So long, Ziggy.
|'He's a little fat man with a pug-nosed face...'|
(Image copyright: Radio X)
It’s like when John Lennon died. The Beatles changed music forever in the 1960s and David Bowie changed it forever in the 1970s. On a positive note, even today he’s still changing it and will continue changing it more than 100 years from now.
What a contradiction he was. Singularly outside the mainstream, avant garde and restlessly swinging between and fusing musical genres, but at the same time someone who’s music touched nearly everyone. Looking at social media today, it seems everybody has a favourite Bowie song. The future soul of ‘Young Americans’, the industrial rock of ‘Station to Station’, the operatic plea for hope that’s ‘Under Pressure,’ the sunny pop of ‘China Girl’… there’s something for everyone.
When I saw the news this morning, I had a chill down my spine; it’s that Lennon comparison again. Even though I only knew The Beatles in 1980 from the films on Christmas television, when Lennon died you still felt something important and life affirming had gone from the world. One look at the glum faces of my teachers and the subdued atmosphere throughout the school that day told me that. That’s because, like the Fab Four, Mr Jones really did change the world.
A lot of people are going to talk about his influence on music, fashion, gender politics and popular culture in general, but the great gift of his music was that it brought so many different types of people together. My ex-wife’s dad was classically trained musician who played First Horn for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but he was potty about Bowie. When he was on Desert Island Discs with some other members of the LPO, he was the only one who chose a rock track, and that was ‘Space Oddity’. Later on, he came with us to see The Man on the Sound and Vision tour in 1990. Like on the Glass Spider and Serious Moonlight tours in 1987 and 1983, the audience was a cross section of mums and dads, old hippies, goths, punks, teenagers and young professionals, together with at least one member of the LPO. I can’t think of many musicians that almost everyone likes and Bowie was one of them.
I remember seeing the Top of the Tops performance of ‘Star Man’ where David famously put his arm around Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson. I was really young at the time and just thought brightly coloured, toothy pop stars behaved like that and that Bowie seemed like a cheerful chap. When I was older, I discovered that this seismic moment of gender challenge was a pivotal moment for people like Steve Strange, Siouxsie Sioux and Adam Ant, who went onto have their own, not inconsiderable impact on popular culture. That was the thing about Bowie: he somehow made all the way-out stuff he did reassuring, acceptable and often funny (have you seen the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ video?), in a very English way. If you’re going to change the world, that’s the way to do it.
Because of that, and because he was around so long, it goes without saying – but I’m going to say it anyway, because it is important – that he was part of the soundtrack to significant moments in so many people’s lives. For instance, on the Serious Moonlight tour, I remember driving down to Milton Keynes Bowl with friends Ian Westbrook, Debra Redfern and another girl whose name now escapes me. We wanted to get there early, so left Lowestoft around 5 in the morning. When we got there it was just getting light and discovered that the gates didn’t open until around noon, by which time we were all lobster red. It was my first open air, festival-scale show and Bowie was theatrical and fantastic. We were so exhausted by the early start, heat and great atmosphere that on the way back Ian pulled over into a lay-by and we all collapsed into sleep.
After that, I found Glass Spider a let-down, but what I do remember is support act Big Country breaking into a cover of ‘Rebel Rebel’, which I thought was the highlight of the gig. When the Tin Machine gigs were announced, after a tipsy night in the pub I turned up to queue for tickets outside the Town and Country Club (now the Forum). Emboldened by alcohol, I thought a t-shirt and shorts would suffice as overnight wear in the summer, but around 2 in the morning I found out how bloody wrong I was. The whole thing developed into a kind of mini Glastonbury, with people in the queue lighting campfires, playing Bowie tapes and someone with an acoustic guitar playing his songs. Because of the way concert tickets are now sold, you couldn’t have that experience any more, which is partly why the memory of it’s so special. I have to say that I wasn’t overly struck by the Tin Machine oeuvre, but seeing Bowie – or ‘Jones’, as he announced himself – in such a small venue was still a thrill, and I do cherish the memory of moshing to ‘Under the God’ only two or three rows from the man singing it.
One more memory that I think sums up how unique he was. Looking around the Bowie retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013, in the final room there was a selection of videos playing. One of them showed him and his band performing my favourite Bowie song ‘“Heroes”’ to, rather incongruously, what looked like an audience of uniformed police officers. With a shock of recognition, I realised that this was from the concert put on in New York for all the emergency services who helped in 19/11. As soon as you know that, ‘“Heroes”’ becomes a completely different song, but the lyrics still fit. Incredible.
These are inadequate words, but the very fact I’ve been moved to ramble at length on Bowie’s passing shows just how inspiring and remarkable he was.