I woke up in Los Angeles. That was fine, except I was meant to be 8,000 miles away. I was supposed to be in Melbourne.
I was supposed to be in Melbourne to give the opening talk at the international David Bowie conference, in about 24 hours. The flight time from LA to Melbourne is 14 hours. I didn’t have a flight booked. I didn’t have any luggage.
It was July 2015, and I was in an airport hotel with hair the colour and cut of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, circa 1976. I had nothing else except the clothes I was wearing – a suit from 1973 – and a small black carry-on bag.
It had all gone wrong the day before, on a flight from San Diego to LA. The flight was meant to be a short hop, taking an hour. But it took three hours, and so my connection left without me, and my luggage was lost.
Technically, it had gone wrong. But in a way, it was all going perfectly. I embraced the sense of lostness, of being dislocated out of time and space: the wandering around LAX airport, the glossy anonymity of the airport hotel. I rode the shuttle buses in loops around the 1961, space-age architecture of the Theme Building, the airport’s Futureland-style flying saucer.
Staring out of another window at planes taking off and landing, I noticed that a wall was stencilled with the message “GROUND CONTROL”. It was literally a sign. I took it as a good sign. I was doing it right.
I was one month into an immersive research project, which would ultimately lead to a book. It had started as an attempt to enter into the experiences of David Bowie – to surround myself with the culture he had engaged with, to gain some understanding of his thought processes, and how they shaped his art.
I was listening to nothing but music from the early to mid-1970s, reading the novels of Evelyn Waugh in paperback, and wearing only vintage clothes. The 24 hours in LA gave me an opportunity to consume nothing but coffee. I walked down long, empty corridors, seeing where my sleepless, caffeinated thoughts fell. I sat down and recorded them as fragmented snatches, on scraps of paper tucked into the back of Vile Bodies.
Bowie, after all, had written Jean Genie on a Greyhound bus, the rhythm of its wheels between Cleveland, Memphis and Manhattan driving the blues riff. Drive-In Saturday was inspired by a glimpse of silver domes from a train at 2am, somewhere between Seattle and Phoenix.
Bowie’s songs of the period span America’s states and states of mind, from the “New York’s a go-go” of Jean Genie through Panic in Detroit to the Hollywood highs of Watch that Man. His LPs of the time are travel albums, snapshots of a man stranded and allowing himself to go a little insane: a man abandoning his previous, English self in the new world, a man watching through windows. His own LA period was a spiral into paranoia and hallucination, fuelled by stimulants and insomnia. I let myself explore how it felt to be lost in Los Angeles, if only for a short while.
Next morning, I woke up on a plane. I say “morning” but I’d long since lost track of time and its zones. The plane landed in Melbourne. An academic drove me into town, to my hotel. “Get changed,” he said, “and I’ll be waiting outside”. He wanted to drive me straight to the university, to give my first lecture.
I washed my face, unpacked a cream linen suit. I drank a few cups of coffee. Half an hour later – 90 minutes after landing – I stood in front of a hundred strangers and strung sentences together. They clapped at the end.
He drove me back to the hotel. “I’ll pick you up at five,” he said. “You’ll want to sleep.”
I thought I wanted to sleep, but it turned out that I couldn’t. My body clock was too screwed up. So I sat on the bed. It wasn’t a glamorous hotel. It wasn’t glamorous at all. It had white walls, a kettle, metal clothes hangers on a rail. After a few hours, I stood up and began to get ready. I unpacked my red wig, my blue suit, my turquoise eyeshadow, my orange blusher. The bathroom was little more than a closet.
When I was finished, I went out to the hotel reception to wait for my new friend, the academic. I was now in full regalia, a tribute to the Life On Mars video of 1971. The guy behind the counter looked at me. “I’m going to a David Bowie thing,” I explained.
“Fair play, mate,” he nodded.
The academic drove me to the opening of the David Bowie Is exhibition, in downtown Melbourne. It was evening now. I realised it also was winter now; it had been summer the day before. I switched from coffee to champagne. People immediately came up to me asking for photographs. I obliged, of course.
A strange thing happens at moments like this. They know you’re not David Bowie, but they want to pretend you are, and they want you to pretend you are. They want you to be an avatar. So you find yourself doing the poses, the pouts. You find yourself preening and standing in an angular fashion, and performing in an airy manner, with an exaggerated version of your own London accent and a pronounced laugh, like he did. The same way he adopted the style and delivery of Anthony Newley: strutting like a peacock, declaiming like a grown-up urchin from Oliver! or an early-70s incarnation of Oscar Wilde.
They know you’re not Bowie, but you’re the nearest substitute at the time. And you act it, until you almost believe it. After a few more glasses of champagne, it becomes easier for everyone to believe it.
Later, I woke up and didn’t know where I was. I searched for my phone – I was cheating, still using a smartphone – and found it somewhere in the white cell of my hotel room. It was still July, and I was still in Melbourne. In an hour, I was due to give two radio interviews. I drank a few cups of coffee. My blue eyeshadow was a strong pigment: it had lasted overnight. I didn’t need to reapply it. I successfully strung together sentences, somehow.
I gave another lecture, this time in mid-70s Bowie drag. It was a big lecture to a big audience, in a big theatre. Afterwards, lots of people knew who I was, though I didn’t know them.
When I tried to get away from the crowd, to have a coffee on my own, people would come and sit with me, starting conversations – or just carrying on conversations, as if they’d been talking to me beforehand in their heads. I don’t know if they expected me to know who they were. These strange things happen; these strange dynamics of almost-fame, borrowed celebrity. I didn’t get any peace or privacy. Maybe I asked for that. I didn’t get much sleep. After a while, I stopped trying.
After five days, I caught another flight. It took me via Dubai where, once again, nobody knew me at all – it was a relief.
I woke up. It was still July. It was summer again. I was in London. It was 2015. It was 1975, in my ongoing year of David Bowie. Planning ahead, I booked my tickets for Berlin.
Will Brooker is the Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.