It’s difficult for me to unpack the reasons that the Death of David Bowie (which apparently warrants a capital letter on the word ‘death’) has affected me so badly. I’m going to attempt that now. Live, as it were, without edits, in one unruly splurge. There will be a lot of grief weirdness, questioning, reminiscing and irrational thought. Bear with it. I doubt any of this is particularly original, but this is a blog. It’s the internet. What do you expect?
When William Burroughs died, I was very upset. I was a huge fan and when I spoke to a friend about how I was feeling, he said,
“You never met him, why be sad? He wouldn’t be sad if you had died.”
True, but then he’d never read any of my writing and I hadn’t been a colossal influence on his outlook on art and writing, but that’s by the by. As it happened, I had met Burroughs – very briefly – at a press junket for The Naked Lunch movie launch, I managed to exchange a few words with him before he was whisked off. The whole encounter was maybe fifteen seconds long.
David Bowie was different.
I never met him.
That was a conscious decision.
Back in the 80’s, when I worked for an arts based radio show, I came into contact with a lot of media people. I was sort of seeing someone who worked for the press department at EMI. He phoned me one day, incredibly excited that he was going to be working on the new David Bowie album “Never Let Me Down”. I was thrilled for him as he was also a huge fan.
With the music industry being so backslappy, and all about who you know – actually one of the reasons I left it – my friend offered me an interview with Bowie. Until he offered it, it had never crossed my mind that this would even be a possibility.
I hummed and haa’d and couldn’t really give an answer. My friend assumed that I would instantly go for it and scream and shout and be extraordinarily happy. I was happy about the offer but it was like being offered an interview with your own DNA.
How do talk to the very thing that made you?
The thing that helped to shape your outlook on life?
Since I was able to think with any kind of critical awareness, I have known I was ‘other’. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t feel part of the world. I was always ‘the weird one’ at school. Seriously, for as long as I can remember. Even when I was at infants school, I was aware that I didn’t fit in. I didn’t know why that was. I didn’t have any notion of sexuality or gender or any of those issues at the tender age of eight; back in the 70’s that sort of thing simply wasn’t talked about.
Except for that day that day that I came home from school and put ‘childrens hour’ on the TV – none of your CBBC channel back then! We got 4:30pm to 5:45. That was it. On this particular day, “Lift Off with Ayesha” was on; a sketch show featuring Ayesha Brough and a puppet Owl called “Ollie Beak”. They always had a musical guest and this day David Bowie was on playing “Starman”.
I had never heard anything like it. I had never seen anything like it and more importantly, I had never felt so completely normal in front of it. Here was someone who looked as ‘out there’ as I felt. Here was someone who understood exactly who I was and how it was to be comfortable with all of those bizarre contradictions of simply being that I felt.
I was in thrall. Instantly.
My Mum noticed and saw him as a threat. To what, I didn’t know, or understand, but her hatred of whatever it was he represented was a physical presence. She went through a similar thing with Brian Ferry and later with Sparks when she saw Russell Mael on Top of the Pops in hotpants.
But that glorious moment absolutely ingrained itself on me in the same way ‘imprinting’ works on baby birds. I would follow him, grow with him, be one of his ‘children’. It was difficult as there was pretty much a blanket ban in our house, imposed by my Mum on any mention of him.
Newspapers would have pages mysteriously missing; torn out. If you looked in the bin, though, you could find the articles all about Ziggy and the way Bowie was tearing up the ‘pop scene’ as it was then known. The one time I was caught reading one of the articles, the main objection seemed to revolve around David Bowie being evil because he’d thrown a hair dryer at someone in his dressing room. I couldn’t work out whether she was appalled by the act of violence or whether she was annoyed that her own hair dryer had recently broken and deplored the wanton destruction of something she had wanted.
I would slip across the road to Janice Ryder’s house and listen to the Ziggy Stardust album with her and several other friends. Mum didn’t like her very much and thought she was a bad influence on every child in the street. She was right, as it happens, but Janice had a Bowie album – two actually – so we didn’t care. We listened, absorbed, assimilated.
Janice would often be seen in platform shoes and sparkles in her hair. Mum would tut and say she looked a mess. She was older than us by maybe five years (how appropriate) and lived out her Ziggy fantasies at the youth club we didn’t have access to. It seemed wonderfully glamourous at the time, but with hindsight, fifty awkward teens in a draughty shed probably really wasn’t that exciting.
But Bowie remained persona non grata in our house and I would hide pictures of him in books to look at when I was on my own (no no, not like *that* remember I was still only eight!) Maybe it was a ‘forbidden fruits’ thing that cemented my need for more Bowie. Who can say?
When Christmas came around, so did the new Marshall Ward catalogue and apart from going through the toy section, dreaming of all the toys I could have, I strayed to the music section.
There were only five albums listed. Four of them were by David Bowie. I was shocked. Four? How could anyone possibly write that many songs? My naivety in these matters merely amplified my awe of the man. Four albums!
We went to visit my Grandma in Kent and my Uncle Dick was still living with her. I know he was hugely into the Rolling Stones and some of his singles were in the living room. Nestling among some of the more pop-y stuff (and along side Morecombe and Wise’s seminal “Boom Oooh Ya-ta-ta-tah”) were two David Bowie singles. Life on Mars and Changes. Life on Mars made me cry. I didn’t understand the words, but I understood the sweeping grandeur and passion and again, it spoke to me on a visceral level. That was also when I discovered the sublime track “Velvet Goldmine” that remains within my top five favourite Bowie tunes.
But, shit. “Turn and face the strange”. You bet your sweet ass I will David. You bet your sweet ass. Changes basically told me it was okay to be odd.
I still didn’t own any Bowie of own. That didn’t happen until around 1980 with “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” which lead to Mum saying “Well he would call it that. He is a super creep.” Time hadn’t diminished her hatred. Luckily, my brother, who was four years older than me, started earning money long before I could and he would buy Bowie albums. He’d listen to them once or twice and then get bored. I think he understood the popularity but didn’t really *get* the music. He could brag about having the albums, but didn’t exactly like them. I did. I would borrow them, tape them and wear the tapes out; hiding my indiscretion with a handy pair of headphones. Something that continues to this day. I’m much more comfortable with Bowie on Headphones. He’s mine, then, I suppose.
Mum didn’t like the albums in the house, but couldn’t stop my brother buying them with his own money. She could stop me having them though.
Then Punk happened.
My brother threw all of his music out and just bought punk singles*. Again, he’d play the once or twice and ignore them. I got my tape recorder out. Again, I don’t really think he understood the music; he was more a slave to fashion. I wasn’t keen on punk. At least not the first wave. I thought the Pistols were funny, the Clash just dreadful and the Damned came across as punk done by Hanna Barbera. I think – my personal opinion here – that although the Pistols had the greatest impact and cultural relevance, The Damned are the only ones of those three that made anything that doesn’t feel dated in the light of forty years passing. I once declared that Bowie was more influential than The Jam would ever be on the bus to school. Sadly, it was a bus full of Jam fans… ouch. But I’m digressing.
At school, I remember having a conversation with my English teacher, Mr Hill about Bowie. This was 1978 and Low was just making it’s mark. He said something about how brilliant it was and that it had “a million synthesisers on it”. I asked what a synthesiser was and he told me it was an electronic instrument that could make any noise. I asked what I thought was a perfectly reasonable question and said “If it can make any noise it wants, how do you know it’s not one synthesiser made to sound like a million?”
I enjoyed the sensation of exploding a teacher’s brain. We actually had a really good relationship after that. We did a lot of theatre stuff together and would often stay after school to make and paint sets, work out some of the more technical effects, etc. Mr Hill (or Barry after hours) and I had some amazing conversations and remains a huge inspiration.
By the time Lodger came out, my feeling of oddness, disassociation and alienation were reaching critical mass. Bowie was still alleviating those feelings to a degree and making me feel as if I wasn’t alone in the way that I felt, but hormones were kicking in, and puberty and sexuality.
I sank into my taped Bowie collection. With the arrival of puberty, a lot of Bowie’s output now seemed to take on a whole new aspect. I recognised that one of the reasons that I wholly identified with him and his music was the way his gender and sexuality seemed to be so fluid, so shifting and entirely his.
I’ve never been particularly comfortable with my own gender or sexuality. I don’t subscribe to the binary nature of humanity. Male/Female. Straight /gay. It means nothing to me. You are what you are. I am what I am. I am me.
Bowie taught me that this was okay.
Thank you David.
Thank you forever.
From that point, Bowie seemed to infect and influence everything in popular culture. Punk and post-punk, clearly owed him a debt, New Romanticism couldn’t have been more Bowie if had tried and movies, art, TV shows (Baal!) and theatre all received a healthy dose of David. He even hosted a radio show at one point. As I worked in theatre, music and art and radio, his presence in my life informed a lot of what I did.
He was my touchstone.
So anyway. Fast forward seven years and I’m having this thing with a guy from EMI. He offered me an interview with David Bowie. Half an hour in private with David Bowie.
The problem was that he was on such a high pedestal. I had built him such a high pedestal that I didn’t want him to become ‘just a bloke’. I didn’t want to make friends; be pally with him; have a laugh. The image, the construct I had of the character of David Bowie was too big, too perfect and too Godlike to be shattered by normal chatty contact.
A normal man.
Not a godlike alien messiah.
Too horrific to contemplate.
The world I had constructed about the idea of Bowie – rather than Jones – was too ingrained. I didn’t need that to be shattered by ‘normal’.
I turned the interview down.
My friend didn’t understand. We drifted apart.
Do I regret turning it down?
No, not at all.
In the light of his death?
It feels like everything I am has to now be re-evaluated. It feels like part of me has died. I am painfully aware of how ludicrous that sounds. I am absolutely aware of how ‘screaming fanboy’ that sounds, but his influence, not just on my life but on popular culture, the acceptance of other sexuality and gender forms and the landscape of the country cannot be wholly quantified.
Whoever you are; whatever you are has in some way been shaped by the effect that Bowie had on the country. Music and fashion (turn to the left) has changed because of the language he invented for them. Even if it’s something as trivial as being able to walk down the street with dyed hair. Or wearing something that doesn’t *quite* conform to your gender type. Bowie ushered the acceptance of those things in. We live in a better and more tolerant world because of the hits he took for Ziggy.
He opened so many doors. Those doors are still open, but they all lead to empty rooms now.
Breathe, boy, breathe.
After around twenty four hours of tears, the shock has begun to subside.
After forty eight hours it doesn’t seem quite so bleak.
What on earth is a post-Bowie world going to be like? How did that even happen?
Goodbye, my beautiful Blackstar.
You’re still there. On that pedestal I built for you.
Life goes on.
Life goes on.
Life. Goes. On.
Oh lordy. The stars look very different today . . .
ADDENDUM: After a conversation about not understanding my visceral reaction to Bowie’s death from a good friend, I responded with this:
“It’s a very difficult thing to quantify. I’m usually the first to smirk at such things – like when boy bands break up and there is a need for a “Take That Suicide Hotline” to be set up. Fandom and celebrity are usually things that leave me cold. Perhaps the impact, here anyway, is because when I was growing up, the only gay/queer role models I had – role models that I utterly shunned – were Mr Humphries and Larry Grayson. I hated that thought that one day I’d somehow end up mincing around shouting “shut that door” or “I’m free”. That was really all I had to base my future on. Bowie gave me a viable alternative and showed me that gay/queer wasn’t a question of how limp your wrist was.
Perhaps you don’t feel the same way because that aspect of gender fluidity and sexuality was never an issue for you, or at least not as important. I don’t know. It may have been. But in a heteronormative family, I needed something or someone to tell me I was okay as I was. I got that, and a sense of belonging from his presence. That said, I’ll be brutally honest and say that my reaction to his death is a complete surprise to me. Partly, I suppose because it had never occurred to me that Bowie could die! And of course, Bowie never will. David Jones lies at rest, but Bowie ? he’s going nowhere!
*I say ‘only’. Once when borrowing his copy of The Jam’s “Setting Sons”, a copy of Abba’s ‘Does Your Mother Know?” fell out of the sleeve. He’s fooling no one!