At the back of the house in Bristol where I spent my teens were playing fields. At the top of the fields were swings where the older boys hung out smoking cigarettes and snogging girls. One day on the way home from the library I walked past those swings and saw two boys fighting. No punches were being thrown but there were plenty of kicks.
The boys sported obligatory bumfluff and were wearing half mast white flares with tartan turn-ups and dangerously stupid platforms. There was a reason for the lack of punches: one kid was clutching an LP under his arm which made it impossible to use his arms and the other boy seemed to unwilling to use his own as a mark of respect. On the cover of the record was the picture of a strange looking man with a flash of colour painted across his chalky face. The youths were apparently fighting over a girl. It was the first time I’d ever seen boys of such an advanced age fight and I remember being a little taken aback at the lack of meaningful blows that were being exchanged. More verbal abuse was doled out than any damage.
That image places this random memory at some time around 1973. My first memory of the Thin White Duke. I was 11-years-old but I knew who David Bowie was: he was that weird skinny bloke on Top Of The Pops whom my dad used to hurl abuse at. And even though I didn’t own any of his records I knew some of his songs. I knew ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Starman’ and I’d memorised the lyrics to ‘Jean Genie’ courtesy of a teen magazine called ‘Disco 45’, which printed the words to all of the hits of the day.
Two whole years later I finally owned my first David Bowie single. In 1975 he re-released ‘Space Oddity’ and it went to No. 1 – his first No. 1. For some reason it was my five-year-old brother who actually bought the record. I can’t remember how or why he managed to do this and it’s certainly a claim to fame for him whenever one has those ‘what was the first record you ever bought?’ debates, but I was the real owner of that record. I played it and I played it. And I played it. I played it with the monotonous and desperate regularity of someone who only owned three records in total. And I memorised the words to its two b-sides, ‘Velvet Goldmine’ and ‘Changes’.
Although I was not to know it at the time ‘Changes’ was/is probably David Bowie’s marquee song. Concealed within one of the singer’s more conventional arrangements was an attitude that was to define him: change. Metamorphosis. The idea that in order to progress, to grow, to make one’s way though life in a way that challenged and confronted, one had to change.
And change Bowie did: dramatically, regularly, physically and metaphysically; in a manner that left those who admired his work trailing in his jet stream.
Five years later Bowie had his second No. 1. With ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and we saw an artist self-consciously highlighting the fact that he was older but with a desire to demonstrate that he was still cutting edge. And he most certainly was. The fact that the video for the song featured many of the rising stars of New Romanticism was an acknowledgment that Bowie was the Don Corleone of that movement. And the accompanying album, ‘Scary Monsters And Super Creeps’ showed Bowie to be master of the domain that he created.
The record also provided an ideal accompaniment to my own life. I was now at art college, painting pictures that owed much to Bowie’s lessons of change. I, too, had changed. I had outgrown the life that was earmarked for me and reinvented myself. Bowie was never really a hero for me in the way that he was for many of my friends but he was the supreme example. The journey that took me from apprentice dogsbody to ‘artist’ was in no small part due to the influence of David Bowie.
However, my devotion to Bowie was not blind or mindless. When he released the mainstream ‘Let’s Dance’ in 1983 I smelled a rat. Although the record certainly had polish and spawned many hits it lacked substance in my opinion. It was if Francis Bacon had turned into David Hockney and I was a more or less a lone voice of dissent. Things got worse a year later when Bowie released ‘Tonight’, which seemed a self-conscious attempt to return to former glories by giving himself a lick of paint. But eyeliner and lip gloss and songs about aliens could not really conceal the lack of moisture in his creative well.
As I came to the end of my degree in fine art I had already more or less consigned David Bowie to history. It didn’t matter much. I still had the – excuse the pun – Golden Years: I had Hunky Dory, and Ziggy and Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane (sic), Young Americans and Low and Heroes, Lodger, Station To Station… Each one of these a ground breaking album in its own way. And if I felt like a laugh I always had Laughing Gnome.
It didn’t matter what the modern Bowie produced, there was a wealth of material out there to last a lifetime.
And things really did get worse. As the 1980s drew to a close and Bowie dallied wth the ridiculous Tin Machine I could scarcely be bothered to listen to his output. He was irrelevant. As was the awful ‘Never Let Me Down’. By now had I moved to London and changed myself again. I was now working in publishing and even though I noticed that some of the younger members of staff were playing ‘Black Tie White Noise’ I was largely indifferent to David Bowie.
Instead of being an innovator Bowie seemed to always be one or two steps behind the times. Witness 1997s ‘Earthling’, which attached itself to the shirt tails of drum and bass rather like the Warmington-On-Sea Home Guard putting shoe polish in their hair to look younger. Strangely enough, on a visit to France during the late 1990s I found myself in a room full of young men studiously listening to this mess of a record and solemnly proclaiming it to be the return of Bowie from the wilderness. It wasn’t. And frankly Bowie was destined never to leave the wilderness.
But even I was not immune to trying to believe. In 2003 I was browsing through the shelves of a dying Virgin Records in Oxford Street only to hear them playing a track from Bowie’s new album ‘Reality’. In retrospect it was an ordinary enough piece of music but I somehow managed to convince myself at the age of 41 that this was it, this was The Return. It wasn’t, and the twice-played copy of ‘Reality’ that is buried away somewhere in a cupboard remains a testament to that false dawn.
And then in 2013, a whole decade after ‘Reality’ came, in my opinion, a genuinely good Bowie record. Maybe it was that ten years of inactivity that had exaggerated the loss so that any new Bowie product was sure to be gratefully received but there was definitely something about ‘Where Are We Now?’ that struck a chord for many people. Certainly it was a song that I played on more than two occasions. The sound of an ageing David Bowie no longer obsessed with the notion of having to appear contemporary saw him concentrating solely on music and melody. The end result was compelling and infused with melancholy.
Three days ago Bowie released Blackstar. Accompanied by nine-minute video that had some of my Facebook friends moaning about its ‘gloominess’. We can now understand why it’s so depressing. I spent this morning listening to this album in its entirety. It will take a couple more listenings before an opinion is fully formed but on first impressions it hits the spot. Of course, because of the sad events of the last 24-hours the album’s context will always be compromised. However, for a man who knew that he was about to die it’s an impressive last word.
The strange thing is that we had friends over for food yesterday and for some reason I listened to pretty much nothing else but Bowie as I was cooking. I played – to my mind – his best music, those three albums he made in Berlin during the mid-1970s: Low, Heroes and Lodger. I also threw in a little bit of Station To Station. Later I was compelled to mention it on Facebook and called Bowie a ‘God-like genius’.
And for a while he was.