It has taken me a long time to start writing about Bowie. I wasn’t sure how to say what I wanted to say.
For most of the last two weeks, since his death on 10th January 2016, I have been listening to his music, and continually watching Youtube footage, and generally Googling images of him. That in itself is not unusual; I very often spend my morning train journey to work listening to one of his albums or another.
But since his death, the songs have taken on new meaning. I now listen to every note, every off-vowell, and every hitch of breath, with renewed ardour. I look for it all. Now that this sparkling commodity has run out, and there will be no more Bowie, his music has become all the more precious. Whilst in some sense, Bowie has become a non-renewable energy; so fortifying and affirmative to so many, and now sadly run out, he will never really run out. It is such a blessing of modern life, and the electronic age that we all hate, that generations to come, in fifty or a hundred years, will be able listen to those same off-vowels, and hitches of breath. Our great, great grand-children, long after we are gone, will discover Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane, and will laugh at the lines in Jene Genie, and choke at that final performance of Rock and Roll Suicide, when he announced that Ziggy would never perform live again.
Those songs, and recordings, and shaky video footage, and photographs can’t be extinguished. They live on, where mortal Bowie can’t, as a wealth of fortification for people who haven’t been born yet.
For me, Bowie’s message is; you’re okay. David Bowie says you’re okay. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what you wear, whether you dance like a square; you’re okay. “Hey Babe, your hair’s alright.” Even though your face is a mess. At those moments when you feel helpless, and like your life is out of control, and your body doesn’t look the way you feel it should, just remember that you’re okay. David Bowie knows what’s inside you, and knows you’re a good person.
As an artist, what I find remarkable about Bowie is that despite his persona being ostensibly superficial; constantly changing, all glitter and sequins, and smoke and mirrors, it was all him. Popstars nowadays are the public face of an army; in front of talented people behind the scenes who write the songs, and mechanically engineer the sound, and their voice, and promote them, and produce their outfits, find their clothes, get them dressed, style their hair, perfectly apply their make-up, and everything about them.
The classic image of a popstar sitting in a chair with people all around, producing a perfect appearance, is all too true.
However, everything you saw about Bowie was himself. He dyed his own hair bright ginger over the sink. He applied his own make-up, even those distinctive images of Ziggy, and Aladdin Sane, with lightning bolts, and glittering alien foreheads. He created every inch of those mystical, iconic characters, and the images which have become integral to our culture.
When you listen to one of Bowie’s records, every instrument is played by him. Read the credits on an album sleeve; vocals, guitar, piano, saxophone, harmonica. All him.
Bowie didn’t have a team of choreographers, and songwriters, and musicians (apart from Mick Ronson), and stylists, and hairdressers, and wardrobe assistants. It was just him.
For me, that is the mark of genius, and true talent. He was a star, with no help from anybody else. Just him.
The other thing about Bowie is that he wasn’t copying anybody. Uniquely in the music business, he didn’t follow in anybody’s footsteps. He didn’t tribute history; he made it. As Tracey Thorne says in her book Naked at the Albert Hall, Bowie invented whole new vowels, not content with those already available.
Many people, over the last two weeks, have commented on how personal this loss feels. On the morning it happened, I opened my eyes, reached for my phone, and the newsflash had just appeared. I immediately went in to tell my mother, and her reaction was exactly like I had told her about a family member. There was no moment when she thought I might be joking, or it could be a hoax. Just immediate grief.
David Bowie has always been in my family, as my parents were both enormous fans, and passed that love on to me. I grew up listening to his songs. When I was in my teens, we called our German Shepherd Ziggy.
Two years ago, I left home in the North at midnight, and travelled down to London with my Mother, on National Express overnight. We went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and stood in a queue of people for over two hours, all waiting to see the David Bowie Is… exhibition. The tickets had been sold out for six months, so we were risking getting tickets on speck, as a small number are released every morning for that day. As we approached the final stretch, with around five people between us and ticket desk, they brought down a barrier, and announced that tickets were sold out for that day. After approximately two minutes of being distraught, we signed up for an annual membership to the V & A, and walked straight in. The experience of seeing his outfits, and shoes, and hand-written lyrics was something I will never forget, and one of the most special experiences of my life.
Part of the exhibition was a screen showing the video for Heroes. I just stood, mesmerised, and watched it through around four times; watching his face come forward out of the dark background, and listening to his cracking, imperfect voice. When it cracks, I can hardly handle it. As Caitlin Moran says it perfectly, it’s like breaking ice.
My favourite part of the whole exhibition was a tiny scrap of tissue with his red lipstick blots on. It seemed so human, and at the same time so extravagant and glamorous. It was like looking at him.
The culmination of the exhibition was a circular room, with 180 degree screens, around 60 feet tall, screening his final performance of Rock and Roll Suicide at Hammersmith. I had never seen it before. I just stood there, with my mother, for around 40 minutes, watching it over and over. That performance is unlike anything I have ever seen. It’s unlike anything anybody has ever done. Charisma like that, and a voice which is so flawed and imperfect, but absolutely breath-taking, and when the corners of his mouth turn up in a smile, like he’s pleased with himself at his own lyrics. It’s magic. I came home from London, and watched that video on repeat, solidly, for two weeks. I was even watching it silently, when I was talking to a Client on the phone in work.
Since the news broke, I have looked to Caitlin Moran. As with all matters in life, I can always trust that she will perfectly articulate exactly what I want to say myself, but can’t.
In her Times piece, Caitlin opened;
“What a lucky planet we were to have had David Bowie. So lucky. Imagine how vast all of space and time is — how endless and empty, how black and cold. Imagine a tracking shot across the universe, nothing happening nearly everywhere, nearly all the time. And then, as it scrolls past our galaxy, you can hear, quiet at first, but getting louder as we close in, Rebel Rebel, coming from our Planet, from our Country, in our time, playing on tinny transistor radios, in a million bedrooms, as a whole generation, and the next, and the next, straighten their spines, and feel their pulses rise, and say; “This. This is how I feel. Or at least, this is how I feel now. Now I’ve heard this”
And that’s how I feel.