Like most of us, I woke up to the news that David Bowie is gone. That's a hole in the universe that will not fill -
remarked that it's as though a constellation had been removed from the sky.
As a child of the 70s I grew up listening to Space Oddity
and The Man Who Sold the World
- I remember my first complete listen-through of that one being in the background to my first read-through of Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon
and how weird my very young self found all that. And of course Aladdin Sane
and Diamond Dogs
and Young Americans
. But mostly The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
- that was the LP I wore out from repeated playing, and it's that one I want to talk about.
I have a hard time telling this story because it has no referents to my present set of friends and social circle and yet it still echoes in my life.
Some of you know I used to do technical theater work - stage and lights mostly. That began in the early 80s when I was an undergrad. One of the biggest shows I ever took on was technical directing (and being sole stage shop for) the college's production of "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars." It was a musical adaptation of Bowie's ideas and themes into theatrical forms. And because one of our musicians was the younger brother of the trumpet player who was touring with Bowie at that time we got permission to use the real music.
My memories of that experience are incoherent, shaded by the decades between then and now, but points stick out and touch me.
- Weeks of listening to the music with the cast. We rehearsed and practiced with the real music while the band learned. Only once we got to tech week did the live band take over and I remembered how strange it seemed. By dress rehearsal they had it down cold and it was just others' voices over Bowie's music.
- The show featured a West Side Story-like dance-battle sequence on a staircase I built. I remember it breaking once in rehearsal and I remember going back to the shop to rebuilt. The end piece was so strong it took four people with crowbars nearly 20 minutes to break it during strike. I remember the director and I sat on the edge of the stage and passed a bottle of cheap champagne back and forth, taking swigs while we watched. We only had four crowbars and they were clearly having too much fun for us to interfere.
- We somehow got permission to use live flame on stage. In a wooden theater. In an all-wooden building. At the time, it was the third largest all-wood theater remaining in America. I remember having to fireproof the boards that would go on stage; to this day that is the worst smell I've ever been subjected to and I say this as someone who walked past a broken-open durian in Singapore later in life.
- I remember it as my first experience cutting Plexiglas and how horrible that was. Fiendish splinters embedded with mechanical force everywhere in my arms, clothing, hair. I remember putting Scary Monsters
and Let's Dance
(on cassette tape) into the shop sound system because I needed something to keep me going, but I didn't want to overdose on the show's music.
- I remember that the choreography called for the leads to dance from floor to table in the nightclub we had converted the theater into. I remember there being no tables that could take the leaping, thundering performers and the director coming to me in desperation. I remember building a box with 4x4 pillars for corner stabilization that we dressed to look like a table and still every night she and I would sit at that special table and hold it in place with all our might as the performers leapt on, did their routines, and leapt off.
- I remember that somewhere in there one of the cast or crew thought it would be hilarious to write my phone number in a stall in the men's room, offering blowjobs. I remember especially the scared voice on the other end of the phone asking for me, telling me he'd found my number. I remember trying desperately to reassure him that I wasn't angry or going to hurt him, but I did want to know where he'd found my number so I could erase it. Later, Bowie would come to be a public bisexual and later still I would understand how that label related to me and to how I saw myself.
But at the time of the call I remember the jolt of shock as (what we would now call) my bubble of het privilege was jostled by the sudden realization that some people were afraid because of their sexuality. I remembered thinking it was sad, and I was sad that the caller wouldn't come to the show and say hi. Notions of "safe space" were decades away, but I was already reading net.motss - soon to become soc.motss - and I mark this moment as one of those where I started to wake up to realities other than my own.
- Finally I remember that the male and female leads were a couple. I remember that during the production they fought, often vehemently, loudly, disrupting rehearsals with their quarrels. I remember that he hit her, in their house where they lived together - I remember talking with the make-up artist about what she could do to cover bruises. And I remember that she went back to him time and time again as we and friends who knew her better tried to figure out what we could do. We'd give her space, settle her on a couch or in a spare bedroom, and then wake up the next morning to her gone again.
I remember that the director offered to find another leading man, even as late as dress week and I think I remember the looks on both women's faces as our star refused, and asked that it not be brought up again. I remember particularly that the script called for a knife fight between the two characters in the last act and I remember my hands carefully taping the knife to try and prevent actual injury. I remember one night she managed to draw real blood anyway, and how she screamed her exit line that night.
Somewhere in my memorabilia is a CD of that performance, created by my brother digitizing an old tape he'd found. I wonder if it's still playable.