Last Friday I attended the opening night of ‘Bowiefest’, a short film festival at the ICA devoted to (funnily enough) David Bowie. The opening film was the classic, electrifying ‘Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture’, capturing the legendary ‘Farewell gig’ in 1973. Watching it with friends in a packed cinema (which included Mick Ronson’s sister and Glen Matlock) was a joyful experience, one which carried on late into the evening with karaoke consisting solely of his music. We, in unison with the entire bar, sang our hearts out:
It was a beautiful testament to the communal power of pop music – everyone was grinning ear to ear; everyone was, in the immortal words of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, “beautiful” and “wonderful”. ￼
It wasn’t until later, in the come down from the event, that I remembered it wasn’t the first time I had watched a Bowie concert in a cinema. In 2003, ever the pioneer, he became the first musician to broadcast a live concert at various Odeon venues throughout the country. If you want an indication of how far his stock has risen in the decade since, look no further than the fact that I had to go along to Glasgow Odeon alone and found myself in a largely empty cinema. That’s largely what I remember about that evening – not the concert itself, but the seat I was in and the strangeness of being able to see no-one else around me. Bowie’s reputation has calcified into that of a national treasure, underlined by the recent announcement of a V&A exhibition dedicated to him, so it’s easy to forget that for much of his career he was the archetypal outsider artist, singing to and for the ‘hot tramps’ whose parents weren’t ‘sure if you’re a boy or a girl’. Heck, loads of us weren’t exactly sure about that ourselves.
As someone who had, shall we say, one of those kinds of adolescences, it’s no wonder that I was attracted to artists like Bowie, Madonna, Manic Street Preachers and Morrissey. Bowie and Madonna have always been the King and Queen – the ones I always return to, the ones who move me deeper than any others and the ones whom I credit most with shaping the person I am today (Goddamn them!) So, in the spirit of last year’s recalling of some random Madonna memories from my life, here are some of the times Bowie brings to mind:
· I can still remember the first time I heard him. My parents kept a heap of their old vinyl in their bedroom cupboard – Frank Zappa, Cream, The Carpenters, Don McLean. One day I brought an old record player I found in the loft down into their bedroom and started exploring. It was the first time I’d heard ‘American Pie’. The cover of Elton John’s ‘Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’ terrified and repulsed me and it took several of these listening sessions before I felt brave enough to give it a go – the opening title track completely captivated me and so started my love of Elton’s music. They had no Bowie albums – only a single 7” single, packaged in a plain cardboard sleeve. It was ‘Life on Mars?, backed with ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. I listened to the latter first, confused by its sinister strangeness. ‘Life on Mars?’, however, blew me away. It exploded from the cheap, tinny speakers in technicolour, grabbed me by the neck and didn’t let me go. I must have listened to it at least 10 times in a row. It truly was like nothing I had ever heard before, with its bizarre, almost nonsensical lyrics married to a yearning, soaring melody which almost reduced me to tears (hey, I was a teenager and had a lot going on!) A week or so later I found a second-hand copy of ‘The Singles Collection’ in Missing Records. The abundantly variant songs on offer were almost too much for me to process – how could the same artist be behind all of this music?! It was so overwhelming that it almost put a stop to my tentative steps into Bowie’s world.
· With the benefit of hindsight and context, I think it’s fair to say that in the mid-90s Bowie’s reputation was still suffering from his late-80s/early-90s misadventures. If I was to pinpoint one single thing which rapidly rehabilitated him, it would be Nirvana’s cover of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ on their 1994 ‘Unplugged’ album. Previously when I had spoken to schoolmates about Bowie, reactions had alternated between mocking and disinterest. After Nirvana, the cool guys (shockingly, I was not one of them) were approaching me asking if they could borrow some of my Bowie cds. I can still vividly remember the pathetic joy I took in receiving a note from a guy who sat at the very back of the class, asking if I would bring in ‘The Singles Collection’. I’d made it!
· I taped Bowie’s 1996 performance at the Phoenix Festival off Radio 1 and listened to it until the tape wore out, which it probably did far faster than usual as I always had to fast-forward through Mark and Lard’s introduction, with its lame pun based on ‘Iman/A man’. I was still at the stage where I was mostly interested in Bowie’s singles but that evening he performed ‘All The Young Dudes’, a song I’d never heard before, and I fell head over heels in love with it. With that magic unique to adolescence, a song written over 20 years before really seemed to be speaking to me directly. Not least as my brother was obsessed with The Beatles and the Stones. If that makes no sense, listen to the song.
· I’ve written before about Bowie’s 1996 Brit Awards performance with Pet Shop Boys. It inspired me to, for the first time, venture beyond Bowie’s classic 70s albums and purchase his then-current album, ‘1.Outside’. It was so beyond my understanding of pop music that it terrified me. This isn’t an exaggeration – I was literally scared of listening to it, especially the demented, pounding ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ which bore absolutely no relation to the Pet Shop Boys version. Probably more than any other, that album destroyed my childhood notions of what pop music could be and opened my mind to a rich, alternate history.
· Having just turned 19, I came out to my friend Frankie in one of our student union bars. We were sat directly underneath a giant screen onto which they projected music videos. The only two I can remember from that evening are ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ by Manic Street Preachers and ‘Let’s Dance’ by David Bowie. Frankie’s reaction was a high-pitched, surprised ‘are you?!’ and then that was that. That evening gave me the courage to come out to my brother and ultimately my parents – in fact I did the latter after a day spent drinking in the same union with Frankie.
· Rosalind was another university friend and the first real glimpse I ever had of the power a beautiful woman can wield over straight men. I had never experienced anything like it – the glares as soon as we entered the room, the constant approach of men offering drinks and cigarettes, the barely-concealed jealousy of men who assumed I was her boyfriend and of women who painted her as a whore. It was, to put it mildly, an education. The two of us went to the student union for a ‘quiet drink’ the evening before we were meant to register for our final year tutorial groups. We sat at one end of a long table and a group of guys sat a little down from us. One of them was absolutely beautiful – in retrospect, he looked like Channing Tatum during his modelling days. The video for “Heroes” came on and a couple of the guys responded enthusiastically to my excitement, speaking of their love for Bowie. Channing seemed particularly impressed. Inevitably, he ended up chatting to Rosalind and before long they were kissing in the hallway. As it neared midnight his friends started to drift off and I announced my intention to leave and get my last bus home. To my surprise, Channing protested and suggested the three of us carry on drinking back at Rosalind’s flat. He bought a bottle of vodka on the way using money his parents had given him. We played strip poker. It turned out he was bisexual. Rosalind and I were very late for our tutorial session the next day.
· Bowie’s performance at Glastonbury in 2000 was another huge step in his rehabilitation. After it was broadcast live on the BBC all of my friends were speaking about it. A particular conversation in the Brunswick Cellars in Glasgow, where everyone present was raving about him, made me proud to be a fan and convinced me that the tide was turning back in his favour.
· His rehabilitation continued with 2002’s ‘Heathen’, his most critically and commercially successful album in decades. Its release coincided with me moving out of my parents’ house and into my brother’s flat in Glasgow. Suffice to say, the song ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi’’, ostensibly about Bowie’s son moving away, had a special resonance in these circumstances. A line about a ‘big fat dog’ saying hi to its departed owner made me bawl my eyes out as I had had to leave Lucy, our little West Highland Terrier, at home with the folks.
· Later in 2002 I purchased my first ever dvd player for the sole purpose of buying the new, extensive ‘Best of Bowie’ dvd set. It sounded absolutely wondrous to me. The dvd player cost a grand total of £30 from Richer Sounds and it served me well until last year.
· I was fortunate enough to get tickets to see Bowie perform at the SECC as part of his ‘Reality’ tour. I got up early and spent the morning on the phone in order to secure tickets. We got three standing tickets but a few weeks later I received a letter notifying me that they had ‘oversold’ the venue and two of us would have to sit. My friend Nick was happy to stand alone so my brother and I took the seats, though we were deeply unhappy about the situation and I fired off several letters of complaint. As it happened, we were given two seats directly facing the stage and with the best view one could possibly hope for. The gig itself was probably the best concert I’ve ever been to – it turned out to be the final night of the European leg and so, Bowie announced, they’d be deviating from the usual setlist and doing a ‘Greatest Hits’ set. No-one complained about this. One after another the classic songs kept coming and the SECC crowd raised the roof with its singing. After the gig the three of us walked back into town. Nick and I went to Polo Lounge and joined the cloakroom queue, excitedly chatting about the wonder we had just witnessed. The guy behind me, around 19 or 20, knew Nick and interjected: “Who’s David Bowie?” He wasn’t joking. It turned out he’d never heard of Bob Dylan either.
The ‘Reality’ concerts turned out to be probably Bowie’s final tour. It seems increasingly likely that ‘Reality’ will be his final studio album. It’s strange having a retrospective body of work for an artist who is still alive and was always so prolific and so vital. No matter – I will sing my life to Bowie songs for as long as I have the ability and I will love the man for as long as I still breathe. And as the man himself said in his best cockney accent at the end of that Phoenix performance of ‘All The Young Dudes’ – “Remember – all ya need is love!”