Singer, composer, performance artist and multi-instrumentalist Phoebe Legere has continually broken new musical ground since her New Wave band Monad formed in 1980. In 2006 Legere founded the New York Underground Museum, an interactive website that presents the work of both renowned and emerging artists. It was Legere’s eclectic talents that earned her an incredible opportunity.
The long-time East Village resident was chosen by David Bowie as the opening act on his 1990 U.S. tour. The gig allowed Legere to watch all of the star’s performances during the tour. Here, Legere recalls the day she met David Bowie in 1990. They rekindled their friendship more than two decades later during a chance meeting on an East Village street.
In 1990 I opened for David Bowie on his national Sound+Vision tour. I got the call from Bowie’s people and they said, “Would you like to open for the national tour?” and I was so astonished. I said, “Yeah, where and when?”
The crowds were between 20- and 25,000. There were huge stadiums of people for whom David Bowie was a religion; really, wonderful fans. He paid for a forklift to pick up a white grand piano and set it onto the stage and I would come out and play the piano and sing my songs.
The first two times that I opened, I didn’t meet him. I watched his show but he never came out. The third time a knock came on the dressing room door and in came – David Bowie. And I was standing two inches from him. My bass player, Susie Rakowski, was standing right behind me. He photographs so beautifully but in person, he was so gorgeous that for the first time in my life I fainted. I began to fall backwards. I looked into his eyes, which are very different colors as everyone knows, and I actually lost consciousness. My friend Susie, who was right on the ball all the time, was right behind me and she caught me and pushed me back up. And I came back to this world and we began to talk.
I saw every performance. He was better live than I ever heard him on record. It’s very hard to capture genius on vinyl or plastic. So much is lost. And some nights were better than others. But when Bowie was good – when he was on – he was a shaman. And he was always communicating with that space between life and death. Always a telescope to the beyond. Always.
What struck me about Bowie was his humanity. Bowie, in face-to-face conversation, was so nice. Beautiful manners. So thoughtful. And so interested, always so interested in what I was doing.
The last time I saw him was in 2012. I was on my bicycle and I was stopped at the stoplight at Houston Street and Fourth Avenue, pretty close to his house. And he pulled up next to me. We were both on bikes, stopped at the stoplight, and he looked at me. And I was dressed like a boy, as I often am, and he looked and he said, “Phoebe?” I said, “Yes, it’s Phoebe, hello David.”
He said, “What are you doing now? I want to know what you’re doing. Tell me everything.” Wonderful person. Wonderful, thoughtful person. Beautiful guy. He looked beautiful on a bicycle. He was a good rider.
And so we pulled off to the side, there’s a little garden there, and put the bikes up and we stood there talking. I told him about the New York Underground Museum and I said, “I’m so happy that I have the drawing that you did for me in the collection.” And he was so fascinated by the Underground Museum.
And then we began to talk about music. We were talking about jazz and the difference between rock and jazz and the ways that jazz allows for much, much more creativity for the musician because they’re allowed to go outside the progression. They’re allowed to play and run around inside the chords.
It was clear that he was beginning to feel that rock ‘n’ roll and pressure for commercial success had become a straitjacket. So he always said to me, “Phoebe, just play your jazz cabaret. That’s what’s good. That’s what’s good.”
He told me, just stick with jazz and cabaret. He told me that in 1990 and he said it again in 2012. We talked for about 10 minutes. He was in the middle of making Where Are We Now?
He was always getting his juice from the underground! And many, many people steal things from us on the Lower East Side. When people are stuck for an idea now, they just Google one of us and steal our hairstyles or our eyebrows, whatever they need at the moment.
But Bowie was really getting juice and then putting it through the alembic of his own wizard brilliance. There was a permutation of it and it turned wonderful. He hit home runs so many times. It’s extraordinary.
As told to Frank Mastropolo.