This is not a story about music, but about presence.
One evening in the mid '90s I found myself at a SOHO gallery for the opening of an exhibition by the portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Lou Reed had posed for at least one of the images in the show—I can't remember now if he was actually the focus of the exhibition—so he and Laurie Anderson were both in attendance, which lent a fun air of celebrity to the proceedings. I'd never been in proximity with someone so famous or iconic before. At the same time, Reed and Anderson being New Yorkers, and presumably being in their own milieu, it didn't feel like a big deal. Certainly, nobody was making a big deal of it.
My friend and I had been there for 30 minutes or an hour, drinking wine, looking at photos, and people-watching as the gallery filled up, when a hush fell over the room. It wasn't an actual silence, but that's the only way I know how to describe it; you could feel the energy in the room change, as though the air had become charged with electricity. I turned to look at the front door, and there were David Bowie and Iman, making their way through the crowd. I don't remember what they were wearing, or how they looked, and I don't even remember exactly how the crowd reacted. I don't think that anyone turned to gawk, and in fact, I'm pretty sure that exactly the opposite happened, that people did their very best to remain cool while clutching their wine glasses—a very quiet riot of sotto voce freakout. This was a roomful of clued-up and cultured New Yorkers; no one would be so gauche as to break their cool and turn and stare, much less ask for an autograph. But you could feel it; every single person in the room was acutely aware of the arrival of this pair. Figuratively (and literally, in Iman's case), they towered over us. Not haughtily, though—with total grace. It was thrilling and humbling. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson suddenly seemed like small potatoes (no offense, Lou and Laurie). They were mere mortals, but suddenly we were in the presence of gods.
(And yet these were gods who did not hesitate to walk among us, on our level. They had no security detail, no handlers, and there was grace in that too; I suspect that very openness is what kept the crowd on its best behavior. They had extended their trust, and we responded in kind. I suspect that today, in the smartphone era, every phone in the room would have been held aloft, snapping pictures; it would have been a very different scenario.)
I don't remember much more about that evening. I do remember that my friend, who was an enormous Bowie fan, went off to get a glass of wine, and contrived to pass him on her way back to my corner, brushing against his arm as she did. "I touched him!" she exclaimed to me, her eyes sparkling. I had to respect her pluck.
Fame in itself doesn't mean much. It can be bought; it can be accidental; it can fade. But this was different. What mattered wasn't Bowie's celebrity; it was the very fact of his presence and his being, his aura. He changed the temperature of the air around him. That encounter helped me understand something about the charisma of religious figures. Some people simply radiate energy on a different wavelength. It was a privilege to be so close to that, even fleetingly.