For me, it went like this.
At 10:30, I turned off my bedroom light and got into bed. For reasons beyond my immediate comprehension, I saw pink, winged ponies when I shut my eyes. The sight of them was strange, yet strangely comforting. I soon fell asleep.
At 11:25 (or what must have been right around 11:25), I woke up to go to the bathroom. When I got back to my room, I saw that my phone was, as the kids say, blowing up. Three different people had sent me text messages. 14 text messages.
I opened one. It said, “Bowie. Gone.”
At that moment, I was only about 3/4 of the way conscious. What was my friend trying to say? Was he up late listening to old Bowie records and feeling reflective? Was he so blown away by Low he felt his mind was “Gone”? Did he really hate Blackstar?
I remembered I had 13 other texts to read. Then I woke up.
I have 14 texts because people are trying to tell me that David Bowie is dead.
I opened up another message. It was a group text. Two of my closest friends and I have been babbling to each other via text about anything and everything nearly every day for several years. All three of us love using caps lock.
“ARE YOU HEARING THE REPORTS THAT DAVID BOWIE DIED. I’M REALLY FUCKED UP RIGHT NOW.”
I Googled it. BBC News confirmed it. I gasped. Loudly. Then I heard my name from the other room.
One of my roommates came to my door. I joined her in the hallway. She had just read the news on social media. “I heard the noise from your room and figured you just got the news,” she said. I looked up at the wall and saw the sepia print I bought in San Francisco 10 years ago of Bowie and Lou Reed looking rather friendly. I’m not a religious person, but I do love the idea of happy reunions.
I sat back down on my bed and contemplated staying up all night. I wasn’t even sad yet; I just knew I was in for a long one. At this point I was wide awake, but I felt like I was dreaming.
My phone rang. Another friend had heard.
It was at this friend’s house that I first saw Labyrinth. We were 10 or 11 and Bowie’s crotch had completely taken over our slumber party. We returned that VHS to Blockbuster pretty damn worn. Years later, we traded in Labyrinth for Moulin Rouge! and sang “Elephant Love Medley” with the sort of crazed abandon that can only be produced by teenage girls, particularly those who are hopelessly in love with a significantly older, married celebrity. Aw, Ewan McGregor. “We can he heroes / forever and ever.”
I picked up the call. I didn’t even say “hello.” I just said, “Dude.”
“I’m sorry. I hope I’m not waking you up.”
“Do you know why I’m calling?”
We expressed our mutual shock and confusion. Then there were a few more moments of, “Dude” and “I know” and “What the FUCK, man?”
“We both got to see him live,” I reminded her.
“Yes, we did get to do that.”
My friend started to cry. I was numb.
“I’m still in disbelief,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t know. I just…I never met him or anything, but…he was just always around. I associate him with, ya know, with you guys.”
I thought about the time my mom drove a group of us to San Francisco for spring break. We were in 11th grade. The minivan broke down at one point just outside San Luis Obispo. As my mom waited by the van for roadside assistance, my friends and I stood on the side of the highway. Arm-in-arm, the five of us sang “Ziggy Stardust” at maximum volume.
“I know,” I told my friend. “I get it.”
We talked about our concern for a friend of ours who had undoubtedly gone to bed before the news broke, and how unfair it was that she was going to wake up in the morning and find out her hero had died. Eventually, our conversation reached a lull.
“Ok,” said my friend, “I’m just gonna listen to Bowie and cry some more. Goodnight. I love you.”
“I love you so, so much.”
I hung up. I thought about when my friend and I first watched Trainspotting. We were 14. Frickin’ Ewan McGregor. We knew literally nothing about the movie besides the fact our loverman was the star. Christ. We struck gold that day. How often do you fall in love with an actor and then learn — by accident — he’s notorious for getting naked in his movies? What luck. We rewound that tape like we were two 10-year-olds watching Labyrinth, only this time there was no mystery.
What was that song, though? The one from the opening credits? And what was that song from the scene were Renton ODs and sinks into the floor at the Mother Superior’s house? Those questions haunted me so much I went out and bought a copy of the soundtrack. The song I fell in love with was Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”
“How’d you learn about Lou?” my dad asked me one evening.
“From the Trainspotting soundtrack.”
“You saw Trainspotting?”
“Have you listened to any Velvet Underground?” he asked.
“Look for them next time you go to download songs off the internet.”
That was the moment dad officially became my guide. He played me Lou’s Berlin for the first time and told me it was the perfect thing to listen to when you’re depressed. He played me weird Iggy Pop songs and drove me to a little record store one afternoon and bought me a copy of London Calling. He put on New Order one slow Saturday night and we danced our hearts out to “Temptation.” For Christmas I was given a small turntable and I fiendishly raided his record collection.
One night he came into my room and handed me his copy of Marianne Faithful’s Broken English. “Put this on next time you really feel like you hate men,” he said.
I was just a bit proud of myself when I picked up a copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars from the Sam Goody in the Thousand Oaks Mall. I was 15. It was the summer before 10th grade, and I was desperate for a distraction from my assigned reading. I had already spent half the vacation listening to Raw Power — David Bowie seemed like the next logical step on my teenage rock and roll adventure.
Is there a stranger opening track than “Five Years”? And what’s with the aliens? And what exactly is a “rock and roll suicide”? I had no answers, but I still felt like I had found the key to everything. (Take that, Aldous Huxley.)
The day after I turned 16, my dad played me “Life on Mars?” He called it, “One of the most beautiful rock and roll songs ever recorded.” A little over a year later, he took me and two friends to see Bowie in concert, where he sang “Life on Mars?” Beautiful, indeed. So beautiful, in fact, that I stopped doing my homework for a good month and a half. I had no time for homework — I was too busy listening to Bowie and perfecting my eye shadow technique.
Wait, wait, “Life on Mars?”? That was it — that was the song I needed to play to begin mourning Bowie!
I jumped off my bed and ran to the corner of my room to plug in my ancient turntable. I queued up the song, turned up the volume, and stood in the middle of my room waiting for the deluge. I was ready.
Bowie sounded like a robot that was powering down for the night. Was the speed wrong? I tinkered with the settings. Nothing worked. I turned off the turntable and crawled into bed and listened to the song on my iPhone. It wasn’t the same. I cursed the modern world and I did not cry.
This morning was a flurry of texts and facebook messages. Everyone was sad and no one was ready. We reminisced about important moments of our teen-hood for which Bowie was cosmically present: driving through Topanga Canyon on a Saturday afternoon; convincing our theater teacher to play “Let’s Dance” during our annual holiday play; improvising an interpretive dance to “Space Oddity” in my parents’ driveway. I sat at my desk at work and answered text messages and read opinion pieces and news briefs and wondered how one person could inspire so many.
I was clad in black from head-t0-toe, but I still hadn’t cried.
My phone beeped.
It was dad. He had sent me a YouTube link. “From the tour we saw,” he said. “I’m getting a little choked up as I’m remembering you and your friends holding hands and crying to this song.” As I listened, I, too, became a little choked up, but there was no time for real tears. Not at work.
I’m home now. I’m sitting on my bed in my pajamas and I’m looking at the clock wondering how I managed to stay up this late. I’ve been in this exact situation before — up past my bedtime feeling too wired to sleep and too tired to relax and too anxious about everything I’m doing and not doing — and it’s actually nights like these where Bowie sounds the best. I couldn’t say exactly why — maybe something to do with the night sky increasing a spaceship’s visibility. Perhaps I’ll sleep with my blinds open.
Finally — tears.