As I’m sure everyone is aware, David Bowie died yesterday after an 18 month long struggle against cancer and the planet lost something unique.
Bowie helped provide a soundtrack for most of my life, and outwith of Pinky and Perky was the first pop star whose single I bought with my own pocket money. That single was Life on Mars in the year 1971.I’d apparently become obsessed with Bowie after hearing the sounds of Space Oddity leaking from my brothers bedroom.
So in 1971 one of the very first memories that lives with me is buying this from Woolworth’s.
I’m not sure exactly what pulled me to Bowie but I do remember thinking he looked like a superhero in his makeup and costumes. Not a Jack Kirby-esque square jawed heroic figure, but something stranger like Steve Ditko would create; a strange, odd, unique figure that seemed like a champion for the odd and usual and from then til now Bowie became as constant as the North Star in my life.
Even before I’d hit double figures in terms of years Bowie was guiding me. I even wanted a Bowie mullet, and thankfully was never allowed that to happen as I’d look ridiculous in a mullet. Bowie would wear one perfectly.
I never got his lyrics when I was young. Of course I didn’t. I couldn’t have.That’s daft. I just liked the sound and vision he produced. I remember utterly adoring Sorrow but until I started writing this I’d probably not heard it in a decade. I’m now back to being barely a schoolchild again.
The defining incident for many, many people in regards Bowie was that performance of Starman on Top of the Pops. I loved the song because I thought it was about the Golden Age DC comics character, and I certainly didn’t pick up on the fact he was subverting a nation’s sexuality on prime time telly.
I did think however at the point he sung ‘‘I had to phone someone and I picked on you” that he was talking to me and only me rather than around nine million people on a Thursday night. It’s amazing to read people’s comments that they too thought Bowie was only speaking to them directly. That takes talent and a sincerity that few performers could ever have.
I still didn’t get Bowie’s lyrics. To me in my pre-teen years Life On Mars was a nice tune and not a commentary on American cultural imperialism. That sort of intellectual and emotional understanding didn’t come til years later, and in the case of Drive-In Saturday, decades later as it helped me through an especially bad break up with a girlfriend.
But he changed styles and personas. That was fine to me, I got it as after all as a fan of Doctor Who I was used to to the concept of regeneration, and in the mid to late 70’s as I grew older and smarter I started to appreciate Bowie more and more. I also noticed more and more the spattering of science fiction concepts in his music as I matured and got just what he was trying to do.
By the time I was in my teens Bowie had produced his finest material from Ziggy Stardust to Low to Scary Monsters. The only artist in my lifetime that comes close to that run of amazing work is Prince and that’s really, really pushing it.
Imagine any artists today putting out something like Low? Imagine anyone completely and utterly changing track and doing that at the height of Punk? There’s a thing too, many of the old acts were mocked and spat upon by the young punks but Bowie never lost respect because he was punk before that term became defined.
Bowie kept dabbling with the mainstream, especially in the U.S, but he was still like a moon orbiting it looking down throwing down little gems that’d sprinkle up the top 40 tunes.
After Let’s Dance he hit a barren patch. I fell back on his earlier material for comfort as he tried to take the mainstream by being mainstream, but he did one song that’s among my favourite songs ever, and again never really meant the same to me as I got older and developed more successful and unsuccessful relationships.
By the late 80’s/early 90’s, Bowie was being lapped by those that took from him what they could and British music was in the early stages of Britpop when suddenly Bowie became relevant again as after all, one couldn’t look at the likes of Suede or Pulp without pointing out the massive Bowie influence. Bowie himself came back with some new material but for me the pinnacle in my relationship with Bowie is the year 2000 and the final night of that year’s Glastonbury Festival.
I’d seen Bowie before (I even saw him play with Tin Machine) but there was something about the build up to the Glastonbury slot. Rumours were flying that Bowie was ill and this would be his last ever show, or that he was going to retire. All manner of things were flying round the still newborn internet of the day but the only fact is that Bowie was returning to a place he’d played 30 years previously. This was also on top of the perennial rumours of that year’s festival being the last, and in the first year of the new millennium David Bowie took his place on the Pyramid Stage and sung his heart out to 80k people, myself included. By the time he hit Life on Mars the field was full of grown men and women bawling their eyes out in a mix of golden flowing nostalgia and joy. Myself included.
In the years since Bowie’s music took on new meanings. I’d go back and listen to old songs and pick up things I never did previously. Songs would take on new meanings and become as embedded in my brain for different reasons as they were for what I thought when I was a wee boy who liked Bowie because I thought he only spoke to me through the telly.
And now he’s gone, but he’ll continue speaking to me, you and millions of people both alive and yet to be born because he’s still a hero that’ll speak to people. People find quality and the one thing Bowie very much has was quality that ensures that in centuries to come his music will live on and on and on. His legacy is carved in late 20th century culture. Without Bowie life would have been shabbier, duller and grey.
I’ve been lucky enough that in all the millions of years I could have been born I was born at a time when David Bowie could shape me growing up. Same with you reading this. Imagine people in a century coming across this blog, or the tens of thousands from fans mourning his death that they’re reading the experiences of people Bowie touched? I like that and I think Bowie would have too.
So cheerio David. Thanks for all you’ve done. You were always my hero.You always shall be.