He was my hero, but just for one day.
The date was October 20, 2001 and I was entering my favorite place in the world, yet I didn't know how to behave or what to do. None of the nineteen thousand, five hundred-plus people attending the Concert for New York knew what to expect as they settled into their seats at New York's Madison Square Garden, a little more than a month and a lifetime after the dark day of September 11 that year.
Were we supposed to enjoy ourselves again? Can we laugh and smile? Can we go back to the way it used to be?
As it turned out, the cue, that evening, came from a rock legend and his message was the same as it ever was. He performed and the underlying message was simply to be yourself and to be authentic with your emotions, your friends, your neighbors and those you were about to meet that night as we took a giant first step towards healing.
The show began with a single spotlight on a performer seated on the stage floor, legs criss-crossed in front of a small synthesizer which provided a rhythmic backbeat. That performer was David Bowie, dressed casually cool with his contemporary haircut framing his youthful good looks as he was only 53 years old at the time. The show's organizers had decided to start the show with an old, familiar face.
That face was on many of the albums I had purchased. In fact it was on some vinyl, some cassettes and some CDs. In a few cases, the same album was purchased for each of those now-ancient delivery systems for popular music. I guess I missed the 8-tracks he sold? The face sometimes had make-up, and it sometimes was adorned atop glamorous attire that pushed modern fashion further than the latest and most garish layout in the Sunday Times magazine section, whether the fashionistas hailed from Milan, London or New York. The face, while youthful, showed some mileage, too. That is what I loved about him. David Bowie was a rock'n roller who had withstood the test of time.
His music was not on my "Top 10" lists, nor was his name the first that would come to mind when I would look at the list of touring bands for a summer treat. Yet, David Bowie was in a place in my musical tastes that felt safe and secure, despite the fact it was amazingly progressive. Bowie was alternative music before we even knew it existed.
A walk into a dive bar in New York, south of 14th Street, might prove to be stressful to the average man never mind one trying to find the courage it might take to drop a few bucks into an idle jukebox to the start the evening off with a few tunes. Your mind would be rushing with questions and trivial worries, "What artist and which song should I play?" "Everyone in this joint is going to know the song I'm choosing."
You would twist the knobs, and flip the album covers, as the stress began to build. Then, an enlightenment: "Ahh, Bowie!"
It wasn't too Pop (Top 40) and it wasn't too safe (The Beatles). Bowie fit in with The Rolling Stones, or maybe Eric Clapton's latest. It felt just right.
"Ashes-to-Ashes, Modern Love, China Girl, or Young Americans" would always work out nicely to start-up an evening of music and a few frosty cold ones. If you wanted to go a little deeper, a little further, you might play something he passed along to another artist, and maybe play some more obscure stuff from the great Iggy Pop or Mott the Hoople. And, if the jukebox had "All the Young Dudes," it was truly a sign of some music aficionados calling the shots on their music box and you'd found a place to return to at anytime.
Thinking back to that momentous night at The Garden, Bowie began his two-song set with the perfect entree, covering Simon and Garfunkel's cinematic epic, "America," which took on an entirely different meaning that night than its more uppity '60s origins. With film clips and images from New York City playing behind him, the great Bowie carved into the night while the fire-fighters and other first responders stood-up and applauded the selection, as crowd cut-aways on the big screens or a glance to your left or right proved it was okay to smile again. Three and a half minutes later, we began the process of recovery and we did it together with music, along with some smiles, some laughs (especially from Adam Sandler's depiction of Opera Man), some tears and even some boo's (Harrison Ford). It was okay to be ourselves.
Bowie's second selection that night is probably more memorable to many. He played the very fitting "Heroes" from his 12th studio album, recorded in 1977, my senior year in high school. He performed with Paul Schaffer and his orchestra, which included Fab Faux fave, Will Lee, singing back-up vocals. While Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity, Ch-Ch-Changes, or his Jagger-esque duet on "Dancin' in the Street" will go down as all-time rock epics and fan favorites, I will always remember Bowie from that October evening, sitting in my favorite room, legs crossed, setting the mood, and blazing an important trail, yet again.