David Bowie's passing has brought about many tributes and appraisals of the iconic singer, actor, and artist's body of work. This is not one of those. This is a mere blip on the radar in Bowie's existence, but it's one that connects with the Baltimore music scene, through comedian, erstwhile talk-show host, and musician Ed Schrader.
For a time, before every famous person and journalist had blue check marks next to their names on Twitter, Schrader operated an account purporting to be Bowie's. A friend of Schrader's started the account, and in 2009, Bowie's camp had to refute a story put forth on Twitter that he was working on new material in Berlin, around the same time tabloids were reporting he would revive his Ziggy Stardust persona at Coachella. According to the NME, an official statement on Bowie's website ended with, "While we're about it, David Bowie does not have a Twitter account."
Nevertheless, a year later Schrader took control of the account and posted an audio file of himself mimicking Bowie's voice and doing a stand-up routine on pumpkin pie, under the guise that it was for a benefit, and the story was picked up by the A.V. Club, a major pop-culture site owned by satirical news site The Onion.*
After that hoax, Twitter locked the account. Bowie would eventually go on to get a real, verified Twitter account, @DavidBowieReal.
But as anyone who knows Schrader will tell you, the singer has a deep admiration for Bowie. He's been doing a damn good impression for years, before and since his recording duped the A.V. Club. He went out tour with Wham City to perform routines in Ziggy Stardust makeup, and he most recently lent his impression to a Jan. 7 video promoting his and (CP contributor) Kevin Sherry's Cats On the Lake shirts. This morning on Facebook, when Schrader posted about Bowie's passing, several people said they thought of him once they heard. As Schrader tells it, his account hijinx and subsequent videos impersonating Bowie were the act of a "fanboy" sharing his favorite artist. Just read this post he wrote about his hero for the Talkhouse.
I caught up with Schrader on the phone to discuss his headline-making joke and love for David Bowie.
City Paper: Walk me through this. You started the Twitter account, right?
Ed Schrader: OK, well here's what happened. So a friend of mine was working for Twitter back in the day. And she worked with them before they launched, when they first started. And what they would do is they would make these test accounts, just to test the bugs of the system and whatnot. And she was a big fan of David Bowie, she's like, "Oh, I'll be David Bowie." Because "Twitter, how long is this gonna last for?" She was a software engineer, whose name will go off the record.
Five years went by and one day I was hanging out, doing my whole Bowie routine while I was making eggs or something, and she's like, "You know, Ed, you’re a big David Bowie fan." I'm like, "Yeah, I love Bowie." She's like, "I've got a gift for ya." And then she sends me a link the next day, and it's the Twitter account with the password and everything. For all intents and purposes, it's David Bowie in the eyes of everyone on Twitter. And there's some odd-million followers, and little old me who at the time had, like, 120 followers. It was like, "I wouldn't mind wielding that sword for a while." [laughs]
It was a different time and a different place. I was like 26, 27 and making some decisions I would probably think twice about now. But at that time I kind of went ahead and did it.
So I was working at the time at the Golden West washing dishes. And every night when I'd walk home I'd take out my tape recorder and record a Bowie routine. I would just imagine if Bowie was like Louie C.K. or if he was like Bill Cosby. What would he do? What would his stand-up routine be like? And I thought, that's the one thing he hasn't really done, except for the Ricky Gervais thing [in "Extras"]. Why not Bowie puts out a stand-up album? Wouldn't that be funny?
I thought about how to posit it, or how I would put it forward towards the public and make it seem believable. [That] was saying that it was for a benefit. "Oh, there's a benefit coming up." I didn't say what it was or anything like that, because that would be disrespectful. It was just like, "This is for charity" or whatever. "I threw this comedy routine together. See what you think, folks." Kind of real casual. [Ed. Note: Listen to it here.]
Yeah, and I put it up there, and what do you call it . . .
CP: I saw A.V. Club picked it up.
ES: Yeah, A.V. Club, which is ironic because The Onion's job is to fool everybody, and I somehow fooled The Onion into thinking it was David Bowie. What's hilarious about this is the link I tweeted out has the name "Ed Schrader" in it. And when you go on it, you can see that it's the podcast with me. The person that worked there, I think, just quickly put it up on the A.V. page, and it was a super positive response. "This is hilarious! He's turning over a new leaf! This is brilliant, great, wonderful!"
Then the next day when they realized it wasn't him, they're like, "Yeah, it's just this putz from Baltimore, this kind of like jack-of-all trades artist. We don't really know what he does. Has a talk show or something. Pasta The Gathering. Who cares." Then there was a video of a baby crying in response to it.
It was really fun. And then I went on tour with Wham City doing that routine for people. And most of the reactions, 90 percent of the time, were just people looking forward, at me, as if they just walked in on something they shouldn't have seen. It was kinda like that line between uncomfortable and funny, mostly uncomfortable. I thought it was hilarious, and I'm my own toughest critic.
And it was the type of thing where it really resonated with punks and noise people and weirdos and outsiders. They were like, "Man, that routine's crazy."
But [I remember when] we were right outside of Detroit, in Troy, and performed at like a bike shop. And it was a bunch of moms and dads and stuff, and I do this Bowie thing, and they all just looked at me like they were utterly horrified. Afterwards, they were like, "Hey man, if you ever wanna talk or need some help" or "How's it going? Do you talk to your family?" They were concerned.
CP: Oh, wow.
ES: I came out with Ziggy Stardust paint on, and then I do a whole routine about pumpkin pie. In my mind, I thought, "Oh, this is gonna translate. Everyone is gonna love this." But it was so weird. It was one of those things where it had a sleeper effect, where like a few months later I'd go back to these towns where we performed with The Music Beat, and [people] would be like, "Man, I can't stop thinking about that Bowie thing you did. I didn't know what to think when you did it that night."
I think people didn't know how to process it. "OK, this guy's dressed up like Ziggy Stardust. He's doing a routine about pumpkin pie and these domestic home things." It was about being home and everyday stuff.
Then like three years go by, and then The Onion, all the sudden, posts that little article that was about "David Bowie at home. What’s he doing today?" You know, completely jacking my idea with zero credit to me, which I didn't really appreciate that much. But I didn't want to make a big thing about that because I thought, You know what? That's a compliment to me.
[He later adds via text: "I'm not mad about it, but it is funny."]
CP: So now you ran the account too, right? What kinds of stuff would you send out? It's deactivated now.
ES: I kept it really minimal. I would just post, every once in a while, something like "Heading off to the studio today, pretty excited." Stuff that he would say—he would always keep the press baited by always keeping them guessing. "What's his next move gonna be?" And this was in reverence to him, this was like a labor of love. This was just because I was obsessed with Bowie, and I wanted to share that obsession in a really fucked-up, weird way. And you know, in kind of like a Warhol kinda way too. Why not mess with this iconic image a little bit? Why not hijack this meme or concept that people think they know and understand and mess with their expectations? It's like when people put another panel on the "Garfield" [strip] or it's like [in Bowie voice:] Warhol and those Campbell soup cans he's got.
It's just taking something we're used to and putting a twist on it. And that's what Bowie's all about.
And I'm sure he was a little bit concerned and freaked out by it, but he probably got a chuckle out of it too, I'm sure. 'Cause that's what he was all about, and all of the people he was inspired by, like Warhol and the surrealists, were all about taking these icons and demagogues in our culture and then reinterpreting them—and thereby, with that reinterpretation, kind of exalting the subject matter and maybe going a little bit deeper into it and going deeper into our reflections of what it is to us.
The fact that it's funny for us to imagine him in a domestic environment shows, I think, that old view of the rock star as an untouchable god. It’' juxtaposing this image of the rock god with a guy at home making pumpkin pie for his kid. And that's based on Bill Cosby's chocolate cake routine. And this was all pre-Bill Cosby’s scandals. But I also wanted to do kinda like a Woody Allen-type, Catskill [Comedians] kind of self-deprecating thing. [Bowie voice:] "Oh, you know, I can't cook anything. I'm a klutz in the kitchen. Oy vey."
A Catskill comedian meets Ziggy Stardust, with a dash of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Because everybody loves Raymond.
CP: I saw that his camp eventually released a statement that said "David Bowie does not have a Twitter account." Did you hear from them at all?
ES: No, I didn't hear from any of his people, and then one day I went to get on the account and it was locked out. And then Twitter wouldn't let me back on and Twitter wouldn't explain what happened.
And that's the thing. Bowie's people made that statement so I assume, and there's part of me that kind of hopes, that he heard a little bit of it and saw some of it. In my mind, I'm sure he was like half disturbed, half amused, half "OK, I'm gonna make my eggs now. I've got other stuff to do."
"Who's this guy? Ted Schroder from Delaware? Who cares."
But for me it was a nod of reverence, and that's how I share my love of things. It's the same thing with Cats On the Lake. I love cats, but everybody's got a fuzzy cat sweater. That's boring. Why not do something a little bittersweet and macabre, and make a poster?
CP: I saw your Facebook post on Bowie's death, and people said they thought of you first. That has to be kind of interesting.
ES: You know, it's funny because when I was going to SUNY Purchase—and this is when I met all the Wham City people—we would hang out and watch old Bowie videos, and we'd clown on them. We'd be like, "Oh, these videos. This guy's crazy, man!" And then eventually we started becoming obsessed with him, and watching the videos over and over and being like, "Wait, this is amazing. Holy crap, there's something here."
At that time, when the obsession kicked in, kind of realizing his cultural presence and what he was, I was like, Well, that's not a bad thing to shoot for. Why not try to shoot for something like that? And even if I get a quarter of the way there, hey, not too bad, call it a day.
In my mind at that time, I was obsessed with Bowie the way people are obsessed with the queen or the Giza pyramids or Easter Island—this mythical, ethereal, untouchable thing. The thought of him even having people that would see something that I did, or a split second of him even thinking about it would blow my mind, which I doubt even happened.
Honestly, my whole point of showing my obsession with Bowie is to share it with other people so other people realize how great he is, and so that he can positively infuse into their lives the way he has in mine. It's like when you have a great recipe—you just want to share the love. For me, Bowie, there's so many positive, great things that I got from listening to his music and enjoying him as an artist and an actor. It's just about being a fan, and that's what fans do. It was just my way of being a fanboy—and you know me, I can only do things the weirdest way possible, and that was, I guess, my weird way of being a fanboy.
*Correction: In an earlier version of this post, the introduction implied Schrader had the Twitter account earlier than he actually did. It has since been updated. City Paper regrets the error.