Karen Walker had just been listening to his new album on a flight to Geneva. Elaine Wiggins, feeling like she’d been punched, crawled into bed with her son. Esther Schwarzbauer realised her fantasy of performing with the star would never be realised.
Everyone at the Birchmere music hall in Alexandria, Virginia, on Thursday night had a story to tell about where they were and what they were doing when they heard David Bowie died. Hundreds had come to pay homage by listening to the Bowie tribute band Holy Holy, featuring his longtime producer Tony Visconti on bass.
Before the show, wearing a strap patterned with Aladdin Sane lightning symbols, Visconti walked on stage and told the audience: “Since this past Monday was just about the worst day of my life, and a lot of people shared the grief that I share I’m certain, we felt that we should come out now and tell you that we deliberated whether we were going to continue with the tour – but we’re musicians, we just can’t sit around and not play music. You all know that music heals a lot of pain and that’s why we decided to come here and be with you.”
The 500-seat venue, where guests are waited on at tables, was close to full, with most ticket holders the wrong side of 40. To cheers, whistles and tears, Holy Holy played Bowie hits including Oh You Pretty Things and Changes, prompting someone to shout: “Please sir, may I have some more?” The more included Life on Mars? and, lastly, Suffragette City.
Recalling the creation of the 1970 Bowie album The Man Who Sold the World, which he produced, Visconti said: “The brains and the beauty and the creativity was a great man who left us recently: Mr David Bowie.” He held his arms aloft and audience members stood to applaud. “It gets easier to say that every night. I got really choked up two nights ago in Toronto. It’s hard to even say his name but let’s just celebrate his life.”
Drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, the last surviving member of Bowie’s backing band the Spiders from Mars, emerged afterwards to sign autographs and pose for photos. “We’d done about two or three gigs before the news came and that knocked us sideways,” he said, recalling the announcement of Bowie’s death on Monday. “It was just a bit surreal. We were on the road playing those songs and then five o’clock in the morning got a phone call in the hotel. I went to wake Tony up and the others and it was just like shock. It’s the last thing you thought was going to happen.”
He added: “It was known by a select few that he was ill. There were a few hints that I got that I thought he was ill, but I didn’t know as much as Tony did and it was unexpected that quick, I think even for David. He never really prepared for it; there’s no way of preparing for that. We thought what do we do, is it disrespectful to carry on? There were so many thousands of emails came in saying you’ve got to carry on, you’ve got to carry the torch, we want to see it.”
The passion was evident in the audience. Elaine Wiggins, 54, who works at a consulting firm, broke down in tears as she recalled hearing of Bowie’s death: “I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. My son was downstairs asleep and I crawled in bed with him and said, ‘David Bowie died’. I got in the car and went to work and felt like I was in a fog all week. I’ve not had a lot of personal losses in my life but this really hit me hard.
“So for me tonight is like a bit of closure, a funeral. It’s hard to talk to my friends about it. They don’t understand: ‘Why are you crying for a pop star?’ This is like a memorial, a cathartic release.”
During Thursday night’s gig, Graham Warwick, a magazine editor, sent an email from his iPhone to the Guardian that said: “What a f-ing amazing and accidental way to celebrate his life and work. They are amazing. And the music sounds incredible. Even now, so many years later. [My wife] Karen is crying her eyes out.”
Warwick, 60, said he was in awe of Bowie’s late burst of creativity. “He wanted to get this last thing out of him. He knew he was dying. He was saying, ‘I’ve got more music in me’.”
Esther Schwarzbauer, 30, a booking manager, agreed: “I feel that he was better in touch with the concept of his own mortality in those last months. It didn’t make him want to be immortal but to create as much as possible. It gave him the opportunity to do more and go faster than before. Most people with a diagnosis like that would slow down but he sped up.”