Oh, so that’s what he’s been up to! Quite excellent music journalist (and sometime playwright) Marc Spitz has written a new biography on David Bowie. In his introduction, Spitz answers the question you probably just asked in your head, “why do we need another Bowie biography?” Indeed. Well, after wrestling with himself, the decision was cemented in the author’s mind by a chance encounter on the street, one of those patented “New York moments.” An excerpt:
As I write this, David Bowie has not released a new album since 2003. He has not toured since undergoing emergency heart surgery the following year. Before this, Bowie had been as prolific as Woody Allen, Tyler Perry, Ryan Adams or Prince—one of those artists who don’t let a year pass without offering something to their public. Popular culture is more Bowie informed than ever as it moves from idea to idea in a Twitter age designed for rapid self-reinvention, hype and spin (Bowie once claimed to have “the attention span of a grasshopper”). Both his scarcity and his importance have been so profound in the second half of this decade that I initially worried that to address a book on Bowie from a pop perspective would be akin to railing at a silent God—one who created everything then split. I actually considered calling this book “God and Man” (a sort of glib nod to the lyrics of his 1983 hit “Modern Love”). I certainly fretted to my agent that day over our beers about all of these things and more.
After the meeting at the Cedar Tavern, my agent and I had a smoke, then shook hands and parted. I remained unconvinced that I should take on a Bowie biography but agreed to think about it. Soon I found myself on the southwest corner of Broadway and Tenth Street, waiting for the traffic light to change. Behind me was a Chase branch. On the other side of the street there stood a prewar apartment building and the Modern Gourmet market. Kittycorner was the nail salon that my then-girlfriend frequented for her manicure/pedicures. On the other side of that was the old Grace Church. In the middle of the road, cars, cabs, trucks, bicycles, Vespas, panhandlers and cops. And immediately to my right, about two feet away, standing in front of a mailbox with his arm raised: David Bowie.
I did what any New Yorker, orthodox Bowie-ist or not, would have done under the circumstances of encountering anyone famous. I said to myself, calmly, almost cavalierly, “Okay, that guy really looks a lot like David Bowie.” Initial reactions are calm by code especially if there is no alcohol immediately available. We have to forget what these people may or may not have meant to us. We shift mechanically into cool mode and must never, ever let on that we give a damn. We are unflappable New Yorkers after all. The voice in my head was deliberate, like a rabbi’s or a math teacher’s: “But it could not possibly be David Bowie. Was I not just talking about David Bowie? It is David Bowie. My, my. David Bowie. How…something.”
I’d heard one rumor that he’d grown a long beard and skulked around downtown anonymously since his illness. Some people even said that he donned elaborate disguises like the late Michael Jackson reportedly did. The hunched Asian woman walking the little white dog down Second Avenue? David Bowie. Maybe. The paunchy Hispanic traffic cop writing up your Suburban for an expired meter? Bowie.
My next thought was, “He looks well.” I had been, like many Bowie-ists, worried about what a post–heart surgery David Bowie would mean, as if detecting something odd in his eternally sharp, vivid and handsome facial features, a sag or a puff, would surely have been a source of internal crisis for us as well. I felt the same way after David Letterman’s surgery and eventual return to late-night television.
David Bowie wore a cream-colored sport jacket and a gray shirt. Nobody else on the street seemed to recognize him. Maybe if he was a few blocks up in Chelsea, or down in Soho. But East Tenth Street is pretty neutral, especially during a weekday afternoon.
“What’s going on in his head? Right now?” I wondered as I retreated a few paces and allowed myself a shred of fan-boy excitement after realizing I could safely observe him. Nobody was watching me watch David Bowie. “What is he thinking? That man, who wrote ‘Quicksand.’ That person right there who screamed, ‘I—I will be king! And you—you will be queeeen!’ at the climax of ‘Heroes,’ which has given me gooseflesh for decades without fail, despite its being used in advertisements and covered by the Wallflowers? Well, I know what he’s thinking, don’t I? He’s thinking, ‘Cab. I need a cab. Why won’t any of these cabs stop for me?’” So unlikely was it that someone as super-famous as David Bowie would be there on the corner of Tenth Street on a Tuesday afternoon, even the taxi drivers were passing him.
I said nothing to David Bowie on that afternoon. I didn’t even acknowledge that I knew who he was or that his life and art and music have marked my entire course and that only minutes earlier, I’d been discussing him, considering committing a couple of years of my daily life to rebooting him. I played it supercool like he’d actually taught us Bowie-ists how to be. I was someone else. Adopting a pose.
The light changed, and I crossed Broadway numbly. I walked past the record store on my block, muttering, “David Bowie…records…In there…‘China Girl,’ ‘Fashion.’” I let myself into the apartment. I called my agent at the office immediately. I told him that I’d thought it over and that I would indeed write the book you are now holding and that I think this is a good time to look for Bowie in the modern world and reopen a discussion about what he means.
“That was fast,” he said. “Why’d you change your mind?”
“Suddenly feeling much closer to him,” I said.
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