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Notes from the writer/LibDem parliamentary candidate for Somerton & Frome

Ashes to Ashes

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On the first anniversary of Bowie's death yesterday, I thought I'd post this piece
I wrote soon afterwards on Facebook; it was longlisted for the Fish Short Memoir 
Prize. As it's gone down quite well, I thought I'd use it to re-launch my blog: 
Ashes to Ashes  

Dead things come in threes. Monday, David Bowie; Thursday Alan Rickman, then on 
the Friday morning… As usual, 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 put the dog back in the house, found a 
suitable box and put the cat in it, and then 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 on hearing of 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 remember Bowie doing the 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 could be a bit 
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 comic 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 Dark Side of 
the Moon by Pink Floyd at the same time. We shared a bedroom and had one of those 
record players like a Dansette though I don’t think it was a proper one. 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 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 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, channelling Hamlet via Major Tom as he sat up in a crane wearing 
an ermine cape and holdinga 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!, 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 Britian. 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 clubs was called 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

Written by markblackburn

January 11, 2017 at 4:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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