Thurston Moore Remembers David Bowie: ‘The Starman Was Indeed the Man Himself’
Plus, written tributes from former Sonic Youth members Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo
Many, many musicians have paid tribute to David Bowie this week, including Paul McCartney, Nile Rodgers, Stephin Merritt, Will Sheff, Brian Eno, and more. Yesterday, Thurston Moore joined in the conversation in a letter to Pitchfork, recalling how Sonic Youth played Bowie’s 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden. Here’s the letter below in full:
David Bowie’s energy was charged with light. His love and passion for art, in all its intrigue and interplay with nature, was manifest in his smile, his charm. He loved to experiment while honoring the grace of tradition and subsequently informed and inspired anyone lucky enough to be there when Ziggy Stardust took the stage and hit the racks. When punk rode into town and every rock n’ roller pre-1976 was denounced as a dinosaur, there were few exceptions. Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart, Yoko
Ono, Neil Young, Marc Bolan, Eno, Bryan Ferry and definitely Bowie.
He was the one gentleman who excitedly applauded Devo and Suicide and in the 80s was rumored to have been checking out Pixies, Sonic Youth, et al. He asked Sonic Youth to play “I’m Afraid of Americans” with his band at his 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden in 1997. We met and rehearsed a couple of times and played the gig and it was all amazing, another realm of experience from where we traversed, but the one thing I always remember is him coming into the communal dressing room area where all the other artists were to say hello and have some photos taken. As he was leaving he turned and shouted, “Hi Coco, I’m so happy you’re here! Have a great time!” to my three-year-old daughter Coco, who I was holding in my arms. She was the only person unaware of any hierarchy of celebrity in the room.
It brings to mind Bowie’s early connection with Buddhist philosophy, practice and meditation, studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Lama Chime Rinpoche. Legend has it that David had considered a life as a monk but his teachers saw his light was needed beyond the monastery and advised him to follow it. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in later years, became the Buddhist teacher to Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and so many others who employ kindness and contemplative thought as activism towards peace. Bowie, fabulous Capricorn, touched each of us in a remarkable and personal way, sharing not only his genuine brilliance for songwriting, but his joy for life, his rock n’ roll love. Now we see, the Starman who’d “love to blow our minds” was indeed the man himself, dignified in his devotion to creative bliss, light and love.
NYC / London
In 1997, we in Sonic Youth were amazed when we got word from David Bowie, inviting us to perform with him onstage at Madison Square Garden in celebration of his 50th birthday. That he even knew who we were was amazing to us! We had been so inspired and influenced by his music for so long, and it was a huge thrill to join him in performance. Hanging out with him leading up to the concert, it was clear that he was still fully engaged and informed about all kinds of music and art going on around him, curious and open to new influences. Not many of his generation were tuned in to the kind of thing that we were doing, but he certainly was.
A few days before the show, we all trooped up to Connecticut for rehearsal. David had rented the Hartford Civic Center arena for the day so we could rehearse and get comfortable in a venue with a stage the same size as Madison Square Garden! He had asked our friend Tony Oursler to do some of his video projections as the stage set for the concert. Tony was a fellow artist-traveller who had directed our “Tunic” video a few years prior. David impressed us with his focus and his friendly and positive demeanor throughout a long day. He was excited, and certainly we were! We were only halfway thru our thirty-year career as a band at that time, while he was already past that mark, and obviously still going strong. A Radical Adult.
Gordon, meanwhile, commented on Bowie’s revolutionary artistic persona:
When I went to see the David Bowie retrospective traveling the globe, which was then in Chicago, I discovered that he wanted to be a writer when he was a young, with no desire to be a performer. It made sense to me that he would approach performing and his persona from a conceptual practice, understanding the idea of projection, the back ’n’ forth unspoken dialogue between performer and audience. There is no one who did it better than Bowie, breaking thru the glass ceiling of gender roles and expectations for what is sexy and charismatic as a rock ’n’ roll icon, post John Wayne, bringing the idea of the “dandy” of eighteenth century France into contemporary life, bringing a focus on this new male identity set adrift with no apparent purpose since the demise of the silent cowboy type (who’s going to protect and take care of us womenfolk?), except free to be whatever he could imagine he could be, and taking us, his audience, along with him. The world has lost its most glittery son but the music and the imprint of Bowie on the world is forever.