It was July 28, 2002. I was 20 years old and on summer break between my junior and senior years at James Madison University. I likely spent all of my time figuring out the perfect away message for my AOL instant messenger and playing Snake on my Nokia phone with the Roxy print cover. Also, along with three of my best friends, I had scored a ticket to the Area: Two festival, a show put on by Moby where the line-up included Blue Man Group, Busta Rhymes, and David mutha-freaking Bowie.
We road-tripped from Richmond to Bristow, Va to the Nissan Pavilion, where we cranked Reggie & the Full Effect and called 911 due to a brush fire on the side of 95 North. On the way, we discussed how we'd heard this rumor that he wasn't playing the classics anymore, and we desperately hoped this wasn't true. We all had songs we wanted to hear: Sherry hoped for a Ziggy Stardust (a song we all loved thanks to our time as fans of the X-Ray Dudes), Becky wanted a rendition of China Girl, and Amanda clearly longed for Let's Dance. As for me, I couldn't think of one song I absolutely felt I had to hear; more than anything, I just wanted to see the man in person, in all his glory.
So we arrived. We found our seats. We watched Busta Rhymes completely lose his shiz. We crossed our fingers that Bowie would go on before Moby so we didn't have to sit through his set. And finally, as the sun set off in the distance, we got our wish.
Years before this, my brother played Life on Mars? for me, and it changed my life. I dubbed it "the perfect song" because I feel that every note, every chord, every piece of it is perfectly placed. It doesn't progress the way you think it will. It goes beyond the scope of what I knew to be music-- to me, this transcended into pure artistry.
Back in 2002, the set began. I heard the opening chords to Life on Mars?, and I stood up without thinking. That beautiful man walked out on stage and began to sing, and I sang along too, knowing that I was witnessing something I would never see again-- the perfect song, pure artistry, live and in person. I was in the presence of a legend, and he was just killing it. This was the song I wanted to hear, only he knew it when I didn't. I couldn't stop smiling.
We all got our wish that night. He played all kinds of classics, plus all kinds of new songs from his then-just released album Heathen. Becky cried when we heard China Girl. We danced with the girls around us when Bowie played a stripped-down version of Let's Dance. And we all sang along to Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars.
We left that night feeling invincible, the way you can when you know you've seen something amazing, when you're 20 and the world is wide and open and the rest of your life lies ahead. I still remember so many details of that night like it was yesterday-- Bowie on the big screen, singing along to "Dwarf Invasion" on the drive up, the four of us running out of the amphitheater before Moby started with the chorus, "Nobody listens to techno, now let's go."
And now I am heartbroken. My brother eulogized that, to us, Bowie was like a family member, a distant uncle you've only heard tall tales about, who has an incredible record collection who really only exists in stories of legend. That's so true for me too. I cried myself back to sleep this morning when I read the news, knowing that this Earth wouldn't be the same when I woke up.
I've included a video of Life on Mars? below, recorded live in 2002 around the time I would have seen him. It's the best way I can think to honor this brilliant, unique, otherworldly, talented, remarkable man.