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When David Bowie first set foot in the United States, he wasn’t met by hordes of screaming fans. Instead, he was met with muted enthusiasm by 24-year-old Michael Oberman and his family.
It was January of 1971—Bowie had released The Man Who Sold The World in the U.S. a few months prior to mild acclaim. Still, while Bowie was tearing it up in Europe after 1969’s Space Oddity, he wasn’t exactly a household name in the states. In fact, he was still so unknown that his peculiar appearance caused him to get stuck in customs for hours when he landed. “There was about a four-hour delay in Bowie getting through customs,” Oberman recalls.
At the time, Oberman was working as a music journalist for the now-defunct Washington Star—a position he took over for his older brother, Ron, who went to Chicago to work for Mercury Records, Bowie’s American label. It was fortuitous timing for the Oberman family: Ron’s plans to bring Bowie over for his first American publicity tour coincided with a trip home to visit the family. Thus, Ron could visit with his family and get Bowie his first bit of American interviews for The Man Who Sold The World—with Michael, who had been following and writing about Bowie’s career already for the past three years. “I drove my parents to the airport and I explained to them who David Bowie was,” Oberman says.
Oberman began writing for the Star when he was 19, so by the time Bowie came over, he had experienced plenty of crazy moments with rock stars. “I interviewed Janis Joplin in her hotel room with one breast hanging out,” he recalls. But Bowie’s first night in the U.S. was far from the crazy rock star lore that’s become legend. Instead, Michael, Ron, and their parents took Bowie back to their Silver Spring house where they “sat and had drinks” (“I don’t remember if it was alcoholic or not,” Oberman says) and talked—not so much about music, Oberman says, but about drama and acting, which was always Bowie’s second love.
That night, the Oberman family took Bowie to dinner at Emerson’s Steak House on Eastern Avenue in Silver Spring, where they closed the curtains around their booth because the staff and customers were so freaked out by Bowie’s appearance. Oberman’s parents really took to Bowie, who was always quite the charmer. “He really was a great guy,” Oberman says. “In one of his biographies, he called my mother his ‘adoptive American mother.'”
Music journalism wasn’t Oberman’s only gig back then. At the time, he was also managing two bands, Claude Jones and Sky Cobb—the former of which Oberman describes as “the East Coast’s Grateful Dead.” After dinner, Oberman dropped his parents off and brought Bowie back to his Takoma Park home. “Sky Cobb was back at the house when I came home with Bowie” where they were having a bong-smoking contest, Oberman says. “David had never seen a bong before.”
But Oberman’s friends weren’t exactly taken with Bowie’s presence when they arrived. Oberman recalls the members of Sky Cobb being quite rude, basically ignoring him the entire time. Marcus Cuff, then the drummer of Sky Cobb whom Oberman still keeps in touch with “is really, really sorry for the rudeness he showed Bowie that day,” Oberman says. Nevertheless, Bowie stayed with Oberman that night and the two continued to talk about drama late into the night—a memory that he’ll never forget.
“It was part of my job to meet and know these people. It was a rarity to spend that much time with an artist,” he says. “It wasn’t an interview, just spending time with him.”
Since Bowie’s passing, Oberman—who’s now 68—has been reflecting on the Thin White Duke’s life and art. “For me, his loss is more meaningful than a lot of rock ‘n’ roll artists that have died,” he says. “The fact that David lived his life with cancer for 18 months—released his album and did all the things he did… he did more in the 18 months of having cancer than many people do in ten years. I feel honored, I feel lucky that someone who became a bright star spent some time with an American family… my family.”
Click here to see a picture of Michael and Ron Oberman with Bowie at the Oberman residence on that night in 1971.
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan