It’s 11am on a Sunday, and Greenwich Village is slowly springing to life.
Couples with dogs are out for a stroll, chic ladies in their weekend best are making their way to brunch, and under the bright-red awning of the Village Vanguard, a scruffy guy in a circa-1983 Serious Moonlight tour tee is holding forth on the man himself.
Though he wouldn’t become a permanent resident until the early ‘90s, New York played a formative role in David Bowie’s artistic development, and today, our small group is gathered in front of the historic jazz club to follow in his famous footsteps. The brainchild of New Jersey resident—and Bowie superfan—Jason Dobson, the David Bowie Walking Tour of New York City launched in September 2017, and so far, some 400 people have come along for the ride. “I was surprised no one thought of it first,” he says with a grin.
We start off down Seventh Avenue and turn east, passing the Stonewall Inn and its rainbow flag–bedecked national monument as we head deeper into the Greenwich Village historic district. There’s a brief stop on West 8th Street in front of Electric Lady Studios, a former nightclub that guitar great Jimi Hendrix turned into a professional recording studio back in 1970. At the time of its launch, it was the only artist-owned studio in the city, and five years later, it would make history again, this time as the place where Bowie teamed up with John Lennon and guitarist Carlos Alomar to write, in a single night, his first US number one—the appropriately titled “Fame.”
From there, it’s just around the corner to Washington Square Park, one of his top three spots in the city. “It’s the emotional history of New York in a quick walk,” Bowie wrote in an essay for New York magazine in 2003. Even before his first visit in 1971, the young artist was attuned to the pull of the city, from the music of the jazz greats who haunted the Vanguard to the paradigm-shifting sound of the Velvet Underground, which made a huge impression from the get-go. As he recounted nearly 40 years later, his former manager returned to the UK in 1966 with a test pressing of the Andy Warhol-produced album The Velvet Underground and Nico, and Bowie, then 19, was blown away. “I was hearing a degree of cool that I had no idea was humanly sustainable,” he wrote. “I played it again and again and again.”
We breeze through the Village and over to Soho, passing the bookshops and cafés where Bowie drew inspiration (he was in awe of William S. Burroughs, and the respect was mutual) and pausing outside of Olive’s on Prince Street for a shout-out to the man’s favorite sandwich, a pedestrian-sounding (but apparently delicious) grilled, marinated chicken breast on focaccia with tomato, watercress, and chipotle mayo.
Making our way through Soho, we pick up trivia about the neighborhood’s architectural details and its other famous denizens. Then there’s the now-shuttered studio where Bowie secretly recorded his last two albums, the coffee shop where he was a regular, and the fun piece of tribute art, erected in the wake of his death on a nondescript stretch of Bond Street.
Finally, we approach the block of Lafayette where he lived for the last 16 years of his life. In 1999, when Bowie and his supermodel wife Iman purchased two penthouses here for a cool US$4 million, a future neighbor scoffed at the idea that they’d be rubbing elbows in the elevator. “I mean, how much time is David Bowie going to spend in this building?” she asked the Observer at the time. “I’m never going to see them.” Little did she know that in 2016, the surrounding sidewalks would be overflowing with mourners paying their respects to a legend who moved in and never left.
Bowie may have been a transplant, but the enigmatic iconic lived here longer than any other city, and he was proud to call himself a New Yorker. “When I first came to New York, I was in my early twenties, discovering a city I had fantasized over since my teens. I saw it with multi-colored glasses, to say the least,” Bowie wrote in his New York essay. Over the next few decades, he came and went, but by 2003, he was firmly ensconced in Soho. “I am not a secretive guy,” he said, “but I am quite private. I live as a citizen pure and simple.” For 20-plus years, Manhattan granted him the anonymity to move through the streets practically undetected, but on Sunday, for a few hours, at least, we got to imagine the city through his eyes. Bowie’s New York, indeed.
For tickets and information, visit bowietournyc.com.