The Musical that (almost) Fell to Earth
January 11, 2017 4:40 AM   Subscribe

"This is David Bowie. I hope I’m not calling at an inconvenient time..." When Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Cunningham got a call from someone claiming to be David Bowie, he thought it was a friend pulling a prank. He didn’t know he was about to be launched into a yearlong collaboration on a musical involving space aliens, mariachi bands, and an imaginary trove of unreleased songs by Bob Dylan. Here, for the first time, is the story of their unfinished show—and what it’s like to work alongside a bona fide pop genius.
posted by I_Love_Bananas (24 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think Bowie had this problem, when he called people: Nile Rodgers also thought someone was pranking him, when Bowie called to propose beginning work on "Let's Dance". His staff were like "Someone called claiming to be David Bowie" and he didn't think, shit, my staff just hung up on David Bowie, he thought, goddamn kids.
posted by thelonius at 4:47 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


He was remarkably adept at managing the fact that he was David Bowie and you were not.
posted by oheso at 5:16 AM on January 11 [10 favorites]


If somebody called and told me he was Barack Obama, I'd laugh and hang up too. I can't conceive of a reason why the President of the United States would call me.

It's probably an occupational hazard for global celebrities and something they learn to get used to.
posted by ardgedee at 5:31 AM on January 11


"I’m a homely German princess married for political purposes to an English king, and to our surprise, the marriage is working out."

Can someone explain this?
posted by jabah at 5:47 AM on January 11


"I’m a homely German princess married for political purposes to an English king, and to our surprise, the marriage is working out."

Can someone explain this?


I believe that's a reference to Queen Elizabeth's grandmother, Queen Mary. Mary was originally intended to marry Prince George's older brother, who died of influenza, and was "reassigned", if you will, to George when he became heir to the throne. Despite that, by all accounts, they actually fell in love and had a very successful marriage.
posted by briank at 6:00 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]


It's probably an occupational hazard for global celebrities and something they learn to get used to.

I suspect most of them pass the job onto a PA
posted by iotic at 6:14 AM on January 11


Handshake protocol: your people contact their people and arrange a meeting, with neither of you having to do the embarrassing or tedious stuff. Then you are both handed phones and led to chairs somewhere when the time comes to talk.
posted by pracowity at 6:25 AM on January 11


handed phones or led to chairs
posted by pracowity at 6:35 AM on January 11


"...the actual David Bowie was a genius with a questionable haircut, a devotion to Post-it notes, and an instant enthusiasm for a dozen pairs of tiny white shoes lined up on one of my bookshelves."

And who else immediately heard in their heads, "Shoes, shoes, little white shoes, wish you well, wish you well"?

Just me?

OK, then.
posted by droplet at 6:46 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]


This is a really remarkable story, and also not remarkable, in that I think Cunningham is on to something about how art is made. Did Bowie feel like HE was Lazarus? I wonder how he felt about the musical that was vs. the one that could have been.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:03 AM on January 11


This is a great story, of what sounds like a terrible idea.

I loved Bowie deeply in my most pivotal years and then really lost interest, but I will always admire that unlike, say, a Pete Townsend for example, Bowie just kept trying new stuff. He failed in weird, interesting, inspired ways and was fearless in that way.
posted by latkes at 8:08 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


He failed in weird, interesting, inspired ways and was fearless in that way.

To me that's the opposite of failing.
posted by crookedneighbor at 8:39 AM on January 11 [6 favorites]


I'd call it productive failure, aka learning.
posted by smirkette at 8:47 AM on January 11


Did Bowie feel like HE was Lazarus?

Referring to either the poet Emma or the guy returned from the dead. How ambowieguous is that.
posted by otherchaz at 9:32 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


And who else immediately heard in their heads, "Shoes, shoes, little white shoes, wish you well, wish you well"?

Just me?


Nope, not just you. The release of Outside was when I went from "I enjoy the works of David Bowie, but I only really know the hits" to "David Bowie is a transcendent genius".

Even in 1995, though, I would have admitted that some of the dramatic interludes on that album didn't quite work.
posted by curiousgene at 9:56 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Part of me wonders if the mariachi bit was, like, a test. Because the rest of it kind of hangs together. Maybe he wanted Cunningham to say no to that. It sounds like what we got was a very watered down version of something that could have been great. Or terrible. But yes, interesting terrible.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:57 AM on January 11


Even in 1995, though, I would have admitted that some of the dramatic interludes on that album didn't quite work.

Oh, yes, indeed, I'm with you there, curiousgene. I skip almost all of those. That said, I would've loved a whole spoken-word piece on Algeria Touchshriek. That accent was terrific—and my understanding is that it's disappearing as people Bowie's age and older are passing on. I also have his first album from 1967 and I actually like Please Mr. Gravedigger. It's both funny and evocative of a good suspense/thriller movie. I wish he had finished all three albums. I wish he had actually been able to create a stage musical with completely new music. Alas.
posted by droplet at 10:12 AM on January 11


the actual David Bowie was a genius with a questionable haircut

If you can, watch Bowie: The Last Five Years (BBC iPlayer, so geolocked, but...) which aired last Saturday. Lots of 'lost' footage, interviews and so on. If you do, bear that haircut line when you hear the closing quote of the doc.
posted by Devonian at 11:42 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


A false note in a piece that was otherwise pretty damn smooth was when world-famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham poses as someone naive of fame and unfamiliar with its trappings and effects. "What? A famous person calling little old me?" kind of thing. "Where on earth did he get my number--my CAA agent?" But I suppose he does tell us that Bowie felt the same about fame, and I suppose Bowie's fame is perhaps of a different order than Cunningham's...I just assume that famous are in the habit of calling other famous people whom they find interesting.
posted by Zerowensboring at 1:42 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Point, but I couldn't necessarily pick Cunningham out of a lineup while Bowie (in many, many different incarnations) is perfectly clear in my mind's eye. There's award-winning-writer fame, and then there's the decades-long, mega-global-insane fame that Bowie had.
posted by furtive_jackanapes at 2:18 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


For all those expressing their Outside love, dig into Leon, the Outside outtakes remixed into the best approximation of the album as originally intended before record company chicanery. So astonishingly good. Also hit up youtube searching for the outside tour for more improvisational genius.
posted by merocet at 3:11 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


How ambowieguous is that.

Did he mean Emma or the dead guy? That's definitely the most interesting 'reveal' in a very interesting, well-written account.
posted by LeLiLo at 3:35 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


I just assume that famous are in the habit of calling other famous people whom they find interesting.

I've assumed that ever since the hack of Paris Hilton's Sidekick revealed that Stephen King was among her contacts. My theory is that, even if famous people don't meet each other at one awards show or another, their agents are part of a clique that's even smaller than the A-list celebrity one.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:49 PM on January 11


something that might inspire a new generation of dreamy and peculiar boys and girls stuck in Pasadena, or any un-Bowie-like place

I knew there was a reason I have visceral dislike for this character other than The Hours. When I grew up in Pasadena -- which was admittedly some time after he did -- there weren't many places that were more Bowie-like, if you count Bowie adulation as "Bowie-like." This was the stage when Bowie had become elevated to the pantheon of "classic rockers," sitting on a golden throne at the right hand of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, a development which I'm sure brought some small mordant amusement his way. I didn't have much more than a day go by in my high school and college years without hearing "Suffragette City" or "Jean Genie" blasting out of the speakers somewhere in Pasadena, whether it was on KROQ or KMET or for crying out loud MTV, and that's to say nothing of all the tracks on Let's Dance and Tonight that were played so incessantly that they still leap into my head without warning.
posted by blucevalo at 2:52 PM on January 12


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