Stories in Motion: Remembering David Bowie

Photo by Sebastian Anthony

“There are so many stories I could tell you. I wish I could have more time.” -Bowie on VH1’s Storytellers, 1999

In the days and weeks after David Bowie’s death, you may have read any number of stories about his fascinating life. Time reminded us that his stage name was taken from The Alamo, a 1960 film. International Business Times brought us the story behind the bright red mullet haircut that made Ziggy Stardust. And New York magazine explained why his eyes were different colors, a tale that involved teenage Bowie, a fistfight, and (of course) somebody else’s girl.

These are the types of features we expect to read after a celebrity dies. Together, they form a kind of modern mythology around someone who was larger than life. But with Bowie, a more grassroots storytelling movement gripped the world as millions of people talked about the different, intensely personal ways in which the singer had touched their lives—and that movement became a story in itself.

In storytelling, we sometimes say that everyone has a story to tell. We can now add a corollary: nearly everyone has a David Bowie story to tell.

It started on social media. According to the New York Times, more than 35 million people were talking to each other about the singer within just 12 hours of his death. In the same timeframe, Bowie was mentioned by name in more than four million tweets. Tributes poured in from people all over the world who connected to his life or work—often in ways that were surprising.

Picking up on this unusual phenomenon, news outlets all around the world began to solicit memories of Bowie from their readers and listeners. Newspapers from the NYT to the Guardian asked readers to write about the ways in which Bowie had touched their lives. The latter received hundreds of stories from all sorts of people, from diehard fans to people who had some sort of chance encounter with the star.

To date, the NYT has collected more than 400 stories from readers, from a journalist who remembers asking Bowie a question at a press conference in 1972 to a French teen who taught himself English by obsessively translating his song lyrics. As these stories gained traction, a new mythology arose around Bowie. As the Times gathered the threads of many of those stories (you can read some of them here), it began to understand Bowie’s legacy in new ways, including his powerful influence in the LGBTQ community.

These stories don’t paint a picture of an untouchable star who wore weird costumes onstage. They’re thoughtful reflections on hope and alienation, on self-expression, on our capacities to dream and the power of rock and roll.

Following a similar approach, NPR asked listeners to call in with stories about their favorite Bowie songs. Over at their website, you can listen to some of our favorites, like the young woman who remembers watching her mom rock out to “Let’s Dance” in the middle of a painful cancer treatment. We especially liked the one from the former camp counselor who sang Bowie songs with his kids in a ridiculous English accent.

“We would start the morning every day with songs,” he recalls. “The kids’ favorite song was ‘Space Oddity.’ They would just scream it at the top of their lungs. … It was the highlight of that decade for me.”

Bowie’s impact across generations was perhaps most prominently on display at the AV Club, which surveyed its writers (instead of readers) for Bowie stories. Senior writer Jason Heller remembered queueing up for tickets in the days before Ticketmaster had a website:

When I was 15, I stood in line for eight hours to buy a ticket to a concert. It was the ’80s, and that’s what people did back then when they wanted good seats. And this was going to be a huge concert for me: It was the first that I was going to attend alone, and it’s the first time I was going to see my favorite artist, David Bowie. The line was worth it; I scored a seventh-row seat to see him at the massive McNichols Arena in Denver.

It was the Glass Spider Tour, which was critically derided at the time for its outlandish extravagance. But for me, a shy, poor kid on food stamps and hand-me-downs, I didn’t see wastefulness paraded across that stage; instead I saw a spectacle that made my imagination go supernova. That spectacle also fused my two favorite things in the whole world: rock music and science fiction, the escape hatches that made an otherwise unbearable adolescence full of poverty, neglect, and violence somewhat close to bearable.

Younger staff who came of age after the singer had retired from performing live—his final tour was in 2004—recalled their own karaoke performances of Bowie hits. Another writer, Josh Modell, talked about his small son’s strange, sweet admiration for the rock star:

For the past month or so, my 5-year-old son has been obsessed with David Bowie. For the past couple of weeks, whenever he burps or farts, he blames it on David Bowie, by simply exclaiming, “David Bowie!”

When I woke him up on Friday morning, I told him it was Bowie’s birthday, and he was surprised and delighted. Being a wuss, I’m not going to tell him just yet that it was Bowie’s last birthday on this planet.

Elsewhere, friends and colleagues remembered, not David Bowie, but David Jones—the performer’s given name, which he used offstage. Billboard magazine published an entire issue of stories from the performer’s peers, and the BBC has a similar roundup that you can check out online. One of the best Bowie stories appeared in a piece by William Boyd, who recalled a time that his friend rolled up to a hotel party in a regular old taxi:

As I arrived I saw Bowie stepping out of a yellow cab and paying the driver. Greeting him and vaguely surprised to see him in this form of transport I asked him if he ever had any problems moving around the city. Not at all, he said, he happily used cabs and subways. “I just carry one of these,” he said, and held up a Greek newspaper. People think: that’s David Bowie, surely? Then they see the Greek newspaper – no, can’t be, just some Greek guy who looks like him.

The last piece is an example of what is perhaps our favorite Bowie storytelling genre: people who spotted the singer around New York City, where he made his home. Modern-day folk tales, they remind us that magic sometimes hides among us.

Collectively, all these stories come together to perform a real function as the public mourns a legend. At the same time, watching so many people share little slices of their lives, we can’t help but think that the tellers of those stories have uncovered unexpected connections. From soccer moms to Kanye West, Bowie—a man who was weird for a living—touched a lot of people from different walks of life. What’s interesting is that Bowie didn’t connect with people in spite of his strangeness. He connected with them because of it.

Stories in Motion is a new feature in which ISC examines the fresh ways we see the power of storytelling at work in our world.