When I was six years old, one of my cousins recorded some fragment of a music TV programme on VHS tape. One of the videos was for David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” I was fascinated, lying in front of the TV, and rewinding it and watching it and rewinding it and watching it until the tape was knackered and crackly. I was both transfixed and confused by him — peak-80s Bowie, with his blonde (lightly permed?) hair, wonky teeth and baggy suit. He was less easy to read than the more cartoonish Michael Jackson (“Billie Jean” was next on the tape) — more serious, somehow. His “serious moonlight” stuck in my head, as did the intensity with which he sang this purest of pop songs, staring at me from inside the screen.
Later, in art school, when I got more of a chance to build my own taste, I bought his ‘Singles’ double-CD, and fished out old LPs from charity shops, and slowly got to know his back catalogue. I read interviews in old magazines, and pinned up a picture of him in a mint green suit and eye shadow, with his red 70s mane. In 1997, inspired by electronic and dance music, he released “Little Wonder” and ‘Earthling.’ I rushed out to the record shop, and had it on repeat for days. Even during the retro, nationalistic festival that was Britpop, Bowie had moved off into a tangential direction, turned on, as always, by pushing the envelope. My strong feeling of affinity with this inventive ‘otherness’ and restless creativity had established itself subtly, but firmly, over time.
In the year 2000, I finally got to see him play live, headlining at Glastonbury (dubbed “Glastonbowie” that year by the UK tabloids). I still quote that show when asked “What’s the best gig of your life?” It was a flawless ‘greatest hits’ dream-set at which he took the stage like an emperor, with long, flowing blonde hair and a white suit, raising his silver cane to the hysterical two-minute ovation and saying, “Oh, Glastonbury…” (and I’ll firmly testify that the fact that I was coming up on E for the first time was incidental to this judgement).
I saw him once more, later, on the ‘Reality’ tour, after talking my girlfriend into spending some of our student loans on a pair of expensive tickets, seated way at the back of the Birmingham NEC. He played in a tattered blue suit with a red rag as a tie, and seemed to have barely aged since that first “Let’s Dance” video. He still had that chaotic gleam in his eye, and his devilish smile. After “All The Young Dudes” the crowd went berserk, and he muttered in his cockney accent: “Oh, you liked one, did you… well, this next one is just what you’ll want — a bloody quiet new one,” cackling as the band broke into sombre album-track “The Loneliest Guy.”
Basically, as long as I’ve loved music, David Bowie has been there. His death has crossed my mind before — in fact, it’s fair to say I’ve been dreading this day, and the idea of a post-Bowie world, for decades. Despite his mixed-yield 90s and aughts output, and his reclusively low profile since then, his recent pair of artistically successful latter-day LPs revealed a mind still ticking, still working, still searching.
‘Blackstar’ — his final album, and strongest since the 1980s — muses on mortality. The video for “Lazarus”, released just four days ago, shows the macabre image of Bowie confined to a hospital bed, seeing the world through bandaged eyes. He jerkily emerges from a wardrobe and sits at a desk to feverishly, theatrically scrawl down some words of poetry, as if groping for profundity, the last minute having snuck up suddenly. His writing leaves the paper and continues down the leg of the desk before he twitchingly recedes back into the dark wardrobe, singing “I’ll be free just like that bluebird — ain’t that just like me?”, and closing the door behind him.
Today, it seems like a creepily prescient “goodbye” from one of the most daring, artistic musicians we ever had the pleasure of knowing. Forget the trotted-out, Union Jack-waving BBC “British pop icon” tributes — the death of David Bowie deserves a more genuine sadness than that. He was a peerless, irreplaceable creator of genuine depth, and a one-off human being, who leaves both a stunning body of work and a gaping hole in the art and music landscape.