1. July 2001
I work at a record store in Chicago, where I am paid six dollars an hour (I take my day’s pay right from the register at the end of my shift) and can have any used CD in the store I want so long as I clean it. On my last day at the store, two albums come into the shop that I’ve never heard before: Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. I walk away with a bundle of CDs and casually forget about the Bowie albums.
2. February 2002
At college, my roommate asks what we should listen to, and I tell him to put on whatever he wants. He looks through my CDs and puts on Hunky Dory. It doesn’t leave our CD player for two months.
3. April 2002
My closest friend (who remains my closest friend to this day) is kicked out of his dorm room and moves in with someone he has heard particularly awful rumors about, which I don’t need to go into here. I agree to hang out with my friend in his new room on the first night. My friend, his new roommate, and I are hanging out awkwardly when the roommate puts on Ziggy Stardust. The three of us smoke pot and listen to Ziggy Stardust all night. The song went on forever.
4. June 2002
I go back to the record store on my summer vacation to ask if there’s work, and the owner tells me there isn’t. While I’m there I buy Heroes on CD, used, for five bucks. I listen to it all summer, and it eventually becomes my favorite Bowie album.
5. September 2002 through May 2005
Bowie seems to be playing everywhere—at parties, in dorm rooms, at bars, in Wes Anderson movies. I remember being in a car on a dark road in upstate New York with “Joe the Lion,” with its enormous riff and pounding drums and yowling singing, playing loudly as we snake through the landscape.
6. February 2007
I’m working on a construction site in New York, and a man walks his dog down the street. I bend down to pet the dog and ask the owner what its name is. He tells me it’s “Ziggy Stardust.”
7. June 2009
I watch the Nicolas Roeg movie The Man Who Fell to Earth on DVD and think to myself how appropriate it is that Bowie plays an alien.
8. February 2010
I watch Labyrinth—possibly not for the first time, as I seem to recall having seen it at a very young age—and think to myself how appropriate it is that Bowie plays a goblin king.
9. November 2011
My friend visits me and tells me he got a new dog. I ask him what the name of the dog is, and he tells me it’s “Ziggy Stardust.”
10. December 2014
I go see “David Bowie Is” at the MCA, which I now realize isn’t just a retrospective of Bowie’s career but also an elaborate autobiography by a brilliant artist nearing the end of his life. The final room is a giant hallway filled with screens that play Bowie’s music videos—it feels like being in an enormous disco ball made out of televisions. It’s a fitting conclusion for the exhibit, its sensory overload channeling a person who used music and media to achieve the ineffable feeling of being superhuman.
These are the moments I remember from my own life—some humorous, some thrilling, some mundane—when Bowie’s music and persona played a role. But I mention them to illustrate that the greatest artists don’t always exist for us as part of a grand story, but rather in small instances that accumulate into constant companionship. Taken collectively, they make his death an overwhelming loss. Bowie was always around, and he always managed to bring me closer to other people.
Let’s start here: There are no 1970s without David Bowie. In almost every year of that decade Bowie put out an album, and while they weren’t always successful, they consistently challenged his audience’s expectations of what he would do next. Every one had a different sound, character, or style that distinguished it from its predecessor. Listen to The Man Who Sold the World (1970), a mixture of hard rock and acid folk that’s basically protometal, and then to Scary Monsters (1980), an amalgamation and overview of all Bowie’s output from the 70s, to hear just how much Bowie’s music changed without losing its signatures—a reptilian voice, impassioned chants, electricity, glittery romance.
Bowie used words and music to create a world that people saw in their dreams and fantasies. It was one filled with moonage daydreams and starmen and pretty things. It was a world of acceptance and romance. And other times it seemed like Bowie strived for unity on a global scale, whether by realizing that existence is merely sound and vision or by creating a rallying cry for rebels everywhere. And in an act of generosity rarely equaled in the history of pop music, he said that we were all heroes. Part of Bowie’s genius was that he told people that they could be Bowie too, that iconography and hero worship are all a sham anyway.
He was elusive, nonspecific, and vague, but the mystery he created was one that nonetheless seemed to articulate what it meant to be alive. “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do,” Bowie once sang. Life comes to an end, sometimes with a black star, but you stay alive because at any moment it can be grand. I’ve had lots of such moments, and Bowie played a part in many of them.