A Look Back: Bowie on the Subway

Bowie in Japan, 1979

It’s been a week since we all heard the news of David Bowie’s death. I’m still going through my own little period of mourning—I wouldn’t have anticipated that I’d feel so strongly about this loss. We all know that he was one of the great creative figures of the second half of the 20th century, and I won’t analyze how and why, because others have already said it so well…

One thing I can say, personally, is that I’ll always remember spotting Bowie in the crowded lobby of the Angelika in SoHo on a busy weekend afternoon in late 2005. My now-husband and I were there to see “Capote,” and he was on the line for “The Squid and the Whale.” My husband had to point him out to me, and even then I didn’t really believe my eyes for a minute. He actually looked like the 50-something man he was, and he was almost camouflaged by his baggy tan parka and baseball cap, but once you focused on his face (that singular face!), yes, there he was. “Did you expect him to be in his Ziggy Stardust outfit?” my husband later asked. Well, no. Maybe a suit from the “Let’s Dance” era, though.

That 1983 release was my introduction to David Bowie, after all, and I very gradually worked my way backwards and forwards through the rest of his oeuvre. An intimidating project, because he was so prolific and varied in his work, but I’ve always had guides: so many of my other favorite bands and performers, from Bauhaus and Joy Divison to Lloyd Cole and Belle & Sebastian, have been influenced by Bowie one way or another.

Not to mention the friends who made mix-tapes for me or loaned me their records, back when we still owned such things, and recommended their favorite songs to me.

bowie on the subway.jpg

Weirdly, though, the first person who inspired me to learn more about the mysterious David Bowie was a total stranger. It must have been 1984 or 1985, and I was riding the subway in Manhattan with my mother. We were probably in midtown when we got off the train. Just ahead of us, one woman was asking another about her new Walkman, something that people had only very recently begun to purchase in the United States.

The woman with the Walkman was about 30, I think; in my memory, she had short blondish hair in a boyish cut, and she was wearing overalls, a backpack, and a little embroidered cap of the kind you’d pick up in a Middle Eastern imports shop. She was replying that she loved having her Walkman to listen to on the subway and around town, that it was so convenient and amazing to have music with her at all times. What was she listening to? the other woman asked. “David Bowie,” the Walkman-wearer replied with a wide smile. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

I was so impressed by that brief exchange. Not only was I looking forward to owning a Walkman of my own, but now I wondered what it would be like to be a woman like this one, independent and bohemian, listening to impeccably cool music as she roamed around Manhattan. Someday, I resolved, I would know more about David Bowie. It seemed like an essential step.

To this day, nearly every time I listen to Bowie on mass transit (although I’ve graduated from a Walkman to a Discman to an iPod!), I remember that woman. I wonder where she is now. I’m sure she’s revisiting some of her favorite Bowie songs and albums this week, too.

Top photo: Bowie on the Tokyo subway, 1979. Bottom photo: me on the NYC subway, January 2016.




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