Goodbye, Starman


I’ll start with a confession: I first discovered David Bowie in the same unromantic way most kids of my generation did: on commercial rock radio. There’s so much I’ve learned since then about how formulaic these stations were with gimmicks like “double shot Tuesday” (two songs back-to-back from your favorite—read: bestselling—artists) or the “drive at five” (at 5 p.m., the top five songs of the day as picked by a marketing guru which somehow always included Led Zeppelin, and almost always “Dy’er Mak’er”).

Although I didn’t know it at the time, these programming formats were everywhere, in every city, in every radio market. Yet somehow the DJs at WMMR in Philadelphia managed to transcend them through sheer passion. They made me believe there was another world out there, a world beyond the identical brick and formstone row houses that formed the real and psychological boundaries of my working class and unconsciously queer adolescence.

The station broadcast from atop the thirty-three-story Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building—which at the time was one of the tallest skyscrapers in the city. WMMR became my emotional beacon. Listening for hours on end, my musical knowledge became encyclopedic. But no song epitomized my alienation or longing for connection more than David Bowie’s “Starman,” which was in heavy rotation, especially during the late night hours, when I lay awake in my bed trying to project myself into an unimaginable future on a distant planet capable of supporting my life form.

Hearing Bowie’s message of empathy and hope come over the airwaves, my first ambition was to become a musician myself—specifically to become a clone of Ziggy Stardust, a skinny, androgynous space alien in white face paint who could plausibly play guitar in Philly bars with guys who called themselves Weird and Gilly. Unfortunately, I discovered that my Bowie quest was tantamount not only to delusion, but social suicide. No matter how many hours I devoted to mastering my craft, I achieved only a series of regrettable haircuts.

I also failed, despite my hero worship, which bordered on religious fanaticism, to make pilgrimage along with 50,000 other misfits when Bowie came through town in ‘87 for the Glass Spider tour, which opened at Vets stadium. I camped out all night in a K-Mart parking lot on Roosevelt Boulevard, and somehow managed to get a ticket minutes before they sold out. But I came down with a fever right before the show, and when it spiked to 104, I knew I had to sit it out. I lived for Bowie, but wasn’t sure I was ready to die for him. All I got for my trouble was a lousy T-shirt from the girl who took my place in the nosebleeds.

A few more years passed. My loneliness deepened. My musical talent did not. On a whim, I walked over to the public library a few blocks from where I’d been working downtown as a data entry operator. I picked up a college guidebook and discovered a school in Massachusetts called Hampshire College, which didn’t care about the SAT or grades. If you went to Hampshire, you could study whatever you wanted, which might include David Bowie—dressed in academic drag and referred to as “gender studies.”

I applied, and miraculously I got in with financial aid. I met my first girlfriend at the accepted students’ weekend, and simply put, I found my planet. Although my love of music endured, I took a long and unlikely detour through academia before finding my way back to music as a vocation. In my professional life, I’ve come close to meeting Bowie a few times, but haven’t. I think this may have been somewhat intentional on my part—not because I was fearful Bowie wouldn’t meet my expectations, but because I had come to prefer, on some level, to think of him mythologically.

When I heard that Bowie died, I was reluctant to eulogize him, afraid of sounding cliché by citing lyrics that expressed his genius or foretold his passage, of mentioning the fictional time backstage when he almost put my cigarette in my mouth. It’s all gone by too quickly, a tape rewound and played too many times at hyper-speed until it’s distorted and backmasked with the message “David is Dead.” Only this time he really is.

Most of all, I feared saying stupid shit like “Bowie gave me the soundtrack of my life.” And yet that’s exactly what he did. He also helped me to realize my own capacity for self-invention, but much more than that, my capacity for self-acceptance, and ultimately, for empathy. So what if it took a faux alien to allow me to recognize my own humanity, and the humanity of others… even those popular kids I grew up with, the ones who would never accept me?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Bowie saved my life on more than one occasion. And now that he’s gone, I’m at a loss again. I feel alone in the universe in a way I haven’t since before I first heard his music. All I can say right now is, “Goodbye, Starman.” I want to get in my car and take a long drive tonight. It’s freezing outside but I want to roll the windows all the way down, and feel the wind brush against my face, rousing me from my grief. Tomorrow is always the next day. But until then I want to hear Bowie’s voice on my radio, singing to me like a friend until the sun comes up. Ziggy played guitar, and right now everything else feels like a B-side.

Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, and her own subscription-based channel, Vanishing Ink. More from this author →