Like the whole planet (and beyond), I'm wrecked by the news of David Bowie's death. Bowie was a hero to me—he was the essence of art, cool and individuality. I came to him, like most ten-year-olds in 1980, via his weird sad-clown video for "Ashes to Ashes" (who was this guy?) and then, a few years later, with "Let's Dance," a song I insisted my band learn to play without fucking up. Those aren't the coolest entry points, I know, but I'm being honest here in my time of grieving. Anyway, I certainly made up for it, diving into the older albums and developing a proper preference for the Berlin period.
Today gives me an opportunity to tell my story of how I met Bowie, briefly, in college. Oberlin struggled lamely to bring serious bands to campus. (Often we had to make due with less.) But when the Concert Board landed the Pixies, it was no small victory. Even as the group was unravelling onstage—these were its bickering end days—we were still thrilled they had come on that December night in 1991.
The rumor went up that Bowie, a fan of the Pixies, was in the audience. Sure enough, there he was, standing in the back of the hall among the serious, trench-coated thugs from Tin Machine, his aggro rock band. A friend of mine was literally genuflecting on the floor. Possessed of the attitude that only 19-year-olds have, I approached Bowie. I told him I was an arts writer for the paper (I was) and asked if he would give me a brief interview.
"Sure," he said, "but let's go somewhere quiet." At that point, he put his arm around my shoulder and began talking in my ear as we walked through the largely stunned crowd toward the stage. I was observed by all to be having a private conversation with Bowie, obviously my new confidante. I remember his cologne, his eyes. I was completely out-of-body and would be for days.
Backstage, I suddenly realized I had zero questions, nor the capacity for speech. My journalist's instincts, largely undeveloped, kicked in. We chatted about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (he was not a fan), about guitar playing, about The Hunger. He complimented me on my leather jacket. (Sometimes I recast this moment as flirting.) In my desperation, I asked a topical question: "So…Pearl Harbor Day [it was the fiftieth anniversary]…um, what do you think?" Saving my ass, Bowie performed an enormous act of charity: "Well, it was the end of our innocence."
The next day, the interview ran in the paper, with a cover line: Rothkopf Talks to Bowie. The man made me a writer. I was never the same again.