During the slow beginning of my bartending shift this past Saturday night, I decided (because I’d been listening to Blackstar earlier in the day) to make it David Bowie Saturday. I set up the computer in the main bar room to play nonstop Bowie everything. I let it fill the room when no one was there, and I left it running when an unexpected late crowd showed up. People who didn’t know the music asked about it. People who half-remembered it sometimes stopped and listened. The happy drunk ladies who wanted to dance adjourned to the game room to let the glitchy jukebox play what I think of as The Ultimate Wedding DJ Hit List for 2015, but I just kept listening. David Bowie’s beautiful voice floated over me while I worked, “Ashes to Ashes” turning into “Let’s Dance” turning into “Absolute Beginners” turning into “Heroes” turning into a dozen other songs I could barely name or remember. There was a sort of giddy charm about it all.
“Giddy charm” is, I think, a good way to describe the musician as well as his music — an irresistible, impish, giddy charm informed by an incisive and critical intelligence. One of the reasons I like that particular performance of “Ashes to Ashes” is the way he handles the crowd, the mingled self-critical amusement and rueful nostalgia that just turn into the music itself. Yet he doesn’t hang on to the nostalgia. He laughs, and he plays, and the crowd goes with him.
Last night, I had a hard time sleeping. The “Starman” chorus just kept looping and looping in my head, over and over. This morning, I woke up to the news that David Bowie had passed away.
One of the things that strikes me now, as I read the various memorial pieces and watch old interviews with him, is how so much of his art was play, and how much of that play involved inviting the rest of us to play along with him. When he told Jeremy Paxman (see the interview above — it’s fascinating) that he’d originally wanted to be a writer of musicals, he wasn’t kidding — and it shows in what he’s done. He finally got to stage all of those shows (watch video of the Glass Spider Tour from the 80s, for example), and has consistently invited everyone in the scene to dance with him.
I know Absolute Beginners was not, at the time, a particularly well-received film, and that it had its problems (I’ve talked about it before), but it is in its way exactly the sort of thing that David Bowie did, perfectly so (as well as an illustration of how the film medium perhaps failed the musical, which Bowie’s live performances never did). To watch him play the song (or any other, really) is a bit like falling in love.
I think tonight’s going to be David Bowie Monday, too.