The first time I saw David Bowie in person was very much like this performance of “Rebel Rebel” from the A Reality Tour DVD: happy as fuck and controlling a room with his smile. Maybe play this video while you read this.
Here’s the thing: we all saw in that guy what we wanted to see in ourselves. He spoke for all of us who couldn’t articulate what we wanted to say about ourselves, and what we saw reflected in him was the part of us that we didn’t have a name for and maybe weren’t brave enough to show. But when you met another Bowie fan – not just someone who knew the words to “Heroes” but someone with that same knowing smile every time they saw a drawing of a lightning bolt – you knew you had something in common, and yet what you had in common wasn’t your similarities but your shared differences. I’m sure we all remember when this entry from Caitlin Moran’s 10 Things Every Girl Should Know was doing the rounds online – it captures it all so perfectly:
When in doubt, listen to David Bowie. In 1968, Bowie was a gay, ginger, bonk-eyed, snaggle-toothed freak walking around south London in a dress, being shouted at by thugs. Four years later, he was still exactly that – but everyone else wanted to be like him too. If David Bowie can make being David Bowie cool, you can make being you cool. PLUS, unlike David Bowie, you get to listen to David Bowie for inspiration. So you’re one up on him, really. YOU’RE ALREADY ONE AHEAD OF DAVID BOWIE.
The first time David Bowie made an impact on me was not even through his music – my parents never listened to him and I’d only seen stuff like “Heroes” and “Ashes To Ashes” on Rage occasionally – but an interview with him in the paper back when Outside came out.
I was 15 and I felt really alone in the world, as most of us probably do then. Nobody seemed to get me, nobody seemed to relate to my artistic side or my budding interest in intellectualism – or maybe everyone else around me who felt this way just didn’t know how to articulate it yet either. And then I read an interview with David Bowie in the newspaper where he talked about the motivation behind playing characters again, about his and Brian Eno’s abstract ways of working, about the historical and cultural influences behind what he was doing… the same newspaper also had a giveaway of a few copies of the album. I entered and won a copy and my life was never the same.
I know of so many friends with their own Bowie stories. Here are just a few of mine, about the ways Bowie’s music intersected with my life in meaningful ways, or had been folded into the fabric of my little family. I’d love to hear your stories too, because that’s the whole point of me sharing mine: we all have ’em and there must be millions and millions of them out there. So here goes:
My partner painted a picture of Bowie to give me as a gift on our very first date, and to this day that painting looks over me as I work. Bowie was one of the first shared interests we connected on, and I remember clumsily trying to play “Ziggy Stardust” over the phone to impress her once.
Last month my neighbours threw a street party and I jammed on a few songs with them out there in the drive way. I had a friggin’ blast cranking up “Rebel Rebel,” and it was so much fun that I was still grinning about it for days after.
I vaguely remember drunken “China Girl” karaoke at a bar in Santa Barbara.
I had a band named The Silent Age after the Heroes track “Sons Of The Silent Age.” That was fun.
An advance media listening party at the Sony Records HQ to hear The Next Day before it came out, catching up with Paul Cashmere and Ros O’Gorman from Noise11, and hanging out with Angela from Soot Magazine, messaging our mutual friend Kate in California who was hella jealous. Sorry Kate.
I remember jumping around my bedroom joyously thrashing out chords to ‘Modern Love’ on my Telecaster, then realising that it was so much fun that I had to do it again. And again. I must have played that one song five times in a row that day.
I remember the pronunciation of ‘glamorous’ by a presenter on the Best of Bowie DVD spawning a family in-joke about ‘the Glamrus.’ This fellow, who still makes me laugh.
My son went as Ziggy Stardust for a school dress up day a while back. So proud.
Hell, even today, hours before we found out he’d died, my partner and I were hugging while ‘Be My Wife’ was playing on the computer in the background, and I was pretending to play the piano part on her shoulder while we stood there.
But I think the thing that stands out to me the most right now is this: Just yesterday I was driving around listening to Blackstar with my son, and I shit you not we had a conversation about how lucky we both were to be alive while David Bowie was alive and making music, and able to share in it. (He’s a cool kid. Likes Bowie, Zappa, Van Halen, the Stones… I mean, look at him in that pic up there. Dude gets it). I gave him a little Bowie history lesson, the short version of how he went from Dylan-influenced folkie to a heavy metal singer in a dress to a preening glam god to the Thin White Duke to trying to piece his life back together in Berlin to suddenly deciding to become the ultimate 80s pop star to practically inventing the 90s with Tin Machine to embracing industrial and jungle textures. I explained to him how Bowie’s lyrics were often hard to penetrate which gave you the room to create your own interpretations, and that sometimes they included historical or pop-cultural references that sent you on a little research binge to figure out what it was he was trying to say. And that for a lot of people who felt different, Bowie helped to say what they couldn’t.
And then we talked about how on the very last song of Blackstar, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Bowie basically breaks character in the second verse – steps out from behind the screen he normally puts up, a screen made of obscure references, cut-up lyrics and impenetrable meanings – to directly explain to us this rare glimpe of his creative process:
Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
I can’t give everything
I can’t give everything
According to producer Tony Visconti today, with whom Bowie collaborated numerous times, “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”
With that in mind, all of Blackstar takes on a sudden devastating weight. Were you looking for symbolism in the title track or current single “Lazarus?” Guess what? There was no symbolism. He was telling us, as clearly as he would allow himself to, that this was it. Hell, it’s right there in the video: he’s showing us himself on his deathbed, his body frail but his creative spirit still determined to go on, dancing, writing – until finally, shaking, he steps slowly backwards into the coffin-like closet and leaves us forever. The first verse of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is especially grim now: it sounds like Bowie was telling us he was at last removing the veil, allowing himself to be clear and honest and direct, or at least as much as he could: “I know something is very wrong/The pulse returns for prodigal sons/The blackout’s hearts with flowered news/With skull designs upon my shoes.”
And yet the song as a whole sounds joyful, relaxed, happy, sentimental and comforting. Bowie spent his whole career speaking for his audience but here, in one last song on one last album, he spoke directly to us. And heartbreakingly, he did so in the past tense. “This is all I ever meant. That’s the message that I sent.”