Last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared September 23 “David Bowie Day” in Chicago to mark the opening of the new exhibit “David Bowie Is” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibit’s only US stop. It's not every day that one has the opportunity to celebrate David Bowie Day—at least officially—so I had to check out the festivities and find out what exactly goes down on such an important occasion. Knowing Bowie’s propensity for the outlandish, the absurd, and the outright freakish, I expected things to get weird early. Would I witness the weird? Or would it just be another day in Chicago? I took my protein pills, put my helmet on, and set out to find out:
9:00 AM: Alarm. How very un-rock and roll. Should have set it to a ringtone of the bassline from “Under Pressure.” Fuck.
9:45 AM: Cab heading to museum for 10 AM exhibit opening. No Bowie, but I did hear Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Not a bad way to start the day.
10:00 AM: Arrive at museum and pay. $25? I thought Tuesday was free day. Yes, I am told, but not when it comes to Bowie.
10:05 AM: In line for a headset that will play Bowie tunes as I roam the exhibit. Meet a dude passing out Bowie pins and wishing people a “Happy Bowie Day.” Nice.
10:10 AM: Make my way into the exhibit. Everyone is bunched up like cattle at the first installation, so I wander ahead.
10:10-11:30 AM: Exhibit time. Some highlights:
• Rochester Police Dept. mug shot of a subtly smirking Bowie following his 1976 arrest for felony possession of 182 grams of marijuana (which is, like, kind of a lot.) [Ed. note—like, uh, seven ounces].
• Transcript of William S. Burroughs’s 1986 Rolling Stone interview with Bowie (which begs the question: who was weirder?).
• Skirt suit and toy poodle from 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live, as well as a video of “Man Who Sold the World” in which Bowie needs to be carried to the mic because of the ridiculous size of his giant tubular tuxedo suit (think Sumo wrestler in a plastic tux cinched at the waist) while performing with two backup singers he reportedly discovered posing as “human mannequins” in NYC shop windows.
• Something that appeared to be some sort of a medieval diaper and/or frayed loin cloth recovered as part of Bowie’s costume from The Elephant Man.
• Crystal ball and riding crop from 1986 Bowie flop Labyrinth (which was also playing in a side room to, like, three people.)
• Hamlet cloak and skull from 1983 Serious Moonlight tour.
• All sorts of weird outfits, from space suits to Ziggy Stardust costumes to the infamous Union Jack coat.
11:30 AM: By now the place is really filling up. Time to peruse the crowd. From old couples to high school kids of all races and dispositions, a good cross-section of humanity is represented. However, everyone seems way too well behaved and conservatively dressed. Besides one lady in a black cloak and one longhaired dude furiously rocking out to a massive video screen playing “Life On Mars,” barely anyone seems to be getting weird.
11:35 AM: On my way out, I attempt to talk to a few people now that the headphones are off. But everyone I ask either doesn’t want to talk or hasn’t seen the exhibit. Which leaves me wondering, “Where the hell are all the freaks?”
11:40 AM: Head to the café in search of the special “David Bowie menu” I’ve been promised for David Bowie Day, with items like “Starman Wings” and “Thin White Duke” flatbreads. Could an intake of Bowie cuisine lead to a creative infusion that would forever revolutionize the future of modern rock? I would not find out, because there was no Bowie menu. Just looks of blank confusion when I ask. I later discover that the Bowie menu will only be served from 4-8, so I wait. You better be worth it, Starman Wings.
They did, at least, have Bowie cookies.
11:45 AM: Cab heading to Daley Plaza. The cabbie has never heard of David Bowie. This is not looking good.
11:50 AM: Arrive at Daley Plaza for what will be the first of two Bowie cover bands performing as part of David Bowie Day. And… yes… FREAKS! There they are in full drag. There they are with lightning bolts painted on their faces. There they are wearing vintage Union Jack sweaters. I’ve finally found my people, and they’re glorious. I start talking to my new companions.
Jo-Jo Baby (left) and Sissy Spastik (right)
Bowie “wasn’t afraid to push boundaries,” says Jo-Jo Baby, who was inspired to check out Bowie after learning that the artist formerly known as David Jones was a major influence on Boy George. “Before Lady Gaga, there was David Bowie.”
“I always liked the androgynous perspective,” says Sissy Spastik, “and how he pushed the boundaries of what’s masculine and what’s feminine.” I get a quick pic of them and look behind me to see a swarm of people lined up to take their picture. Everyone is smiling and digging it.
I spot a dude in a sweet Union Jack sweater and get his pic. Turns out he’s Robert Byrne, the guitarist in Sons of the Silent Age, which is the band that's about to perform. “There’s consistently a sense of these incredible musical contributions that always work, always land on their feet,” he tells me before hopping on stage.
12:00-12:45 PM: Lightning bolt face-painted local radio DJ Lin Brehmer introduces the band, who proceed to rock a tight set of covers with alarming precision. By now there’s a massive crowd of everyone from old ladies to dudes in suits, all rocking out on a picture perfect 75-degree sunny day. It's a pretty cool scene, I have to admit. The lady next to me has never heard of Bowie, yet she's getting down like a veteran 70s-era Spiders From Mars groupie. Apparently, Bowie was still pulling new fans off his live show despite not touring for the past decade. I heard a rumor that Rahm was in attendance. I did not see Rahm.
Sons of the Silent Age
1:00 PM: Still high on the good-time vibes of the band, I decide to walk to a nearby record store to check out what, if anything, they have going on for David Bowie Day. No Bowie, just the kind of annoyingly loud metal music you’d expect to hear at 5 AM when the bouncers are trying desperately to kick you the hell out of their bar. I oblige them and leave.
1:05 PM: On my way out, I spot what seems to be a giant stone head jutting out from Millennium Park. I've never seen this head before. Could this be part of Bowie Day? I walk over. It is not. Or is it? I can’t tell anymore. This day is a fucking labyrinth.
1:15 PM: I decide to wander a bit more over to the lake and seek out freaks there. I find at least one.
Probably a Bowie fan.
1:30 PM: Cab back home. This cabbie has heard of Bowie, but is not a fan. Which is an improvement, I guess.
1:45-5:30 PM: Non-Bowie-related activity. Emails, emails, and more work emails. WTF? Don’t people know it’s David Bowie Day?
5:30 PM: Cab back to museum for second and final Bowie cover set of the day. And what’s that on the radio? BOWIE! Catch the tail end of “Fame.” Is it fate? Maybe. Or maybe, if you take enough cabs in the course of a day, you’re bound to stumble upon some Bowie. This day is a web of uncertainties.
5:50 PM: Arrive to a pretty packed museum lobby, where hard-rocking local bro/sis duo White Mystery are soundchecking. I chat them up a bit about Bowie Day. Drummer Francis Scott Key White digs “the mystery to his alter egos,” while guitarist Miss Alex White is a fan of “how dynamic his discography is.” They’ve never played Bowie covers before, nor any covers for that matter, but say they had to accept the “honor” of playing the MCA when asked.
6:00 PM: Shit gets loud. Fast. The glam-outfitted band runs through a frenetic set of hyper-charged, punked-up versions of Bowie gems like “Rebel Rebel” and “Suffragette City” turned up to 11 and immediately has the crowd convulsing in weird new ways. I think the staff is more than a little scared.
6:45 PM: I finally come in contact with the elusive “Bowie Menu.” I opt for an “Oh You Pretty Things” cocktail (vodka and a bunch of different fruit juices) and an “Under Pressure” entrée, which is basically just a steak with potatoes. What exactly this has to do with Bowie I’m not sure, but it’s pretty damn decent. I can image the rakish rockstar possibly dining on something like the “Rebel Rebel Ruffage” salad or “Ziggy Stardust” cheese plate, but none of the dishes seem to adequately match the unorthodox stage personality of their namesake. I guess weird is not necessarily what you want when it comes to your food.
8:00 PM: Back home. Bowie Day is officially over.
After a long day spent immersing myself in all things Bowie, what did I learn? A few things:
1. Bowie Day is more fun than working.
2. People dig Bowie for all sorts of different reasons, most of them pretty valid: the androgyny and alter egos, the possibility of losing your shit while watching the "Life on Mars" video, the invitation to paint a lightning bolt across your face. And his wildly diverse back catalog helps unite people from all walks of life.
3. A lot of people you wouldn’t expect from the outside are total weirdoes on the inside. You just need to find the right mechanism to coax it out of them. And for many, that mechanism is Bowie. He shows us that surrendering your inhibitions and embracing your eccentricities is not something to be feared, but to be celebrated.
4. After exposing the senses to so much ridiculous shit over the course of a day (I’m looking at you, Tokyo Pop vinyl bodysuit), the normalcy of the real world is something of a letdown. A world devoid of Bowie is suddenly a world devoid of magic. Maybe that’s why we listen to him in the first place.
5. Bowie Day should be a day we all celebrate. It allows us to look at the world differently and experience our surroundings in new ways. But we don’t need a mayoral proclamation to do it. All we need to do is get in touch with our inner freak. And in that way, every day could be Bowie Day.
Jay Gentile is the publisher of Chicago INNERVIEW Magazine and a Chicago-based freelance writer who likes to get weird on Tuesdays.