This is the piece I wrote shortly after his death five years ago. It was longlisted for the Fish Short Memoir Prize.
Ashes to Ashes
Dead things come in threes. Monday, it had been David Bowie; Thursday Alan Rickman, then on the Friday morning…
Like I did every day, soon after 8am I put the dog on his lead and opened the front door; there at the top of the steps to the front gate was a dead cat. I knew it was dead the moment I saw it. I nudged the dog back in the house, found a suitable box and placed the cat in it, and then put the box in the safety of the garage while we sorted out what to do next.
I’d had David Bowie in my head all that week. I was pole-axed by his death, and the whole day passed in a cotton-wool smudge of Bowie records, memories and introspection. The poor cat put me right back there, and made me think of the Bowie theme song to Cat People. The film may not have been an Oscar contender, but the song was good, written with disco legend Giorgio Moroder. Cat People. A movie full of cats and dead people. People and dead cats.
I discovered Bowie when I was fourteen. As a young teenager I was rather pompous (not for the last time, I hear you say), and had decided pop music was something that I should grow out of. I was dismissive of my younger brother’s interest, and was attempting to convince myself that now I preferred classical music. All that changed the first time I heard that riff pumping out of the car radio on the way to school. Der-der-der duh-duh-duh, der-der-der duh-duh-duh. The Jean Genie, let yourself go! And I did.
From that moment on, I was a Bowie Freak. That’s what we called ourselves, not Bowie fans. We were freaks, and proud of it. “Are you a Bowie freak?” “Yeah, are you?” “Yeah.” That was it. Friends for life. As the comedian Bob Mortimer’s been saying for a while, if you want to know if it’s worth continuing a conversation with someone at a party, just ask them if they like Bowie. If they don’t, walk away.
I was too young to have seen Ziggy Stardust live, but I set about buying the back catalogue (even the re-released ‘Images 1966-67’ with Antony Newley-esque songs like the excruciating Laughing Gnome) and immersing myself in everything Bowie. I tried to look like him too, as far as school rules permitted. We weren’t allowed to dye our hair, but I washed it in henna every day, which gave it a vague red tinge you could just about spot in bright sunlight. I went for the feather cut, growing it as long at the back as I could get away with. I tried to make the top and front stick up, but I never achieved David’s spiky heights. I wore black platform shoes under my voluminous grey flannel flares. I was so skinny I nearly blew over in the wind at the best of times; with my four inch heels I was a safety hazard. We had to wear a white shirt and tie, but my shirts had massive collars and my ties were all pinks, purples and oranges, tied in a double knot.
One school holidays, I bought the single Rebel Rebel. It was to feature on Diamond Dogs, but the album hadn’t come out yet. My brother bought Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at the same time. We shared a bedroom and had a cheapo copy Dansette record player. A big red case with the amplifier in the bottom; it opened up to reveal the record deck and the top divided into two loudspeakers. One turntable, two new records – it was war. I was the bigger, older brother so I won, and the Rebel riff rang out from the feeble speakers – “You’re not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”.
But I had discovered the person I wanted to be. If not myself, Bowie wasn’t a bad option. It came at a handy point in my life. I was starting to fancy girls, but I just didn’t have a clue what to do. Okay, that’s from a song by contemporaries The Sweet, not David Bowie. But as he was for a lot of adolescents growing up discovering their sexuality, Bowie was there for me. I got some stick from the other boys but it was nothing compared to the bullying I’d had at prep school, and if anything I took pride in doing the peacock strut and being noticed. It was all OK, because I was going to be a rock and roll star, and David the Starman, waiting in the sky, was watching over me. They even gave me the nickname ‘Mini Bowie’ for a while; that was just fine.
Like a lot of Bowie fans, I was devastated when David killed off Ziggy Stardust, or as he put it in the song lyrics, when the kids had killed the man and he had to break up the band. And my desolation turned to horror when Bowie re-emerged as a white soul boy in his Young Americans phase. How could he do that? We were the freaks, the androgynous glamrockers, white and pale? But it was Bowie. He still looked amazing, fusing Hamlet and Major Tom as he sat up in a crane wearing an ermine cape and holding a skull in one hand, the mike in the other. So we bought the record. And of course we grew to love it, and all night, we were the Young Americans, until it was time to be The Thin White Duke. Or the Man Who Fell to Earth – he could act, as well! We thought so anyway, although it’s true he didn’t have to stretch too far to play the alien.
Bowie left his bisexual androgyny behind him, but I discovered there was a market for effete young men like myself, who were just gay enough. Boys who liked to be in a girl’s bedroom while they put their make-up on.
I finally got to see my hero for real at Earls Court on the Station to Station tour; I’d already seen the pictures so I knew how to dress – black trousers and waistcoat, open necked white shirt, and a pack of Gitanes stuck in the waistcoat pocket, even though I didn’t smoke. I joined a thousand other disciples dressed in a similar way; others preferred to keep the spirit of Ziggy alive. We were united in our love though, and as the bright white lights and crashing rhythms announced the arrival of the Bowie train, we worshipped together at the platform. I’ve never known a rock concert of such intensity.
Then punk and new wave came along, and it all got a bit tricky. My take on it is that put simply, there were two main punk tribes. There were the ‘Oi’ punks and there were the rainbow punks. The former owed a lot to skinhead culture, played thrash music and used to fight a lot. The latter were the offspring of Bowie; lots of art school students and creative young people with more subtlety and originality. I came across some of the pace setters quite early on. The so-called Bromley Contingent including Siouxsie of the Banshees used to go to the disco at the Windsor Safari Park (now Legoland) for the same reason we did – it was one of the very few discos in the country which played music like Bowie and Roxy and not the mind-numbing pop of bands like Brotherhood of Man and Showaddywaddy. Save all your kisses for me. Or not.
So I joined the arty punk tribe, and saw all the bands like the Clash and the Pistols, but still put on the make-up sometimes for the likes of the Banshees or Ultravox! (the pre-Midge Ure version, I hasten to add), and kept up with Bowie, now into his Heroes period. The grainy black and white Berlin aesthetic became the perfect backdrop for the austerity of Thatcher’s Britain. I even started making this sort of music now as well as listening to it, in amazing bands like AWOL, 1936 and Disturbance Term. You haven’t heard of them? No, neither has anyone else. But strutting the stage singing my own songs was the most fun I’ve ever had.
The art school punks morphed into the New Romantics; one of the first ever club events was Bowie Nights at Gossips in Dean Street, we’d gone full circle. Steve Strange did Fade to Grey with Visage, David Bowie sang Ashes to Ashes and both videos looked the same. Steve Strange was even in both of them. The old romantic was just as cred as any of the new ones.
Then both Bowie and the new romantics became more mainstream, groups like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran becoming mere pop bands, and David Bowie making Let’s Dance, his most commercially successful single and album. I saw him again, performing this and some of his greatest hits on the Serious Moonlight Tour, when it landed at Milton Keynes. That doesn’t sound promising, but he managed to turn the bowl into a suburban Grand Meulnes that balmy July evening; infectious tinkling dance music and thousands of gold and silver moon-shaped balloons choking the dusty sunset.
We ended on a high, me and David, with that concert. After that, I gave up the music and got a proper job, and he did Tin Machine. Not heard it? You don’t want to. Of course he’s done the odd great song since then – like the Buddha of Suburbia and Absolute Beginners, both made for film and TV, and the recent Where Are We Now – but there hasn’t been another album to match Hunky Dory or Young Americans.
Nevertheless, my respect for him kept growing. He may have become mega rich and an A list celebrity, but he never ‘sold out’, as us punks used to say. He set his own moral standards, he kowtowed to no one. In 1983 he asked live in an interview with MTV why they featured hardly any black acts on their burgeoning music channel. Now savvy bloggers would say he used his white privilege to do so, but people listened. And Bowie was a man who turned down not only an OBE but a knighthood. And didn’t make a big deal of it.
No doubt, we’re in a poorer world without him, ashes to ashes. The man who organised his own cremation before anyone could start thinking about his funeral. No one else attended, not even his own family. Dust to dust.
As for the cat, there was no collar, but I took him to the vet, who found a microchip. He was a Bengal, named Blue, and his owner lived round the corner. You could tell Blue had been a character, a big powerful cat even in his box. I left him at the vets, and that was an end to it.
You wish and wish, and wish again
You’ve tried so hard to fly
You’ll never leave your body now
You’ve got to wait to die
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue
© David Bowie, Silly Boy Blue, 1967