Blackstars

Michael Gonzales reflects on the deaths of a dear friend, and a bookworm he idolized: David Bowie.

Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | January 2018 | 13 minutes (3,186 words)

 

Something happened on the day he died

Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside

Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried

(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

— David Bowie, Blackstar

 

Last October, when it was announced that the SoHo bookstore McNally Jackson would moving in June, 2019 from its Prince Street location after 14 years (a decision that now seems to have been reversed), two people immediately came to mind: genius artist David Bowie, who in his lifetime was a frequent customer, and my late buddy Brook Stephenson, who worked at the shop for 11 years before his sudden passing on August 8, 2015. A few months before he died, over that year’s Memorial Day Weekend, I crashed at his Crown Heights crib while visiting from Philly. The neighborhood had changed a lot in the year since I’d moved, and Brook joked how one bar owner wasn’t very nice and welcoming to “the indigenous peoples” in the hood.

Only 41 when he died on a Saturday evening at a friend’s wedding reception, in my imagination he was taking pictures, one of his many passions sandwiched in between writing, traveling, cooking and drawing. Later I heard he had been dancing when he suddenly collapsed, foiled by an unknown heart problem. It was early Sunday morning when I heard the bad news from photographer Marcia Wilson. Although Marcia and I were friends, we rarely spoke on the phone, so my Spidey sense began tingling the moment I peeped her name on the caller ID.

“I was wondering if you had heard about Brook?” she began. Though I rarely cry, even in the presence of death’s stupid face, for the rest of the day and most of the week I was in a fog, shocked that yet another really good friend was gone. Brook and I had been buddies since meeting over a delicious chicken wing platter at our mutual friend’s baby shower in 2005. Since then more than a few friends have died, including writers Jerry Rodriguez, Tom Terrell, and Robert Morales, and former Rawkus Records publicist Devin Roberson, the woman I was with the same day I’d met Brook. However, his unanticipated death 10 years after our meeting at a joyful event made me feel as though I’d accidentally stepped off a cliff. Almost four years later, I’m still falling.

***

Tall, dark, and handsome, Brook was a Detroit native who’d attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. After graduating, he taught and wrote for Rolling Out magazine for a few years. An aspiring novelist — whose wonderful book The Maturation of Moses I’d read in various drafts and heard at readings throughout Brooklyn — he had founded the Rhode Island Writers Colony in 2012 and secured a deal with Atria/Simon & Schuster to edited an anthology of short fiction titled Everyday People: The Color of Life. After Brook’s sudden death, the imprint editor Todd Hunter offered the book to writer/Electric Literature staffer Jennifer Baker to edit. When Everyday People was published this past summer featuring stories from Alexander Chee, Nelly Rosario and Jason Reynolds, it was dedicated to Brook’s memory: “We love you. We miss you. We cherish the time we had with you.”

Brook smiled, grinned and burst out laughing. ‘Man, I don’t know Bowie like I know you, but he comes into the store all the time. He’s always in McNally’s.’

Reading those words sent me reeling through time, flashing back on those many days, nights and weekends Brook and I spent together vibing, jiving and simply hanging-out in his comfortable Brooklyn crib on Sterling Place between Nostrand and New York Avenues. Although we were 11 years apart, with me as the graying elder, we became close friends quickly, which was unusual for me. A grouch who made the garbage can dwelling Oscar on Sesame Street look friendly, I often told people, “I don’t need any new friends.”

However, Brook was so genuine, endearing, generous and funny that I quickly adopted him as a little brother from another mother. Back then, before Crown Heights became another symbol of gentrification in New York City and many of us were squeezed out, there existed a small black writers’ community that included Brook, Asha Bandle, Tomika Anderson, Kenji Jasper, Keith Murphy and me. Brooke hosted frequent get-togethers and brunches at his house, which he dubbed “Brook’s Bistro,” which were attended by authors and editors like Miles Marshall Lewis, presently writing a book on Kendrick Lamar, and Sun Singleton, as well as singer/ songwriter Kendra Foster, who would go on to collaborate with D’Angelo on Black Messiah.

***

I was always welcome at Brook’s. In the early 2000s, I didn’t have a cell phone, but sometimes I’d be in the vicinity of Brook’s block and decide to ring the doorbell. Unlike other friends who took that gesture as rudeness — what Seinfeld referred to as “the pop-in” — Brook always welcomed me. On one unexpected visit he stood in the brownstone’s doorway and said, “I knew it was you.” I chuckled and asked him how. “Well, I looked out the window and I didn’t see a mail truck or UPS, so I thought, ‘That must be Mike.’”

Each time I’d follow him upstairs to his second floor apartment and remove my shoes at the front door, Brook would offer me a beer or a bite to eat before we’d settle down to watch the latest episode of Dr. Who, Orphan Black, Luther or Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoons, shows he could watch and re-watch repeatedly. Sometimes he’d have new books on the table that he had gotten from McNally’s. I recall seeing noir classics by Chester Himes, Samuel R. Delany’s creative writing guide About Writing, imported novels published by British or Italian houses, and prestige coffee table books filled with beautiful pictures printed on lush paper. On other days we might just listen to music either from his CD collection or off the laptop where he had thousands of songs stored.

Although I was a veteran music journalist whose tastes hadn’t changed much since Erykah Badu’s second studio album Mama’s Gun was released in 2000, it was Brooke who introduced me to the fine works of Flying Lotus, Little Dragon and motor city hero J. Dilla, whose album Donuts was in constant rotation. In a sign of true brotherhood, Brook often burned CDs for me that I’d blast at home. One evening in the winter of 2005, a few months after we’d met, we sat gulping brews and listening to an A Tribe Called Quest playlist. Out of the blue, Brook asked who my favorite singers/musicians were. “That’s easy,” I said, “Prince and David Bowie.”

Brook chuckled and glanced at me slyly. “I know him,” Brook said. Not sure I’d heard him correctly, I replied, “You know who?” Again, he flashed me a mischievous grin and said, “David Bowie…I know him.” For a minute or so I was quiet. Shocked and awed and wondering, Is he was for real?, I turned around on the couch and finally asked, “How the hell do you know David Bowie?” Brook smiled, grinned and burst out laughing. “Man, I don’t know him like I know you, but he comes into the store all the time. I know he lives somewhere in the neighborhood, and he’s always in McNally’s.”


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Born and raised in New York City, I knew the streets weren’t paved with gold, but celebrity sightings were frequent. Over the years I’d spotted Tim Curry, Diahann Carroll, Tony Bennett, Eddie Murphy and David Lee Roth, who was throwing down drinks at the Bowery Bar. Hell, I’d even sat next to and chatted with Bowie’s lovely wife, former supermodel Iman, at an off-Broadway play in the 1998. But, as though those experiences were baseball cards, I would’ve traded them all for one encounter with Bowie. Minutes later, I was pumping Brook for more information.

“He’s always really nice and he doesn’t just buy one book,” Brook said. “He buys stacks of all kinds of stuff. Art books, novels, science fiction, history…a little bit of everything.” A part of me was crazy jealous — the closest I’d ever been to him was when I sat in a top row of Madison Square Garden during the 1983 Serious Moonlight Tour as Bowie wailed “Let’s Dance” from, it seemed, a million miles away.

I’d been a Bowie fan since I was a 12-year-old altar boy blaring “Fame” on the radio in 1975. Listening to the pop AM station WABC in the mornings before trooping off to school, one spring day the jock Harry Harrison exclaimed in his caffeinated voice, “…and this is ‘Fame’ by David Bowie.” As the song faded-in, I was struck by that hypnotic groove, killer guitar and mesmerizing voice. Sandwiched between the schlock of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” and the bubbly romanticism of The Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” Bowie’s song sounded like nothing else on the radio. At 12 I didn’t know jack about the perils of fame or riding in limos, but I did know that at the end of the three-minutes-and-thirty-seconds, I loved what I heard.

Thinking back it’s almost comical that while spooning soggy corn flakes into my mouth, the (then) biggest pop station in the country was introducing me to the thin white Brit who would become my future guiding light through the worlds of art, bohemia, drugs, science fiction, literature, nightclubs, fashion and, of course, every kind of music: guitar screeching rock, Anthony Newley lounge, plastic Philly soul, electronica, Nina Simone, ambient, Berlin, disco and whatever else he happened to be into that year.

Ten years later, as I sat in the same kitchen where I first heard Bowie’s voice, I was singing a random song when my roommate Francine, who I’d gone to high school with in Baltimore and taken to the Serious Moonlight Tour at Madison Square Garden, wandered in. She stared at me and, seconds later, started laughing. “Why do you sing everything in your Bowie voice?” she asked, making be realize for the first time that I was actually wailing in a sort of faux-cockney vibrato even when the song wasn’t “Let’s Dance” or “Heroes.”

***

Back in 1975, although I’d somehow missed Bowie’s spastic but seminal appearance on Soul Train (he was the show’s third white performer after Dennis Coffey and Elton John) where he performed “Fame,” I did catch a repeat of his performance on The Dick Cavett Show. With his pale skin, bright orange hair, brown suit, plaid tie and mixed-race band that featured David Sanborn on sax and Luther Vandross singing backgrounds, bony Bowie played guitar and looked as though he might blow away in the wind. Sitting next to my mother on the plastic slip-covered couch, I was enthralled as a tingly feeling surged through me. “He looks like a crazy person,” mom said suddenly. “He looks like he’s on drugs.”

Though I was a sensitive boy, I refused to let her rain on my pop parade; more tellingly, it was the first time I realized that Mommy didn’t always know what the hell she was talking about. However, as much as I dug the sound and vision projecting from our television, it wasn’t until a few years later, when I moved to Baltimore, that I became a devout believer of Bowie’s poetic art gospel. In high school, my idol worship went into overdrive in 10th grade when my new best friend — a cool redhead named Larry Ressin who lived in walking distance of Northwestern High — escorted me deeper into the realm of Bowie.

After school we’d hang out in his room with his big brother’s records, spinning Bowie’s ChangesOneBowie (1976), a greatest hits package that covered the best of his early spaceman days before he retreated into the ether of Eno electronics, and for me served as a sort of Bowie 101. I stared at the beautiful black and white photo on the cover, a sophisticated shot taken by vintage Hollywood photographer Tom Kelly. He made Bowie as fetching as Marilyn Monroe or Greta Garbo, while simultaneously portraying him as a thinking man, a rock star with books on the floor and thoughts in his head.

As a strange nerd in a new land, I was heavy into science fiction and, when I wasn’t with Larry, often hung out solo in a used bookstore called Tales from the White Hart that smelled of cat piss. Named after an Arthur C. Clarke short story collection, it was there that I discovered the works of Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury as well as the in vogue new wave writers J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison and Samuel R. Delany, just three whose speculative fictions appeared in the pages of New Worlds, a British science fiction magazine edited by Michael Moorcock from the 1964 to the early ‘70s.

I mention those because, listening to Bowie’s cosmic cuts “Ziggy Stardust” and “Space Oddity,” I felt as though he too must have been reading these same texts, as he spun strange narratives about lost astronauts, weird aliens and a thin white duke who reminded me of Moorcock’s albino character, Elric. “It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh,” Moorcock wrote, “and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white.” When I began digging deeper into Bowie’s catalogue, two songs on his eighth studio album, Diamond Dogs — “1984” and “Big Brother” — made me wonder whether there was a connection between the record and Orwell’s novel, 1984. I later learned the record was supposed to be a rock opera version of the book, before Orwell’s widow vetoed that. It also became obvious to me that “Jean Genie” was a play on the name of noted outlaw novelist Jean Genet. When I was going through my beat period, I discovered the two-way interview between Bowie and William Burroughs in an old Rolling Stone and marveled at the rock star talking about his appreciation of cut-ups and being inspired by Nova Express. As Bowie told Ikon journalist Chris Roberts in 1995, “Ever since I was a kid I felt more familiar, had more empathy, with people like Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, and then Burroughs of course in the late Sixties. I can read a LOT, mind you. On a good week I’ll get through three or four books.”

Years later, in The London Telegraph, I read about how, during the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976, “Bowie took 400 books with him. ‘I was dead scared of leaving them in New York, because I was knocking around with some dodgy people and I didn’t want them nicking any of my books…I have an extraordinarily good collection of books.’” In 2013, he made a list of his top 100 books, which has since been widely circulated. Three years later, fans Greg Miller and Kristianne Huntsberger started the podcast Bowie Bookclub to discuss the star’s varied lit selections.

***

Crashing back to earth, after Brook’s story of meeting Bowie, I began plotting how I could bump into him in the book shop. Although I had no idea what I would say to him, judging from his reading list of top 100 books that has been published by several sources, and with his tastes ranging from the novels of Richard Wright (Black Boy) and Albert Camus (The Stranger) to comix collections (Read Yourself Raw) to pop art history (Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective), we had more than a few literary likes in common, “I’ve always been drawn to stream-of-consciousness,” he says in the Ikon interview with Chris Roberts.

Five months after Brook’s passing and 10 days into the new year in 2016, a story popped into my timeline claiming that David Bowie was dead. Staring at the screen, I refused to believe that it could possibly be true.

In my mind I could see Bowie — dressed like a noir film detective — ad me chatting about the texts he found so endearing, writers who’d enriched his own genius and helped fuel those often opaque lyrics that real fans such as myself made a game out of interpreting. A few days after Brook told of his encounters with Bowie, I happened to be in the SoHo neighborhood where McNally’s was located, and popped in. In addition to its vast book inventory, there was also a wonderful magazine selection and a coffee shop.

“He’s not here, Mike,” Brook said when he saw me. Damn, I’d been hoping Brook wouldn’t be there.

“Who’s not here? I just came to pick-up the new Wax Poetics,” I lied. “You guys are one of the few bookshops still carrying it.”

Brook let out his signature laugh, which our mutual friend Valerie recently told me she thought was quite infectious. “I know who you’re really looking for,” he said, making me sound like a stalker. “I get off in an hour. If your friend doesn’t show up, let’s go find a happy hour.”

After picking up the magazine, I walked down the aisle and browsed through the books I imagined Bowie might’ve touched. Thirty minutes later, I headed to the store’s coffee shop to wait for Brook. Of course, I looked over every time one of the doors opened, but that day Bowie never stepped inside McNally Jackson. Over the years I visited the store a few more times hoping to meet my sharp-suited hero, but I never did get to chat about books with him.

***

Five months after Brook’s passing and 10 days into the new year in 2016, I awoke suddenly in the middle of the night and clicked on my computer. After slipping into the addictive matrix that is Facebook for a pre-sunrise fix, a story popped into my timeline claiming that David Bowie was dead. Staring at the screen, I refused to believe that it could possibly be true. “The internet is full of hoax death stories about the fab and famous,” I reasoned. “This is just another one.” Clicking to TMZ, which in our alien world has replaced the New York Times as the news source of record when it comes to celebrity deaths, there was no information yet concerning Bowie taking his last breath. Joyful that I was right concerning my worst pop fan nightmare, I went back to bed.

A few hours later, when I awoke again, the official word the Bowie was really gone had already spread like wildfire. Two days before, on his birthday, he’d released Blackstar, a depressing record about death, dying and rebirth. It was his last album. “Something happened on the day he dies/spirit rose a meter and stepped aside,” Bowie sang on the title track. Unable to go back to sleep, I pulled a book from the shelf and read until the morning light.

***

Recently, I visited Crown Heights and the neighborhood has changed even more, with stylish cocktail lounges where there once were roti shops. I walked past Brook’s old place on Sterling and, looking up towards the windows, thought about the many days and nights we hung out. Brook was a boombox bohemian trying to make the world a better place through art, culture, collective consciousness and the printed word. He was a talented writer, a hell of a friend, and a shining star who went nova much too soon.

* * *

Michael A. Gonzales has written essays for the Paris Review, Catapult, Medium and Soulhead.com. He has contributed music journalism to Newark Bound, Red Bull Academy, The Wire, and Wax Poetics. His short fiction has appeared in Bronx Biannual, Brown Sugar, Black Pulp and The Root. Currently he’s finishing his literary hip-hop novel Boom for Real.

Editor: Sari Botton