friday night in January, a knock-down, drag-out, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am Bowie bash was had at BSP Kingston.
Woodstock artist Mike DuBois, best known for his stunning poster art among Grateful Dead fans, has paid a gorgeous tribute to Bowie. People throw flowers by the roadside where he drove that car, and sing his songs on the town green in the cold mountain air.
When I think of Bowie, I see three images now, as I’m hearing music in my head.
First, the moment in The Man Who Fell to Earth when he’s about to be spun in the machine, and he begs the scientists to let him remove the prosthetics over his eyes (they don’t). Then, the moment in The Hunger when he first meets Catherine Deneuve, for better and for far, far worse, in the stable. And, lastly, I see a whirl of frames from the video for “Lazarus,” released three days before his death.
On the morning of January 11, I sat down alone to watch “Lazarus” again – having only seen it once, before.
There were two Bowies on the screen: the broom-haired man in white, bandaged, tiny steel bolt-holes over his eyes, rigid in a bed; and the sleek man in the dark bodysuit patterned in stripes, writing against time. I made it through until the moment when Bowie sings, “By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king.”
As he emerges from the cupboard to sing that line, he tosses his head, his arms fluid, and then he throws a hand on his hip, sassy, voguing, just for one brief, shining moment.
He started all that.
Then he stares the camera straight down into the floor. He means this line, every word, with everything that’s in him. King. He pronounces and sings it just the way he does in “Heroes,” when he first promised, nearly 30 years ago, that “I, I will be king, and you, you will be queen.”
“By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king.” I could not watch past there.
(shorter version of this article, with more images, blogged here)