Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Day I Stood Up Comeback King David Bowie

Anyone who's met me in person has heard this story at least once. The last time I told it was on Sunday, three days ago, to a stranger and several friends who I couldn't believe hadn't heard it at least half a dozen times before. For all the talk of my face-to-face meeting with David Bowie (all of it coming from me), incredibly enough, I've written about it only once -- and in Spanish!

It started with a kir royale at Flamingo East. Make that about 10 kir royales and maybe a few shots of something fruity thrown in. It was 1997 in New York City, and working all day, drinking all night and getting up at 8am to start the cycle all over again wasn't so uncommon, or hard, for me to do. I was only 27 years old, and Wednesday nights at Flamingo East weren't to be missed. My face-to-face meeting with David Bowie wasn't until noon the next day anyway. I'd have plenty of time to recuperate in the morning.

I can't account for anything that happened after 1am. One minute I was at the bar with my best friend Dave, ordering another round, the next, I was waking up in bed, a not-so-beautiful mess. What time was it? 11am?! I had exactly one hour to pull myself together and drag myself from my apartment on West 34th Street to Midtown for my interview with Bowie!

I got into the shower, turned on the water, and let it rain all over me. This isn't working, I thought. Who was I kidding? I was still drunk. I could barely put together a coherent sentence in my head, much less interview David Bowie for People magazine. So I sucked it up, tried to get it together, and called Bowie's publicist.

"Hi. This is Jeremy Helligar from People magazine. I'm really sorry, but I'm very sick with a stomach virus. I thought I'd be able to make it to the interview today anyway, but I'm too ill. The last thing I want to do is make David Bowie sick, too. Is there any way we can reschedule the interview. I can even do a phoner, if that's okay."

I'd interviewed him over the phone in 1997 for another People story a few months after the release of his Outside album. I figured Earthling could get the same treatment. Looking back, I can't believe how unprofessional I was being -- or how understanding his publicist was. After expressing genuine concern for my physical health, she insisted that the interview be face-to-face.

"I think you and David would really get along great, so I'd love for you to meet in person," she said. "Can you come by the studio tomorrow morning."

Is Major Tom still lost in space?

That night, needless to say, I didn't drink anything stronger than water, and I showed up at the recording studio at the appointed time, 10am, ready for my one-on-one with Bowie. Ever the gentleman, he didn't keep me waiting. He approached me, hand outstretched, a twinkle in his gray eye. (Yes, the other one really was blue!) "I like your jumper," he said. We were off to a great start.

And then... "So I hear you were sick yesterday." He flashed a mischievous grin, letting me know he knew exactly what I'd been up to the night before our aborted interview. I must have looked too healthy, certainly not like a guy who'd been knock-knock-knocking on death's door less than 24 hours earlier. I was relieved that he didn't seem to mind. In fact, I think my subterfuge was a built-in ice-breaker. Hadn't Bowie helped invent the phrase "party like a rock star"? Obviously, he still had his priorities in the correct order.

During our 30 minute chat, Bowie was everything a reporter would want an interview subject and lifelong idol to be: friendly, funny, smart and charming, so much nicer than that sullen Thom Yorke, whom I'd met backstage after a Radiohead concert two years earlier (an encounter documented for posterity in an October 1995 Alternative Press cover story). Among his more shocking revelations: Scary Monsters and his Tin Machine projects aside, he did all of his '80s albums strictly for the money. Yes, that includes 1983's Let's Dance, his greatest commercial triumph! Also, he remembered our previous phone interview, which we'd done during the 1995 holiday season. He even recalled his final words to me as he passed by a department store whose halls were decked out in the spirit of the season: "Shall I say 'Hello' to Santa for you?"

I wasn't sure how to answer that one, so I let Bowie have the last word. An icon like him deserves the final word, and for 10 years, we all thought Heathen might be his final word. The heart attack he suffered in 2004, after which he underwent heart surgery didn't do much to restore my faith in his eventual return, nor did his relative silence afterwards.

Now he's back to have another say -- though hopefully, not his final one. He released a new single, "Where Are We Now?," on iTunes on Tuesday (his 66th birthday), and a new studio album, The Next Day, will follow in March. May The Next Day be the start of many more to come.

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