Five of us in a 1972 Mercury Capri with our sad and meagre luggage, driving nine hours to Prince George and then another two hours after that, the windows rolled up tight against the early winter, the roads already snow packed down to a thick, rock-hard and lumpy old mattress of ice for the last 150 kilometres or so. But before those hours and kilometres, how many joints and how many bottles of beer? I don’t know, I’m mostly hunched over and trying to ignore the joints and stubbies that get passed from front to back and side to side, not that I really can, sitting in the hump in the middle of the back seat, the spot without a seat belt (not that anyone is wearing a seat belt, I was the only one who would even think of it), my arms wrapped around my guitar because there’s no other place to put it, in the exact middle of the greasy smoky sauna that is the passenger compartment. I should be utterly miserable, numb with hopeless misery, but I’m only mostly miserable.
The reason is the 8-track that’s playing over and over, the hallucinogenic soundtrack to the dead dark and white landscape outside, a place I can crawl inside, a place where I can hide.
David Bowie’s Low. It loops and loops. I don’t know when we’re at the beginning or the end of the album, I don’t know what any of the songs are called. I only see a part of the cassette sticking out of the player in front of me, the orange of the cover art like the fire we are gathering around. Songs break in the middle as the machine switches tracks. Bowie sings about a colour and a room. He sings in a language that I can’t understand. It might be real, it might not. We are driving north in Canada. I have no home and no family. The driver’s eyes are rimmed with red and he’s refusing to let anyone else have a turn at the wheel. Every so often the car slides hard on a turn and the whole car goes eerily weightless. Sometimes it shudders hard like it’s going to break apart, and I don’t know why. I’m only seventeen. I don’t know if we’re going to make it alive.
I’m alive and I actually got into UBC, even though I’m a high school dropout without even Grade 10 Math, and I am at Le Chateau looking at cute little boxy asymmetrical dresses and I am going to buy one and I am going to wear it to whatever kinds of parties they have there, with opaque tights and my new suede flat-heeled ankle boots. And something comes on over the speakers and I I feel like I’ve been hit with some kind of electric dart (is there such a thing? was there back then?) or I’ve suddenly fallen in love with the most beautiful boy in the world, and he’s put his fingers on my cheek and is looking right into my eyes. What is it what is it what is it WHAT IS IT? I am an uncoordinated curvy girl who never never dances in front of anyone but I start dancing like that electric dart is hitting me over and over, like that beautiful boy has me in his arms.
I stagger to the till, where a girl with the most perfectly spiked bangs and the most perfectly black-rimmed eyes is looking at me with utter boredom and disdain. I ask her what she’s playing and I’m so thick-headed with love that I can’t tell (and I don’t care) if she’s mocking me when she tells me.
David Bowie’s Scary Monsters.
I’m driving someone I love to a new town, and I don’t think he’s ever coming back. But I’m an adult now, and I’m not huddling in the back, with my face down and my feet up on the carpeted hump of the drive shaft, I’m holding the steering wheel and stepping on the clutch pedal, shifting gears like driving is the only thing that’s happening here. I’m pulling over to check a map every so often. I even check the oil when I buy gas, and wash the crushed bugs off the windshield. I’m not going to cry. I know where I’m going, approximately, and I have a credit card in my wallet, so I know I can buy enough gas to get back again.
I ask my passenger if he minds, and he says no.
And I play my David Bowie CD, over and over and over.
I suspect younger people will be as mystified by my generation’s love for David Bowie as we are by the newsreels of Valentino’s funeral. How can we all have had this relationship with some musician over decades? How naive could we be, to think that we were all the misfits and weirdos he was singing about?
Those people in their old-style hats and coats, that’s us now.
I don’t care. It was love, and he was there for me. He was there for a lot of us.
Thank you, David.
Here’s an old newsreel of Valentino’s funeral (the official one, from Pathé).