In our new David Bowie memorial issue, out January 29th, various artists pay tribute to the late singer, songwriter and pop innovator. In this exclusive recollection, Bono reflects on the way Bowie helped him find “doors into … other worlds.”
I’ve played at being a rock & roll star, but I’m really not one. David Bowie is my idea of a rock star. Right now, I’m in Myanmar, a little cut off from the reaction to David’s passing, but I can assure you the sky is a lot darker here without the Starman.
The first time I saw him perform was on Top of the Pops in 1972, singing “Starman.” He was so vivid. So luminous. So fluorescent. We had one of the first color TVs on our street, and David Bowie was the reason to have a color TV. I’ve said he was our Elvis Presley. There are so many similarities: the masculine-feminine duality, the physical mastery of being on a stage. They created original silhouettes, shapes now seen as obvious, that did not exist before.
They both had that otherworldliness. With Bowie, you had this sneaking suspicion that if you hung around him, you might find some doors into those other worlds. In my teenage mind, “Life on Mars?” was much more about, is there life on earth? Are we really alive? Is this really all there is?
And some of the doors Bowie opened led to other artists. He opened doors for me into Bertolt Brecht, and William Burroughs — and, by the way, Bruce Springsteen, who he was on very early. And for me, the most important door he opened was the one with Brian Eno behind it.
I’d like to consider myself David’s friend, but I’m more of a fan. He came and visited us when we were mixing Achtung Baby — and, of course, he had introduced us to Berlin and to Hansa Studios. We had a playful sort of banter — he would really go there in conversations, and we would even occasionally hurt each other’s feelings. He took his daughter to a matinee to see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and he sent me the reasons he didn’t like it. And everything he said was really helpful, because it was in the early days of the show.
I’ve been talking with Brian Eno about this, because David sent Brian a goodbye note, and he shared the contents with me. It was so amazing, and it’s so funny. It’s a really surreal, defiant type of goodbye letter, a kiss-off. And I was saying to Brian that David had been on our minds. Over Christmas, my oldest daughter Jordan and I were listening to Blackstar a lot. David met her when she was two. He called her “Pixie,” and she’s been a lifelong Bowie fan.
I like Bowie when he’s evenly pulled in the direction of being a pop star and Picasso, where he’s right down the middle. That’s usually my favorite, when the songwriting is disciplined but the recording is not. I love when he’s pulled equally in the directions of art and populism. Blackstar is much more art, so I shouldn’t like it as much as I do. But I really loved it. And so did my daughter Jordan.
I sent him a picture of myself and Jordan toasting him on his birthday this year. I sent him a long email, and I sent him a beautiful poem by Michael Leunig called “Love and Fear” — one line goes, “there are only two feelings/love and fear.” I didn’t hear back, but I was told he got it.
Ultimately, as a songwriter and as a performer, your currencies are thoughts and feelings. Some people may have original thoughts, but the musical landscape is not that unique. Bowie’s musical landscape affected you in a way that is completely different from all the other music around it. You have to close your eyes, imagine you don’t speak English and just feel the songs and say, “What part of me is being played by those notes?” Or “Who else plays them?”
And in his case, the answer is nobody. That part of me is only played by David Bowie. So that part of me is now a void — I have to find other ways to wake it up. But it woke me up when I was 14.
As told to Brian Hiatt