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[Cultural Attachment]

Traveling alongside the brilliant life of David Bowie

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“It’s like a great magic trick,” my editor said. “Except that he’s actually gone.”
Kirmer/AP
Smith Galtney

The last photo of David Bowie doesn’t look anything like a man who’ll die of cancer in two days. He’s dressed to the nines in a black fedora and Thom Browne suit. He’s wearing black shoes and no socks. He’s smiling and laughing and putting one foot forward. When I saw it last Friday, the day new album Blackstar came out, I saw a guy saying, “I made a really good album, and you’re gonna like it.” Now all I see is a man dancing a jig and telling everyone, “That’s all folks!”

We spent Friday listening to Blackstar. We listened to more Bowie over the weekend, because who listens to just one Bowie album. (I revisited The Next Day and Earthling.) And by Monday, he was dead. “It’s like a great magic trick,” my editor said. “Except that he’s actually gone.”

I never told people Bowie was my favorite artist. I always said it was Roxy Music. When someone asks a question like, “What’s your favorite city?” you want to be specific. You don’t just say, “Earth.” But what musician have I devoted more time to? I don’t just listen to Bowie music. I soak in Bowie periods. I watch Bowie films. I read Bowie books. I once spent a whole weekend inside the Museum of Television and Radio watching nothing but Bowie clips. He’s the ultimate rock ’n’ roll text.

I must have been 3 or 4 when my oldest sister, the one who got in car crashes, brought home Aladdin Sane. Forget the slash across his face, what the hell was that translucent, lube-like blob on his shoulder? (A Google search says it’s a teardrop. Boring!) At 11 or 12, my other sister, the one who got good grades, bought a cassette of Changesonebowie. “Golden Years” and “Space Oddity” are sung by the same person? It didn’t make sense.

My first concert was the Glass Spider tour, at the Superdome in ’87. It pretty much sucked. And yet, when setting up online accounts, for a long time I chose “What’s your first concert?” as my security question, and proudly typed “David Bowie” as the answer.

In 1999, I actually had a conversation with Bowie. He was doing press for the Hours… album, and we spoke on the phone for 30 minutes. He was totally cool, and I was a complete idiot, and before hanging up, he said, “I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was talking with you, Smith.” The more that rang in my ears, the bigger my head felt. Years later, I heard him say the exact same thing to a TV reporter, and realized the remark could be read two ways.

This week, I’m lucky enough to be in New York City. I’ve made two trips to Bowie’s apartment building in SoHo. Along with all the flower and candles, there were two copies of David Live (one scrawled over so it reads “David Live Forever”) and a message from a boy named Herbie (“My mom told me that she will put on her red shoes and dance the blues because she is sad and she will miss you.”). There were folks with long gray hair, young space cadets in face paint and nuclear boots. Someone held out an iPhone as it played “Lazarus,” the last Bowie single. “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” A phenomenal life, neatly tied up.

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