BY MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM VIA GQ
When Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Cunningham got a call from someone claiming to be David Bowie, he thought it was a friend pulling a prank. He didn’t know he was about to be launched into a yearlong collaboration on a musical involving space aliens, mariachi bands, and an imaginary trove of unreleased songs by Bob Dylan. Here, for the first time, is the story of their unfinished show—and what it’s like to work alongside a bona fide pop genius.
About ten years ago, I was on a train leaving New York City when I got a call on my cell phone.
“Hello,” the caller said. “Is this Michael Cunningham?”“It is.”“This is David Bowie. I hope I’m not calling at an inconvenient time.”
“Whoever you are,” I said, “this is a really cruel joke.”
It was surely the work of a friend, I thought—someone close enough to know that I’d listened to Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs approximately 10,000 times each when I was in college and that still, with college far, far behind me, I listened to Bowie at least once a week. That person might even know about my youthful attempts to look like David Bowie, which I maintained even though a pale, skinny kid walking the streets of Pasadena, California, in a bad (very bad) red dye job and a Ziggy Stardust T-shirt did not seem to read “rock star” to anyone but me. The prankster who was calling me, pretending to be Bowie, might have known that I’d been, essentially, waiting for that call for almost 35 years.
The caller said, “No, really, it’s David. How are you?”
And suddenly, it seemed possible that this was David Bowie, if for no other reason than I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who could manage such a convincing imitation of that particular dulcet, nuanced—and profoundly familiar—voice.
I believe I said something like, “Oh well, hello, David. What a nice surprise.”This was during a bit of a lull in Bowie’s career. After his album Reality came out in 2003, he didn’t release any new music for a decade. In 2004, he had a heart attack. For the rest of his life, he was beset by health problems, including the cancer that would eventually kill him.
When he called me, though, he was looking to start a new project, a musical. I’d write the book, he said, and he’d write the music. He didn’t go into detail over the phone, but we made a date for lunch in New York the following week.