‘Loving the Alien’: David Bowie and Me

I never met David Bowie. But I knew him.

Bowie 2Growing up I digested every word and image I could. I bought illicit bootlegs, Wembley Wizard, Live in Stockholm, Soft in the Middle, and treasured my 7” copies of Prettiest Star on Mercury Records and Space Oddity on Phillips and coveted my ultra-rare album An Evening with David Bowie. It was the rarity of these vinyl treasures that helped me feel that I owned a little piece of Bowie that no-one else had. A friend of a friend once showed me the very same boots Bowie wore on the reverse cover of Space Oddity. As a 12 year old I slipped the space boots onto my tiny space feet and in hushed tones walked unearthily around the room pretending I was a flame haired androgynous astronaut. Today I still believe they were Bowie’s boots; however part of me suspects that the bastards simply conspired against an impressionable fan to help them pass a quiet Sunday afternoon.

I first discovered Bowie aged 7 when my brother bought Hunky Dory. We played it on a 1950s valve driven radiogram, sneaking into my Nan’s room after she had gone to bed to witness the wonderful bass toned sound, so powerful and deep. For a small child the cover was mystical, the reserve even more so. I couldn’t even imagine who Biff Rose was or why on earth the ‘VU’ was ‘returned with thanks’. I read. I listened. I learned more. I explored the Velvet’s, the Stooges, Neil Young and searched for the roots behind Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, both of which enthralled me.

I bought Diamond Dogs in 1974 with my pocket money.  I didn’t really get it. Future Legend terrified me, Diamond Dogs was furious and Rebel Rebel too laconic, the B-side seemed so multifaceted. I worked hard at reading George Orwell’s 1984 in order to understand Bowie’s muse, not easy for an 11 year old. Today, it remains one of my favourite albums, Sweet Thing, Candidate and Reprise sounds as fresh today as it did forty years ago. Later, in a fit of pique, I sprayed a yellow Bowie motif on the back of a new leather jacket; I thought I was a cool as mustard. Of course I was not.

Plastic Soul, the Thin White Duke and the Berlin albums came and went, I was totally hooked.  The animation of Bowie’s so called Nazi salute at Waterloo station was captivating, I lapped up every word of Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor documentary, I read with glee The Man Who Fell to Earth (being too young to see the film) and continued to collect official and unofficial releases with relish. His music, his actions, his image carried me through my exams. I painted and drew him in art. I graffitoed his facsimile autograph ‘Love on Ya, Bowie’ and splashed the Aladdin Sane lightning flash across my text books.  I raced home on my bike at lunchtimes to see where Heroes, Boys Keep Swinging, DJ &c sat in the charts. I bunked off school and waited in Subway Records all day to collect my copy of Scary Monsters, perhaps even the first copy sold in Southampton. I didn’t want a bag, I wanted everyone to see it, walking through town and on the bus.  The moment the needle hit the plastic was electrifying, that native Japanese voice so loud, Bowie screaming ‘It’s No Game’. And then there’s Ashes to Ashes, life changing.

I died a little with Lets Dance, my preoccupations diverted by the Clash, the Ruts, the Jam and others. The MTV generation was not for me. With the 1980s came a new found passion in the form of the independent music scene, a crisp driving license gave freedom to see my new found favourites live in intimate venues –the Blue Aeroplanes, Hurrah!, Brilliant Corners, Del Amitri, the Daintees, Mighty Mighty, Stump and Half Man Half Biscuit. Yes, my musical notations had shifted but Bowie was always the common denominator. The Thin White Duke sat on my shoulder guiding my tastes. To be fair he was never far away with bands like Tubeway Army, One the Juggler and Bauhaus carrying the well-lit torch; imitating but never bettering.

Despite snubbing Tonight and Never Let Me down I did warm to the disorganised industrial sound of Tin Machine, it just seemed to fit where I was at in my life.What brought me back to Bowie was Outside.1. It was an album that shocked and disgusted in equal measure. It was loud, intelligent, and not at all polite –everything I aspired  to be. As I grew, Bowie grew. He catered for my ever changing moods. Smooth sounds when I was feeling smooth, deeper sounds for those deeper moments. Where are we Now was a revelation. Bowie Is at the V&A was breath-taking, total immersion into fashion, music and persona –I went twice. The Next Day marked a maturity that matched mine, the promotional films offered exhilaration in the way that they harked back on the old with a sparkle of the new.

BowieI bought Blackstar on the day of release. Like all hardened fans I studied the lyrics to within an inch of their lives. He writes about ‘Fool[ing] them again and again’ in Dollar Days while he ‘…know[s] something’s very wrong’ in I Cant Give Everything Away adding ‘skull designs upon my shoes’. I saw the film for Lazarus. I am not ashamed to say that I never read into his last regeneration, in hindsight it is so obvious. If the lyrics were not enough there was the website posting the line ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’ on Christmas Day 2015, the released promotional image (again from Lazarus) showing a deathly, gazing, Bowie holding a note to camera which read ‘To Jimmy [Fallon]…help Me’ and the fact that his last Twitter follow was God. The clues were there.

Playing out and controlling the image of his own death is an ultimate act of power. For me Bowie has long been a powerful presence. The more you worked at him, the more you got out of him. His music and personality was both superficial and intensely insular. Without sounding a little cliche, a little bit of me died today, as it did when Lou Reed died. Just knowing Bowie was on the planet was reassuring.

Regrets? Well, I never saw Bowie live. Too young in the 70s, not interested in the 80s, too late in the 90s and averse to stadium gigs in the 00s. A missed opportunity perhaps. However, Bowie’s musicality underpinned the culture in which I grew up, the music, the literature, the fashion. He gave me an education, he shaped me as an individual. For that I am grateful. He died as he lived, unpredictable, an enigma. Things will move on without him, but they won’t be the same.


About paul holden

Architectural historian working as a House and Collections Manager for the National Trust at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. Author of 'The Lanhydrock Atlas' (Cornwall Editions,2010) and 'The London Letters of Samuel Molyneux, 1712-13' (London Topographical Society, 2011). Contributor to many scholarly journals and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
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