The Man Who Fell to Earth Returns to the Stars

He was the Thin White Duke, the most glamorous man I’d ever seen. More glamorous than Bianca Jagger, and that was saying something in those Studio 54 years of excess glimpsed from the Midwest, eyes wide as pie pans gulping Andy Warholian nights and Yves Saint Laurent luxe fashion from Time and W’s pages.

He was also Ziggy Stardust, the oddest thing—not even a man—I’d ever set my mind to. With those damned Spiders from Mars. Defying gravity, and then some.

In the basement of the Marcia Newell’s house. After the divorce. When she was seriously downsized. After losing a son to cancer, the handsome teenaged Clay, spoken of in whispers—because back then no one got cancer, let alone wildly healthy young men who were competitive swimmers, so lean and long and swift.

Bart Newell got his divorce and Maggie, the overly bleach blond, fairly louche new chassis in his bed and—in true post-F Scott Fitzgerald alcoholic excess fashion—by his side at the bar. The ex-wife and surviving son got moved to the next town over, where property taxes were lower and the former Mrs. Newell could make the most of the pretty crummy settlement she received.

Mark Newell, wounded by the rejection, had gotten puffy during the divorce; most likely “feeding his pain,” as my friend and late night talent booker Bill Royce would crow. He slipped into records, Lord knows what else. Sometimes he’d play Air Hockey—that game pursuit of the late ‘70s—with me in their basement in University Heights.

That basement is where I saw the creepy pictures of the impossibly thin man in the wild colors, the shiny fabrics, the fluorescent unnatural hair color. I couldn’t look away. For yes, I knew “Fame” from the radio with its stop-start beats, the bottom falling out of the song part way through, the high water flume of a vocal challenging the notion of faux notoriety that would become the 21st century’s drug of choice.

But I wasn’t prepared for how odd—and thrilling—Bowie was.

For David Bowie was all those things. Pointy teeth. Deathly pallor. Impossible grace in the way he moved. Absolutely no reference point for any part of it in my Midwestern childhood. And he fascinated me in ways I couldn’t understand in a world of mommies in Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses drinking gallons of Paul Mason Chablis with the whispers of key parties and the local late night discos where the white powder wasn’t powdered sugar—or something I’d ever see.

Just look at the Newells. Look what happened there.

Though surely it wasn’t David Bowie’s fault. Or maybe it was. And I was glad, playing Air Hockey in an airless basement with an older kid who would share his vinyl habit with me—as a way to forge common ground with a 4th and 5th grader he had absolutely no interest in.

That was the beauty of Bowie: he transmuted everybody, everything—and transcended expectation, regimentation, how it’s done. He followed the art; he defined fashion; he created the waves and rolls that existed only inside his head. And what curls they were: Wave, Heroes, Let’s Dance, Scary Monsters as well as collaborators ranging from Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Nile Rodgers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Queen, Tin Machine and the always-gentlemanly sometimes Nashvillian Reeves Gabriel.

Heck, Mick and Keith even wrote a song about his equally androgynous then-wife “Angie.” All raw ache, vexation, desire and the crumpled morning after crunchy from the frisson sticky panties clutched as the only vestige or talisman that it might not have been a dream.

All fascinating, churning, changing, impossibly musical stuff. It swirled around my plaid skirt’n’knee socked world like a sparkly cloud of fairy dust, intoxicating me with the fumes of fabulous, the throbbing bass notes wobbling my knees and that soignee voice slicing between my ribs straight through to the wild child yearning to be free from the conveyor belts of social expectation and upwardly mobile aspiration of the UMC desperately seeking to be masters of the universe.

Seeking to be? Bowie was. In his platform boots, his unzipped jumpsuits, the high style close-cut Armani, the cutting edge leather trenches. More than a master of the universe, he knew galaxies—and he told those stories as The Man Who Fell to Earth, the plastic soul (as it was deemed) of “Young Americans” that rolled with the innocence of Philadelphia’s Gamble & Huff and Detroit’s Motown, yet burbling with an undercurrent that said, “Pay attention.”

It was always thus with Bowie. It was why I was transfixed beyond enchanted. Always the unexpected, yet something sweet, something to pull you in, something to make you dream or think or imagine other worlds beyond your own.

And when you’re sitting at a wooden chair-desk, reading the same ballpoint tattoos about Tisha + JB or the words to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” like they’re Biblical talismans, Bowie truly was a siren’s call, a cry of “be what you will, be beautiful, be a freak, come…”

Come. It was too much for me to immerse in. I would blow a fuse, buckle in a stairwell somewhere, collapse under a fabulosity I was too townie to handle. I knew that, knew it inside—and still I yearned.

The video to “Heroes” chilled me, the seeming male version of a female praying mantis’ dance post-coitus; I was up all night. Then I was calling Cleveland’s rock behemoth WMMS’ Jeff & Flash the next morning to request it before school, needing to hear that low buzz and that promise “We can be heroes/ If just for one day.”

For that was what Bowie promised. Whatever you were, however you were. Freak, geek, gimp, weirdo, diva, glamazon, hipster. Don’t be boring, obvious, tedious, average. It is no wonder he went on to act across from Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in The Hunger, play the Elephant Man on the stage in London, inhabit the POW Major Jack Celliers in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.

It all makes sense. With a beginning in avant-garde theater—the petrol of the ‘60s scenes and happenings culture—he would early on land in “Just A Gigolo,” where the equally detached Marlene Dietrich would discover his returning from the World War Prussian officer and put him in her stable of gigolos. Of course it would happen like that. Of course. Bowie was the Dietrich of rock even more than Nico.

Bowie, who confused many, was just as glamorous and removed as La Dietrich. Even when wading into the pop mire, he maintained his sangfroid and his removed observation. “Ashes to Ashes”? Indeed. Dripping those things as it introduced an existential take on the human condition that found me debating my parents for weeks on the realm and reality of what happens when…

What happens when? Indeed. I can’t say that it was Bowie who made me forsake the plan of Corporate Housewifery, the #1 cash crop of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where young women were turned out to shove their aspirational husband’s rump up the corporate ladder. But I was marked as a good cut of material—championship golfer, already doing the chit-chat small talk grown-up cocktail circuit, as well as navigating Cleveland’s better restaurants and country clubs with my insatiable mother.

Everything was seemingly in place for a good marriage, a fabulous life of the gentry. Yet, I could never take the bit in my mouth, to settle down and be grateful for chasing the streets with prep school boys, trips to Blossom Music Center and Richfield Coliseum as an observer.

I wanted closer, to touch it, to breathe the fumes of whatever made the songs come to life. I pined to be one of those beautiful bohemian girls in impossible shoes, swaying on the side of the stage, tossing knowing glances to the players, whispering behind a raised hand.

But more than a courtesan, I wished to be a confidante, to know where the music came from. I wanted to see the court and spark, the machinations of creation, the hot blaze of the moments when it burns too bright.

I wanted to seek, to find. I had no map, no clue, no notion of how to get there. All there was was a hunger and scant few beacons. All I had to do was listen. And dream, think, believe I could—and keep moving to the possibilities.

David Bowie was potential without end, creation beyond limits. He was odd and stinging his focus: laser-like with two different color eyes. Tentative, yet supremely certain when he would lurch in a different direction, seeking something that was the undertow of what was to come.

That pain when he groaned, “Let’s dance… put on your red shoes… and dance… the blues…” I thought of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the young woman undone by a pair of crimson dancing slippers, Steve Martin’s supremely quirky book The Cruel Shoes, my own cheap Spanish Leather stilettos that lifted me four inches higher than I was born to be.

Stevie Ray’s serpentine electric guitar slithered through, glowing feral desire, as Niles Rodgers’ bass thumped, bumping you up, giving a white person a bit more roll to their step. It wasn’t funky, it wasn’t soulful. But somehow it pulled you in, gave you groove. With all the hesitance of someone seeking connection, it forged a rhythm in the subconscious that raised you up.

“Let’s Dance” was a revolution. In the Disco Sucks Apocalypse, Bowie made vertical undulation safe. And with Stevie Ray’s sinewy guitar, he also turned up the burn and the musical allure. You leaned in to listen, to watch the parts foment.

Between that breakout hit and its follow-up “China Girl,” it was like hearing Marguerite Duras’ The Lover come to jukebox life. Songs of seemingly forbidden love, cast off unseen and undone people seeking solace in each other. The cloying scent of spoiled brothels, insane want and yes, a deeper, almost intellectual coitus rising from the steam of desire beyond reason.

For an artist people should’ve known not write off, it was an impressive return. Not just because MTV seemed to power-rotate the videos but because his name was once again on people’s lips, a third or fourth or fifth incarnation depending on whom was counting; because his culture shift had lifted him not just back among musicos, but the broader perspective as well.

Not that Bowie seemingly craved that. He followed his muse. He lived—after years surfing the gay demimonde, flaunting sexual convention and identity beyond androgyny to a brazen gender flip that gave the New York Dolls a design key—quietly, almost beyond the fray.

Yes, he married the international supermodel Iman, a glorious African neo-goddess whose beauty defies description. He made records and seemed to seek a lower impact with Tin Machine, not the supernova juggernaut the Bowie comet elicited. He acted in films, working with Martin Scorsese (“The Last Temptation of Christ”). David Lynch (“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”) and Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat,” playing—ironically—Warhol).

To make art when it feels necessary. To express and be whole, to live and be present. It is an amazement to have that balance, that hunger, that realm.

Sitting here, as the small hand inches towards 4 a.m. in a cotton kimono with an East Indies print, a scavenged floral bone china plate from a second hand store littered with disaster brownie crumbs beside me, I am numb.

I have been foraging the Internet for three or four hours, looking for proof, wanting it to be a hoax. Knowing Shirley Halperin, music editor of The Hollywood Reporter, is the best kind of journalist, who wouldn’t get scammed. Yet I don’t want to believe the news that is now hemorrhaging wildly towards me like the TV set Ann-Margret throws the champagne bottle through in The Who’s Tommy.

This was the man who could sing “The Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby, a clip I return to holiday season after holiday season to ground the Hallmark brokering in my own cultural imperative, survive a guest mash-up with Cher on her primetime ’70s variety show, as well as be an embracer of Germanic Bauhaus culture, a space oddity, a scary monster, a conundrum and an artist.

In “Almost Famous,” it is Bowie who turns the star-crossed teens out to decamp in Cleveland’s legendary rock & roll hotel Swingos—shrieking and hurling glitter at the beyond glam rocker as he’s rushed through the lobby to the elevator. That reverence turned a cheap naugahyde and laminate countered lobby into a temple of the highest witness for every not quite, dweeb, misfit and oh-so-true believer.

That’s what Bowie meant to Cameron Crowe and a generation chaffing at every stereotype and notion of how it should be. Iconoclast, visionary, singular creature suggesting to his loyal believers: follow your own star, truth, notion. It was heady stuff then, and that scent doesn’t fade or mute.

I had thrilled when I watched/heard “Blackstar” upon release. Due to be released on his 69th birthday, it seemed like the ultimate gift for everyone involved.

Like everything about great about the iconic Brit, it challenged everything I knew. Textural, evoking jazz at its core, aurally engaging, the minor key drifts, the haunted vocals, it all suggests rapture, divinity and a world beyond imagination. A saxophone float fetid, then bleats bebop punctures, strings rise and sweep, the drums keep tatt-a-tatting like the realm of life rushing past no matter where we are in the moment.

“At the center of it all, at the center of it all…” is sung over and over.

We are a long way from “Rock & Roll Suicide,” as wonderful an elegy to the life as ever written. But if death—and to an extent afterlife—was a subtext, “Blackstar” is the masterwork. If Bowie knew the inevitable was nigh—and how could he not?—he in his cadaver-like thinness intones “you’re a flash in the pan” and thumbs his nose, wiggling his fingers and laughing at the camera.

A meditation on life and death and ever after, the critics didn’t know when they wrote their reviews. They took the work for what it was, and now they can recast those interpretations as the ultimate exit note.

As Jon Pareles writes of the mercurial, frank and yet elusive project in Sunday’s New York Times, “Mr. Bowie isn’t suddenly going cozy. In “Dollar Days,” he croons, “I’m dying to/Push their backs against the grain/And fool them all again and again.” He may be briefly dropping his mask; he may be trying on a new one. Either way, he’s not letting himself or his listeners take things easy.”

He’s not letting his listeners take things easy. When did he ever? Whether “Lazarus” from the new one—that opens “Look up here, I’m in heaven/with scars that can’t be seen…” a tide of warm saxophone gently drifting out, or “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” he works with the Maria Schneider Orchestra to fashion an album that finds melodiousness in shifting keys, seeming dissonance, elevations and drop-offs, improvisation and song structures that are as impressionistic as declarative.

It is that glorious hodgepodge that makes me draw closer, so warm and amber and beyond where I am. It is a blinking light to other worlds, just not a world—I thought in the walk-up to release—that would be a world sans David Bowie.

There has been too much death lately, too much, too too much. Otis Clay, the fabulous old school soul singer whose “Trying to Live My Life Without You” birthed the Eagles “The Long Run.” Red Simpson, the old school honky-tonker who gave the world the ultimate fool’s torn pride “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” sung by Merle Haggard then Rosanne Cash on her breakthrough Seven Year Ache. Natalie Cole, the princess daughter of Nat “King” Cole who lived rough, became an elegant chanteuse and just passed away far too young. Even Debbie Gold, friend to all the gypsies and the dreamers, confidante to stars and reckless kids, the muse who inspired Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You,” flickered and extinguished in the gap.

It is like a vein of life is running dry, pouring out thick, sticky blood that contains so much essence of what true creativity and passion is. Lucinda Williams used to tell me, “You need to collect these, to make a book of all the essays you write about people who’ve died. You need to put them all together, so we can remember.”

I would demur, flattered and embarrassed a writer of her economy and emotion would think that. Like the little match girl, perhaps, I fear holding all these flaming bits aloft to keep the people captured in this realm will only leave me frozen to death when the paper’s ash and there’s nothing else to feed the fire.

Meanwhile, the numb has turned to tears. Not sobs, just rivulets cutting through the freckles, clinging to my jaw line then falling to where the kimono doesn’t close. I can feel the salt in the water, nose quivering, trying not to collapse into a grief that is for so much more than just this latest rash of people who’ve gone into the mystic.

If Dylan sang of Debbie Gold, “You could be the most beautiful woman who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal…” and my dear departed best friend Emily, recently exhumed for Bob Mehr’s genius book about The Replacements, would shriek, “Holly Gee, that could be you!” Punching the syllables for extra meaning, yowling with pure rapture and delight, I think of Emily lost 20 years ago and I shudder.

I don’t want to lose all these things, all these moments, all this innocence I’ve fought to protect and salvage. How much hurt can any one of us absorb? How many memories lost before what was dissolves like sugar in hot water?

And so Donny McCaslin’s saxophone chases me across this apocryphal final Bowie record, chases me through the night, driving me on, perhaps exorcising these doubts and ghosts before daylight breaks and there’s no turning back. It is hard sensing the ice floe melting out from beneath you, the berg breaking apart, drifting to sea—and yet, what else is there?

There is, as there’s always been, the music. Right now, that is more than plenty. And somehow, I think—no believe—that music will once again be more than enough to get me through. After all, it has saved my life over and over again. How can it fail me now?

A few firsts among the ACM Awards noms. (2/26a)
Rapino's ready for festivals to return. (2/26a)
Kamasi Washington answers our questions. (2/26a)
Radio giant makes a shift. (2/26a)
Social justice through the lens of jazz (2/23a)
A jazz chronicle of fighting the power.
After the snubs, the show.
In a phenomenal display of cowardice.
When vaccination schedules and touring schedules meet.

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