Over the next ten years, Bowie was undoubtedly the biggest single influence on my thinking on practically everything. I avidly devoured all his interviews, everything written on him. By the mid 90s when the Internet started to be a thing, and most people started to think it could be a thing for porn or gambling, my first reaction was it could be a thing to share my passion for all things Bowie with other Bowie freaks. For roughly five years, my main pastime was my involvement in the online Bowie fan world that revolved around a Usenet group, a few fan websites, and a couple of mailing lists. The knowledge I had absorbed from ten years of obsessively reading everything related to Bowie meant I acquired a depth of superficial "knowledge" (from a purely fan perspective) that few others had. To my surprise, this meant other fans from all around the world started asking me questions, and I was seen as something of an authority. I wrote reviews, fan articles, lengthy posts. Much of my social life revolved around my interactions with Bowie fans.
Bowie himself was something of an Internet pioneer. He quickly saw what it was going to become at a time when people like Jeremy Paxman protested "but it's just another method of distribution". There were rumours backed up by pretty solid indicators that he spent a lot of time reading what his fans said and wrote about him. This was consistent with his stated self declaration that he was an artist who believed that the art was not complete until the audience had added its piece (he saw art not as something that ended when the artist delivered a piece but rather only started at that point, and was completed by the interpretations of the audience). This added an interesting dynamic to the Bowie online fan world, given that fans often believed their posts were read by the artist himself. One consequence of this was the rise of the impersonators: fans who got their jollies by pretending to be Bowie (or someone close to him, or even just other fans: I had a few impersonators of my own). The more transparent ones openly claimed it: the smarter ones just hinted at it enigmatically. Some were convincing enough to the point that some fans (myself included) believed it was possible it really was Bowie. At least one almost certainly actually was.
Some time in the late 90s, I started getting emails from someone I initially believed to be a very clever impersonator from the "enigmatic hints" camp. This person expressed themselves in a manner becoming of someone of Bowie's erudition, was well researched (no obvious factual errors), never posted at a time when Bowie clearly couldn't have. They never stated themselves to be Bowie but clearly spoke from his perspective, and the emails were always signed simply "db". All the emails were coming from an email address that started with the letters "bxqr": when I suggested to my correspondent suspiciously that those letters brought the words "Bowie, Ex Queer" to my mind, my correspondent simply responded "Mine too, but sadly not before I chose four seemingly random letters". I decided to keep an open mind that it might.....might....be Bowie. Even if it wasn't, the person was funny enough and interesting enough in themselves to be worth spending time corresponding with. The correspondence grew over time from a few short snappy emails a week to sometimes three or four quite long and in depth discussions a day. This initially left me less inclined to believe I really was corresponding with Bowie himself: after all, he really should have better things to be doing with his time than swapping emails with a fan, right? I kept trying to catch him out: either on facts, or with tricks like emailing him just as I knew he was going on stage in New York or wherever, hoping the impersonator would answer instantly thereby removing all doubt. I never caught him out. I ran searches on the email address to see what popped up (trolls who like to impersonate celebrities are generally not smart enough to use different email addresses). Nothing did. I decided to ask a friend who worked with him musically a favour: I asked him to confirm or deny that the email address was the same one Bowie used to correspond with him. My friend was understandably wary, given how guarded Bowie was about his privacy. In the end, we agreed on just four letters, and he confirmed that yes, the email address he dealt with also started with "bxqr". At this point, I decided that yes, it was David Bowie I was corresponding with, at least some of the time.
In late 2003, Bowie came to Dublin to perform two concerts at the Point Theatre. They were filmed for a concert video, which would turn out to be his last ever. I had made it a rule from the start that I would never ask my correspondent for a favour that Bowie could grant (even though this could have quickly cleared up whether it was really him or not). My other rule was I would never reveal to anyone anything he told me in confidence, something which goes against my natural blabbermouth tendencies and something he remarked on favourably a few times conspiratorially ("I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but I haven't seen you spill anything I told you before, so...."). Tickets were tough to come by but by now I was an old hand with a good network so I secured two tickets for both nights which sold out in minutes. My correspondent sent a message saying "I hear both concerts sold out instantly so I've put you plus one on the guest list". I withheld the information that I already had two tickets: this seemed like the chance to prove (or disprove) the notion that I was dealing with Bowie, and even if I was the victim of a ridiculously elaborate hoax and this was supposed to be the payoff (humiliation trying to get into a concert claiming to be on the guest list), well, I still had my two purchased tickets as backup.
In the run up to the concert, I was inundated by messages from fans desperate to get their hands on tickets. I initially just sympathised with their plight, but then started to feel bad at the thought that I might be able to get in without my tickets and then they would go unused. So I relented and told one guy who waxed at length how he had never seen Bowie live and feared he never would (there were already rumours this would be Bowie's last ever tour) and how it would be life changing for him and his boyfriend to see him in concert, that I might.....might....be able to help. I arranged to meet him in town before the concert, at a nearby pub, planning to shoot off at some point to find out if I was actually on the guest list, and return with the tickets if I was.
So about an hour before the concert, I present myself to the security representative, mumbling that I think I might....might....be on some sort of guestlist. The security man in question, a real salt of the earth built like a shit brickhouse type with an accent that strongly suggested at a life spent mostly in Tallaght, looked at me suspiciously.
"You might.....might be on the guestlist bud? What makes you think that?"
I mumbled very unsurely that I had been told I was.
"I didn't even know there was a guestlist".
I mumbled something that may have been "Oh I see".
He shouted "Bill! Bill! Is there a guestlist for tonight?"
I now found myself looking at an even bigger security man, also more than likely from Tallaght.
"Who wants to know, Ben?"
"This gentleman thinks there might be...and he might.....might....be on it".
Bill looked at me suspiciously.
"What's your name, pal?"
Showing admirable powers of recollection in the face of such pressure, I somehow managed to remember my own name.
Ben pulled out a one page list that looked like it had at most two lines printed on it. He looked at one of the lines, then looked at me.
"Yeah pal, your name is here, plus one. Where's your plus one?"
With that, I scooted off to the pub to collect plus one and give the two lads the spare tickets.
Earlier that day, I had swapped emails with my correspondent as we watched the rugby World Cup final between England and Australia. For those who don't remember, it was a thrillingly close encounter. In the last minute of the match, Australia kicked a penalty to level the match and send it to extra time. Two minutes into extra time, England kicked a penalty to take the lead, which they held until three minutes from the end, when an Australian penalty again levelled the scores. With 26 seconds remaining on the clock, Wilkinson scored a drop kick to win the World Cup for England.
As a patriotic Englishman, my correspondent was understandably delighted. He asked if he should mention the match on stage that evening, if Irish fans would be likely to share his delight. I suggested it might be wiser not to, not just because we have a long history of cheering for anyone but England, but also because I didn't feel many rugby fans were Bowie fans, and vice versa. I jokingly suggested if it was crowd pleasing banter he wanted, Tiocfaidh Ar La might do the job better (for those who don't know, this is a rather mischievous idea given that it was the IRA slogan at the time). He asked me for the phonetic pronunciation and I played along.
To my surprise, Bowie opened the concert with those three words.
That tour would prove to be his final one. It was curtailed the following year when he suffered a heart attack and was subsequently diagnosed with an acutely blocked artery that required an angioplasty procedure.
After his recovery, Bowie seemed to move into retirement comfortably and devote himself to being a devoted full time Dad to his young daughter Lexi. There were intermittent cameos but no more albums, and the retirement seemed permanent. Our correspondence tapered off and I was forced to find other pastimes. My running career took off unexpectedly when what was intended as a farewell appearance in the New York ultra marathon in Central Park ended in improbable victory. Earlier today, I went back through my old emails and found that incredibly in the week before I flew to New York, Bowie sent me some useful links on things to see and do in New York, and immediately after the race, he was one of the first to congratulate me. As my poker career took off, he feigned some interest or at least amusement at my latest improbable career twist. I joked that it was his fault: without any new Bowie albums to obsess over, I had to find some other outlet for my compulsions. This was intended as a joke but like many jokes has more than a grain of truth. Not only did I actually need to find another hobby to replace reading Bowie interviews, but without Bowie's influence on my mindset, his view that even if everything is not possible you should at least give it your all before giving up, I would not have been the sort of 42 year old who knew nothing about poker but would still look at an online poker landscape dominated by guys younger than my kids and think "Hey, maybe I could do that".
As poker took over my life, and with Bowie in apparent retirement, my social life no longer revolved around the Bowie fan world, and my correspondence with the man himself withered to a few messages a year, usually around birthdays or holidays. I guess the sad reality was that I wasn't really all that interested in the latest episode of Spongebob (a firm doting Daddy/daughter favourite it seems) and he had no interest in hearing my latest bad beat stories.
In the early hours of the 8th of January, 2013 (Bowie's 66th birthday), I was winding down my nightly online session on a final table, when I opened Twitter to find it had exploded with news that at midnight Bowie had released his first new single in almost a decade, with no pre publicity or fanfare. He'd simply put the new song up at his website, and the world went crazy. Within hours, "Where Are We Now?" had topped the Itunes charts. As I signed on to Gmail to send him a "Happy birthday but wtf?" message, I saw an email from an old familiar address that had sat unopened for days (I no longer check my email daily) that simply said "Something is coming".
That summer, I travelled back from Las Vegas with Daragh Davey at the end of the World Series of Poker. We had a few hours to kill in London en route, so I dragged Daragh into central London to the "David Bowie Is..." exhibition. As a general rule I like to keep my obsessions and my compulsions separate. I try not to bore runners and Bowie fans with bad beat stories, and I generally no more than hint at a previous life as a hardcore Bowie fan (much less a correspondent) to my poker buddies. So Daragh had no real idea why we were even going to such a thing.
He seemed suitably impressed though, and as I scanned the gift shop afterwards for merchandise I didn't already own, he thumbed through one of the many Bowie biographies, before his eyes widened and he exclaimed "Oh my God! You're mentioned in here!" It takes a lot to get young Daragh excited to the point of exclamation about anything, so that's right up there with as one of my favourite moments in poker.
My emails with David remained intermittent the last few years. When I wrote what many people think is my best ever blog about my son Oisin, I thought of him a lot and the advice he occasionally offered as one father to another. I ended that blog with a Philip Larkin poem which Bowie had told me was his favourite, on the difficulties of parenthood (one thing we shared was we were both products of unhappy homes with ill suited parents). Over the next couple of days I agonised over whether it was advisable to even publish a blog that had no relation to poker, so I sent it first to some close poker friends, and to David. This is another such blog, but one I sadly can't send him for his thumbs up or down.
In the early hours of January 10th, I was winding down after a long Sunday grind watching bad TV, when I chanced onto an RTE News segment waxing lyrical about Bowie's acclaimed latest album, Blackstar. I drifted off to sleep happily thinking about the beautiful new album, not yet realising it was a beautiful farewell note, and remembering that I hadn't sent my customary Happy Birthday email. It can wait til morning, I thought.
I woke up to a message from Sean, one of the many great friends I gained through Bowie, saying he felt absurd and mortified to be thinking this way, but he felt like he'd lost a close friend of 40 years. Like most hardcore Bowie fans, Sean is a hardened cynic by nature, and also has never allowed his fandom to obscure his ability to criticise and critique Bowie and his work when he felt it came up short. So I initially thought "Oh....he doesn't like the new album, and he's being overly dramatic". But then it suddenly hit me...it might....might.....and with a sinking heart I signed on to Twitter and saw Bowie was trending ahead of Justin Bieber by several million tweets. It couldn't just be reaction to the new album.
I spent the rest of the day feeling as sad and griefstricken as I ever have in my life, while simultaneously sharing Sean's mortification and sense of absurdity that I felt like this in a world where millions of Syrians are starving, over a celebrity I never even had a face to face conversation with. I still can't really explain it, other than to say Bowie was the single biggest influence on my life and how I have chosen to live it. He was an idol and an icon to people like me who scoff at such notions, he was the closest thing to a father figure I've had in my life, he was a thrillingly sharp bright and funny correspondent for several years, and he helped me with things as small as the best website for what's happening in New York to things as big as to how you should think about and live life on your own terms. It was never a relationship of anything even approaching equals yet he never lorded his exalted status over me (he was polite and solicitous to a fault). I got an insight into the sharpest smartest mind I've ever encountered: at worst all he got from me was pathetic devotion and at best perhaps a few interesting questions at times and the correct pronunciation of Tiocfaidh ar la.
Early in his life, Bowie mastered the perfect dramatic entrance, and he left us with the most graceful of exits. He leaves a beautiful farewell album and a touching final video, one I feel certain will go down as one of the most artful exits in history. All I have is this dreadfully inadequate blog which doesn't even scratch the surface of what this genius meant to millions of fans like me, or start to explain just how and why he meant so much to all of us. I can find no words other than goodbye David, it was a privilege to know you even a little.