(Author’s Note: Two of the characters who appear in this piece, Billy Martin and Lou Reed, previously appeared in this piece, with Martin also appearing here. Another character who appears in both pieces needs no introduction.)
Scene: a bedroom in a Manhattan apartment, sparsely furnished, yet elegant. An elderly man lies on a bed, gaunt, medicated, his eyes are different colors with one permanently dilated pupil: David Bowie. He is surrounded by his wife, Iman, and his children. He has been suffering from cancer for well over a year and is near death. His medications have him fading in and out of consciousness, lucid one moment, mind wandering the next. David coughs harshly and grabs his side.
Iman: David … David … what can we do?
David: Catch the paper boy …
David: Things don’t really change …
Iman: What do you mean?
David: Standing in the rain …
Iman: Yes, it’s raining out.
David: But I never wave bye bye.
An orange thunderbolt crashes through the bedroom window and strikes David directly on the forehead. He feels electrified, alive for the first time in months, yet notices his family around him quietly weeping, unaware of this violent transformation. Lightning flashes, another thunderbolt, and everything goes black.
David snaps awake on a toilet, where he had been dozing. White leather jump suit around his ankles. He notices his legs are fleshy and enormous, at least 40 lbs. heavier than the trim figure he’s maintained his entire life. “Man,” he thinks, “the side effects of the medications are having some troubling effects on my body.” He’s holding a paperback book about The Shroud of Turin. He notices the large white leather belt on the floor, with a massive gold buckle and the letters “TCB” engraved on it. He’s wearing a white cape. He reaches up to scratch his brow and feels glasses on his face.
Just then he pulls his head up to see himself in a small mirror on the restroom’s door: black hair swept into a pompadour, jowly, puffed-out cheeks, massive mutton-chop sideburns, wearing a bulky pair of gold-framed sun glasses. He gasps.
David: Oh my God. I’m dreaming that I’m Elvis Presley. The doctor said the morphine could cause mild hallucinations, but not even in the Hollywood hills in 1975 …
He notices his voice is several octaves lower, thick and husky, inflected with a mild southern accent. “Why am I talking in this fake Southern accent” David Bowie asks himself. David knows his Elvis Presley history and can recognize he’s not in the palatial bathroom of Graceland where he died. This is a common rest room of the kind he’d seen countless times in divey night clubs and bars he played in the 60’s. David stands to pull up his jump suit, and his enormous hairy belly protrudes, much to his shock.
David: Oh dear, I can’t see my penis.
This especially startles him as he could normally see his ankles while standing upright. He squeezes into his skin-tight white leather jump suit and bangs through the door into a men’s room. Two young men in jeans, flannel shirts and baseball hats advertising farm machinery are using the urinals and snicker when they see him.
David: Excuse me, fellows, but what day is this?
Guy in CAT hat (employing a fake cockney accent): Why, it’s Christmas Day, sir.
David: Christmas? That was just a few weeks ago.
Guy in John Deere hat: Monday, December 25th, 1989.
“1989?!” David Bowie asks himself incredulously, “I must be dreaming. It’s the drugs. It’s January 2016. I’m on my death bed. Just go with it. I’ve had stranger visions.”
David: I know this is a dumb question, but where am I?
Guy in CAT hat: Binghamton, New York. Morey’s Restaurant.
Guy in John Deere hat: I don’t know, King, you might want to ask Dr. Nick about his dosage levels these days.
Both men zip up and exit the men’s room without washing their hands. As they do, a wiry middle-aged man in a white t-shirt and pants enters, wearing horn-rim glasses and a hairnet. Two small horns poke out from his hairnet, as do two small black hooves from the bottom of his pants. A faint smell of sulfur accompanies him.
David: That smell. It wasn’t me!
Satan: It’s me, Mr. Bowie, I’m that smell!
David: Who are you? How do you know my name? I’m David Bowie. Not Elvis!
Satan: I know, I know, I put you here. To everyone else, I’m Danny Bolinski, dishwasher and bus boy at Morey’s Restaurant in Binghamton, New York. It’s part of my rehab program to do this kind of work after a hard stint in Attica for armed robbery. But do you know who I really am?
David: I haven’t a clue.
Satan: I’m Satan! This is hell. Your hell. The hell I’ve created for you.
David: Do you mean I’ve died? And gone to hell?
Satan: Yes, unfortunately, sorry to break the news.
Satan has a bottle of Windex and a roll of Bounty. He starts to spray down the men’s room mirrors and wipe them clean.
David: I don’t believe in heaven or hell.
Satan: Doesn’t matter. Heaven or hell believes in you.
David: Do I really deserve to go to hell?
Satan pauses from his window cleaning to look at himself in the mirror.
Satan: Do you know how often I hear that?
David: I would imagine it’s a cliché for you, but all very new to me. Why am I in hell?
Satan: Well, you’re a borderline case, Mr. Bowie. Not an evil person by any means. But not godly either. You engaged in a lot of questionable morality over the course of decades.
David: So I was a bit decadent in the 70’s and 80’s.
Satan: A bit? You did enough blow to kill an army of demons! You philandered constantly. You were routinely dishonest. You worshipped money while pretending it didn’t matter to you, but as you know, cocaine, mansions and private jets aren’t free. Like most celebrities who end up down here, you believed your wealth and creativity imbued you with a higher moral power than mere mortals, but lived a life that wasn’t anywhere near this utopian vision of yourself. It’s a trick I’m allowed to play on the powerful and wealthy, and it usually works.
David: Really, I changed when I got married again. Sure, the drugs, I never gave those up completely. But no affairs. I became a good husband and a good father. I lived as humbly as I could, given my rock-star trappings.
Satan: And for all those things, I salute you. Everyone tries, at some point, to right the ship. It’s a very human quality I highly admire. I wished it had worked for you. But in the end … not enough. You should understand, Mr. Bowie, I don’t’ make the rules, I only follow them.
David: Doesn’t my music count for anything? I helped so many millions of people get through life, if only in that small way.
Satan: That you did. I’m a fan! Station to Station is my favorite album of yours, I love to play it on my iPod when I’m kicking heads on the frozen lake. Again, Mr. Bowie, I don’t make the rules.
David: So you’re saying God judged me unfit for heaven.
Satan: That’s right. I’m only cleaning windows. (Satan goes back to spritzing Windex on the mirrors.)
David: So, what is this hell?
Satan: Your hell is to be an Elvis impersonator on an endless tour of small-town restaurants and bars all over America. Today, Binghamton; tomorrow, Scranton. We have you booked for Allentown on New Year’s Eve.
David: At the Stabler Arena?
Satan (laughing): Oh, hell no! Remember, you’re an Elvis impersonator now, not David Bowie. No, I believe the venue name there is Chuckles Sports Bar.
David: Bloody hell. Come on, Satan.
Satan: This is hell! Sorry that I’m good at my job. You’ll travel in a 1976 yellow Hornet Stations wagon, with your suitcase full of jump suits and hair-care products. And your boom box with karaoke versions of the music you’ll sing to. Your weekly stipend will be just enough to book you into Red Roof Inns all along the interstates and opt for the “all you can eat” salad bar at local Ponderosa Steak Houses.
David (sighing); … man who fell to earth … and then some.
Satan: Yes, you’ve fallen well past earth, my friend. Trust me, Mr. Bowie, in the grand scheme of hell, this would be a pretty distant circle. It gets worse. Much worse.
David: Try me.
Satan. I’ve been saving a spot for Mick Jagger as background vocalist for Debbie Gibson on a permanent tour of suburban shopping malls and theme parks. Would you prefer that?
David: All right, I get it.
Satan: Good. You’re on in two minutes. Oh, one other thing.David: What’s that?
Satan: You’ll be performing Elvis-style versions of David Bowie songs. It’s your act: The Return of the Fat White Duke. Stage is to the left of the men’s room, just before the pickled-egg station. See you soon!
Satan’s hooves clatter on the men’s room tile. David Bowie sighs like Twig the wonder kid. He thought of his old lead guitarist, Mick Ronson, who had passed away so long ago, and wondered if he had been lucky enough to go to heaven, or what his version of hell was had he not. Probably playing lead guitar for The Osmond Brothers. He resigned himself to his fate. After all, he was a professional who had found himself in many strange and impossible situations over the years. So this was hell. But this was also what he did and manageable in that sense. David struck a karate pose in the mirror and waved circles with the index finger of his raised right hand. “I can do this, “ he thinks, “I’ve done much worse things for money.”
It’s late afternoon on Christmas Day in Binghamton, New York, 1989. Which is to say the bar is severely under-populated. There are the two younger men drinking at a table by the door. It has been a brutally cold December. Ice lines the window sills, looking out on a blustery street with patches of ice from recent light snow. Rob the bartender sits next to Satan, reading a newspaper, while Satan washes dirty beer glasses. There are two older men at the end of the bar, both visibly inebriated. One is William Reedy, who owns two bars near the baseball stadium in Detroit. Because of baseball and his irascible personality, he is good friends with the man slumping next to him: former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin. Martin now owns a farm a few miles outside of Binghamton. Both are getting hammered at Morey’s to celebrate the holiday.
Satan walks over to the boombox cassette player situated on a card table by the pickled-egg station and turns it on. He walks over to the microphone on the small stage, taps it to make sure it’s working, then hustles back behind the bar, where Rob the bartender is fully engrossed in his newspaper. The opening strains of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” echo over the empty bar.
Billy Martin: What the fuck is going on?
Rob the Bartender: Christmas Day entertainment. An Elvis impersonator who does David Bowie songs.
Billy Martin belches.
Billy Martin: David Bowie? Isn’t that the pansy who did “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby?
Rob the Bartender: That’s right.
William Reedy: Candy-ass rock stars. You need to get Denny McLain playing organ in here!
Billy Martin: Denny McLain playing organ and Nancy Sinatra singing, topless!
William Reedy: That’s the ticket. Rob, another round of boilermakers for me and my friend here.
As Rob pours out the whisky shots, David Bowie emerges from the men’s room in his Fat Elvis persona. He has his cape spread wide, slowly striding, head held high, as if The King himself is entering his grand hall. The two young men by the door explode in laughter. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” reaches its crescendo, followed by a few seconds of silence. A Wurlitzer-sounding samba beat begins, followed by a Casio synthesizer playing slow minor chords. David Bowie instinctively touches the microphone as if it was a rose.
David: Ladiesandgentlementhankyouverymuch. Welcome to Morey’s Restaurant here in beautiful downtown Binghamton on the day of our Lord’s birth, the blessed baby Jesus. I’m the Fat White Duke, and I have returned. I bring to you the King's interpretation of the songs of one David Boo-ey.
David Bowie tilts his head back and extends his right arm as if to gently point the way to the men’s room
David (singing): It’s a god awful small affair, to the girl with the mousy hair.
He is singing “Life on Mars” from his Hunky Dory album as never before. He likes this new voice, so much thicker and fuller than his own. “Even when he was a bloated mess, The King still had a great voice,” Bowie thinks, “even if this hell, I’m going to give this everything I got.” William Reedy moves over to the pickled-egg station to pick out two eggs for him and Martin. He stares at the Elvis impersonator, too intimidated to heckle him, too drunk to kick his ass.
Just then a motorcycle pulls up in front of Morey’s Restaurant, a shocking site on a frigid winter’s day. The two young men crane their necks to look out the window. The driver takes off his visored helmet. It is Lou Reed, in a black leather jacket and jeans.
Guy in CAT hat: Holy shit. That’s Lou Reed.
Reed climbs off his motorcycle and comes through the door in a rush of cold air. He looks at the two young men.
Guy in John Deere hat: Hey, man, don’t settle for walkin’!
Lou Reed (just loud enough to be heard): Fuck yourselves.
He walks past the men, observes Reedy and Martin at the bar and takes a long look at Satan who is now polishing the Budweiser and Miller taps. Satan stops polishing the taps and grimaces when he sees Reed staring at him.
David (singing): It’s on America’s tortured brow. That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow.
Midline, Bowie realizes that Lou Reed has walked into the restaurant and is standing 10 feet in front of him, which breaks his concentration. He stops singing, the Wurlitzer samba and piano chords going on without him. Reed clicks his fingers, and the boombox switches off, leaving only the sound of a buzzing microphone.
Guy in CAT hat (whispering to his friend): He’s just like the Fonz.
Lou: Hi, David, it’s me.
David knows his physical appearance is that of a severely overweight Elvis impersonator, and thus knows whoever this is, assuming it is Lou Reed, is part of his hell.
Billy Martin: Son of a bitch. That accent. Don’t tell me. You’re a Jew. And you were raised in Brooklyn but grew up on Long Island.
Billy Martin turns to look at Lou Reed.
Lou: That’s right, how did you know that?
William Reedy: Buddy, don’t you know the greatest manager the New York Yankees ever had? Don’t you know Billy Martin when you see him?
Billy Martin sits stoically on his barstool, wavering a bit, dull-eyed, but seems to be waiting for Lou Reed to bow in his presence.
Lou: You and I are going to meet again one day in heaven.
Billy Martin (laughing): Buddy, I can tell you right now. I aint going to heaven, even if I wanted to!
Lou: You won’t want to. Mr. Steinbrenner will be managing heaven, and he’s going to trade Mother Teresa to the devil so you can go up there and take over St. Peter’s job.
William Reedy and Billy Martin burst out laughing, both knowing they are minutes away from black-out drunk, and this insanity is somehow part of their inebriation.
Billy Martin: Buddy, I’ll be playing poker in hell with Steinbrenner, Satan and Richard Nixon long before that happens.
Lou: That’s right. You will.
Rob the Bartender pulls the baseball bat from underneath the bar.
Billy Martin: Do you want me to sign that?
Rob the Bartender: Look, mister, it’s Christmas Day and you’re acting crazy. We don’t want no trouble here. All this bullshit about heaven and Satan.
Lou: He’s standing right next to you.
Rob the Bartender: What. Danny Bolinski? Dude, I hired him last week when the lady from the halfway house asked if I had work for an ex-con to wash dishes. That’s not Satan!
Satan glances over at Rob the Bartender. The light and intensity of his gaze makes Rob the Bartender drop the bat as Satan telepathically tells him, “I am Satan. And I know you’re having an affair with the K Mart manager’s wife. Which is the only thing I like about you.” Rob the Bartender sits down, visibly shaken.
Satan: Last time I saw you, you were wearing a captain’s hat and covered in other people’s blood.
Lou: I was hoping to never see you again, but you know how the after life is, like any other downtown scene. Let’s sit down and have a drink, we need to talk about my friend, David.
Even though both men had lived in New York City mere blocks from each other, Lou Reed and David Bowie had not really been friends since the early 1970’s, when Bowie produced his Transformer album in London. Neither had many real friends as fame made each feel isolated and distrustful. Lou Reed motions for David Bowie to come sit with him and Satan at the bar a few feet down from Billy Martin and William Reedy.
Lou: Is either of you sober enough to drive?
William Reedy: I am!
Reedy blurts this out like an eager school kid who doesn’t know the right answer but is trying hard to impress the teacher. He holds up the keys to Billy Martin’s pickup truck that was parked outside next to the motorcycle and jingles them.
Satan: They’re both so drunk they can barely walk. But let them go. It’s part of God’s master plan.
Lou: God has a pretty strange sense of humor, don’t you think?
Satan: Hey, I’m ruling in hell, he’s not that bad a guy. Let them go. And Rob, why don’t you take your lunch break now? I hear K Mart is having a Blue Light Special. I’ll be here when you get back.
Billy Martin and William Reedy stumble to their feet, heads wobbly on their necks. Martin has trouble finding the arm hole on his wool-lined denim jacket, but eventually snakes his arm through the hole and grabs the barstool to balance himself. He puts on his Yankees hat, askew like a rapper.
Billy Martin: This place just got too weird for its own good. I’m getting the fuck out of here. Who are you?
Lou: I’m an angel. Mr. Steinbrenner sent me.
Billy Martin breaks into a grin and snickers as he sloppily tries to button his jacket.
Billy Martin: Fuck you, man. Just … fuck … you … wise guy. That’s all I gotta’ say.
William Reedy grabs Billy Martin under his arm and heaves him towards the door, both men swaying like trees in a gale-force wind. They somehow make it to Martin’s pickup, kick over the engine and lurch into drive just as the sun is starting to set. Rob the Bartender shuffles out behind them, visibly shaken, not looking back. This whole time, David Bowie is dumb-founded, not sure what is going on since he had been pulled out of his performance mid-song.
Lou: And why don’t you two get lost? I saw Jimmy Stewart on the bridge on the way in. Why don’t you go help him jump off.
Even if he hadn’t been an angel, something about Lou Reed’s presence is so charismatically negative and off-putting that they know to leave, not even with their winter coats. The next day, this whole scenario will be just another crystal meth vision told to their similarly drug-addled friends at the factory.
Satan: Mr. Bowie, come sit at the bar. What’ll you have? It’s on me.
David: Jack Daniels and Coke would be nice.
Satan: And you, Mr. Reed?
Lou: Naw, I stopped around 1983. Just mineral water.
Satan: In Binghamton, New York in 1989?
Lou: You’re Satan. Make it happen.
Satan: All right.
Satan cracked open a bottle of Rolling Rock for himself and poured out drinks for Bowie and Reed.
Lou: David, I never thanked you properly. You saved my life back in 1972. I was living with my parents back in Long Island, working in my dad’s office, completely lost. For all the people who loved The Velvet Underground decades later, no one gave a shit about us in 1970. My first solo album tanked. RCA had me in six-figure debt. I was on the verge of suicide when you called and asked if you could help me out.
Satan: He’s right. I had Mr. Reed on my early warning docket, December 1971.
David: Well, you helped me, too. Working with you and Jimmy gave me rock credentials I didn’t have before. Everything in my life that went right was a two-way street.
Satan: You really knew how to manipulate people to get what you wanted. That’s an admirable quality in hell.
Lou: It works pretty well in heaven, too, especially with George Steinbrenner running things.
Satan: So why did he send you here?
Lou: A reverse charge. You didn’t get it wrong. David Bowie was supposed to go to hell. All I got was an order from Mr. Steinbrenner to get on my motorcycle, drive out to Binghamton, pick up David Bowie, who will be playing a club in the guise of an Elvis impersonator, and drive him back to heaven.
Satan: He offered no rationale for this decision?
Lou: You should understand, Satan, I don’t make the rules, I only follow them. I didn’t make a federal case out of it. All Mr. Steinbrenner did was shrug and say, “Somebody up there likes him.”
Satan: So, even in the after-life, David Bowie doesn’t lift a finger, and the gates of heaven swing open for him. Just because …
Lou: Tell me about it. I had to do that eternal TV variety special with Toni Tennille for about 50 years before I broke down. David, you’ve had a charmed after-life.
David: Oh, charm is everything. I never would have gone anywhere without it.
Satan now has his hooves up on the bar, realizing that he wouldn’t have to work this assignment as hard.
Lou: I must admit. This is a pretty novel vision of hell.
Satan: Oh, thank you. Damned celebrities make my job a pleasure. They allow me to realize my full creative potential. The key to enjoying the after-life is that you should really love what you do.
Lou: All I do now is ride my bike, play my guitar and listen to doo-wop. All I ever wanted.
David: Wouldn’t hell be fun in some sense? Mounds of writhing, naked people having sex in pits. Bonfires. People screaming in pain and ecstasy. Like a rock festival when you think about it. In all those paintings it looks like the demons are having a blast, poking lost souls with tridents. Someone’s having fun in hell.
Satan: Lot of people are having fun in hell, but only after a few centuries of their prescribed misery. Hell is just a spiritual bank where you pay your debt on an installment plan. And as you could see with your visions, not brimstone and flames, more mental anguish, boredom and dull repetition, doing something you can’t stand for centuries. But you make it that far, we have the demon training program, and like any other employer, we offer competitive wage and benefit packages. What all the paintings and books never get across is that hell isn’t chaotic and violent. It’s as calculating and shrewd as any record-label executive who paid artists like Bo Diddley with a Cadillac when they deserved millions of dollars. (You could ask them as they’re all down here.) Once you get out of the pit I’ve made for you, there’s plenty of sex, wild times, drugs, drinking to excess with no repercussions. There are a lot of fun, intelligent people down here who simply didn’t measure up to God’s moral standards. You should picture long-term hell as a cross between a therapy session and an orgy circa 1978 at Studio 54.
David: I had quite a few nights like that at Studio 54. But I can’t remember anything about them.
Satan: Just like now. Once Mr. Reed takes you away on his motorcycle, you’ll only remember this day vaguely, but not really sense the despair that would strangle your soul had you re-enacted this scene a few thousand times. By the way, Mr. Reed, you are aware of the Separation Clause?
Lou: Yeah. Mr. Steinbrenner said that you would be granted one wish before I could get on the bike and take David to heaven.
Satan: And it’s always a good wish. I’m not going to make either of you eat urinal cakes or anything unpleasant like that. It’s generally a wish that plays to your strengths so I can send you on your way in a positive light.
Satan pulls two acoustic guitars from behind the bar and places them in front of Lou Reed and David Bowie.
Satan: Mr. Bowie, I told you that Station to Station is my favorite album of yours. Mr. Reed, you might recall that I’m inordinately fond of your work. Street Hassle is my favorite albums of yours. Roughly 40 minutes per album. I wish that both of you sit here and play those albums for me in their entireties. I don’t care if you’re still an Elvis impersonator, Mr. Bowie, actually that makes it more interesting for me.
David Bowie and Lou Reed look at other, then shrug. Satan walks over and picks out two pickled eggs from the bluish, vinegar-laden jar. The liquid bubbles as his hand enters. He goes back to the bar, kicks his hooves up again and cracks open another bottle of Rolling Rock as Bowie and Reed start playing.
David (still as Elvis, singing): The return of the thin white duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes …
Satan smiles blissfully, as he does through their entire performance. Afterwards, he shakes hands with Reed and Bowie and wishes them well, inviting them to come back any time they please. The streets are dark, quiet and windswept as they exit Maury’s Restaurant.
David: Lou, I’m the size of a house. Must weigh about 18 stone. Are you sure we can make it to heaven on the back of that thing?
Lou: Sure. I got hit by a truck on Route 80 the other day, and it was just like a video game. I got up, brushed myself off, got back on the bike and kept on riding.
David: We’re going to freeze our asses off on a night like this.
Lou: Mr. Steinbrenner told me that if I took 81 south, we’d cross through heaven’s gates at the Pennsylvania border. That’s about 10 miles from here, not far at all.
David: We’re not going to come across Billy Martin on the road, do you think?
Lou: No. Fenton is about 10 miles northwest of here. And he’s already left the building, if you know what I mean.
Lou Reed hands David Bowie a gold-painted football helmet with no face mask. And so they ride, Bowie’s white cape flapping in the wind, the few cars they pass honking their horns at the sight of a bloated Elvis impersonator on the back of a motorcycle on a freezing Christmas night. A few miles down the road, an elderly bearded man in a flowing white robe pretends to hitch-hike on the Pennsylvania side, wearing a pair of Sennheiser headphones, on which “TVC15” is playing.