Nearly everyone my generation has their own Bowie ‘story’, or history – his work touched or touches so many of us. (Including two of my own very favourite allies – one brother, one son…) As for me, when I was a teenager, I appreciated Bowie’s androgyny. Never a girlie girl by any stretch, it helped me see people could be however they wished and felt comfortable. My friend says Bowie encouraged everyone, by his example, to ‘be themselves’. I think that’s right – though I probably didn’t think about it like that at the time.
I do remember my brother had a poster up on his bedroom wall of Bowie dressed as Ziggy Stardust in a wool cat suit. This was a long way from anything we saw around us in our own lives. It was… intriguing. Bowie could not have been a much more different Englishman from our own father, for instance, whom we rarely if ever saw out of a shirt and tie. But you didn’t need to want to wear a skin-tight cat suit or slink across a stage in platform heels and extreme eye shadow. You needed to know it was okay to be however you were.
‘Cause if you stay with us, you’re gonna be pretty Kookie too…’
From ‘Life on Mars’ – where ‘the lawman’ is ‘beating up the wrong guy’ – to ‘Kooks‘ – which I later loved singing along with to my kids – to ‘Golden Years’ – ‘Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere…’ – Bowie’s music often touched on alienation. People sometimes referred to him as a chameleon or master of masks. That wasn’t how I saw his work. For me, it all fitted together like a well-calibrated whole. And the unifying factor was this willingness to go out on a limb.
‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’, from Low, for instance, offers a powerful metaphor for internal strife. We can – do – spend whole lifetimes ‘always crashing in the same car’. We each have ‘cars’ we crash in… For me, that ‘car’ is a metaphor that really works. (‘I was going round and round’ doesn’t just conjure vinyl on a turntable.) And Bowie’s work is full of these. Stories of struggle and strife and scapegoating… songs that go some way towards reversing it. And make it ALL RIGHT.
I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years
Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years
Meanwhile, of course, Bowie himself was quietly an artist. He was not the personas he created. But he exercised his freedom to work in his own way with his own materials. The worlds he created were extraordinary. The inner sleeves – envelopes. And Black Star, when it arrived, was no exception. Here he was again, in his own inimitable way, sharing the vulnerability of becoming an older person, facing loss and grief and death.
‘How long, how long…?’
‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ was the first song I thought of that January morning I rose to news of his death. ‘Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth…’. Whenever all my life I’ve listened to that song, and he gets to the part when he opens all the stops and sings ‘Oh no, love, you’re not alone’ – as a young person and, now, quite an old one – I feel ‘not alone’.
And that’s, I think, what Bowie always meant to me, with his human voice (nothing synthetic or extraterrestrial about it, to me). However alien at times any of us may feel, we are ‘not alone’. What he shared was human and lonely – and then perhaps at times, inspiringly, less lonely. (He found his friends and companions and collaborators, and this suggested to me I too might find mine…)
How long, how long, must I regret?
I never found my people yet;
wrote poet Ruth Pitter in her magical poem ‘The Lost Tribe’. Maybe David Bowie made it that bit safer to be looking?