1. I remember playing this game with a neighbor boy when I was nine or ten. We would take gas from the can my family used to fill the lawnmower and pour it all over the yard and set it on fire. Then we would run around and try to stomp it out before it got out of control. I’m not sure why that memory returned to me when I heard that David Bowie was dead. Partly it was because of his song “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” but at the time I was starting fires out back that song hadn’t yet been released. It’s more that I remember this neighbor on some pyromanic afternoon telling me that the song “Changes” was about having a sex change, and that listening to it made you gay. I ended up giving that assertion a lot more thought than it deserved. A lot seemed to hinge on the line, “They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” On the cusp of puberty, this seemed vaguely reassuring.
2. One of my weekend privileges as a young kid was getting to stay up late to watch Saturday Night Live. So I had, by this time, seen these 1979 performances of “Man Who Sold the World,” “TVC15,” and “Boys Keep Swinging,” all of which seriously confused me. I was used to laughing at jokes I didn’t quite get on the show, but I didn’t understand why these men were wearing dresses and the crowd wasn’t laughing. My frame of reference for Bowie came from rock radio: “Rebel, Rebel” and “Suffragette City.” I didn’t have any context for what was going on in those SNL performances, and I wasn’t the sort of child who would ask; I preferred to try to figure things out for myself and show how precocious I was and how much natural insight I had into the adult world. I was also deeply embarrassed by not knowing.
3. The first Bowie album I owned was Scary Monsters; I’m pretty sure I got it for my 10th birthday or for Christmas that year. I must have picked it out for myself because I can’t imagine I would have asked for it. Still, I was deeply disappointed by it at the time. The spoken-word section in Japanese that opens the album put me off immediately and the Fripp guitar leads were too atonal for me to handle. It wasn’t a mystery I wanted to solve then. For a long time, the only songs I played off the album were “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion.” “Fashion” was a puzzle I could master. I knew it was sarcastic on its surface level. But what’s more, I felt I knew exactly why Bowie would sing, “Listen to me, don’t listen to me / Talk to me, don’t talk to me.” That’s how I felt all the time, and I was eager for a rationale as to why that was preferable to simply fitting in.
4. I didn’t listen to Bowie much as a teenager; my main exposure to him in the early 1980s was through MTV. I spent a lot of alone time in that period in the basement/rec room of my mother’s house, playing darts against myself while MTV played on into the night. I saw Bowie’s 20-minute “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” video all the way through at least a dozen times, probably more. In that video, Bowie plays both a rock star (Screaming Lord Byron, a self-parody of Bowie’s drug-addled Thin White Duke persona) and a regular workaday guy who is trying to win over a woman he spotted on the street. As rock-star Bowie performs on a video jukebox, regular-guy Bowie sits next to the woman in a bar, who immediately tries to shoo him away by telling him she’s not alone. “That’s all right,” regular Bowie says. “He’ll like me. Lots of people like me.” It’s sort of a slick line, but Bowie is so inherently awkward in the realm of the everyday that it comes across as self-deprecation. He then adds, “Um, well, not straight away, but I’ll give you a couple of minutes and it’s uh …” before abandoning the whole futile pretext. Then, desperate to establish a point of contact, he gestures toward rock-star Bowie on the screen: “I know that man … I write his lyrics.”
At the time, I got that this whole scenario was metaphoric, but it hadn’t occurred to me that you could be so playful about being so alienated, about being isolated by the things you created. When regular-guy Bowie meets the rock-star Bowie in his dressing room, the story doesn’t go in any Man in the Iron Mask-ish direction like you might expect. Instead, the rock-star Bowie covers his face and cowers in fear. The video ends with rock-star Bowie taking the woman away in a limo, and regular guy Bowie arguing with director Julian Temple about whether it’s all too “clever, clever” as the pretense of narrative falls away.
5. Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour happened in the summer of 1987, when I was a junior in high school. The first dates in the U.S. for the stadium-size show were even in Philadelphia, near where I lived. Some of my friends got tickets for it, and I probably could have gotten one for myself, but everything about it seemed like a problem. It was expensive, and I wasn’t sure if I would have a ride, and for some reason I was convinced that my friends didn’t want me to go with them anyway. At the lunch table we sat at, I took the position that it would probably be a terrible show, since Never Let Me Down was a terrible album, and ever since I have taken a grim joy in reports of how awful, in fact, these shows were. I don’t remember what my friends said about it; by the time the show happened, it was summer. I spent most of my time then worrying about how to get someone with a car to pick me up so I wouldn’t be stranded at my house while everyone else was having fun, drinking, doing whatever it was I imagined they were doing. In later interviews, Bowie would say, “You can tell I was terribly unhappy in the late ’80s.”
6. When I was in college, getting an English degree, Ryko began reissuing the Bowie catalog. That was when I first heard the Bowie song that devastates me the most, “Conversation Piece,” which is sung from the point of view of a man cut off from other people by his dreams of being a writer. It overwhelms me with self-pity every time I hear it. “I’m a thinker, not a talker / I’ve no one to talk to anyway.” I had this song on a cassette that I used to listen to in my Walkman while I walked around campus. It was recorded before Bowie was famous, after his first few singles had failed, and I imagine it was probably pretty personal when he sang in the last verse, “I am invisible and dumb and no one will recall me.”