Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fantastic Voyage



If I was a person who was uninterested in David Bowie, and I am prepared to concede there could be the odd one or two of them out there, then I may be a little puzzled over the intensity of the reaction to the release of his final two albums, his death last January and its anniversary this week. But I am passionate about Bowie and I have been unashamedly emotional since the song Where Are We Now? appeared online out of the electric blue on his birthday in January 2013. That morning, John Humphrys broke the news that put an end to my anxiety that Bowie was at death’s door: throughout the previous few years, I had been boring my family rigid with my fears every time I checked his frozen and unyielding website. To find out that he was making music, that he was in the world, was a relief; oh, the irony.

David Bowie has been a constant in my life since I was ten years old. Not the legendary 1972 Starman Top of the Pops appearance for me, being July I was probably still out playing football when that was aired, Bowie first captured my attention in the autumn of that year listening to John I’m Only Dancing on Radio Luxembourg at a youth club. Two things stood out: the relationship confusion (“John, I’m only dancing/she turns me on/but I’m only dancing) and Mick Ronson’s stuttering guitar feedback at the song’s close. From there on in I was hooked: those seventies albums were my comforts in the misery of being a teenager. Bowie made it acceptable to be creative, different and even pretentious in a brutal time. I first picked up a guitar because of Bowie, he introduced me to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and he turned me onto books with his trilogy of Orwell-inspired songs on Diamond Dogs. Most of all, he made me look at the everyday differently (“It was cold and it rained and I felt like an actor”) and he made the world romantic (“I’ll kiss you in the rain”). It rained a lot in the seventies.

Locked away in the back bedroom of a south-east London council house, I listened to little else until punk came along; but even then I never neglected Bowie and I wrote about him in the fanzine I produced with my mates. Expelled from school in late 1977, I then had to travel some distance to attend Bowie’s alma mater in Bromley for the fag end of my secondary education. I scoured the year photographs in the corridor and there was the class of ’63: rows of boys with short back and sides and National Health specs all facing the camera lens. Except for one. There was Bowie. Unmistakeable: level gaze, blonde quiff, left profile. He watched over me like a guardian angel for the torrid six months I was there.

It was only those two dreadful albums in the late eighties that caused me to temporarily lapse my faith; but in the nineties, a decade overlooked in the current reappraising of his career, his voyage was back on course again. In 1993, he released two fantastic albums: Black Tie White Noise and the largely ambient The Buddha of Suburbia. I had recently learned to drive (always a late starter) and that year, thrilled with the novelty of car travel, I used to take pointless journeys out of London with these as my soundtrack as I drove around the Kent and Sussex countryside. And when my parents died in 1999 it was his album Hours (“I’ve danced with you too long” - anyone who has not heard Something in the Air really should) and, a few years later, Heathen (“how I wonder where you are”), that I think of fondly now as my bereavement counselling.

Then came the hiatus, so thrillingly ended with The Next Day, and then the stellar swansong. I was in Victoria in central London on the day Blackstar was released and – a sign of the times, this - I could not find a shop anywhere where I could get the album; I ended up buying it in a supermarket when I got off the train back in Sussex. All that weekend the house was filled with the sound of yet another Bowie step change: the driving jazz of Donny McCaslin’s band mixed with the tender balladeer of old. And then on the Monday morning, it was Nick Robinson who broke the news of Bowie’s death. I was making breakfast for the kids and involuntarily burst into tears. They had never seen me cry before and were stunned. So was I. Not that I don’t cry - I do - but I have always thought that it would be unsettling for young children to see a parent so upset. Very quickly people were sharing their grief, and what Bowie had meant to them, publicly on social media. The trolls were not far behind, generally following the ‘it’s-not about-you’ line. But they were wrong: it was about us and it still is. Yes, a man had died and his family were grieving but so were we. Those of us, like me, for whom Bowie was important, were feeling the loss acutely. I realised that morning, he had been in my life longer than my parents had.

How could this be when Bowie was essentially a remote figure? I did not know him; he was a huge rock star; I had never even seen him live. Having been to countless gigs, the latter may seem odd; but when I reached the age of gig-going I was a punk and on the 1978 Low/Heroes tour he played Earl’s Court, the sort of impersonally large venue that belonged to a less egalitarian age. I declined. Then there was a gap of five years before he played live again and I got tickets to see him on the Serious Moonlight stadium tour; but in the wake of Let’s Dance, he had become massive in the mainstream. When one of my friends said I would hate sharing Bowie with so many thousands of Johnny-come-latelies, I sold my tickets. And then it dawned on me: I could never share him with anyone else. He was the most important cross-cultural person of the last 45 years but he was my mentor, my personal tutor; he enriched my experience of culture – of music, literature, art and film - and I think that is why I mourn him selfishly, as if he were mine alone.

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