- 10 Jan 19
The news guy didn’t quite weep, but his voice was shaky as he told us: David Bowie died this morning … Nothing mattered for the rest of the day, and for quite some days after that. Which is weird, considering. Somehow it’s not right. I have no foundation on which to justify this unexpected grief. I’m part of that media-age mourning process, undignified and first defined when a city paved its streets with flowers for the death of a princess. Following your death, nearly five million Tweets graced a billion screens. I am too sad to Tweet, or to consider the why of it.
The news was like being struck by a spring tide of grief as forceful as if I’d lost a close friend. As if I’d known you all my life. But in a strange way, true to your futuristic sensibility, I have. All the days of my life you have been a companion, a comfort, a musical constant whether on radio or vinyl, digital, ethernet – a presence from another dimension like your own infamous construct, the Starman. Among the myriad of shape-shifts you tricked us through, it was this character, above all, with whom I identified. The Starman, after all, was there all the way from Space Oddity (1969), through Ziggy Stardust (1973), Scary Monsters (1980), Outside (1997), then finally and most movingly of all in the video for your swansong, Blackstar (2016). You played the soundtrack to my life.
You looked quite fragile singing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, but provocative as a street punk when you posed on the cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, the first album I ever bought. You presaged – or transcended – every development and trend in popular music in my lifetime and yet throughout your work to the last, there are echoes of old refrains, of familiar sax and guitar riffs, the reappearance of much-loved characters. Through dystopian rock scenarios and dark B-sides you fuelled my teenage angst, at the same time promising that it’s all worthwhile.
I remember the first time I saw you, it was possibly 1973. I was a precocious girl, confused by an early puberty and switching channels in search of another David entirely – Cassidy in fact. Suddenly, I was transfixed by a frenzied creature, clad in white satin hot pants and matching boots, throwing shapes all over the screen shocking as Leda’s swan. Your gold and crimson make-up glittered, you were all thighs and quivering lips and shameless moves. I remember catching my breath for a reason I didn’t quite understand – until I did. I thought you were the sexiest thing I had ever seen. Then I thought – “wait, I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl!” Then I thought, I don’t care.
In Paris, 1984, I saw you live one summer evening during your Serious Moonlight tour. A pivotal gig in my life, I have to say. I danced home on a cloud of you and wrote a review for Hot Press. So it’s completely your fault that I launched myself that night as an unlikely rock journalist. Thank you for the inspiration, David. I had a lot of fun down the years at that caper. All the days I owe you.
Then I finally met you in 1997, as the world was slouching toward the millennium’s end. I was to interview you in a Hollywood Gothic hotel off Sunset Boulevard. It was to be a one-on-one, a cover story. I was nervous as I crept up the carpeted stairs to Suite 35. What if you had feet of clay? What if my knees turned to jelly and I fell over? You did not. I did not.
I wasn’t under any illusions about the encounter. It would be an artificial conversation, set up by a record company and a magazine. We would discuss your new album and hopefully we might manage a rapport. We did. We spilled over and beyond the project to be promoted into broad-reaching discussion about other arts – music, politics, sexuality, the nascent Internet. You saw how it was changing the world and were already deep in its virtual maze.
I was happy to be there with you, whatever the way of it. I was trying, I suppose, to see through the trickster to the Starman. And he was there. In your charm, your eloquence, your understated erudition, your flighty, flirty way of turning a phrase into a yarn. You were funny and we ended up having a laugh. I was eventually thrown out by your assistant Coco, who called, “It’s TIME!” from the room next door, like some disembodied barman. You looked at me and – crazily – I invited you for a pint in the local pub. As if. But you flashed me a diamond twinkle in response and we both laughed. Next time. I took my leave. I was still happy.
So. I spent less than an hour of my whole life with you. Actually talking to you, hearing your voice, smelling your scent (you’d just had a bath and wafted musky bergamot), watching your body moving, fascinated at your newly straightened teeth, tracing along the bones of your hands with my eyes, appreciating their elegance. One hour in my life. But one hour in a life of you.
Can you blame me, for seeing your faker as hero? I was too young for The Beatles and didn’t like Disco. Even through Punk and the New Romantics, for me you always had the edge. It was the vaudeville sass of theatre, avant-garde, camp, punk, Brecht, jazz; it was the flamboyance, the sexiness, the wanton cheek of it. Always infused with high-octane emotion, and always in there somewhere, the Starman. Like Shakespeare’s Ariel – elusive and lovely and playful and wistful, you were the vulnerable outsider in me, as well as the me that might have been. You were never afraid to dare. From your glam-wild Lady Stardust to your Berlin trilogy and the necro-art of Blackstar, your overriding impetus has been passion. You understood true androgyny, ever juxtaposing male insolence with female sensuality to produce the best of art. And of course, you were the ultimate time-trickster.
I think that’s why, on 10 January 2016, a crowd of shell-shocked people wandered back into the Dublin Bowie Festival venue in the hours following your death announcement, although the event had finished the day before. The place filled up with misguided mourners, then filled up with you – through your music. Clocking the crowd, I understood that this was a vigil for someone who had influenced not just my life, but that of several generations, from post-millennial first-years to erstwhile punks. In the back-to-back videos/films we saw, you didn’t seem to have an age. Even days before your death you appeared online laughing, rake thin but apparently joyous: trickster to the last. It’s why the ultimate disconnect hit so hard. Our beloved rock star could no longer trick time. Time had been waiting in the wings all along.
Later that night, alone in my car, I watched the videos for your final songs. It was cold, I found Lazarus harrowing with its ghastly dance of death where your hand reaches out, shuddering, towards the unknown. Blackstar opens with a dead man’s foot lying cold on a planet surface, the prone remains of an astronaut trussed up like a patient in a hospital gown, or a space-age shroud. Circled by a Greek Chorus of dancers, you sing blindfolded of that disconnection. And only as the song moves into a second, more tender gear do you bring us up again, one last time, into that high-octane emotion: Something happened the day he died …
Suddenly, I am reminded of an image, not of Starman, but Starchild, the tiny womb-embraced soul immortalised by Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 opus, 2001 A Space Odyssey.
I know that film influenced you, and I had already recognised the movement of the dying Dr David Bowman reprised by the patient in Lazarus. I don’t know what prompted me to connect the iconic star child, but it might have been the way the baby’s arm is poised, yet has not yet reached out into life. He/she is about to leave the capsule and to dare, and the image is of eternal potential frozen in purity, timeless and imbued with hope.
It’s three years now since you died, and as ever, my heart still turns over when I hear your voice, even half-hidden under the thrum of a busy café, or in a supermarket aisle. For a few seconds, I’m released from the stress or banality of my twenty-first century life, and the darkness that creeps through occasional dreams. I hear your voice and smile. It’s a beautiful, light-drenched boy singing “Oh You Pretty Things”. It’s a young woman ambling around Paris humming “Ashes to Ashes”. It’s the man with the child in his eyes, full of all the possibilities we can ever have.
Thank you for the soundtrack to my life. Helena x