“So, this is not something that would have been of any value to Tony — which is one of the reasons why I really think it’s David’s piano.”
At first, it isn’t much to look at: The paint is chipped, the keys are dull, and its brassy innards sit exposed beneath the keyboard. Not unlike the man who played it, it’s slender and stage-worn. Totally unlike the man who played it, it favors function over fashion, and that’s why the jury-rigged block of wood hung over the keys isn’t just a curveball, but a clue — a sign that this old Wurlitzer might have belonged to Bowie.
“There’s a modification to it that has no use in recording,” Brad Worrell explains, pointing out the giant homemade pickup running the length of the keyboard. “Even live, you usually mic a piano, and in the studio you’re always gonna mic it. The only benefit I could see of that [pickup] would be for the piano to be played live. It was owned by either Bowie or Tony Visconti, or both of them. They used it on at least one record, probably two, maybe more.”
Worrell manages Rubber Tracks, Converse’s expertly outfitted recording and performance space in Williamsburg — stop one on our tour of places in the city connected to the Starman. This beaten-down old upright is not only the studio’s primary piano but also Brooklyn’s link to Bowie’s legacy. It is on indefinite loan to Rubber Tracks from Grammy-winning producer Hector Castillo, who cut his teeth at Philip Glass’s Looking Glass studios, where he worked with Bowie and his longtime collaborator and producer, Visconti, on Bowie’s Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003).
“I mean, Visconti and Bowie collaborated a lot — they were a real team during that time period, so it may have not even been clear whose piano it was,” Worrell continues. “Hector’s not sure; he said it just showed up at the beginning of sessions, and Bowie played it on all those records. He played it quite a bit, actually.”
Its possible proximity to genius helps explain the constant churn of up-and-coming unsigned bands — and the producers working with them — rolling through the studio to record for a day or two at a time. They see the piano as a talisman, and the musicians inevitably gravitate toward it, geeking out over chord progressions that were dreamed up in Bowie’s brain and pulsed through his veins, his fingertips, and onto keys they can play themselves. Rubber Tracks has thus become the latest star to light up in the constellation of Bowie’s New York, part of a galaxy that has continued to expand ever since his passing on January 10.
There couldn’t be a more fitting totem for Bowie’s life than a piano: “Life on Mars?” is one of Bowie’s most instantly recognizable songs, a splendid, four-minute symphony heavily reliant on the cascading downpour of its notes. He played “Life on Mars?” at Carnegie Hall when he made his proper debut in New York back in 1972. It was the perfect setting for a larger-than-life, operatic display of vocal prowess and instinctual panache, for an artist whose career was fueled from the beginning by the intrigue and intensity of his exploration of the avant-garde.
As it turned out, many of Bowie’s commercial achievements took place uptown, starting with Carnegie’s stage and radiating outward from there: A few blocks south, at Radio City Music Hall, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars reprised their Carnegie gig for a Valentine’s Day engagement in 1973; at 30 Rock and NBC’s Studio 8H, Bowie performed alongside downtown fixtures Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias on Saturday Night Live in 1979; he made his surprise 2005 appearance alongside Arcade Fire just north of there, in Central Park.
It was the SNL appearance that made Bowie’s rep for a kind of sly, louche sophistication, an indeterminate sexiness that had previously been kept largely out of the public eye. Together with Nomi and Arias, he brought a taste of the Mudd Club — the kind of debauchery you could only find below 14th Street — to a broadcast audience. Their heart-fluttering renditions of “Boys Keep Swinging,” “TVC 15,” and “The Man Who Sold the World,” performed with all three men wearing haute couture or plastic puppet parts, depending on the tune, tested both the production capabilities of Lorne Michaels’s fledgling institution and its censors. At one point while the cameras were rolling Bowie whipped out the plastic member of the puppet he was operating and saluted the studio audience before production cut to commercial.
A few steps west of 30 Rock, you’ll find yourself near what used to be Sony Music Studios, where Nirvana recorded their MTV Unplugged episode-cum-album. Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and the additional musical muscle they brought onboard for the taping floored the audience with an unexpectedly exceptional cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” nearly fifteen years after Bowie, Nomi, and Arias blew the minds of the audience across Broadway. Bowie’s music transcends genre; it’s both complex and ambitious while remaining approachable and accessible. Listeners don’t need a Juilliard degree to appreciate his wordplay and inventive instrumentation, and the Nirvana treatment of “The Man Who Sold the World” reinforced that: In their most frenetic moments onstage, both Bowie and Cobain were able to find kismet in the chaos of their chords.
But turn south on Broadway, press play on the first song from “Heroes,” and let it soundtrack a walk that ends amid the petal-strewn wake of Bowie’s passage. His own achievements are interwoven with the growth of the city’s importance as a rock ‘n’ roll center. After all, Bowie came here first as a fan (specifically one smitten with the Velvet Underground), and it was here that he would eventually flower as a musician — and his geographic preferences reflected that. Midtown may be where Bowie made his break and found his way into the hearts and television sets of millions of Americans, but downtown is where he earned his scenester status, made his home, and grew his family. At his apartment at 285 Lafayette, fans have turned out in droves: Bodega bouquets, handwritten letters, devotional candles, and other expressions of bereavement and affection have made a landmark of his doorstep. Each wash of floral color, every letter that won’t be read serves as a reminder that Bowie was a hero for many, many days and that his neighbors were also his fans — just as he was, of the bands he supported and adored, as he gradually worked his way into the fabric of this neighborhood.
The pedestrian ramp to the Williamsburg Bridge is an easy walk from 285 Lafayette, and the slow incline over the East River and into Brooklyn provides just enough time to savor Blackstar, Bowie’s brilliant (and in retrospect, starkly prophetic) parting gift, released mere days before his death. The album didn’t feature the Williamsburg Wurlitzer — that had long since begun its second act as an artifact by the time “Lazarus” was released and the world woke up on a Monday morning to be greeted by the bleak news that the context of the record had changed entirely. But that piano sits, now, in the first measures of its third act: Like the piles of flowers on Lafayette Street and the memories of “Life on Mars?” bouncing around the rafters on 57th, it’s a monument to Bowie’s four decades in New York and the art he created here, art that now belongs to all of us and will forever remind us just how much he’s ours to miss.