The Bowie beat
Through the streets of Manhattan between SoHo and the Village, author Caryl Férey pounds the pavement in pursuit of his idol.
David Bowie didn’t die in New York last January 10. No way. All you have to do is walk around Manhattan looking for him and you’ll notice that life is just like him: everywhere. An immortal character, like in a novel or a play.
On June 1, 1967, two events occurred below the radar: my birththough why should the world have noticed when I can’t even recall it myself?and David Bowie’s self-titled debut album, released, it’s true, the same day as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and not great to boot (it bombed so badly that fans of the divine Thin White Duke thought it was merely a trial run). Back then, Bowie, with Wildean jubilant composure, was a blond, campaigning on the BBC against cruelty to long-haired men with a 20-year-old’s acid humor, and claiming he was gay and had always been just to give the grannies a joltalready forging his image as an aesthete with a flair for drama. An actor without a studio.
The stage proved too small for him, so, chameleon-like, he played all the roles: Major Tom in “Space Oddity,” about an astronaut lost in space (artfully written before Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon); Ziggy Stardust, the bisexual alien rock superstar (Bowie had seen the New York Dolls punk rock transvestite band in Lower East Side clubs); the Thin White Duke after his cocaine addiction period in Los Angeles, revamping the style of his characters, sets and sound.
It was good knowing that there was such a being among us on Earth. For me, growing up as I had among the cows and cowherds in Montfort-sur-Meu in France, the very existence of David Bowie signposted the way forward. He was the only singer to be loved by both boys and girls, as well as by Michel Berger and punks; even dogs and cats were bowled over. It was truly a unique gift to be everything and everywhere at once, with a predilection for the stars and cosmic life forms. The guy aimed high, as they used to say where I came from in the sticks.
There were plenty of reasons to follow the star. While Bowie was in Vegas, where Sinatra was performing, Ol’ Blue Eyes refused to be seen in the company of such a “fag.” For sure, Bowie’s manliness had nothing to do with filling up casinos or the pockets of the mobsters who ran them, in a city that is unequivocally the fakest on the planet.
So it’s no coincidence that David Bowie moved to New York, the most stylish city imaginable.
The love story lasted for more than 20 years. With his wife, Iman, a former Somali-American supermodel, Bowie couldn’t see living anywhere else. “I’m a New Yorker,” he would say to anyone who asked. Even in England he had never lived in one place for that length of time. Here there was everything that a person of his stature could want. “A magical transfer of power from the architectural to the human,” where the giant buildings inspired the character from the Diamond Dogs album, Halloween Jack, the cool cat who lived atop “Manhattan Chase,” its broken elevator making him slide down a rope to confront the mutants.
New York, wildly imaginative, like Bowie who reinvented himself time and again, and bustling enough for him to pass through unnoticed, invisiblean alien thing, really.
New York is a film set, the decor familiar yet extravagant. A number of David Bowies could well walk by in the flesh, soon nothing will faze anyone anymore. Bowie lived there just as New Yorkers do, in cozy anonymity, fond of taking early morning walks, leaving his Lafayette Street penthouse in SoHo and heading to Washington Square Park, a few blocks away. An avid reader, he stopped to browse at McNally Jackson Books, not far from his apartment, or headed to The Strand on Broadway: “It’s impossible to find the book you want, but you always find the book you didn’t know you wanted.” The musician was always scouting out rare vinyls at Bleecker Bob’s, now closed down, more recently at Bleecker Street Records in the Greenwich Village he loved.
After years of tours, one zanier than the next, having lived in Los Angeles, Berlin and Lausanne, Bowie liked to stay home with his family, living a “normal life” away from the glitterglam life and frivolousness of it all. New York offered everything he could wish for. He sometimes went to the theater; in 1980 he triumphed in Elephant Man on 45th Street, dispelling any doubts about his talent as an actor. Although he was haunted by a bad memory: after his friend John Lennon was gunned down outside his apartment building, he had to perform with the two empty front-row seats that John and Yoko Ono had booked a few days earlier. But otherwise Bowie and his wife were frequently seen lunching at one of SoHo’s and Greenwich Village’s many restaurants, or catching a Tintoretto or Picasso show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I followed his trail.
This was not the first time I had gone to New York, but the first time with him, at his home, 285 Lafayette Street. I imagined him there, up on high, on the garden terrace of this building constructed a century earlier right near Broadway and its shops, coming down on occasion for sandwiches or sushi from Dean & DeLuca, the trendy grocery store chain. His artist soul appreciated the Art Deco feel of the old buildings in the neighborhood, the facades of the Greenwich Village houses where so many musicians had lived their bohemian lives before him. I retraced his steps to the bookshop, saw some of my books translated on the shelves, dreamed for a fleeting moment that he may have read one, then continued his morning stroll to Caffe Reggio, 119 MacDougal Street. We had espresso together, David humming in my head one of the dozens of songs I know by heart, as I gazed at the antiques on display in the Italian bar, sculptures, lamps, mirrors and trinketsso much art remaining, like him, forever new.
He adored Washington Square Park, located just a hop and skip away. I sat on a bench, David still sitting next to me, grinning as if time had ground to a halt in the sun. Indeed it had. The paintings at MoMA elegantly accompanied us uptown in Manhattan, his expert eye like the hand of a dear friend on my shoulder.
I was a little less enthusiastic about the bands playing at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, where he sometimes went to hear music. The bands featured in the evening, old and young, played rock configured for another century, so far, far away from this man who fell to Earth, that my eyes misted up in the New York night: could the star of my life really be dead?
No. . . . No, no way.
A place to write
A place to write The still coolness of the trees, the birds flitting by, the splendid architecture of the buildings surrounding the park without ever stifling it, the granite benches for picnics with friends, the chessboards where you can play with strangersWashington Square Park is inbued with the simple beauty of Lower Manhattan, far from the blazing neons of Times Square. The colorful yet discreet facades can be glimpsed through the leaves. Peace and quiet is a rare commodity in Manhattan, where real estate prices are ludicrous. Yet this park belongs to one and all. Whether you’re scribbling a poem, sketching or reading, Washington Square Park is brimming with soul, and our hearts are heavy when it’s time to go. New York, city of the world, to be reinvented time and time again.
A duplex rooftop terrace 20 floors above Greenwich Street and the feeling you’re sailing over the Hudson, with the Statue of Liberty and the One World Observatory as your seamarks. Located near some of David Bowie’s favorite haunts (he lived in the neighborhood), this epicurean’s nest, with its gold leather sofas and crisp white pillows, is not the only thing appealing here. The menu served at Cafe Hugo is also available through room service, to feel right at home, wrapped in a cozy bathrobe. The lights are inspired by the area’s industrial past, the wood furniture and paneling custom-made and honey-hued, and there’s the eclectic thrill of one irresistible discovery after the next, in this chic bohemian district that is a hub for artists, publishers and design buffs. A harmonious blend of styles for a welcoming introduction to life in the Village.
525 Greenwich Street. Tél. +1 212 608 4848.www.hotelhugony.com
Air France 27 flights to New York-JFK from Paris-CDG, 6 flights from Orly, and 7 flights on a code-share basis with SkyTeam member Delta.
5 flights to New York-Newark on a code-share basis with SkyTeam member Delta.
KLM has 14 flights to New York-JFK from Amsterdam.
New York-JFK (hub de Delta).
À 19 km au sud-est.
Tél. +1 718 244 4444.
À 24 km au sud-ouest.
Tél. +1 973 961 6000.
Air France KLM offices
— Depuis la France : tél. 3654. www.airfrance.com
— Depuis les États-Unis :
Tél. +1 800 237 2747.
Hertz, à l'aéroport
de New York-JFK. Tél. +1 718 656 7600.
Les romans de Caryl Férey
sont publiés par Gallimard dans les collections Série Noire et Folio Policier. Dernier titre paru : Condor.
Gallimard, coll. Cartoville.
Gallimard, coll. GEOGuide.
Gallimard, coll. Encyclopédies du voyage.
Louis Vuitton City Guide.
Phaidon, coll. Wallpaper City Guide.
© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Carte illustrative, non contractuelle.