In fairness, maybe the industrial growl of the Black TieWhite Noise cassette she was holding wasn’t the easiest way to understand Bowie, but the idea of being able to dismiss someone whose music was crucial to the way my teenage hormones were interpreting the world was incomprehensible. ‘Don’t really get the whole David Bowie thing? But Bowie just is; he’s everything,’ I could have replied, but didn’t, mainly because I was too interested in doing other things with her than arguing.
It feels as though Bowie has always been a part of my cultural landscape. I probably first heard him through someone’s older brother, but I’d have been aware of who he was. He was a name, a concept. Oh, yeah, David Bowie.
The late eighties and early nineties were not a great time to be into music. In retrospect there were pioneering albums like Soul2Soul, Massive Attack and Sceamdelica, but for most early teenage boys the charts were dominated by rave-fail dross the Shamen, baggy shoegazing landfill and endless Stock Aiken and Waterman pap machines. On the horizon were Blur and Suede, but with no internet the best we could really do was Bon Jovi whose bombastic faux cowboy bravado already sounded false. Or we could go back in time. I’d already been muddling around with AC/DC, Talking Heads and Madness, much to the confusion of my school friends, who couldn’t understand my derision of Terrorvision, but then someone played me David Bowie and my thirteen year old brain was immediately convinced that he was all that pop music could be.
Being of little money and not much more savvy, I probably asked my parents for ‘some David Bowie’ for an upcoming birthday. They dutifully obliged, buying me his latest release, the aforementioned Black Tie White Noise. Neither they nor I would have realised that Bowie was following the same rules as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and anyone else trying to sustain an extended career in pop music, namely that the majority of the eighties and early nineties output was either dreadful or wildly experimental to try and avoid being bland beyond belief. Black Tie White Noise is, strangely, somehow both.
‘Hmmm,’ I thought to myself, in my bedroom with my little black tape deck, ‘this isn’t quite what I’d been expecting.’ But I persevered and from somewhere I acquired a second hand copy of one the numerous Bowie compilations, Changesbowie I think, and the hits of the seventies made it all make sense again, somehow driving straight into a timeless teenage sense of uselessness and triumph all bound up.
By the time I was fifteen I was wearing out a cassette of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars whilst completing the half-dozen paper rounds I did to earn money to buy music and comics. On I would stride, my walkman rolling with the sway of my hip and in my head the grand scope of the coming apocalypse, bands who could change the world all wrapped up in a furious rhythm and nonsensical lyrics distracted from the suburban tedium of the free Solihull Journal. Even now, Rock and Roll Suicide makes me think of one bright Sunday morning, shortly after I’d discovered beer, crossing the road and blinking in the haze, thinking that it, if it could be about anyone, then it could also be about me, there, stuck in that moment.
Bowie’s sudden return, almost as though from the dead, earlier this year shouldn’t really have surprised anyone. Yes, there was something dignified in his apparent retirement and there wasn’t any shock that a man who once solely sustained himself on milk, red peppers and cocaine, eventually found his body giving up and suffering an on-stage heart attack, but the ability to do the unexpected has been Bowie’s stock-in-trade for his entire career. Indeed, nor is it a surprise that at a still relatively youthful sixty-six Bowie would want to give up the career he had to fight so hard to get started.
Indeed, Bowie wouldn’t be a pop star in the twenty-first century. He’d have gone mad and blown it. Or madder and blown it more permanently, I should say given his occasional lapse into Nazi fuelled megalomania. Before the ego rocketed, though, he floundered for years, going through different incarnations of himself and novelty singles with various versions of his band until eventually scoring a hit single with Space Oddity and then, promptly, messing up the subsequent album. Even the magnificent Changes from the, with hindsight, brilliant yet ignored album Hunky Dory failed to chart in the UK. These days, Bowie’s twitter feed and YouTube hype would have seen him implode with self-imposed expectation. Instead, back when there was privacy and memories weren’t supported by Wikipedia, through a Nietzsche superman style self will and stomping tunes he rebirthed himself as an alien rock-god. Two albums of phenomenal cultural zeitgeist success and, bored already, Bowie killed off Ziggy and the Spiders, live at the end of a documented concert, and transformed himself into a plastic soul prince. Fame’s fame nearly broke him, though, and he retreated into dystopian weariness to create the Berlin trilogy of albums that defined music for the remainder of the twentieth century (and somehow ended up being the soundtrack to last year euphoria fuelled Olympics).
‘You obsess over misery,’ a girl once said to me. ‘It’s like you’re desperate for it all to end badly.’ I think she probably meant melancholy or being morose rather than misery. I was rather depressed when I knew her, run down by a life that hadn’t met the dreams of my youth, but, still, it’s a handy bit of dialogue to borrow. I was going to write that Bowie kind of obsesses over misery too, but I’ve just realised that he doesn’t. Bowie obsesses over chaos and disorder. Rebel-Rebel and Suffragette City may be packed full of rock n roll exuberance, but the former is on a 1984 coming into existence concept album. Cheery and ordered it ain’t.
I think we forget how much of a mess the seventies were. Political terrorism in Western Europe, opposite ends of the left-right spectrum blowing each other up in capital cities, the rest of the world joining us in Armageddon fear as East and West kept their finger on the launch button, the oil crisis, monetary implosion, the three day week, intense industrial unrest, the mourning of the sixties social revolution’s death when everyone needed to grow up and get a job but there weren’t any left. Bowie’s music thrilled off the back of all this, dragging us wailing and singing into the glorious disastrous end. The world was checking out, but its finale would be a wonderful extravaganza of light and music.
Christ, when all that stopped no wonder he didn’t know how to tackle decades which weren’t supposed to exist.
Then it all went a bit wrong, didn’t it? Let’s Dance’s unashamed pop may be unjustly scorned, but what followed, stadium filling chart fluster, ill-advised MickJagger collaborations, the garage rock boredom of Tin Machine, forays into drum and bass (Battle of Britain is a good, if not great, single, but no-one needs to listen to the whole of Earthling) and then finally, the light shines on old age and a respectability as a narrator of life and times with aging albums.
He found some sort of centre, but, maybe, as the twenty-first century has marched on that centre has rocked. Maybe we’re not out of the apocalypse woods yet. The Next Day may, sort of, suggest that Bowie thinks he’s only entering his second phase, but that judgement needs more hindsight than the hysteria that’s gathering around it now, still, really, who’d have it any other way? Fuck it. If it’s going to fail, better to do so in splendour than never to even try, right?
‘I have an idea for a novel,’ I remember telling a fellow Bowie fan, aged fifteen, on the way home from school. ‘Well a vague idea. I want to write something based around Ziggy Stardust, but a more literal interpretation of the songs. Five Years. Moonage Daydream. Lady Stardust. All woven together. The end of the world. A teenage boy and girl, no-one’s too sure which is which. Guitars. Aliens. Sex. Death.’
‘That’s my idea,’ he shouted indignantly and, truthfully, I wasn’t even surprised.
Bowie’s Ziggy albums speak to the excited teenage in all of us. If you let it, the rest of his work follows you through your life. Just remember to skip Never Let Me Down.
A couple of years later, I saw the girl again at a party, one of those teenage parties where the air of someone’s parents’ lounge is fogged with cigarette smoke drifting back in through the open windows and the last drizzle from upturned cans of beer trails onto the carpet already muddied by the overturned pot plant. All far from true chaos yet also a long way from politely sitting around the dinner table with red wine - the sort of party I’ve become used to these days. The music was always more important when you’re young. It was grunge’s last days, Britpop’s peak and the coming of ubiquitous house-techno-rock fusion, so I was mildly surprised to note that someone had put Bowie on. As Starman reached its arms around the shoulder possible allusion to casual sex with inter-galactic visitors zenith, the girl from my bedroom turned to me and said: ‘Oh, maybe I do get it after all.’ But by then it was already far too late.
Six not necessarily obvious Bowie songs for you to enjoy:
1) All the Young Dudes. Seriously at one point Bowie had so much creativity oozing out of him he gave this song to Mott and the Hopple. Mott and the fricking Hopple for God’s sake. Best bit? The way he layers up the images of devastation around him and his voice kind hits a squealing desperation.
2) Somebody Up There Likes Me. Young Americans is one of my favourite Bowie albums – this squawling mania is a perfect example of its brilliance. Best bit? The way the whole song builds into a huge crescendo and you just know he doesn’t even believe it himself
3) Always Crashing In The same Car. ‘Heroes?’ is the most famous Berlin single, but I love the melancholy of this, about Bowie dinking his rented Mercedes in a German car-park. Best bit? The way it all sounds so terrible and yet, hell, it could be a lot worse couldn’t it? There’s a surprisingly, underlying cheer there too.
4) Modern Love. For pure pop this is near on perfect. Best bit? Right at beginning: ‘I know when to go out, I know when to stay in.’ No, David, you definitely didn’t. (Truly dreadful video, mind).
5) Absolute Beginners. Not all of the eighties and nineties were bad for Bowie, this genius song is one of my all time favourites but it’s hidden away on a soundtrack; sublime. Best bit? The whole futility of the age of despair laced through the whole song, even the soaring vocal. Bo-bah-doom, indeed. (And a surprisingly good video, for the eighties, where private-eye Bowie seems to be perused by a strange cat lady as he tries to buy some fags, and then a giant typewriter turns up. Awesome.)
6) Everyone Says Hi, many fans dislike Bowie’s later life phase wishing he was still their teenage idol. This, however, I think, is both charmingly optimistic for life whilst realising the doom and gloom which are always on the edge of everything we do. Best bit? It’s mawkishness. Which is also its worst bit, but everyone’s allowed some weary sentimentality sometimes, aren’t they? Especially when the tune as well synched to your emotions as this is.