Photograph by Terry O'Neill
It was an Indian summer in New York City, fall 2004. I stepped into a sunset-kissed Union Square in destroyed black cowboy boots and a Heatherette tie-dyed hoodie with Amanda Lepore’s face stenciled on the front. Waiting there to greet me was my new love, roses in hand.
That night my band was playing Irving Plaza -- our first show in New York since having some success around the world. It was a show I’d been looking forward to; a homecoming of sorts. We had received sad news about a friend that day and there was a dark pall over the dressing room. That night I never got the show really going -- at least, I didn’t feel like I did. It was the first show in New York that we played where I looked out at the crowd and didn’t recognize a soul. Who are these people? I thought. Where are our friends? For the first time I felt homesick in my own city. That night I just didn’t really connect.
After we said our final goodnight from the stage, I trod up the stairs back to the dressing room where Chris, my boyfriend, took my arm and said, “David Bowie watched the show.”
“What?” All the bustle of the room quickly tuned out, and all I could hear was the ringing in my ears.
“He was up in the balcony.”
I suddenly started babbling. “Is he still here? Why didn’t anybody say anything? How come no one told me? The show was fucking terrible! I was fucking terrible…” I paced in a circle, feeling my throat closing up, trying to hold back tears. I stopped and pulled it together, put on a clean shirt and prepared myself to meet him. He never came backstage. He was gone.
Labyrinth, directed by Jim Henson, came out when I was 8. It was the first time I had ever seen David Bowie. I bootlegged the film on a Beta tape, and once I had memorized every moment and song, I demanded my mother take me to a shop to buy me a David Bowie album. Arbitrarily, I picked Let’s Dance on cassette. The Nile Rodgers–produced eight-song record is considered by some to be Bowie’s bid at commercial pop. And it’s there, in “China Girl,” “Modern Love,” and the title track. I listened to, and loved, those songs. But it was side two -- “Ricochet,” “Putting Out Fire (With Gasoline),” and “Criminal World” -- that gave me my first taste of his lurid sensibility, epic grotesquerie, his callousness.
As soon as I could save $5, I bought Lodger and Scary Monsters, his two albums before Let’s Dance, which are arguably his most bleak. I’m not sure how many other 8-year-olds there were at the time who were seduced by the bare themes of alienation, heroin addiction, genocide. Thus began my fascination and love with Screaming Lord Byron and the Thin White Duke. My first and only favorite rock star. Growing up, no matter what I was doing -- whether it was theater, tap dancing, or writing horror stories -- it always seemed like he was there to guide my way.
And now he had seen my shitty show and left. I was inconsolable. They say never meet your idols. I guess the only thing worse than meeting your idols is not meeting them. The whole thing made me feel like a fraud.
Later that month, I received a somewhat cryptic email. “Hi. I came to your show a few weeks ago. It sounded very good from where I was sitting. Db”
I froze. What was this? As if I didn’t know he’d been there? From where “he” was sitting? As opposed to where everyone else was sitting? This just exacerbated my pain. Why did he even bother to write me an email at all? The black type on white just read to me as: “Dear Jake, though you may think yourself a rock star, you will never be me. David Bowie.”
I wish I could find my response. It took me about three weeks to compose. I made sure that even if it was a little longer, at three sentences, I kept it equally terse, saying:
Dear David Bowie,
You are my favorite artist on earth. My favorite song you’ve ever written is “Fantastic Voyage.” Thank you so much for coming to my show, but I really hope at this point that we never cross paths. There’s not a lot in this world I keep sacred, but I would rather you just stay imaginary.