I didn’t really know David Bowie and I certainly didn’t know David Jones. I knew his music though. I knew his music before I knew what music was. He once sang that he had never done good things, he had never done bad things and he’d never done anything out of the blue. I think we all know he did a lot of each. I’m not going to try and tell the story of his life or work out exactly what kind of person he was: people have been trying since the sixties. I am just going to talk about a few songs that have been the soundtrack to my life. There are links to YouTube videos of each of the songs in the titles if you want to listen as you read.
“Will you stay in our Lovers’ Story?
If you stay you won’t be sorry
Because we believe in you”
It seems strange to start here. If I was making a playlist of Bowie songs to actually listen to “Kooks” would probably not make the cut, but this one isn’t my choice. Along with a few other songs, “Kooks” was there from the moment I came into the world. Songs my parents sung round the house, half to me, half to themselves. “Here Comes the Sun”, “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree”, “You Are My Sunshine” and – watch that man again – “Oh, You Pretty Things”. Snatches of these songs are imprinted in my mind. It’s sort of strange to actually hear them in full, because I know them better sung in voices other than the ones coming out of the speakers.
Though performed with more than a hint of camp “Kooks” is a sweet song sung from the point of a view of a parent introducing his new born child into what is now a family. For all his supposed alien otherness Bowie could still write songs that touched on the simplest, most universal emotions.
It was just something my parents sang. As far as I knew the song was written for me and about me. Maybe in a way it was.
“She will come to the show tonight…”
Growing up Bowie was kind of a constant. When I used to flick through my parent’s pile of LPs I noticed that they had two copies of his earlier albums then only one of the later ones. It was a strange reminder that they had existed not just before me but before meeting each other. My mum saw him live in 1969, he was – I am told – the support act to Humble Pie, a supergroup starring Steve Marriot of the Small Faces and future Bowie guitarist Peter Frampton. She saw him again in 1972, the long haired hippy was gone and the orange haired glam messiah stood in his place.
She took the picture above at the Brighton Dome on the 14th February 1972, 12 years before I was born. There must have been millions of photos taken of David Bowie but for semi-sentimental reasons I think this is my favourite. The mops of orange hair at the front of the stage, the lightning flashes against the drab theatre curtains, Bowie dramatically looking towards Mick Ronson dressed in clothes that more than forty years later look ridiculously provocative – or should that be proactively ridiculous? My Mum tells me that at the end the over excited audience ripped the seats up. I don’t know what song was playing when the photo taken, but of the Ziggy era songs the teenage rampage of “Hang on to Yourself” fits best. The super-charged Eddie Cochran rip off riff sounds as close to the sound of a bunch of teens ripping a seaside theatre apart as you’re likely to get.
“Life lies dumb on its heroes
Wear your wound with honour,
make someone proud”
Growing up we had copies of Bowie’s best ofs in the car which drummed his biggest hits into my head. Occasionally though, one of my parents would put on one of their old LPs. The one album my Dad puts on more than any other is probably Young Americans. After the white heat of the glam explosion reached a feverish crescendo with the paranoid, apocalyptic Diamond Dogs Bowie cooled down with an album which looked to Philadelphia and James Brown, to the latest trends in black American music. My parents would occasionally complain – usually while watching some cheap nostalgia TV show – that early seventies is often reduced in musical terms to spangly glam as purveyed by the likes of The Sweet whilst the immaculate soul of the period is ignored. One thing’s for sure, Young Americans certainly fits in a lot better alongside my Dad’s Earth Wind & Fire and Ohio Players LPs than it would with Gary Glitter and Mud.
On the day Bowie died my Dad said that now two of his three heroes were gone – the other two were George Best and Muhammad Ali. How two of the 20th century’s great sportsmen fit next to an androgynous rock star at first seems a bit of a mystery but a listen to Young Americans followed by a bit of Lets Dance clears it up. Though they are shot through with the unease that typified much of Bowie’s work they have a soul-boy style and swagger that he’d never lost since his days as a South London mod. These records are mod in the purest sense, the sound of smart suburban ears tuning into the hottest sounds from black America and repurposing it – curating culture into self-creation.
Oddly one of the tribute one of the best off the cuff tributes to David Bowie came from Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Who knows why a football journalist asked Wenger about Bowie’s death but his thoughtful answer, seemed to touch on something that linked Bowie, Best and Ali:
“I must say, the message he gave to my generation was very important because it was after the Second World War and it was basically – be strong enough to be yourself. That is a very strong message and very important for my generation.”
The strength to be yourself. The blessing and the curse of the baby boomers. Strong enough to be themselves but maybe too strong; where does self-creation become selfishness? Where does it become self-destructive? One of the highlights of Young Americans “Win” embodies this contradiction. Slow and sinuous the song lets Bowie plays seductive – but he’s no Barry White. There’s something sinister, something dangerous underpinning it all. You’ve just got to win, but at what cost?
“It’s too late to be late again
It’s too late to be hateful…”
University was supposed to be the making of me. I was told it was made for people like me, that I would find myself there. After a somewhat wasted year off I was a couple of months into my first term when it became clear that it was all going terribly wrong. Wrong course, wrong place; I was stuck in the middle of Yorkshire sculpture park 20 miles from the nearest town doing a creative writing course I had very little interest in. The small, isolated campus left me with only two social options; drug abuse and petty vandalism or musical theatre.
Up to this point Bowie has been my parent’s thing, my friend Tom had been getting into the glam stuff, but that didn’t really appeal to me. I mean, I liked a lot of his songs but the make-up, theatrics and gender bending didn’t do much for me. As a teenager the defiant misery of The Smiths was more my thing and then as I chilled out a bit the slurred cool of The Strokes and their influences The Velvet Underground held sway. But there was a guy in my student flat called Steven, an eccentric with James Dean posters on his bedroom and every album by Morrissey and David Bowie on CD (even Malajusted and Tin Machine II!). At that point in my life, marooned in Yorkshire Sculpture Park I didn’t have much money to buy new CDs and my minidisc player could hold ten albums at a time so I copied a bunch of Steven’s Bowie albums to my minidisc.
Station to Station was the album that resonated most. One of the great things about music is that it circumvents small talk, it cuts straight in. At that moment in 2003 the ten minute title track of Station to Station seemed to sum up my emotional state better than I could. Though the words are strange and obscure the build of the music, from hollowed inertia to controlled mania resonated with me, it was the euphoric sound of total disappointment. The author of the blog Bowiesongs has argued that “Station to Station” represents the peak of Bowie’s career, the moment when the explosive madness of his early years caught up with him, the delirious summit from which everything after was a slow comedown.
Whilst I was a long way from being a hollowed out, vaguely fascistic LA coke fiend at that moment in 2003, trying to work out my next step as the dream I thought I had been working towards crumbled “Station to Station” made total sense.
“I am trying hard to fit among your scheme of things”
After the mania of “Station to Station” “Word on a Wing” is the slow glide down from the top of the peak. It’s an agnostic hymn, you can never quite tell if he is addressing a person, God or something in-between the two. Though it does have an anguished operatic quality it also has a humility. It’s the sound of someone on their knees trying to put themselves back together, looking outside themselves to find something to hold onto.
I had come back from university for the weekend, sat in the front room after everyone else had gone to bed and knowing that I would soon transfer from the sculpture park to the city, I put on “Word on a Wing”. On the morning David Bowie’s death was announced it was the first song that I listened to. It’s a hymn for everyone who has ever made a mistake, a prayer for the fuck-ups: if someone else can find their way back maybe you can too.
“I’m afraid I can’t help it…”
Selecting Bowie’s full discography on Spotify then sticking it on random is a strange experience. First you’re in some folky sixties glade then you’ve jumped into the middle of a jungle rave then some horrible gross gated drums from the mid-eighties slap your ears around. It quickly becomes apparent when you listen in a random, non-discriminatory fashion how the glam and even the Eno era art rock are just small parts of a sprawling whole.
Through the nineties you kinda get the feeling he was trying to make the pop industrial glam stomp that Babylon Zoo really nailed with Spaceman. His efforts though were always a little too artful, a little too clever to really hit that Top of the Pops sweet spot. Though he didn’t buy Bowie’s albums anymore my Dad always tuned into his promotional appearances. I imagine it was like checking in on an old friend who you’ve half lost touch with. In the midst of the Britpop era Bowie was dabbling in industrial and drum ‘n bass, collaborating with Nine Inch Nails and The Pet Shop Boys. No wonder many music hacks besotted with The Bluetones found it easy to sneer.
When we saw Bowie at Wembley Arena on the Reality tour in 2003 it all made sense. Whilst the old classics were great it was the 1995 1.Outside track “I’m Afraid of Americans” that stole the show. Lashed in digital distortion and performed with brutal professionalism it was a song tailor made for the modern mega-gig. His path through the decades may have been somewhat wayward and the audience didn’t rip the seats up this time but there was a continuity; it was the same showman my Mum had seen 30 years before.
every chance that I take”
There are some Bowie songs that still feel if not ahead of their time but unknowable, like he was grasping towards feelings that had yet to be described. Feelings so rooted in new ways of living that perhaps no one had felt them before. The feeling of cruising in air controlled environment through man made surroundings. The 1979 film Radio On uses Low album track “Always Crashing in the Same Car” to soundtrack its protagonist leaving London via the Westway. He cruises past tower blocks that look like an alien landscape whilst the song’s acoustics blend with the sounds of the car, the sound of the road. The sound and visuals elegantly combine to express something intangible; a strange modern melancholy that words alone can’t express.
A couple of years ago I my rediscovered my Bowie DVD, it has all of his videos from the early seventies up to the late nineties. This coincided with a short period when me and a few friends would meet every week at mine and my girlfriend’s flat and then go to the cinema, before and after the film we’d put the Bowie DVD on. One person who joined our little cinema had a confession, despite some pretty tight connections in the London retro-glam scene, she didn’t like Bowie.
Recorded quickly in the run-up to Live Aid Bowie’s duet with Mick Jagger must be watched to be truly appreciated. The video was shot after they had laid down the track in a few hours, decked out in lurid ‘80s fashion they are caught in a camp game of one-upmanship as they attempt to out gurn each other. It’s like a pair of homoerotic Spitting Image puppets come to life. It taps perfectly into the cartoon image of Bowie, the Bowie spoofed by Adam Buxton, Flight of the Concords and many others. I myself made a semi-successful satire of him with this spoof interview a few years ago.
I have written a lot here about the strange intense emotions I associate with David Bowie’s work but in his back catalogue there is also a lot humour and some outright silliness, a lot of joy. Indeed after Bowie’s death my Dad and I watched a bunch of funny Bowie videos on YouTube, you can see them here, here and here.
“Magic Dance” from the Labyrinth soundtrack is a much better song but I dare you not to watch the ridiculous farce of “Dancing in the Street” and not crack a smile. It was the one video that convinced out jazz loving Bowie-sceptic that Dave might have something going for him after all.
“Something happened on the day he died”
When I first heard “Blackstar” and saw the video, it did seem sinister but this is David Bowie. If The Beatles were about peace and love Bowie was about space and death. His breakthrough single Space Oddity was of course the ominous story of doomed astronaut Major Tom stranded in outer space. Musically anyway “Blackstar” seemed more alive than Bowie had been in years. To my ears The Next Day sounded lifeless. OK, the Bowie does Franz Ferdinand doing Bowie one (“The Next Day”) and the Scott Walker rip (“Heat”) were great but most of it seemed to merge into the middle-aged beige that had dogged the Reality album. I went with my parents to the Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, it was strange and slightly depressing, like being escorted round someone’s house whilst they are out.
Before he died Lou Reed penned a fulsome tribute to Kanye West’s Yeezus album, a couple of years later Bowie was talking up Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as an influence on his new album. If you wanted to be uncharitable you could argue they were aiming to regain a little credibility by name checking the most acclaimed albums of the day. I don’t think this is what was going on, listening to “Blackstar” you can hear someone hungry, someone picking up sources old and new, someone pushing forward, someone with a future.
At Christmas I hooked my laptop up to the TV and watched the ten minute Blackstar video with my family. My Dad suggested the skeleton in the spacesuit was Major Tom, I thought this might be too obvious but we all agreed that though strange it was good. The video felt alive, inscrutable yes but filled with a strange, intense energy. It was great that someone they had now followed on and off for forty years was still out there still doing what he wanted, creating art that tapped into emotions you can’t quite name, still pushing ahead of the dames.
A WhatsApp message from my brother’s girlfriend at 8am. Bowie and three crying emoticons. My initial thought was that either she was massively disappointed by Blackstar or David Bowie was dead. I knew it had to be the latter but even as I starred at the headlines on my laptop I couldn’t quite believe it. If he had died a few days after “Where Are We Now” had been released it wouldn’t have felt such a surprise but somehow a man of 69 made it feel like he had been cut down in his prime.
“The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom
And the possibilities it seems to offer,
It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.”
Maybe some people take pop music seriously because it is able to articulate things no one round them is able to say. It speaks but it doesn’t ask for a reply. In the weeks before he died it wasn’t “Blackstar” but Scary Monsters track “Up the Hill Backwards” that I was listening to most. Going through another of life’s periods of upheavals its cautious embrace of change summed up a feeling I can’t quite articulate. After his death some people suggested that the big impact David Bowie had was helping people come to understand their own identities. More caustic commentators where quick to dismiss the idea, quick to sneer at the idea of anyone finding something of themselves in a provocatively dressed pop-star. His music spoke of a modern world where change is inevitable, where identities are not fixed, where we constantly have to move on. Bowie may have done it a grandiose way but his mutations mirrored how society was forcing some people to live. Sometimes it seems like his music was articulating how people could survive without some of the old structures.
“Oh, I’ll be free,
Ain’t that just like me?”
The weekend of my mums sixtieth birthday my brother picked me up from the station in his diesel van (no he doesn’t look much like Che Guvera). We drove through pouring rain and down narrow evergreen lined lanes. The headlights picked out small puddles of light ahead of us, it was the perfect setting to listen to the Blackstar album. It is hard to hear the album now without reading the knowledge of his impending death into every note. Often dark and ominous it doesn’t feel like an entirely fond farewell, it feels in many cases that Bowie is haunting himself, inviting us all in for one last tour of his mind as he dredges up spectres of everything he’d previously shown us.
In the song “Veronica” Elvis Costello sings about how in his last years grandmother seemed to lose track of time, how in her mind she would bounce around the years. The video to the song is bookended by Costello musing on his conversations with his grandmother. At the end of the video, after the music has faded out he muses:
“You’d try and work out what was going on in her head, but I think it’s something we don’t understand, not yet anyways.”
“Lazarus” comes closest a pop song could get to what Costello’s grandmother was experiencing. No matter how much you change your past will always be there, you can’t ever entirely escape it and as you get older it can become overwhelming. The past may have scarred Bowie but it was part of him and seemed to fuel him in his later years. We can’t all be art-damaged rock superstars – I’m not sure most people would want to be one – but no matter what changes we experience we are all products of our past. As Bowie ruefully seemed to note as he wrote his own eulogy, this need not be a bad thing.
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