Chuck Palahniuk on How David Bowie Helped Him Sell 'Fight Club'

Hearing "Young Americans" repeated during a soundcheck changed the course of his life

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Palahniuk; Bowie; tribute
David Bowie doing sound checks for an appearance on the Serious Moonlight Tour changed author Chuck Palahniuk's life Bowie; Getty, Palahniuk: Corbis

This is hard to admit, but I have the 300-pound antique marble head of a Roman Centurion in my powder room. That's David Bowie's fault. The statue and the powder room.

In college, between protesting apartheid in South Africa and smoking clove cigarettes, my friends and I fed on a steady diet of Bowie. From the music videos of "China Girl" and "Let's Dance" to the Klaus Nomi routine, singing "The Man Who Sold the World" on Saturday Night Live, to Tony Scott's 1983 film The Hunger. That movie evokes giggles and eye-rolling now, but at the time, Bowie was showing us a graceful exit from punk to… this, a life among ancient statues and gauzy curtains. You could have Bauhaus music and cello playing. Crystal chandeliers and blood spurting from severed jugular veins.  

After graduating in 1986, I worked as a 23-year-old reporter at a suburban newspaper. Portland has a secret street called Trinity Place, only one block long and lined with shabby apartment houses that were once grand. My B.A. in journalism wasn't a ticket to big money. Big college loans, yes, but I still drove the Ford Pinto I'd bought, used, in high school, and lived in a basement apartment of a building that could pass as Downton Abbey. The Civic Stadium is roughly a block from Trinity Place, and that summer the city was allowing a few rock concerts to be staged in the stadium despite complaints about the possible noise. Thus, one Saturday afternoon I heard Bowie singing the first few lines of "Young Americans" through my window. The music stopped. I went to my stoop. My neighbors joined me with beer. And the same song began, again. It was David Bowie doing sound checks for that night's appearance on the Serious Moonlight Tour. He'd sing most of "Young Americans" and stop. Then begin from the beginning. Over and over. All afternoon, my friends and I were in a music video, dancing on our perfect Hollywood backlot street, drinking beer and enjoying a concert none of us could afford to attend. The repetition of the song, the beer and the sunshine were hypnotic.

A decade later, my career as a reporter had led nowhere. By then I was secretly writing fiction and looking for a publisher. A famous editor, Gerald Howard, was appearing at a writers conference in Everett, Washington. "Gerry's boys" as they were called, were infamous. His stable had included Irvine Welsh, Bret Ellis, David Foster Wallace, Jim Carroll, and I wanted to join the band. I couldn't afford to attend the conference, but I tracked him to a hotel bar where he was surrounded, three deep, by aspiring novelists. Some disclosure here: I was wearing a puffy pirate shirt leftover from my Adam Ant days, a shirt one nice older lady novelist called “a lovely blouse.” I couldn't get near Gerry Howard so I asked the bartender for $10 in quarters, and I fed them into the jukebox and selected the same song to play forty times. It was “Young Americans,” a song I could listen to forever on a desert island. Most people were ticked off. Soon everyone left, and I had Gerry to myself. Eventually I sold him Fight Club and 15 more books. To this day, he doesn't remember that song, playing over and over and the haters hating me as they abandoned the bar.

With the book money, what did I buy? The good life, of course, as modeled by vampire David Bowie. Antique marble statues. Classy blowing curtains. And, yes, a powder room. Thank you, Mr. Bowie. You were my role model and my hero and my savior. I will miss you very much.

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