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EDITOR’S NOTE: On what would have been David Bowie’s 74th birthday jan8.2021, we published: “BREAKING: We Interrupt this Insurrection for David Bowie News”, which included epochal video of West Virginia native Ann Magnuson, channeling Bowie at The Empty Glass in West Virginia’s capital in 2010. It came to my attention one of the talented young staffers at the new investigative non-profit Mountain State Spotlight (unofficial motto: ‘Kicking Butts & Taking Names since 2020’) had elsewhere posted a lovely memoir of the ties between her and her Dad woven by Bowie’s music. The events described took place in 2017-2018, but she just posted it this week. We reached out to our “Play That Funky Music Bureau” to whip up a page to showcase this worthy piece. Everyone knows him now. Peace. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno
“Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/ Everybody knows me now.” ~ David Bowie (“Lazarus”)
By Lauren Peace | jan10.2021
“Your button is falling off, I don’t want you to lose it!”
Philipp broke from his epic monologue and pointed to the brown piece of dangling plastic tethered to my coat by a loose thread. He had an unnecessary amount of concern in his voice, which flipped back and forth between exuberant tour guide and congenial acquaintance in accordance with the subject he was on at the time.
I gave a slight nod to signal acknowledgement, unwilling to pull my gaze from the stacked bay window, one story above. How could I? I had spent years of my life constructing a mental image of the building before me, and this was my pilgrimage to marvel in person. My $15 sale-rack coat would survive, void immediate triage.
I wasn’t there for the weather and neither were my comrades. I was there for David Bowie.
Beyond the enclosed courtyard, which encapsulated our provisional pack of admirers—four girls from Philadelphia with matching tattoos and multi-colored hair, an Australian mother and her too-tall teenage daughter, an older couple from just outside Toronto who exchanged Canadian pleasantries, and me— the streets of Berlin bustled busy with pedestrians enjoying the unexpected heat.
It was my first time in the city, my first time in Germany, and the day was exceptionally sunny for October. That’s what people kept telling me, anyway. Berlin could have been the sun capital of the world so far as my time visiting was concerned, but I wouldn’t have been bothered by gray sky or rain. I wasn’t there for the weather and neither were my comrades. I was there for David Bowie.
Long before I learned to walk on my own, my dad had taught me how to dance. There are videos of us from the late 1990s—dad in a sweatshirt, me in a diaper—swaying back and forth in the living room of my childhood home to songs recorded years earlier in studios across the world. Dad’s taste in music, much like my own, today, was expansive at the time. It was just as likely we’d be listening to Madonna as it was Bauhaus, classical guitar as it was bluegrass, the Beatles, Nine Inch Nails or Suzanne Vega.
Still, the soundtrack that framed my childhood was dominated by songs written and recorded by a kid from Brixton, a district in south London, who in 1966 swapped his surname out for another, transforming from David Jones into David Bowie, a name that would move the world.
Dad and I took turns alternating roles as Lennon and Bowie while we sang along.
Dad brought me up on the rock-infused ballads of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” my favorite album and story, still, two decades later. We flipped pancakes on Sundays to the boppy backtrack of “Sound and Vision,” and when the 1975 release of “Fame,” on which John Lennon recorded backing vocals, bellowed through our home stereo system, Dad and I took turns alternating roles as Lennon and Bowie while we sang along.
As the years ticked by and I grew older, the songs became a mechanism through which we navigated pre-teen and teenage angst, like in 2012, when we sat in the car outside of my high school as tears streamed down my face. An argument had escalated to a level of frustration that was rarely present in our relationship, and the conflict stung. After a moment of silence, dad plugged in his iPod Classic.
“You’re going to be OK,” he said to me, as magnificent sound filled the car, followed by Bowie’s impassioned vocals:
“We can be heroes, just for one day.”
Together, we sang— David Bowie, Dad and me— driving out the sour air and replacing it with the kind of euphoria only experienced when you listen to a song you love in the company of somebody who loves it, too.
When I learned I’d be traveling to Berlin in Fall 2018,, I was excited by the opportunity to expand my European repertoire, but more so by the enthusiastic intrigue I knew the trip would draw from my dad.
Sure enough, upon announcing my plans, the texts came pouring in.
As I scrolled through the list of links to old concert videos and articles, detailing the deep intersection between Berlin’s political history and its innovative music scene, it suddenly occurred to me that the majority of what I knew about the city, post-World War II, I primarily knew in the context of David Bowie and his time there in the 70’s.
The story I’d memorized growing up went something like this: a drug-addicted and dark-minded Bowie arrived in a divided Berlin, where, with very little money, he took studio space in one of the only standing buildings on a dead-end street, in a war-torn section of the city. There, he produced some of his most influential and experimental work, recording two albums in 1977 (“Low” and “Heroes”), while laying the foundation for a third (“Lodger”), which he’d record in studios in Switzerland and New York in 1979. Bowie left Berlin drug-free, he’d gotten clean, which undoubtedly saved his young life.
“We send our best wishes to all of our friends who are on the other side of the wall,” Bowie said at that 1987 concert.
But the part of the story that stuck with me most, was a vignette of Bowie looking out from a second-floor studio window onto the Berlin Wall, as two people leaned against it, pressing into one another as lovers do (cue erotic interlude), while guards on the other side stood above at their posts.
“And the guns, shot above our heads. And we kissed, as though nothing could fall,” Bowie penned from the sill.
As the button dangled from my coat, and Philipp—the wonderful guide of our last-minute hodgepodge of a Bowie Berlin walking tour—worried for its fate, I stared up at the window of the ordinary-looking, white-painted structure that served as the set to so many of the stories that fueled my rock-and-roll enchanted childhood.
The fact that the Hansa Studio building was relatively unimpressive in physical appearance made it all the more brilliant; the magic of moment driven not by grandiosity or exaggeration, but by truth.
In 1987, ten years after writing and recording “Heroes,” Bowie returned to West Berlin to play an outdoor concert in front of the Reichstag. While thousands on the West side were in attendance, not far behind the stage, separated by a relatively thin slab of concrete, East Berliners had gathered, too.
“We send our best wishes to all of our friends who are on the other side of the wall,” Bowie said, before performing the title track. The wall came down just two years after, and Bowie would later deem the performance one of the most emotional of his colorful career.
There in person, taking it all in, I couldn’t help but feel emotional, too. But it wasn’t a young and inspired Bowie I was thinking of. It was my dad; the countless number of times, some in the car, some over dinner, some on a weekend morning at home, that he’d put on a Bowie record and tell the story with glee, welled in my heart.
The window sat still; unaware of its inimitable role, unmoved by the significance of its history, unchanged by the passing of time.
My dad was my first best friend, and as a kid and a teenager, he was my greatest role model. I idolized him; his love for music, the way he danced in our living room and his ability to give a detailed backstory to almost every song.
As I’ve gotten older, my relationship with my dad has become naturally more complicated. Sometimes I see him as stubborn, judgmental, occasionally selfish. Once two peas in a pod with loads of similarity, I’ve grown into an adult with strong opinions of my own, shaped by people and environments that differ from his.
At 25 and having lifted the veil of a childhood well spent, I now see my dad as both human and hero.
We have disagreements about social media and what it should be used for, about what constitutes compromise, and about things related to work and perceived job security.
At 25 and having lifted the veil of a childhood well spent, I now see my dad as both human and hero. Although normal, at times that’s been difficult to reckon with, but David Bowie’s music has provided a capsule for our relationship, fortifying a shared joy and appreciation.
To bond over music, over the mutual love of a song, character, or piece of art, is to preserve a connection amidst the pull of an ever-changing world.
On May 17, 2004, the transmission gave out in my mom’s 1998 blue Ford minivan, but thanks to my dad’s insistence on leaving the house what felt like a full-day early, we made it to the concert with plenty of time to spare.
I was 8-years-old, and my brother was 5. The show, part of “A Reality Tour,” was the first in what was to become a childhood decorated with rock concerts at which we were often the youngest in attendance.
Coincidentally, although we didn’t know it at the time, our first, would end up being one of David Bowie’s last.
After collapsing on stage with an apparent heart problem a few tour stops later, Bowie would take a near-10-year hiatus before reemerging with an album in 2013, and another, three years later.
I suppose, in part, that’s what music is supposed to do; give your mind and soul something to latch onto.
Two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final studio album, David Bowie died after a quiet battle with cancer, one he’d kept hidden from the world.
On a cold January morning in 2016, I woke up in London where I was staying with my then-boyfriend to a text from my dad in a time zone several hours behind. The text read, “This is such a sad day.” It didn’t take further context for me to understand what that meant.
At my dad’s request, but also prompted by my own initiative, I took a train to Brixton, birthplace of David Jones, and paid visit to a famous Bowie mural set in its center. On the tube ride over, I sat across from a tall and muscular man dressed in black jeans and Doc Martens. Exchanging consoling glances as we rode the several stops in silence, we emerged from the underground to a sea of bodies gathered to pay tribute to a fallen hero.
There were tears and singing, and people who had followed Bowie through his early years, before the wheels of fame and recognition had really taken motion. And there were teenagers, too, whose memories of Bowie, much like my own, would become memories of time shared with other people rather than memories of the artist, himself. I suppose, in part, that’s what music is supposed to do; give your mind and soul something to latch onto, to easily recall and associate with something a little more.
At the end of the Bowie Berlin walk, the ten of us strangers, now united by common interest and four hours on foot, went for a drink near the apartment that Bowie occupied during his time in the city, decades before.
As we sat and sipped, Phillip, now off-the-clock and less performative but equally as likeable, asked who amongst us had gotten the chance to see Bowie in concert.
When I raised my hand, the gasps were audible.
I could see the mental math in action as he approximated my age and sifted backward through the limited opportunity that would have been present in my lifetime.
Then his eyebrows let loose from their scrunched perplexation, and clarity presented itself in the muscles of his face.
“Cool parents?” he asked.
“Cool dad,” I said.
NOTE: Bowie photographs and quotes from this NME story.
Lauren Peace, who grew up in Morgantown, was a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle/USA Today Network in Rochester, New York, where she helped lead coverage of a sexual harassment case at the University of Rochester. In 2018, she received a Fulbright research grant and moved to Kosovo, where she produced an interactive documentary project highlighting the stories of women throughout the country. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Stabile Investigative Journalism Program. She returned home to West Virginia in 2020 to join Mountain State Spotlight, where she works as the public health reporter.
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BREAKING: We Interrupt this Insurrection for David Bowie News | jan8.2021 | WestVirginiaVille marks David Bowie’s 74th birthday today with news from our “Play That Funky Music” News Department. Wait—what does Bowie have to do with West Virginia?! Read and watch on.