I had something else planned for today, but then I heard the news (oh boy) and now I’m writing this instead. I know it will be just one in the thousands of stories, blogs and think pieces about Bowie but, like those thousands of other writers I suppose, I too feel like he meant something more to me, that we had a deeper connection. We’re both from Bromley for a start; a typical commuter town on the southeast edge of London that’s about as far from Mars as you can get. And yet Bromley, with it’s radical suburban-ness, provided the blank canvas on to which David and, later, Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol & Topper Headon of the Clash, were able to paint their dreams. Me too.
Bromley is only a twenty-minute train ride to London where dreams can actually come true and that’s where David used to head every weekend, a copy of Catcher In The Rye or something by Baudelaire sticking out of his pocket to let everyone know he was an artist. Even then, as a teenager, he understood the power of public relations. He used to hangout in Denmark Street, then the home of England’s Tin Pan Alley of songwriters, publishing companies and music shops; now a pile of rubble, cleared to make way for London’s Crossrail. I used to hang out there too; window shopping for guitars, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of my Brit Rock idols trying out an axe or loading into the legendary London Astoria before a show.
David went to Bromley Technical College, now Ravenswood Secondary School, where Peter Frampton’s dad was a teacher. I went to Darrick Wood School not far away. David was teased for having long hair. I was teased for having green hair. David inspired the Bromley Contingent of punks who, in turn, inspired me. I always knew of David Bowie of course, my dad had good music taste and would often sing the first few bars of The Man Who Sold The World on car trips, but he never owned a Bowie album. I didn’t truly discover him for myself until I was around sixteen years old. A girl called Jessica, I forget her surname, had taken a liking to me when I was drafted into her all girls school to play the male lead in their annual theatre production. I’d told her in passing I liked The Beatles and other “old” music. Once the play was over and I had returned to my own school she managed to track me down having won some tickets to see Bowie play a club gig for an audience of less than a thousand. She assumed I must like him because I liked The Beatles so gave one of those precious tickets to me.
The next time I saw Bowie, according to my recollection, was later that year at the short-lived Phoenix festival in Stratford-Upon-Avon, a weekend rock-fest in the mode of Reading or Glastonbury. He was promoting the Earthling album and decked out in his glorious Union Jack tail coat with Ziggy hair and a giant feather earring. I remember lying back in a field on a warm summer evening absolutely off my face on warm pints of foamy Carling and possibly a little stoned from somebody’s joint and listening to him playing The Man Who Sold The World live, knowing that this was a moment to be cherished.
I bought the Earthling album when I got back from the festival. A lot of people didn’t like it because they thought it represented Bowie following a trend rather than leading it by jumping on to the British Drum & Bass/Jungle bandwagon (which was better than other artists jumping on the Britpop bandwagon), but he was merely experimenting with an underground musical movement, something he’d done since discovering the Velvet Underground and Warhol’s avant garde Factory. People forget that, like every great artist, he stole things as much as he started things.
From that point I started collecting his earlier work, just the big albums; Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Let’s Dance and then in 1999 he brought out another album, Hours, probably his most placid to date but it was the first album I could anticipate as a Bowie fan, that I could look forward to and get excited about. My parents got it for me for Christmas that year and I remember going straight up to my bedroom and putting it on my little boombox and listening to it and absolutely falling in love with it. Hours doesn’t get a great deal of coverage or credit but it’s a very tender, gentle album that harks back to some of his earliest work with acoustic guitars and honking saxophones in the background.
Always at the cutting edge he played the NetAid benefit that year; the first live streamed concert although I saw it in the flesh at Wembley. And then he went quiet for a bit. I started work, but as a baptised Bowie fanatic I would talk about him to anyone that would listen including a gentleman called Gary Reed who was a senior promotions producer at Fox Kids when I was just an aspirant. He was a Bowie fan from way back and made me a bunch of tapes, which I’ve kept to this day, and which introduced me to all the albums that I’d missed including Young Americans, The Man Who Sold The World, Pin Ups and, of course, the classic Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger.
Then, in a flurry of activity, Bowie brought out two new albums in quick succession; Heathen in 2002 and Reality in 2003. He took the latter on tour and for the first time I got to see Bowie in a dedicated, full length stadium gig which is still, by far and away, the greatest gig I have ever seen in my life. At this point I’d been with my then-girlfriend for five years and had spent much of that time trying to convince her of Bowie’s brilliance but she just didn’t get it so I bought her a ticket and brought her to the show. I wouldn’t say she’s a Bowie fan now but I think she understood why I was so obsessed, having seen him live. The most glorious moment I recall from that night was when he sang Life On Mars, by this point Bowie had found his more rounded, operatic voice in addition to the reedy, Anthony Newley sound that is the basis for so many parodies. It just sounded immense in the room and I’m not ashamed to say I cried like child, much as I did yesterday around three in the afternoon when I heard the news. Strangely I was buying Blackstar at the time and spent most of last night listening to it. I’d put off listening to anything other than the two singles until I had the whole album. Listening to it now, even those two singles, knowing he was aware of his impending death you can’t help but hear more in lyrics that include:
- Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside / Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar) – Blackstar
- Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now / Look up here, man, I’m in danger / I’ve got nothing left to lose / I’m so high it makes my brain whirl / Dropped my cell phone down below – Lazarus
- If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see – Dollar Days
- I know something is very wrong / The pulse returns the prodigal sons / The blackout hearts, the flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes – I Can’t Give Everything Away
David Bowie was that rarest of celebrities who managed to preserve his mystique despite the fact that he lived a seemingly simple life in New York, having divested himself of his international property portfolio and other rock star accoutrements years ago. He’d learned later in life to separate the art from the artist, not having to live through everything himself, literally turning himself into an alien to deliver. He could just put it in the work, leave it there, lock it up in a record or a video and walk away from it. I think when we’re young, in our quest to “be real” and “authentic”, we feel compelled to live our art but in this age of social media, when apparently authenticity is the ultimate currency, even Instagrammers admit that most of what they post is posed and constructed and edited. Part of David Bowie’s genius was that he found the art in artifice. It’s hilarious when people talk about him being true to himself; when he came out with glam rock in 1972 it was reaction against the boring authenticity of hippies and heavy metalers banging on about their working class routes and the fact that they didn’t wash or have jobs. He put on makeup and invented a character that was way cooler than himself or any of his fans. He was an innovator, but the problem with innovators is that they piss people off because they don’t go with the flow, they don’t deliver on your expectations. Just like when Dylan went electric or Bowie went soul there was a backlash but when we look back on it now these were clearly the decisions of unparalleled creative risk takers and that’s why I wrote this post today, partly to pay tribute but also because this is a blog about creativity and without risk there is no creativity. As David Bowie himself said, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring”. If you’re creative, that’s all I ask, don’t be boring, there is enough of that in the world. Be bold, be brave, be different, be anything other than boring, it’s what David would have wanted.
RIP David and thank you. Sincerely,
A Bromley Boy