I — Busting Up My Brains For The Words
It was the re-release of the 1969 album, now with a Ziggy-era cover photo and an actual name: Space Oddity. Bought second-hand, probably from Bentleigh Sewing and Records. Full of strange folky songs delivered with theatrical flourish. A poet’s voice surely, writhing with angst and intensity, a fantasy connection for an isolated young man writing tortured poetry in the bed-sit attached to his parent’s house. The characters were exotic and seductively ‘other’. Major Tom, lost in space, Hermione and Janine, the wild-eyed boy from Freecloud, the elderly shop-lifter crying “God knows I’m good”. I sang to myself, to no-one.
You could spend the morning walking with me quite amazed
As I’m Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.
Someone to walk with, to appreciate a poet’s soul. Someone to claim us, someone to follow*.
Those eyes. Mismatched. Riveting. And the bad teeth.
II — Somewhat Slightly Dazed
“It’s very silly, I actually feel like crying.”
Ms Connection offered a consoling hug.
What is that about? Why should news of the death of a rock star move me so? Certainly there was an element of shock. No longer an avid consumer of music news, I had no idea that David Bowie had been diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago. And the timing of a new album, released on his sixty-ninth birthday, the day before his death. Something premeditated and slightly upsetting there. The next day the new, almost posthumous release tops the charts world-wide. Not much consolation to his family, but something for fans to hang on to.
I want to explore this sense of loss, understand it better. I’ve felt less upset when Aunts and Uncles have died. But then, few of them have been in my life consistently over forty years.
But first a pause to remove the 1969 self-titled debut from the stereo. Full of sixties music hall ditties and unconvincing story songs, I cannot abide it’s twee juvenilia just now.
Before the forgettable first album, Bowie had released three singles on the Pye label. One of them, “Can’t help thinking about me” is a great slice of 1966 pop; bubbling bassline, insistent one-line chorus.
I’ve got a long way to go
I hope I make it on my own
I can’t help thinking about me
I can’t help thinking about me
That’s what happens when someone dies; we think about ourselves. What they meant to us, how their lives intersected with ours. A cascade of images appears on the stuttering screen of our mind’s eye; memories, feelings, vignettes from the past.
III — Ready To Shape The Scheme Of Things
It comes together on Hunky Dory (1971). Mostly comes together.
Cheeky pop-smarts “Oh! You pretty things”
Prophetic “Life on Mars?”
Attitude “Queen Bitch”
Spiteful observation “Andy Warhol”
And “Kooks”. Pretty, unpretentious, revealing. A tiny piece of transparency in the multi-hued stained-glass window. Song to a newborn. I liked “Kooks”, though I’d never have let on.
Bowie wrote the song for his son Duncan, the same person who announced his father’s death almost forty-five years later.
IV — Make Way For The Homo Superior
When I bought the LP-sized coffee-table book Bowie: An Illustrated Record, I felt slightly embarrassed. A picture book about a pop star? Bit old for that, aren’t you? Well, I was twenty-seven and part drama student, part psychology major, so inner conflict was a staple of the daily diet. And Bowie was such a lookable pop star. The hair, the dresses (and other costumes), eventually the orthodontic work, the film appearances (David in a loin cloth!), the ambiguous sexuality, the restless changing musical persona. What’s not to pore over? Anyway, Charles Shaar Murray was co-author, so there.
The visual element is central to Bowie mythology. ‘Chameleon’ is bandied around, but of course that is nonsense. The lizard aims to blend in so as not to be noticed; Bowie’s goal was the exact opposite. Watching the Ziggy Stardust film is as much fun for the costumes, the strutting, and the interplay with Mick Ronson as for the music.
In first year Drama we studied sociologist Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the central tenet of which explores how we alter our own appearance and manner when we encounter others as a way of influencing their impressions and thus their responses to us. Goffman earned a university doctorate for this thesis; Bowie earned one on the stages of the world.
In third year Psychology we learned the concept of defences, the attitudes and behaviours we all employ in an effort to remain safe. The idea of costumes (or personas) as masks, obscuring more than they reveal, is certainly applicable. Perhaps in the field of popular culture there has never been a more skilful practitioner.
V — Could It Be The Best, Could It Be?
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is one of those classic albums I have avoided writing about. Though it had no particular moment of impact in my life, the album helped me get rock music. Perhaps that’s why I have so many copies of it. Kind of acknowledgment via shelf space.
Oddly, since I sold the LP after purchasing the CD-in-a-box-with-bonus-tracks-and-a-booklet-that-instantly-fell-apart (EMI, 1990), I’ve not owned a vinyl copy. Yet in the last ‘Top 100’ list I compiled, it was comfortably in the top ten. Probably won’t be able to get one for love nor money now.
VI — Don’t Want To Be A Richer Man
Money. Mr Bowie was really skilled at making it. Floated Bowie Bonds on the Stock Exchange. Made a financial art form out of re-issuing his catalogue. We bought ‘em. Over and over again. Fashion? Passion? Exploitation?
No more free steps to heaven
It’s no game **
But it was. A game we all played.
VII — The Best Selling Show
We arrived at the Waverley Park football ground mid-afternoon and began circumnavigating the external perimeter looking for Ray. “He should be near one of the entry gates,” Ali said, “I mean, he arrived last night.”
We focussed our attention on the steel-grilled portals, still resolutely closed four hours before the advertised beginning of the concert. Though no-one believed the gig would start at seven. I mean, it isn’t dark until nine o’clock and you are surely not going to begin a tour called “Serious Moonlight” until twilight, at the earliest.
Ali pointed to a large mound of blankets directly in front of a gate. “There he is.”
We plonked down next to Ray and offered the big man some refreshments. “How was the night, Ray?”
“And the morning?”
Although Ray really loved Bowie, his loyalty was being tested by this marathon of waiting. And what, you ask, was all this camping out in aid of? Surely tickets had been purchased months previously?
Indeed they had. But this was an unusual venue. The first time (I think) an Aussie Rules football ground had been re-functioned as a concert venue. No big deal, you reply. Footy fields often double as rock stadia. But mate, it’s bigger here. The grassed area at Waverley was the equivalent of four soccer pitches laid side-by-side and the stands held up to 75,000 people. For Bowie’s concert a stage had been constructed against one boundary, facing out across the turf to the stands beyond. A few thousand allocated seats occupied a wedge of the field while the peasants fought it out for the best spots in the distant grandstands. And that is why Ray arrived twenty hours early. Because the grandstand seats were not allocated and when the gates opened there would be one almighty rush for the boundary-line positions. It was a cunning plan. Ray held the fort during the long wait, and Ali and I, somewhat fleeter of foot than our companion, would do the rushing. An excellent division of labour, at least as far as I was concerned.
And it worked. Gates squealed open, tickets were checked, Ali and I bounded through the portal, along a concrete tunnel, then down the stairs to the bench ringing the boundary line. Pole positions!
Except it did not really look like that. A twenty metre moat of grass separated us from the rear row of exclusive ground-level seats while the enormous stage was a looming black presence seemingly miles away. “They’ve got a big TV screen over the stage,” said Ray hopefully.
VIII — You’re Not Alone
We watched them on TV, those rock stars. We read about them in magazines and occasionally (for the most famous or infamous) in the newspapers. Breathlessly extracting a new album from the carrier bag, we’d sink down in front of the stereo and devour the cover as avidly as the music.
Back in the day we listened on radio too. Sometimes there would be a special feature or an interview granting closer access… or the illusion thereof.
Some artists belonged to a specific era or time, often remembered with vague embarrassment. Bay City Rollers, anyone? Haysi Fantayzee? Others, bona fide artists, transcended fashion and fad. In Bowie’s case, his capacity for reinvention refreshed his relevance for decades.
And what decades. The Boomers are the first pop culture generation. Pop and rock were born and proliferated across a rapidly shrinking world; we could access our music in a variety of formats and feed from an endless fountain of media-driven information. On-demand voyeurism is easier in the internet age, but mainly the speed of access has changed.
So rock stars became cultural icons, infusing our lives with their music and images. Their journeys paralleled ours, though at an unreachable distance. But when someone dies, someone whose art has occupied you, touched you, outraged you, delighted you, it is not just the loss of that artist. It is, unavoidably, breathtakingly, a shirt-front reminder of our own mortality. Bowie is dead. I will be dead one day too. Even you, friend from another era, will eventually reach a time when the magazine pin-ups of your youth, the boxed sets of your middle age, the passions popular and the obsessions singular, will be unarguably in the past because their creators have passed.
IX — I, I Will Be King
My friend Steven posed the question, “Who was the most important solo artist of the seventies?”
Naturally considerable quantities of alcohol were consumed in the subsequent discussion, a conversation that eventually brought us to a rare agreement: for pop innovation, consistency of output, a slew of seminal (or at least highly regarded) albums, sheer entertainment value, and finally but importantly, for filling the dubious chalice of commercial success to overflowing, the answer had to be David Bowie.
What is funny is that Steven does not even like Bowie’s music.
X — You- Are Not Evicting Time
The first time I heard Station to Station I fell in love with it. Fell as profoundly as an abandoned alien to earth, as a lost and lonely young adult grieving Golden Years that have never come. I can still conjure the twist in the stomach, the catch in the chest, the undeniable sob of “Stay”.
Stay – that’s what I meant to say or do something
But what I never say is
Stay this time
I really meant to so bad this time
‘Cause you can never really tell
Wants something wants something you want too
But what did I want back then? An ending to that visceral yearning, a fulfilment that could only be imagined in an ‘other’, a blurry fantasy of feminine deliverance. But I never said or did anything. So nothing changed.
What do I want? What is important?
The second question is easier these days. The boy. His mum. The people who share their suffering with me. Finding time and space to write. But wanting? That’s still tricky.
XI — Waiting For The Gift Of Sound And Vision
Still at the Station.
I heard some krautrock influences, could make the jump from Neu! and even a bit of Can, but funkier. Tried to share with others, but no-one I knew was into the German scene of the mid-70s. “It’s great!” I’d cry to anyone.
In 1997 I watched Bowie interviewed on German television. Sitting in the Wohnzimmer in Langentalstrasse, Mainz, I delighted in the way this charming, elegant man respectfully told the watching millions about their own musical riches of two decades past.
The huge romantic ballads of Station to Station don’t sit quite so comfortably nowadays. Bowie always balanced precariously on the edge of overblown theatricality and both the WW*** songs teeter dangerously. But I can forgive him his excesses just as I can (try to) forgive my own twenty-something posturing.
XII — I Never Wave Bye-Bye
A little while back a young friend was in need of an idea for a piece of short fiction demanded by a third year English subject. I offered him an idea.
A teenager dies, whether by accident or design is unclear. His parents, confused, distracted distraught, crawl around his room in search of answers, clues, impossible relief. There is little except his records. Each is held, caressed, wept over.
Then, in the post, a new record arrives. It had been ordered who-knows how long previously by the son. What is embodied in this package? What story does it carry?
On 9th January I ordered the new David Bowie album, Blackstar. He died the next day.
The record will arrive in a few weeks.
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the dust descend;
Dust into dust, and under dust to lie,
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer and —sans end.^
* From “Big Brother”, Diamond Dogs, 1974
** From “It’s no game (Part 1)”, Scary Monsters, 1980
*** “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” from Station to Station, 1976
^ Quatrain XXIII from Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Fitzgerald)
All the section titles are Bowie lyrics