July, 2013. I was in Thomastown, Ireland, a tiny quiet village where my in-laws live. David Bowie Is, the exhibit recounting all Bowie’s life and career, was drawing crowds in London beyond the million marks. One morning I was taking a walk in the countryside, Aladin Sane in my earphones, when a friend called me with the proposal:
“Why don’t you come on a day trip to London and we go to see Bowie together?”
How to refuse a day in the Victoria and Albert Museum diving into Changes, Ziggy Stardust, and all that a city like London could provide to an artist like Bowie? It took me a few days to plan the countless logistics: who would take the kids for 24 hours? What were the earliest flight to London and the latest flight back to Dublin? And the tickets, would we find them? But, at that point, there was no going back, my mind was already in motion, set on “The Bowie Trip”.
I didn’t sleep the night before flying to London. At five in the morning, I jumped out of bed, kissed the children, got my backpack and walked in semidarkness to the village, where I would take the J.J.Kavanagh 6 o’clock bus, straight to Dublin airport. If traffic were OK I would be in the airport in 90 minutes. My hands were sweating with the thought that something might go wrong. What if there was an accident on the road and the bus was too late for my 8:30 flight to Gatwick?
Bus and flight were in time. At 9:30 I saw London through the clouds, while the plane descended and landing gear was activated. I rushed to get the Gatwick Express, the 30- minute train to Victoria Station, Central London, where I finally embraced my friend.
“It’s so good to be here”, we both said at the same time.
In the street, the sun was rehearsing an appearance; the fresh air of the English summer was kind and a little warmer than the Irish Sea winds. A wave of nostalgia covered my shoulders when I walked the streets of London, the city I had lived for almost four years in the past. We walked with no rush, savoring the anticipation of the exhibit and also the silent cars, the Georgian and Victorian houses, the constant smell of fresh rain and smoke.
We stepped into the V&A just after 11 o’clock, and in a second I forgot all we left behind. On the first room of the exhibit, the walls were covered in pictures of David Bowie as a teenager, with blonde long hair and those incredible eyes, his future stage energy ready to burst. There were LP covers from the 60’s and 70’s, and we could hear his music as we moved through the past four decades into his career. I was marveled at all the stage outfits, especially the pair of shiny blue boots I would give anything to wear. There were handwritten lyrics and even the big heavy metal key from his Berlin apartment, the magic entrance to the place that led him to the Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes and Lodger).
“We can be heroes, just for one day”
After spending one entire hour in a large room with high ceilings, where multiple videos of his concerts were playing simultaneously, we left the museum in awe, walked in silence, and had a pizza at a nearby Pizza Express. We both looked at those same streets we passed by hours before, but now cars seemed too ugly and people’s faces too grey. My friend finally said:
“Everything looks so boring after being in Planet Bowie.”
Walking to Victoria Station, I refused to see the world as it was. Instead I longed to stay in Ziggy Stardust’s mind forever, in a state of magic creativity where I knew I could dance, write a masterpiece or sing opera.
“We can be heroes”, I said.
My friend agreed.
At 7 o’clock we embraced at Victoria Station and I hopped into the Gatwick Express. I looked at people rushing, glued to their phones, reading magazines, dressed in grey and black. My flight back to Dublin was in time and so was the last train from Heuston Station to our village in Kilkenny County. I looked at the Northern European sky bearing the last touch of light in the summer evening. I still couldn’t sleep, thinking of how hard it can be for an artist to see the world through his own filters, and not be afraid of going naked in the street every day. That summer day at the Victoria & Albert left something in me. I changed.
“Time can change me
But I can’t trace time”
Since its debut in London in 2013, the retrospective itinerant exhibit about David Bowie’s life and career has been in a few countries (Canada, Brazil, Germany, Chicago, France and Australia). At the moment it’s in the Netherlands, at the Groninger Museum.