Back behind the big plush chair in the corner, down on the bottom shelf at floor level, next to the large-format comic anthologies, stuffed in and rarely touched these days, are my books of sheet music.
I’m going to pull out two of them by the same artist. I don’t own much rock sheet music but I own these. I bought one in Calgary in a long-gone music store in Brentwood Mall, near the university, if my memory doesn’t betray me. I know exactly when and where I got the other one: in the summer of 1984 in a music shop in Montreux (on the Lake Geneva shoreline – the shop was a few blocks uphill, though). It was one of my biggest splurges in a summer spent at a conference centre up the mountain in Caux.
It’s the left-hand one.
Really, who else did you think I would be talking about today?
Yes, of course I’ve been a fan of David Bowie for a long time. From the time a high-school classmate drew my attention to him, I latched on and never really let go. Not that I always listened to his stuff all the time; I still don’t own all his albums. But Bowie had talent, and he had presence. Animal grace. Screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo. Those canine teeth. Eyes of two different colours that could stare for a thousand years. And that voice. Not the voice of a great singer. The voice of a great presence.
At an age when one wants idols, I easily devoted myself to Bowie. I even prevailed on my brother to go with me to a rerun of the Ziggy Stardust concert movie when it was showing in Calgary. I am quite sure my brother did not enjoy it as much as I did, so it was very sporting and brotherly of him. Bowie did not represent to him someone he would want to be like. To me Bowie was a doorway, a gateway, a stargate. I was under no illusions; I knew he had weaknesses, imperfections, an eggshell of humanity, his presence a performance that even he didn’t fully buy into. But that’s why I liked him. He was a star, a starman, come from the stars, fallen to earth.
Just like the rest of us. But he knew it.
Look at this book. I haven’t opened some of these pages in decades now. As I flip through I have to peel them apart here and there. It was in some damp place somewhere for some time, I guess: it has these dark patches. Age has grown into it.
I’m listening to “Suffragette City” as I write this. It’s one of the best high-school dance songs ever. It was played at every single dance at Banff Community High School when I was there. If you want to see the adolescent equivalent of the jump to hyperspace, watch the dance floor at “Awwwww, wham bam thank you ma’am!” – an interjection not found in the sheet music. Oh, sheet music: it just lies there, dry inklings in sprinklings of ink on paper. Without breath and bone and blood and muscle it is nothing. It needs that stardust.
What else? Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie was stardust, and to stardust he… no, has not returned; he always was and always will be. As are we all. But he knew it.
Bowie didn’t invent the word stardust, of course. In 1844 one astronomer first used the term star dust to describe the innumerable stars he saw, too small to be discerned individually. In 1879 a geologist used star-dust to name that dust that constantly falls from outer space on the surface of the planet. By 1933 it was a by-word for illusory, insubstantial things. Hoagy Carmichael had already in 1927 written his song “Star Dust,” now usually called “Stardust,” and in 1929 Mitchell Parish added the words: “…Love is now the stardust of yesterday / The music of the years gone by” … “But that was long ago / Now my consolation / Is in the stardust of a song.” In 1970 in her song “Woodstock” Joni Mitchell sang “We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.” In 1972 Bowie became Stardust.
But he was already stardust, as are we all. 40,000 tons of stardust fall on earth each year – read this. It becomes us, bit by bit, through our skin and lungs and food, but we are already it. What other matter could we have been made from than the same celestial powder that powers and spins the galaxies? What burns above us burns within us and rests beneath our feet. The earth is not a separate thing; we are all dust in the universe, coming and going, forming and reforming, zigging and zagging. Whoever we were, whoever we will be, moving in this world, is only always and already stardust, an oddity in space, held together by gravity and chemistry and forces of attraction and imagination. We take in and give out and are never the same from year to year, day to day, moment to moment. No matter how you hang onto yourself, you are no more permanent than a daydream, never truly here, so never truly gone, like Ziggy Stardust. Perform it but do not truly believe the performance, just enjoy it. Let’s dance.
To David Bowie.