Nikki Sixx, Mick Rock & More Share Favorite David Bowie Memories & Songs at Sonos' 'Song Stories: Bowie' Event
Silence fell upon the flagship Sonos Store in New York on Monday night as a group of panelists emerged from downstairs and strode to the makeshift stage at the front of the room. They, along with a house full of journalists and other members of the media, had gathered to celebrate the life and art of David Bowie, a figure so enigmatic as to avoid replication, yet so universal as to transcend time, space and personal ideology.
As the panelists took their seats to signal the start of the event, the hushed audience roared with applause, the likes of which only Bowie -- the Starman, the Thin White Duke, the immortal Ziggy Stardust -- could summon.
The event in question was “Song Stories: Bowie,” the latest in a series of exhibitions specially crafted by Sonos to commemorate artists who have made invaluable contributions to the world of music. After a successful debut last month in London, the New York installation welcomed musicians, photographers and writers whose lives were radically altered by Bowie’s music in unique ways: legendary rock photographer Mick Rock; Mötley Crüe bassist and co-founder Nikki Sixx; Devo singer, keyboardist and co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh; and music journalist and Perfect Pussy frontwoman Meredith Graves.
Sonos found the perfect moderator in Rob Sheffield, a Rolling Stone contributing editor and bestselling author whose oeuvre includes the affectionate, authoritative biography On Bowie, released five months after the musician’s January 2016 death. Sheffield invited each panelist to share their fondest memory of Bowie, as well as their favorite song, which he queued up via the voice-activated Amazon Alexa and played with crystalline quality over the new Sonos One.
Sheffield's own Bowie story from his teenage years took place on a Saturday night, holed up in his room listening to radio DJs light up a cigarette butt they’d retrieved from the rocker’s ashtray at his show that night. Sheffield cited the decadent, R&B-tinged 1975 hit “Young Americans” as his favorite. “This is a song that I heard as a little boy. I knew that man was going to be part of my life forever,” he said, explaining that Bowie’s myriad identity shifts in the '70s sounded unlike anything from this planet. “He’s from Jupiter! He’s from Mars!” he spouted.
“He’s actually from Brixton,” Rock deadpanned.
The photographer met Bowie in March of 1972 at the modest Birmingham Town Hall, which barely holds 1,000 people. He captured timeless images of the artist as Ziggy Stardust, several of which were on display at the Sonos store. The sky-high, fire-engine red hair remains arguably the most iconic look of his multifaceted career. “Even his management said to me once that the look of Ziggy is the jewel in his crown,” Rock said.
Yet it was “Life on Mars?” from 1971’s Hunky Dory that first captivated Rock. “You listen to Ziggy Stardust or Hunky Dory today, and they do not sound dated,” he said. “And David never repeated himself. He was unique.”
The only other panelist who met Bowie was Mothersbaugh, who regaled the audience with tales of Devo landing a record contract with Warner Bros. partly due to the rocker’s endorsement. The connection led to Brian Eno producing their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Mothersbaugh picked “Ziggy Stardust” as his favorite Bowie track, and the audience grooved to the song’s effervescent guitar riffs and indelible chorus.
Sixx nearly met the Starman when his silver Mercedes swerved in front of him in the ‘80s. “He’s David Bowie. He could run over me and I would thank him. I would pay him!” the bassist joked. The two made fleeting eye contact after the incident, but Sixx couldn’t bring himself to approach his hero: “I heard that his privacy was so important to him, and I knew that I would come off as a fan, even though in a sense maybe I was a little bit of a peer.”
He was unquestionably a peer. By the end of the ‘80s, Mötley Crüe had scaled incredible commercial heights and established themselves as pioneers of the decade’s glam metal movement. Still, Sixx considers Crüe the “bastard children” of the glam rock zeitgeist that Bowie helped spearhead.
“Bowie was always changing, and we felt that was what a band should do. That’s what an artist should do. And I know bands do evolve, but ours was purposeful,” Sixx said. That propensity for musical and stylistic evolution began as a seed, planted in Sixx the first time he heard Bowie's "Changes" as a kid. “I was growing up in the ‘70s in the most conservative place I know, in Idaho, and Bowie was blaring through the radio -- and nobody got it but me,” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘That’s my story.’ He’s always been with me through all of my changes, and his song ‘Changes’ meant so much to me.”
Graves, meanwhile, was born in 1987, after Bowie’s massive commercial star had begun to wane. But his music was omnipresent during her childhood thanks to her father, an avid music fan, and she had her own formative experience with his 1983 single, “Modern Love,” as a teenager.
“When I realized that there was a Bowie for me was 14, 15 years old, which is the onset of puberty for everyone -- and the onset of the Iraq War in my world, living adjacent to a military base in rural, upstate New York,” she explained. “He existed so outside of traditional narrative that 'Modern Love' will make you believe, especially as a young person, that he comes from a place without war. And so as contradictory as the song may seem and the song may feel… it’s a timelessness and a hope that’s also a very nihilistic acknowledgement of the truth of the endless war of society.”
Graves noted that Bowie’s flagrant disregard for gender binaries was revolutionary not simply because he chose to wear women’s clothing, but because he removed sexuality from the decision. “What Bowie wearing women’s clothing asked people to consider was whether or not clothing truly had gender. He wasn’t making a statement by doing it. He existed as a statement by virtue of the image he felt he needed to compel,” she said. “I think that’s really the magic that he pulled off in terms of gender transgression: taking things that were unique to women and not sexualizing them in the way that most male rock stars of that era certainly did.”
At the end of the panel, a special guest shared her own Bowie memory: Suzi Ronson, the hairdresser who helped the singer achieve his iconic Ziggy Stardust hairdo, a radical departure from his shaggy blonde mane. Heavy duty gels didn’t yet exist in the capacity they do today, so Ronson attacked Bowie’s locks with volume peroxide and an anti-dandruff product to hold them firmly in place. She succeeded -- and the results were transformative, giving Bowie the signature hairstyle that remains an indispensable piece of rock 'n' roll iconography.
“When he looked in the mirror,” Ronson recalled of that fateful appointment, “Ziggy Stardust was born.”