David Bowie: Loving the Alien

Richard Pearmain on the loss of David Bowie.

“Where the fuck did Monday go?” A line from a song on an album that had come out only three days before. That particular Monday went floating in a most peculiar way.

I first saw the news on the platform at Hackney Downs station, idly scrolling through Facebook on my phone whilst waiting for a train in to work, noticing an unusual number of Bowie related posts, and then I saw a link to the story on BBC News. You get that immediate sense of incomprehension (“but he’s only just released a new album! I’d just been to a Bowie birthday club night in Brixton!”), and then a sense of – well, I don’t know really. Why was I feeling so upset? I got a text from a friend, who I’d been to that club night with, who was in tears, and asking the same question. We didn’t know David Bowie personally, we’d never met him, but it felt almost like a death in the family.

On Twitter, I saw lots of posts from people (journos, other musicians, fans) with the same sense of shock. There were reports of people gathering to pay their respects at the Bowie mural by the Morleys department store in Brixton (as they were elsewhere, from Beckenham to Berlin), and notices of an impromptu street party planned for later that evening outside the Ritzy cinema, to celebrate the man and his music. And being there, on a cold January evening, there was still a sense of unreality – there was cheering and singing along to the assorted people who brought along guitars and a head full of Ziggy Stardust, there were interviews by inquisitive TV crews, but no one really knew quite what was going on. Once the sound system started up, everything coalesced in the choruses of Starman and Life On Mars?, but there was still the feeling of “is this really happening?” In the warmth of the Effra Social, where I’d been only three nights before, any lingering tears (largely) gave way to dancing as the DJ played all the old classics (and even Little Wonder – well, it is Brixton).

I remember the general reaction to Freddie Mercury’s death, but this seemed somehow more immense – it’s apparent suddenness, how deeply and widely it has been felt. I’m not going to try and explain the reasons for this outpouring of emotion (other people have attempted to articulate it much better than I possibly could elsewhere), because I can’t – David Bowie meant (and still means) different things to different people (again, articulated elsewhere). If anything, this is just going to be me offering my own small snapshot of how I discovered him and his music.

Like most people of a certain age, my first real exposure to pop music was through Top Of The Pops on TV, and in my case it was at a time when New Wave bands like The Jam, Blondie and Adam & The Ants made a regular appearance – many of whom, I would later learn, were influenced by Bowie in one way or another (indeed, Blondie had released a live cover of Heroes, featuring Robert Fripp, on the Atomic 12”, whilst the Dandy Highwayman clearly doffs his cap to the Pierrot costume, the Kabuki outfits and the other contents of Bowie’s wardrobe). The Ashes To Ashes video was my earliest experience of the man himself and, as the 80s progressed, I remember Let’s Dance and the saucy China Girl, whilst the Dancing In The Street film with Mick Jagger is, in my mind, forever associated with the send up by Les Dennis and Dustin Gee (in the same way that I can’t hear Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me without thinking of Phoenix Nights).

My first foray into the music was as a student, with the Changesbowie compilation (bought, if I remember rightly, in Parrott Records in Cambridge). Suddenly a lot of background noise made sense – oh, so these songs, that seemed to have been on the radio forever, are by David Bowie too! But I was astounded by Heroes – even more so when I heard the full length version on a second hand LP I subsequently bought (Selectadisc, Nottingham). I don’t know why that particular song resonated with me (and, clearly, a lot of other people too). Maybe it’s my innate sense of doomed romanticism. Or something (as a side note, I was in Berlin about 18 months ago for the David Bowie is exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, and I noticed on a surviving segment of Die Mauer, a little further down Niederkirchnerstrasse and a stone’s throw from the famous Hansa Studios, where Heroes was recorded, a faded graffito that read “Astrid, maybe some day we will be together”). Then there were more second hand LPs (Ziggy Stardust from a record fair in Cambridge, Let’s Dance and Tonight and, possibly, Changestwobowie from Selectadisc), then the reissues on CD, the bonus tracks, the books and the films. Strange fascination fascinating me.

I’d already been getting into Roxy Music when I first started listening to Bowie, and I was also discovering the Velvet Underground as well – the high art and low culture combination clearly appealed to me. But whereas Bryan Ferry’s influences were more visual and pop cultured, Bowie’s were also more cerebral and literate (I did eventually end up reading The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran largely because he was name-checked in Width Of A Circle). The darker, more obtuse material intrigued me, the sort of things no one else was really singing about in 1970/71 (look up The Bewlay Brothers and All The Madmen). As for the pre-Space Oddity material – hey, if you’ve got kids, who needs The Wheels On The Bus when you’ve got The Laughing Gnome?

I only really began to experience Bowie in real time, so to speak, with Black Tie White Noise, his first album after a period of Tin Machinery (the Leftfield remix of Jump They Say use to get a few airings at student nights I DJed at). 1.Outside always reminds me (as music always should) of working in Nottingham and a girl I really liked, whilst Hours… takes me back to a flat in Bethnal Green. Moving to Brixton seemed to add an extra layer, though I hasten to add that I didn’t move to Brixton purely because of David Bowie. That would be weird (although, later on, I did go see a flat on Stansfield Road, a few doors down from the former Jones residence).

I got to see David Bowie live once, the second of the two nights at Wembley Arena on the Reality tour. It was a surreal experience, not least because I was actually going to see David Bowie (admittedly, from right at the back of the venue). I knew pretty much what to expect, as the Bowie website had been posting setlists from the previous shows, but still – to hear those songs! There was a false start, I remember, to She’ll Drive The Big Car, and Bowie promising “milk and cookies” to the audience if they behaved themselves. And there was bonus Ziggy, too – Changes and All The Young Dudes may have gone AWOL that night, but we got Jean Genie, Suffragette City and, for the first time on the tour, Starman.

Then there was the retirement. But that was okay, he’d more than earned it, and we still had all the records to listen to and enjoy. And then, on 7th January 2013, there was the tweet I saw from Alex Petridis of the Guardian asking whether anyone else had heard a rumour from the BBC about a new Bowie single. Clearly no one had – it (the rumour) must be bollocks then, he concluded. How wrong can you be.

Not only a single, the (with hindsight, impossibly) melancholy Where Are We Now?, but a whole album, The Next Day. How can someone, in this digital day and age, let alone someone of his stature, write and record an album in total secrecy? Well, he did it. He’d re-written the rules of engagement. Who needs promotion these days, eh? And with the subsequent reclusiveness, he created an even greater air of mystique than he had already, like he’d become omnipresent (I remember seeing Holy Holy, the Bowie supergroup featuring Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti, last summer and Visconti telling the audience, perhaps only half jokingly, “remember, David Bowie is watching you!”).

Then there was Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), Bowie’s jazz odyssey (to borrow a Spinal Tap-ism). Well, I liked his new direction.

Then there was Blackstar.

Even after writing this, I still don’t really know why I/we felt (and still feel) so affected by it all. And it seemed so strange, so soon after Lemmy and followed so soon by Alan Rickman (and for the same reason, too). Maybe it’s because he seemed to have been around forever, and it seemed like he’d go on forever, even if he never released another record. Maybe it’s because his passing reminds us that, as we grow older, those nearest and dearest to us are also passing on, as we must, ultimately, do so ourselves. Knowledge comes with death’s release.

But hey – David Bowie was the Starman who was beamed into our living rooms in the early 70s, who dabbled with diabolism, Brian Eno and a Glass Spider. He was an amusing raconteur, who could be pictured reading a copy of Viz (not something you could imagine Bryan Ferry doing, though who knows – maybe the Tuxedoed One has a quiet chuckle at the adventures of the Pathetic Sharks every now and again), or appearing on the Big Breakfast or Zoolander. He was other worldly, yet proved to be as human and as vulnerable as the rest of us. And he made great music that let all the children boogie.

Richard Pearmain

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