SWAN SONGS OF 2016: Bowie's Starman at the Wedding
In January, I drove down to LA for a wedding—one of those rare occasions when you see a happy middle aged couple in a gorgeous setting say and do things for the first time, with taste, and with an understanding of the complexity of their social pact. The groom is a musician in the Biz, so instead of hiring a band, he had his talented friends (and a few less talented, like me) come up and sing karaoke-style with the backing of a piano man he calls friend. Such a great way to make things cozy and fun, and it was.
At first I felt a little exposed. All that lovely, talented community and several people I admire who I had not seen since high school. I drove down myself without my wife by my side. I now understand feeling slightly uncomfortable is the best mental state I can be in. Being solo, I could freely observe and interact carefully and make the kinds of sarcastic comments my old friends expect of me. After a few drinks, that went out the window. I was my usual charming, blabbing self, connecting with folks I hadn’t seen in years. I listened to their stories and tried to detect that state of adulthood where the riches of life, formalities and disappointments of adulthood rolled away to reveal the old friends I knew. We were happy that evening, unfettered too, in that gorgeous setting, celebrating this couple we love. The night was one joyous dot on a time continuum.
Never was that more true for me than when, after a few drinks and food, the groom asked his close pal, another friend of mine, to come up and sing. He requested a song for them as quick as one orders a scotch at a corner bar. Any deliberation was negligible. The keyboardist confirmed and nodded, “Starman?”
They entered the song seamlessly and before I knew it something I heard in the second verse spoke to me:
“…I had to phone someone so I picked on you hoo hoo / Hey, that’s far out! … so you heard him too hoo hoo / Switch on the TV we may pick him up on Channel Two…”
Piano man percussed that repeated note we all know bridging the gap to the chorus as a sonic alien rose.
“There’s a staaaaaarmaaaaaaan waiting in the sky! / He’d like to come and meet us / But he thinks he’d blow our minds….”
It’s a good time to mention that there is humor and cynicism in much of what the groom-friend does, but the older he gets, I can hear love and gratitude too. He sang with the touch of the accent of the beloved Brit of which this story is about, while the harmonies of Friend 2 soared as well.
That’s the groom on the right singing at the exact moment it happened. They sold it. It was the exact moment in which I tuned in to 2016. People talk about being in the moment and appreciating what we have, and this was it for me. Something was channeled. Two mics in hand, the singing duo, and the bride across the room, and a funny old song about expanding your view of the universe to accept the impossible. The men stirred magic in that tipsy room. The rest is a pleasant blur.
The next day, I went to the museum, ate a burger and eventually headed back North in my blue Honda. By the time I reentered the Bay Area I had heard David Bowie died.
I called someone and said, ‘did you hear.’ The love felt in that room, the sense of community and reconnection too, buzzed in my mind on that ride home. It was mingled with disorientation, rather than personal mourning. In the following days, whenever I had a moment, I consumed everything Bowie in a way I had not before: songs, videos, articles and books. Documentary clips were particularly interesting, including interviews with a young Davey Jones found himself after being raised by his mother. Then I heard the new release which I might have otherwise dismissed out of hand if he was alive—a remarkable eerie posthumous note to the world produced as Bowie privately faced death. After that, everything Bowie was new and my world was ready to bend, crack, crumble and melt. The powerful moment to embrace life was in the air during that wedding and the bride and groom and others beheld it without being exactly aware of the meaning that song would take on.
Then so much confusing news unfolded for the rest of 2016. Shooters and defensive gun-toters, bad cops, fake news, and bad candidates including the victorious one. A self-proclaimed greed-is-good “king” was born with the roar of the ignorant masses and the helping hand of an enemy state. It was the kind of year that inspires the odd Bowie lyric, “visions of swastikas in my head,” written by Ziggy Stardust’s doppelganger. And, the year piled on so many beloved others, passing before our eyes, both famous and unknown.
We are sensitive souls to all this noise. It drowned out our former dull sense of reality, but for me everything starts with the spirit of this song, a wedding song, a goodbye song, a song of strength, a clear reflection of an unclear, distant hope. Starman sung at a wedding was an unwitting beacon for the future “us” with lower case letters. With the chiming and grooving of “Starman” I can better see the unknown world stewing.
“There's a starman waiting in the sky / He's told us not to blow it / Cause he knows it's all worthwhile…”
I am not declaring Starman the best Bowie song or the only Bowie song. Bowie’s best work created a third eye and spoken from the great beyond and beyond the shiny veneer and subsequent slick tracks, he grappled with something greater.
Even as I write this, I am not even sure I can declare that Starman was the only song to speak from the grave in 2016. There are two clear contenders--Leonard Cohen (“You Want it Darker”) and Mose Allison (Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy (When They Don’t Know The Meaning of the Word))--who give Bowie a run for his money. They seem to be saying things to us in hindsight that can haunt and strengthen us or simply make us smirk about and deal with this new environment. Nevertheless, we live in a post-Bowie world now, where our future vision must be something bigger. It’s steeped in a social pact, built on love and appreciation of the nearly-elusive moments.
Moments like little starmen: they’d like to come and meet us but they think they’d blow our minds.
(Thanks to Mike Ruekberg, Sarah Cohen, Mike Datz and (for the perfect photo) Jill Bartlett)