When I was at school we had a teacher who once told us that, when he himself had been a child, he had been shocked and somewhat affronted to discover that other people actually watched the same television programmes as he did. He had assumed that only he knew about these things, that they were his, not anyone else’s.
This morning, like everyone else, I guess, I learned of David Bowie’s death. The Today programme on Radio 4 was full of the news and a succession of people appeared, some making touching and heart-felt tributes, others trotting out the same old tired clichés which will no doubt be attached to Bowie’s legend for all eternity. Shape-shifting alien chameleon mime artist ART avant garde blah blah blah… Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was asked to comment on Bowie’s passing. Well, forgive me, and perhaps the Archbishop did get his penchant for wearing dresses from David, but he fronts an organisation which institutionalises bigotry, so I fear he may have missed the point of the androgyny, the bisexuality, the whole gender ambivalence of it all. Of course, homosexual priests are OK, just so long as they’re not practising, isn’t that right Justin? Try telling that to the bigots in your fold, Justin. It’s OK to be an ignorant bigot, just not a practising one. David Cameron was quoted too! A man without a single unconventional fibre in his body, whose most transgressive act was to dress up like a penguin and trash restaurants, while leering at the plebs and letting daddy pick up the bill! This man has the nerve to have even heard of David Bowie!
This can’t be right, I wanted to scream at the radio. He’s mine, David Bowie is mine. He’s not yours, you idiot priest, you Tory scumbag! David Bowie is mine! I had him first. The first single I ever bought was Drive in Saturday. The first album I ever bought was Aladdin Sane. He’s mine. How dare the rest of you lay claim to him?
But of course, he’s not mine. I’ve known this since I first bonded, aged eleven, with the person who is now my oldest friend, over our mutual love of Bowie’s music. Look today at Facebook and Twitter, listen to the radio, watch the television. It will rapidly become clear that David Bowie is not mine. Neither is he yours, whatever you may think; he is pretty much everyone’s (and I’m sure Bono will be along in a minute – isn’t he always? - to point out what a massive influence Bowie was on his own band’s flaccid pomp-rock; thereby proving that he was listening to those records in an entirely different way to both me and, I imagine, everyone else), that he is held in massively high esteem by all and sundry. Damn it, even the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister appreciate his music.
Many will tell the story of seeing Bowie on Top of the Pops performing Starman (I’m just watching it on You Tube again now) and I can remember it as if it were yesterday. I’m back in my ten year-old body in our living room, rather glad that my dad is elsewhere in the house, as I watch this extraordinary being, who looks and, more importantly, sounds as if he really does come from another planet, from another universe in fact.
I can remember to this day the smell of my copy of Aladdin Sane (long ago stolen by some lowlife scum who burgled my house in Coventry – that was my childhood you stole; thanks for nothing!), caused, I think, by the silver ink used in printing the sleeve. And I remember listening to it for the first time and being swept up in the whole giddy adultness of it all. I had no idea what most of the songs were going on about, of course (I was eleven!). Time may well have been flexing like a whore and have fallen wanking to the floor, but I had not the slightest clue what a whore was, or what wanking might be. I had no idea that The Jean Genie was a reference to Jean Genet, that Drive in Saturday imagined some post-apocalyptic dystopia. I could, however, sense that the cover of Let’s Spend the Night Together suggested that doing just that with someone might be pretty thrilling and I just knew that Lady Grinning Soul promised something unimaginably sensual for when I was old enough to learn what that word meant. That’s still my favourite of all his songs.
From there I moved on, or rather I moved backwards (not something of which Bowie would often allow himself to be accused), to discover The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Space Oddity (I had no sense that I should explore Bowie’s back catalogue in anything resembling chronological order), The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory. Great albums all. I stayed with him through Pinups (where he actually did look back), Diamond Dogs, his blue-eyed soul boy period, his extraordinary Berlin period, all the way to Scary Monsters and Super Creeps.
And then, somehow, I felt he lost his way… Let’s Dance wasn’t a terrible album, or anything, but, for me, it never stood up to his previous work. I have barely listened to anything Bowie recorded subsequently, although I did find Where Are We Now, from 2013’s The Next Day to be rather affecting and Blackstar, released just two days before his death, has received some critical acclaim. For all that, I’m sure that there are many who were as gripped, as moved, by his later work as I was by those first thirteen (thirteen!) extraordinary albums and I have to concede that maybe it was me who lost his way and not Bowie at all. Maybe I got distracted, maybe there just wasn’t enough space for David Bowie and everything else. Maybe thirteen albums just took up enough space on my shelves and in my heart.
Amidst all the words (including these ones) generated by David Bowie’s passing this morning, it seems that precious little has been said about his voice. My god, though, what a voice. Tender (Letter to Hermione), kick-ass rocking (Queen Bitch, Panic in Detroit), soaring and operatic (Heroes) and just plain old stunningly beautiful (Lady Grinning Soul, Wild is the Wind). David Bowie had the lot. Yes, he was a shape-shifting chameleon from another planet. Yes, he was high art and avant-garde. Yes, he blah blah blah… It’s all just words and you can never sum up what he sounded like with anything as useless as words. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as someone (or, possibly, several someones) once said (or, possibly, didn’t say). Above it all, David Bowie was a great singer. And he’s gone. He was mine and I miss him.