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