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  • Sara Morgan-Beckett (updated for my blog)

David Bowie's New York

This year began with the heartbreak of David Bowie’s passing. A New Yorker for almost 25 years, he died of cancer at the age of 69 at his SoHo home. In the late 90s, my husband, Darren, came to New York to study jazz and knows some of the musicians who played on Bowie’s final album Blackstar. It had been on repeat since it’s release on Bowie’s birthday two days earlier. When he woke me and said the words “David Bowie’s dead,” like a sharp intake of icy air, the news pierced me.

It’s hard to fathom how the loss of someone you have never met can rip through you, just like a personal loss. But when it’s someone who touched so many moments in your life, the idea of them not inhabiting the world makes the world lose a little of its colour. This is how David Bowie’s death hit me. I have often felt sadness at a celebrity’s passing but I’ve never cried. This was a first.

Many may not have realized that David Bowie called no where but New York home since 1992. He finally decided to settle here after meeting his wife Iman in 1990, at her behest. They moved to the 9th floor apartment of the Essex Street Hotel on Central Park West South in ‘92 and in ’99 they bought a penthouse, two actually - one up one down, on Lafayette Street in SoHo. It’s on the street level of 284 Lafayette Street where a memorial can be found and many, myself included, came to pay their respects in the days following his death.

David Bowie fell in love with New York before he ever set foot here. As a 19 year old, he listened to, and was forever changed by, The Velvet Underground and Nico. It came into his hands via his manager from Andy Warhol (someone Bowie went on to play in the 1996 film Basquait which I recommend as a snapshot of New York’s artistic history). It was a debauched time where Bowie is documented to have lived on cocaine and milk. First arriving after the release of Hunky Dory in 1971, he said of that time “I rarely got up before noon and hit the sack again around four or five in the morning.” He enjoyed the nightlife of Studio 54 and CBGBs with Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger, and stayed at The Gramercy Park Hotel (2 Lexington Avenue). Bowie’s first ever performance as Ziggy Stardust in New York was at Carnegie Hall (57th & Seventh) on September 28th,1972. Andy Warhol was in attendance.

As Ziggy made way for the Thin White Duke and his cocaine addiction really took hold during a stint in LA, he made his escape to Berlin to dry out and recorded Low, Heroes and Lodger (’76-’79). He returned to New York late 1979 to appear on the then fledgling show Saturday Night Live (NBC, 30 Rockefeller Plaza). He performed three songs including The Man Who Sold The World accompanied by two drag artists, Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias. Bowie had seen them perform at Mudd Club in Tribeca and invited them to be his backing singers.

In September 1980, he appeared on Broadway as John Merrick in The Elephant Man at The Booth Theatre (222 West 45th St). His performance was universally lauded. Two years later he recorded Let’s Dance in 17 days with Nile Rodgers at Avatar Studios, known then as The Power Station (441 West 53rd Street). It became his most commercially successful album to date.

During the 90s, after moving to New York permanently, he celebrated his 50th birthday with a benefit concert for Save The Children at Madison Square Garden (4 Pennsylvania Plaza). Far from being entirely retrospective, it featured seven songs from his 1997 album Earthling and Lou Reed, Dave Grohl, Frank Black, Billy Corgan and Robert Smith all joined him on stage.

After 9/11 Bowie was back at Madison Square Garden, with 60 other acts including The Rolling Stones, The Who and Jay-Z, to take part in a tribute concert organized by Paul McCartney. And such was his love for New York he decided to take his 2002 Heathen tour to each of the five boroughs. He played Staten Island’s Music Hall at Snug Harbour (1000 Richmond Terrace), Brooklyn’s St Anne’s Warehouse (45 Water St, DUMBO), Queens College Colden Center (65-30 Kissena Blvd, Flushing), Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe (281 W Fordham Rd) and Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre (2124 Broadway). Calling it The New York Marathon tour, at the time he said,“I would like to repay the fans that traveled so far to see me by bringing my show to them. But most importantly, I could get home from all the gigs on roller skates.”

In September 2005, the year after he suffered a heart attack while performing in Berlin, Bowie played Fashion Rocks at Radio City Music Hall (1260 Ave of the Americas). A week he later joined Arcade Fire for a show in Central Park, but his last ever public performance was in New York at The Hammerstein Ballroom (311 W 34th St). He sang three songs, including Changes with Alicia Keyes, at the Keep A Child Alive charity event on November 9th, 2006.

Spotting David Bowie was almost an impossibility, not because he was a recluse but because he tended to blend in in an unassuming way. Calling himself a “seriously early riser” in New York Magazine in 2003, he commented on the New York he saw as he walked around the city before the workers and hoi polloi hit the streets. One of his favourite parts of New York was Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village. Bowie called this beautiful park with it’s central fountain and marble arch modeled on the Arc De Triomphe in honour of George Washington, “the emotional history of New York in a short walk.” A voracious reader, he adored the Strand Bookstore (828 Broadway, two blocks south of Union Square) saying, “It’s impossible to find the book you want, but you always find the book you didn’t know you wanted.”

Washington Square Park

He shopped at the gourmet supermarket, Dean & Deluca (550 Broadway) in SoHo and moved around the city unnoticed. In the hope of throwing people off the scent if he was recognized, Bowie was known to carry a Greek newspaper around, so he’d be dismissed as someone baring a remarkable resemblance.

In the Spring of 2014, David Bowie went to 55 Bar (55 Christopher St), a dive bar dating back almost 100 years to the days of prohibition. There he sat alone at the front and saw a jazz quartet. 10 days later Saxophonist Donny McCaslin got an email from Bowie asking him to bring his band to the downtown recording studio, Magic Shop (49 Crosby St). This was to become David Bowie’s last ever recording. He recorded Blackstar with longtime producer Tony Visconti, a stone’s throw from his apartment. The studio would have his coffee ready before he arrived - a double macchiato from La Colombe (270 Lafayette St). Sadly, after 28 years, Magic Shop announced in February that it would be closing on March 16th. Another studio to fall victim of New York’s ever-increasing rental prices, owner Steve Rothential said, “I would like to thank the late, great David Bowie for recording Blackstar and The Next Day at the studio. It was an honor to have him and Tony Visconti working here for the last few years.”

This haunting, experimental, contemporary album was Bowie’s farewell. Bowie also wrote the Broadway musical Lazarus, a song from the album, as the sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth. It had a short run through January at the off-Broadway theatre, New York Theatre Workshop (79-83 East 4th Street).

On March 31st at Carnegie Hall, an already-planned David Bowie tribute concert took place. It was extended to two nights, April 1st at Radio City Hall was added. Cyndi Lauper, The Roots and Michael Stipe were amongst the acts performing. Tickets ranged from $48 to $3000 for super fan packages and, as you’d expect, it quickly sold out. Proceeds went to music education programs for underprivileged children.

Months on, hearing ‘Life on Mars’ will still cause my eyes to prick. I wonder if it will ever not strike me as incredibly sad that David Bowie - the most unique cultural icon the world has ever known - is no longer with us. But in the city he called home, his presence will always be felt. As a Brit living here, there’s some comfort in that.

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