It feels like the whole world is mourning David Bowie today. Bowie the icon, visionary, visual artist, fashion revolutionary, and almost unfairly musically gifted space oddity. But I first knew David Bowie as my dad’s boss. My father was playing in a local band in Connecticut when he was spotted by a young Nile Rodgers, who asked he and his brother to record the backup vocals on the Let’s Dance album. The two guys shouting “modern love!” and “let’s dance!” on the songs of the same name? My dad and my uncle.
When Bowie went on his Serious Moonlight tour to support the album, the brothers went with him, crisscrossing the globe to perform in front of hysterical crowds. I went with my dad for some legs of the tour, playing with the other musicians’ kids backstage and taking naps in a private plane which was decked out like an old-fashioned living room, complete with floor lamps and armchairs bolted to the floor. During shows, my dad would let me sit just offstage on top of massive speakers, wearing heavy-duty headphones to protect my hearing. I loved watching the band run off stage between numbers, sweaty and wacked out on adrenaline. Songs like “Ashes to Ashes” were my version of Raffi—the tunes I heard over and over, wonderfully warping my little kid brain. Bowie was so sweet to me and the other tour kids, and I thought he was beyond-glamorous, a handsome mystery in a custom-made fedora. In my kindergarten class photo, I’m wearing a pin of his face on my sky-blue turtleneck.
It wasn’t until college that I started really listening to his music, falling in love with his melodies and the bizarre worlds he’d constructed. I couldn’t believe how much I’d missed, how much more there was to appreciate. I read about his Berlin years, about his fascination with witchcraft, his drug problems, his peculiarities. But while he was famous for his edginess, Bowie IRL—at least during the time I knew him—was unfailingly polite and demure, the sort of person who’d been raised with beautifully British manners. I was reminded of that in April 2014, when my dad and I went to a party celebrating super-producer Tony Visconti’s 70th birthday. An hour or two after we arrived, I heard a low rumble through the crowd—Bowie had showed up. My dad went over to say hello: it’d been years since they’d seen each other. And after they shot the shit, he signaled me over, telling Bowie I was there, too. He said my name in incredulous shock, and turned around.
There he was, a specter from my childhood and a bona fide icon. He looked healthy and happy in some ludicrously gorgeous suit, and he smelled amazing.
There he was, a specter from my childhood and a bona fide icon. He looked healthy and happy in some ludicrously gorgeous suit, and he smelled amazing. But hugging him felt less like meeting an idol than seeing a long-lost family friend. I wanted to tell him everything I’d been up to, but I stopped short: I knew I was the one-millionth person in that room who wanted to have an audience with him, who wanted to look into his mismatched eyes and have something to take away with me. So we chatted briefly and he headed back into the crowd, his cologne leaving a lovely wake behind him.
I’ve spent my entire life hearing Bowie’s voice, flanked by the vocal bookends of my dad and uncle: while waiting for prescriptions in a CVS, sitting in a hipster restaurant, leaking from the headphones of someone on the subway. And whenever I hear those still-killer songs, I smile. Today, I watched the video for “Modern Love” for the 300th time. It was shot live in concert, and my dad is peacocking and clapping in a pinstriped suit next to Bowie, in front of thousands of kids who are screaming themselves hoarse. As I attempted to keep my shit together at my desk, I remembered the Bowie of all those years ago, the soft-voiced man who gave me the stuffed animals concertgoers had thrown on stage (I was a stuffed animal millionaire), and listened to me appreciatively while I sang him “Pin White Soup,” my little-kid translation of “Thin White Duke.” I didn’t know how to interpret his genius back then—how to comprehend a musician of his magnitude, and effect he had on popular culture—but I certainly get it now.
Images via Molly Simms and franksimms.net
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