Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie - The Starman

Like everybody else in the known universe I was stunned by the news this morning that David Bowie had died. He turned 69 on Friday and released his 'Blackstar' album, and then died of cancer on Sunday and we are told on Monday morning. Three years ago I heard 'Where Are We Now', the single that signalled Bowie's return dropped out of nowhere via the 'Today' programme on Radio 4 and that's how I heard of his passing this morning. Once again, the lead story at 7am. And then the news was full of tributes, of shock, and so was Twitter and Facebook. The news drowned out everything else. And rightly so. His passing was noticed.

I first met David Bowie in 1972 with his magical appearance on 'Top of the Pops' singing 'Starman' with his Spiders from Mars. I'd heard that odd song before but never seen the singer and suddenly there he was. There wasn't much else for a 12 year old to do in 1972 other than the Thursday ritual of 'Top of the Pops'. And this strange creature, this alien, was singing about aliens. But where was his long hair and flares? He had relatively short spiky hair and skintight trousers - as everyone knows pop stars had long hair and flares in those days so what was going on? And what was that weird, colourful costume all about? That's not how pop stars dressed. Then he pointed straight into the camera and sang, 'So I picked on you' and he was pointing straight at me. At me! And at a million other youngsters gawping at this new life form.

The strange thing was that almost overnight the weird kids at school, the loners and misfits suddenly had an icon, a something and someone to look up to and emulate. They could look across the school playground and increasingly start to see likeminded individuals as haircuts and clothes changed. And eventually became cool. He introduced new ideas and alien thoughts - what was 'Queen Bitch' and her bippity-boppity hat all about let alone knitting underwear from hair, where did that come from? The first wave of punks almost universally were Bowie fans and look what they did.

Of course, all that the newspapers noticed was that David put his arm around Mick Ronson's shoulders and now that's in the cultural history books. I never really noticed that at all - didn't we all do that in the school playground every day and haven't footballers done it forever? But that's what was picked up and outraged people. Aren't grown ups funny things really?

Another moment was in 1984 or '85 when I was getting the coach from London to Newcastle for the Christmas break and the bloke sitting beside me had one of those new-fangled Sony Walkmen things. It's a long drive to Newcastle and he asked if I'd like to listen to an album and put on 'Let's Dance ' and gave it to me. I hadn't heard the album before, just the singles, so it was magical to listen to a whole album without DJs interrupting or anything. You could now carry your own music around with you wherever you go. That's when I decided I wanted my own music machine, no, not wanted, *needed*. So I bought one after Christmas and I've carried music around with me ever since.

I didn't buy all of his albums by any means. I think the last was 'Scary Monsters' and then I seemed to like the lead singles from subsequent albums but not enough to buy the albums. It was 'Earthling' in the late '90s that got me to buy an album again. It might have even been an appearance on 'Top of the Pops' that made sure I was aware that there even was a new album and I liked the driving sound of the music. I got subsequent records following that and started exploring the unknown back-catalogue of nearly two decades. It was lovely to see the Union Jack coat that Bowie wore of the cover of 'Earthling' and on stage at the 'David Bowie Is' exhibition.

The next moment was the 'David Bowie Is' exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2013 and it subsequently toured the world. From David's own collection, here were things from across his life such as the Ziggy costume he wore when he pointed at me through the telly, the keys to his Berlin flat, handwritten lyrics and costumes from the 90s tours amongst a range of stuff. It was oddly exciting to be there surrounded by all his stuff  - who keeps old flat keys for 30-odd years?

And suddenly he's gone. And the world noticed.

Twitter and Facebook were flooded with 'RIP' messages this morning, wall to wall coverage on the TV and radio and tomorrow it'll be the newspapers with obituaries and memory articles. Tonight there's a big celebration in Brixton, just up the road from me, where Bowie was born and grew up (photo courtesy of James Clark who was there). There will be other celebrations of his life and work but will any capture the full extent of his influence? I doubt it.

It was nice to see the personal tributes to Bowie appear throughout the day, from all sorts of people. One of the first I saw was from Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols tweeting a mid-70s photo of his hero, Alison Moyet, Boy George's heart-breaking tweet, Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, Kim Wilde, Eddie Izzard and a host of others. The Arch-Bishop of Canterbury was one of the first to be asked for a reaction on the 'Today' programme this morning and he said he'd grown up listening to Bowie (didn't we all?). Even Siouxsie broke her silence with a message of thanks to 'the one and only Starman'. There are thousands of others, like Pet Shop Boys saying we are all his children, and many, many heartfelt messages from fans. Like me.

He created some fab choons, talked about gender and sexuality 40 years ago, wore clothes that men weren't supposed to wear and pushed at boundaries, opened doors for so many who came after him and always, but always moved forward. Who knows the full extent of his influence? In the rush of instant interviews this morning someone commented that Bowie was often referred to as a 'chameleon' but that was the last thing he was since a chameleon changes to blend in and Bowie never blended in. He led from the front. He was more than a pop star, he was a visionary and an artist.

Bowie summoned me in 1972 and, while I may have lapsed from the true faith on occasion, 'The Next Day' brought me back into the light.

Tony Visconti posted a very touching message this morning. He said: "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life - a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it's appropriate to cry." And that's what I did this morning, for someone I've never met but who was a big part of my life.

Namaste Mr Bowie. 

1 comment:

olderthanelvis said...

I love what you say about Starman. And so right about the "arms round Ronson" thing - that's all hindsight.