“Mr. Bowie, Tear Down These Walls”
Carly Simon might have been guided by the clouds in her coffee but David Bowie had mammoth moonage daydreams. There was something larger than life, other or outer-worldly about Bowie, who transformed folk songs originally made under his birth name Davy Jones into the epic spectacle of what became Ziggy Stardust.
Now it seemed like it was all over.
I had made my ritual stop following junior high dismissal to pick up the newest issue of Circus Magazine and now I was sitting in my religion class flipping through its pages hidden under the cover of my desk.
I read the news today, oh boy. There it was in front of me. I can still remember the photo caption: “As David Bowie stepped into his limousine, he announced his retirement. ‘I shall not play another show.’”
The shocking news suspended all thought and concentration on the studies required for my impending confirmation.
“Can you tell me about Moses and the burning bush?” my teacher might have asked me as I pondered the news from across the Atlantic.
“No,” I might have said in my state of shock, “but I can tell you about Weird and Gilly and the Spiders From Mars.”
I probably knew at some level that art imitated life but now it seemed life was imitating art. I could hear Bowie singing about his alter ego Ziggy Stardust and the tale he foreshadowed right in front of us. “When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band.” Maybe we should had paid closer attention.
But was he really going to walk away from it all?
I was coming of age in a staid suburban Connecticut town at a time when my new fave rock starts were presenting themselves in spiked colored haired and make-up and platform boots. But if I had to admit it, the allure of glam and glitter completely enthralled me. It was reality being presented as theater born out of gutter rock. The Spiders of Mars thrashing and crashing. The guitar riffs of T-Rex and the raunch and roll of the New York Dolls, their frenzied “Personality Crisis” anticipating the punk rock that was still to come. As David Johansen would tell me some years later about the band’s roots, “If you walked down St. Mark’s Place, you’d see every form of life walking by you.”
“Oh Bowie,” my friends in junior high school soon began saying. It was a catch-phrase to both bait and admonish. A test of sorts for young boys, who, nervous about their own masculinity, began repeating to each other. To turn and face the strange, was in itself a dangerous step. David Bowie was a kind of litmus test and to acknowledge you might be curious, let alone like this new world, was crossing a line in the sand.
It’s not like it was confined to the young glam boys. Even Mick Jagger was wearing dark mascara. He and his new pal David Bowie were part of high society fraternizing with his wife Angela Bowie, Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, the artist Bowie had presented as a folk hero in the song called “Andy Warhol.” And what were he, Mick and Angela doing together? We were convinced the gorgeous and haunting Stones song “Angie” had to be about their dalliances and in whatever combinations thereof. That Keith Richards had a newborn daughter Angela and that this song could be about he and Anita Pallenberg (or about overcoming his own heroin addiction as he wrote in Life) seemed less alluring to this day, and besides why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Ziggy may have been a victim of self-immolation but Bowie’s own retirement was short-lived. It became one of the greatest publicity stunts ever perpetrated, one that was often imitated but never replicated. (Who could take Gary Numan seriously who, when at the height of popularity of his first hit record “Cars,” he announced deadpan that he was retiring?) Bowie became Aladdin Sane, launch the Diamond Dogs and later become the Thin White Duke. And there was missionary work. Producing Lou Reed. Producing the Stooges. Writing for Lulu. Saving Mott The Hoople by giving them “All The Young Dudes” after they supposedly turned down “Suffragette City.” Taking Iggy Pop under his wing, producing two comeback albums The Idiot and Lust For Life was an act of benevolence that saved Iggy from a post-Stooges life of tending to his excellent golf game.
If Bowie was larger than life, it was Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople whose “Boy” reminded us that he was human too. The song is the centerpiece of Hunter’s debut solo album Ian Hunter and features the ex-Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson. While some saw it as jab and admonishment of Bowie, it’s also a tender call to arms to Bowie’s great talent:
You’re the guide
You’re the number one
And your knees are shaking
Stand and deliver in an endless dream
You was only swearing yesterday
Oh you want to win the world away
But now you got nothing to say-ay-ay
Boy you’re getting out of hand
You’ve got to make a stand
So put the coke away
Boy you got the do the show
Got to let the people know
You got the strength to stay
And maybe David had a larger purpose. Did his efforts to break down barriers between genres have an effect on world events? Did his struggle to overcome efforts his own detoxification by going to eastern Berlin add momentum to the demise of communism? While Bowie took to the cafe life in the gray-walled city behind the Iron Curtain, guards looked on from the towers spying on the subterranean sounds being generated by he and Brian Eno. Maybe inside he sub-consciously heard the words that were all along the mantra for his art. “Mr. Bowie…tear down these walls.”
It would be another dozen or so years before West and East Germany would be united. But Bowie had always been breaking down barriers of his own choosing and expectations of what his music should sound like. Roy Bittan, the pianist of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, remembers getting a call to play on Station To Station. Bowie, he remembers, gave a general direction but was more interested in the ideas of the musicians. Bowie always had a good eye for guitarists beginning with Mick Ronson, classically trained who aspired to be a cellist but found there was a correlation with electric guitar when he heard Duane Eddy play the instrument’s bass strings. Ronson would go on to play alongside Hunter and along with a stint on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour and even an appearance on a Pure Prairie League album.
Then there was Carlos Alomar who came out of Amatuer Night at the Apollo Theater to become part of the house band and whose guitar riff led to Bowie’s infectious single “Fame,” providing the architecture for his ensuing dissonant dance music. Bowie’s attendance at the Montreux Music Festival led to his fortuitous discovery of Austin guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan with whom he talked hours his roots and influences before inviting him to play on his then-new album Let’s Dance. Vaughan’s fiery guitar emblazoned the tracks of the Niles Rodgers-produced album and preceded Vaughan’s own landmark Texas Flood.
Over the past week Bowie released the wistful and mournful Black Star that foretold his own passing in a Bowie-esque art imitates life scenario. The sense of community that’s formed around Bowie’s passing has been comforting, My favorite radio station Sirius XM’s The Loft essentially turned the channel into an all-Bowie station for a week. It did not come without some surprising consternation among some listeners but seemed appropriate to me in proportion to the enormity of Bowie’s legacy.
Emma Swift and Robyn Hitchcock sent their own Facebook postcard as Swift shared how they visited the mural in Bowie’s hometown of Brixton. “We left flowers and a poem among the hundreds of other bouquets, notes and mementos in his honour,” she wrote. “Candles burned in the damp air. The English sky, reliably dismal, offered light rain. No music played. We both cried. Everyone around us cried. Fare thee well, David Bowie.”
It was all against a week of the bizarre. Former wife Angie Bowie was told of his passing while filming the UK reality show Big Brother. The resulting confusion that ensued in which the cast thought that the show’s David Gest had died turned the episode into the theater of the absurd.
But on the opening night of Bruce Springsteen’s The River Tour, the guitarist remembered boarding a Greyhound bus to visit Bowie in Philadelphia during the making of Young Americans–-and how Bowie supported the young Springsteen, covering both “Growin’ Up” and “It’s Hard To Be a Saint In The City.”
Then, very appropriately he ripped into “Rebel Rebel” and brought the house down.
David Bowie who seemed larger than life and much too big for Davy Jones’ locker, was reincarnated for one night, the singer who was always about reinvention but never retirement–except when it was for publicity’s sake.