Sunday, January 17, 2016

We Could Be Heroes: Losing David Bowie

This past Monday, I woke up and glanced at my phone on my nightstand. I’m not one of those people who typically reads my phone when waking up in the morning, but for some reason I pushed the button just to see if there had been any messages in the night. Inexplicably, I’d forgotten to set the alarm the night before, so where I usually woke up to the CBC — and would therefore have awoken to the sombre news I was about to receive — I instead discovered it through a text. A friend of mine who lives in the UK, and who would have been grieving through this news for the past five hours, had sent me a text just saying, you’ll be hearing some devastating news this morning, and I know it’ll upset you the same way it upset me. I’m so sorry.

I didn’t even have to turn on my phone. I knew David Bowie had died.

But I did anyway. I rushed to Facebook and saw friends posting their shock and agony, and I said to my husband, who was just waking up and turning on his phone (and who is the biggest Bowie fan I know), “Oh my god David Bowie died.” He snorted, and said, “No, you’re reading a hoax,” and continued nonchalantly looking at something on his phone. I suddenly started crying, “No, it’s true. He died.” He went silent as he, too, clicked on Facebook and looked. And saw. I got up and went into the shower, where I started crying in shock. How was it possible? His album had only come out a couple of days earlier. I was just posting happy birthday messages to him on my Facebook wall.

How was it possible I was now living in a world that didn’t have David Bowie in it? I’d never lived in that world. I didn’t want to do so now.

I’ve seen some people posting about grief-shamers on the internet, people saying it’s ridiculous to mourn for someone you never actually met. I’m thankful to say that not one person in my Facebook or Twitter newsfeeds said anything of the sort. I’m assuming I merely surrounded myself with the right people, because we were all similarly mired in grief.

Why do we mourn for someone we’ve never met? I pondered this question 18 months ago when Robin Williams died. And the only reason I can come up with is, we may not have known them, but we felt like we did. They managed to speak to us, and, in some ways, allowed us to see ourselves in new ways. That was certainly the case with David Bowie.

I can’t claim to be able to sing every lyric to every song, or to even be able to name without fail what album each song was on. I leave that to my husband, who has been a fan since he was 13, and who got me hooked on his music when we began dating five years later. I still remember him asking me if I liked David Bowie, and I said, “Like... Modern Love and Let’s Dance?” He smiled, and knew he had a lot of work ahead of him.

But David Bowie meant a lot to me, and the last time I saw him will stay with me always.

I saw him for the first time when he came to Toronto with Tin Machine in December 1991. My husband had already seen him once on the Glass Spider tour in 1987, and twice on the Sound + Vision tour in 1990. But this was my first time. It was at the Concert Hall, the old Masonic Temple that was my home away from home in the ’90s, where I’d just seen the Pixies two days before and was about to come back two days later to see someone else (I can’t remember who). My husband, then-boyfriend, had given me my first ring a year earlier, and right before the show, I realized it wasn’t on my hand. So throughout the show I was fretting about it, and determined to look under every car seat and scour the car later. I looked for that ring for months. It was only later I realized it must have fallen off in the car, and when I’d opened the car door it probably fell out into the snow just outside the Concert Hall. (I still have dreams of finding that little ring, with the black pearl, the white pearl, and the two tiny diamonds.) I remember the rush of Bowie walking on stage and being in the same room as him for the first time. That suit, the rock and rollness of it all. I was in heaven.

The next time I saw him was September 1995, when he came back to Toronto for the Outside tour. That album is so underrated, and I still think it’s one of his very best. Problem was, the album wasn’t released until the week after the show, and it’s a highly conceptual work, so while Bowie’s stumbling around onstage in a hospital gown and clawing at the air, the audience mostly reacted with a “what the HELL is he doing” kind of response. I wish I could have seen him again after that to have truly appreciated what was going on, but I listened to the album endlessly and loved every second of it.

The coolest thing about that show was that the opening act was Nine Inch Nails. They were amazing, and near the end of their set the drummer got up and walked off and was replaced by another. Then the guitar player switched on the next song. Then the bass player. And finally, Bowie walked on and we realized this was his backing band, and there would be no break between opener and the main show. Reznor stayed on stage for a couple of songs — they sang Nine Inch Nails material before moving to Bowie — and it was fantastic, and then the performance art began.

Two years later, in September 1997, he came back to Toronto and played the Warehouse, of all places (this is a smallish club, the sort of place you’d see My Bloody Valentine, not David freakin’ Bowie), and the show was incredible. Gail Ann Dorsey had joined the band at that point on bass, and she did this version of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” that I can still picture. David stood off to the side, beaming at his new discovery as she wowed the audience. You can listen to the actual recording from the Warehouse here:

And then it was a long wait, until August 2002, when we could see Bowie again, this time touring as part of the Meltdown Festival with Busta Rhymes and Moby. Shockingly (to us), Bowie and Moby would trade places as the headliner each evening. The night we saw him, at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto, Moby was the headliner so Bowie got to go first. We got to see Bowie just as the sun was setting, shining spectacularly on him like a celestial spotlight, as he walked onto the stage with a royal blue tie just hanging around his neck, looking dapper and gorgeous. He grabbed the mike and sang, “It’s a godawful small affair,” and my husband, who is normally quite reserved, actually swooned. He hadn’t heard “Life on Mars” live in years, and he never thought he’d hear it live again.

And then Bowie toured for Reality. At this point we were wondering if it might be near the end of his touring career, and now we had a bit more money, so we decided we’d see him as often as we could (though we’re still kicking ourselves that we didn’t see him even more...) But it was this tour where my adoration for Bowie became far more personal. It’s because of the events of this tour that I’ve been so grief-stricken all week.

December 13, 2003: Montreal Bell Centre
I’d been trying to get pregnant for months, and month after month was met with the sad reality that it just wasn’t happening. But there was something about the past month and how I’d been feeling. I was convinced that THIS was it. Maybe I was finally pregnant. The show was fantastic: during this tour (also with the lovely Gail Ann Dorsey), Bowie not only performed a bunch of songs from Reality, but went back into the catalogue and sang hits from all of his previous decades as a recording artist. In each set he’d dig deep and pull out a number that he wouldn’t do in any other show, so there was always that excitement, wondering what it would be this time.

Then he sang “Heroes.” Partway through the song I suddenly felt this sharp pain in my abdomen. It was brutal, but lasted only about a minute and then faded. That night we floated back to the hotel room, thrilled at how amazing the show had been and excited about the three shows we still had yet to see. In the middle of the night, I awoke to horrible cramps. I literally fell out of the bed and crawled to the bathroom. I’d never felt anything like it, although I was pretty sure it meant one thing: I wasn’t pregnant. I sat on the floor of the hotel bathroom and cried. I took some Tylenol and waited for it to have an effect, and eventually wandered back into the room and went to sleep, the tears on my pillow sapping the joy from earlier that evening. As we drove back to Toronto the next day, we stopped at a friend’s house, and they revealed that, surprise! They were pregnant and expecting in about five months. I tried to look excited, but inside I was dying. I was never going to be pregnant. I was going to have to smile through the announcements of the pregnancies of all of my friends, and it was never going to happen for me.

Turns out, a very small percentage of the female population can actually feel the sensation of the fertilized egg implanting itself into the uterine wall. For most, it happens and the reality of pregnancy is a surprise a few weeks later. But, unfortunately for me, I felt it. That horrible stabbing pain in my abdomen that I’d felt during “Heroes”? It was the very moment that my body became pregnant. And I’d felt it while Bowie sang in the background.

April 1, 2004: Toronto Air Canada Centre
The show was glorious. The Polyphonic Spree were opening, all in their white choir gowns as if welcoming us to a church. And in a way, for many of the people sitting there, that’s exactly where we were. I had been doing that terrible thing that all first-time pregnant women do: reading every book I can get my hands on so I can work myself into a panicked frenzy about why this or that didn’t happen in Week Whatever. Apparently I was supposed to have felt her by now, but I hadn’t. I had somehow felt the egg implant itself but I couldn’t feel her??

And then... “Heroes.” The opening chords started, and that long guitar wail, and the whole place was up and dancing. We were all singing along, and then I felt it. Just the tiniest flutter, in the bottom left of my abdomen, like a butterfly beating its wings in there. There she was. She’d made her very existence known the last time I’d seen Bowie sing this song, and now here she was, letting me know she was growing, and saying hi for the first time. I will never forget that feeling, and exactly how he was standing and how the spotlight was glowing on him in that moment.

May 14, 2004: London, Ontario, John Labatt Centre
David Bowie was actually playing my hometown. This was beyond exciting. We made the drive back to London from Toronto to see him and the show was as amazing as it had been every other time. I’d like to say that I had some transcendent experience during “Heroes” for this show, but in fact, by this point the kid was doing jumping jacks in there constantly, and she went for an aerobics routine that lasted through about five or six songs (now, to be fair, part of that could have been because Mom was also dancing up a storm while watching the show). But during “Heroes,” she let loose one helluva wallop that actually doubled me over. Laughing, mind you (at this point it was an inside joke between me and my husband that “Heroes” had a weird effect on our unborn child, so he thought this was particularly hilarious), but man. Could that girl kick.

May 25, 2004: Buffalo Shea’s Performing Arts Centre
This was not a happy day for me. Late morning it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t felt my baby move at all that day. She was usually quite an active child (see above) but on this day, nothing. Now, I should mention that if there were photos in thesauruses, you’d see one of me next to the antonym of “hypochondria.” My mother is a hypochondriac, constantly thinking she’s dying of one disease or another. Consequently, I actually could be dying and would think, “Ah, it’ll pass.” So I was putting off calling anyone, hoping that any minute now, she’d announce that she was okay. But it wasn’t happening. Mid-afternoon, I couldn’t wait any longer, and I called my doctor. She told me not to worry, that this was a common concern among first-time moms, and drink some orange juice or eat something spicy and that might kick-start her into doing something, but honestly, sometimes babies just sleep for a couple of days. I hung up the phone, drank about a litre of orange juice, and then we had to hit the road to drive to Buffalo. The whole way there, I worried about not feeling her. “It’ll be fine,” my husband kept saying, and I wondered if maybe we shouldn’t go to the show: should we go to an ER instead? He asked if I wanted to, and I thought about it and said no. The doctor said it’s a normal thing that a couple of days of quiet might go by without anything. We arrived at the show and despite my concerns, I will admit I was crazy excited about this one. We had the best Bowie tickets we’d ever had: second row centre. The stage was rather low, and as soon as he came out, everyone climbed up onto their seats and stood on them, as if to attempt to be face-to-face with the man himself. He came striding out on stage in that beautifully tattered black coat of his, grinning from ear to ear. I could see the differently sized pupils, we were that close. He sang a few songs and while I was enjoying the show immensely, I kept thinking, “Come on, baby... wake up. Bowie’s here.”


And then... “Heroes.” The whole place went up into a screaming frenzy, and Bowie sang the first verse in his quiet way, everyone else singing along. And then he went into the second verse. “I... I could be king!” he shouted. “And you...” and he looked me in the eye, and then pointed RIGHT AT ME. “ could be queen!” And just then... whoomph!! David Bowie had just looked right at me, and my baby walloped me so hard I was gasping. I was grinning ear to ear, my arms up above my head, dancing with abandon as the tears flowed freely down my cheeks. I’m sure other people thought I was having one of those religious experiences one has when faced with one’s idol pointing right at them (as I said to a friend a couple of days ago, I’m sure the woman sitting right behind me said he was pointing at her, but she would be wrong), but I wasn’t. My baby was okay, and the world was wonderful again, and I was dancing along to my favourite performer and I couldn’t have been happier.

It was the last time I ever saw him.

Three months later, my baby girl was born, beautiful and perfect. We had said all along that we were going to bring a CD player and that my husband would turn on “Heroes” at the very moment she emerged, but in the frenzy of labour pains and just getting to the hospital, we completely forgot. It didn’t matter. The first time I held her, I knew already that she was going to be my hero. Eleven years later, she has the voice of an angel and has actually sang before thousands at the very venue where we saw Bowie in London. She loves his music and sings it all the time around the house, and the day he died she knew that her parents were devastated, and she spoke in quiet tones all day long.

I don’t believe that David Bowie is some sort of Christ figure who made my baby move or imbued her with some special singing powers or anything like that. But to me, key moments in my pregnancy are inextricably tied to the last time I saw him tour. Just last weekend, on January 10, before David told his family he was feeling fatigued and went to bed, never to wake up again, my husband and I were tidying up the kitchen as Blackstar was playing in the background, and we were discussing how much we’d spend to see Bowie one last time, and we agreed that we’d fly to any place in the world, and, within reason, would pay whatever it took to see him. If it was easily done, we’d take the kids so they could finally see this man who had shaped so much of our life together.

But now, the cost of those tickets would be too steep, and the show will be too far away for us to attend.

I loved seeing my Facebook feed inundated with Bowie memories and grief on Monday. It was a terrible day, where I kept finding myself crying when I’d least expect it, where everyone was trying to figure out what had happened, where I got nothing done. The next day, sitting at my desk listening to Blackstar, he sang, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and I thought wow... not only was his final video a hint that he was dying, but he even predicted how I’d feel the day after I first had to grapple with the fact that he had died.

On Tuesday night, my husband emerged from his music room in the basement and said he needed my help. I went downstairs and he’d recorded himself doing a stripped-down version of Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” But he said something was missing, and he needed my help. We’ve been together for 26 years, and both of us are musical, but we never collaborate (we’re both headstrong and probably would fight the entire time). He's asked on occasion, and I say no, and I've suggested it on occasion, and he says no. So I will admit to being surprised, but where I would have usually said no, that maybe he should get our daughter to do it instead, I just acquiesced. I knew this had been a tough couple of days for him, so I figured I’d just do this and he’d either cut it out of the song or, who knows, it might work. And we were both surprised by the final effect. He looked at me after he played the finished version back (whichyou can listen to here) and said, “Wow. Maybe we should work together more often.” I’m not sure that ever would have happened if it hadn’t been for the circumstance.

A single individual came into this world and changed so much of it while he was here. And when he left, millions of people feel like there’s a giant hole in the world that will never be filled. But the world is such a different place because Bowie was in it, and after that grief is gone, it’ll be thrilling to see what people do with what they learned from him. The entire musical soundscape has changed as one band after another has been influenced by Bowie for decades, and I think twice as many people realize that now than they did a week ago.

For the first time, I’m living in a world that doesn’t have David Bowie in it. But it will always have his music in it, and for that, I’m grateful. 


PiperML said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences this past week and during your pregnancy. I am once again in tears. Thanks for letting me know it's ok to mourn so deeply for someone I never met but still felt I knew.

Elizabeth D. said...

Thank you for sharing that Nikki. He touched so many people he never knew in so many remarkable ways he could never imagine. He was truly one of a kind.

Jocelyn said...

Beautiful tribute, exquisitely written. thx

Forest City Fashionista said...

This was a beautifully written and moving tribute to a creative genius. What a wonderful story of how the song "Heroes" became a musical touchstone for you and your daughter.

I learned of Bowie's death from an Instagram post on the Monday morning when I was heading to work on the bus, and I began to cry without even thinking about it. I was also at the concert he did at the JLC in London, and that was the only time I ever saw him perform live, so I cherish the memory.

Blam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blam said...

I’m always glad to hear a good Bowie story, Nikki. Yours is great. What a cool and lovely thing.

Bowie was not quite two years younger than my mother, who is (knock on wood [no David Live reference intended]) in good health with almost inconceivable vigor for what 70 looked like in previous generations. It’s absolutely unfair that he left us — and, one thousand times more significantly, his family — so young.

I saw Bowie in concert just once, during a summer break from college, on 1990’s Sound + Vision tour. Words can’t describe the electricity. He’s meant a lot to me in his various guises, not to mention because of them, even setting aside the brilliance of the music on its own terms. In the end, though, it’s the fact that he was as human as the rest of us that I most appreciated.

Blam said...

Apologies for deleting my original comment and re-posting an edited version. There were reasons.

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