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David Bowie


1 February 2016 Blog The Queen Street Observer

First an apology. It’s been a month since David Bowie died and if you’re suffering from Bowie fatigue then trust me, it’s not my intention to add to your misery but I just feel the need to add my piece to the Everest of tributes. Many hundreds of thousands of words have been uttered in his honour across every conceivable forum, many by people who in some cases knew him or worked with him for forty years or more. My blog for February had already been written when the news broke but I decided to park that one and start again.

The alarm on my phone sounded at 7.15 on the morning of January 11th and I scrambled across the darkened room to silence it. When I picked it up my attention was immediately drawn to the notification scrolling across the top of the screen – “Guardian Music : David Bowie dead at 69”. It took a moment to fully register with me, blinking, re-reading the headline and then clicking through to the full article to make sure I’d read it right. But there it was. That morning will now always be stored in my memory alongside Elvis in 1977 and John Lennon in 1980 – a crystal clear, full colour snapshot of where I was, who I was with and how I had heard the news the day each of them died. This is something that’s always struck me as being rather odd because I like a wide variety of musicians, some of whom have passed into the great beyond, but in most cases the details of their demises are hazy at best. Two examples for you, Joe Strummer and Warren Zevon. Much as I admire them and their work I have no recollection of hearing of Joe’s death and just a vague one concerning Warren.  I guess it’s because in the era I grew up in Elvis, Lennon and Bowie were game changers.

David Bowie

As I’ve already mentioned, in the days after Bowie’s death the world took to social media to share memories and express the pain and sadness most felt. I spent many a long hour reading tributes from fans, ordinary everyday people like you or I, and then there were the ones from those who’d encountered him in some work related capacity. Steve Nieve from Elvis Costello’s band the Attractions and Chris Difford from Squeeze would be among the best of those for me. The ones I found most powerful and moving of all were a two minute video recorded in an art gallery in Scotland and one posted by St. Albans Cathedral of all places, both coincidentally featuring “Life on Mars” being played on a cathedral organ. Believe me, for sheer majesty and power there are few things which can match the sound of a cathedral organ in full flight. It was “Starman” which introduced me to Bowie rather than “Space Oddity”. I picked up on that one some time later so I got them the wrong way ’round but it matters little. The entire summer of 1972 is one long childhood memory forever bathed in a honey-tinted glow for no apparent reason, though possibly it had a lot to do with it being the year I became the proud owner of a tiny MW/LW radio which most nights was by my side, blasting out Radio Luxembourg, the Fab 208. ’72 was a wonderful year for music, chart hits especially, and one of my favourites was of course “Starman”. Yes, truly a summer to be viewed through a golden prism – and then came the Olympics in Munich. But that’s another story.

Because we didn’t have multi channel in the city until 1975 (Remember those single channel days? How on earth would today’s kids survive, eh?) it would be a few more years  before I’d see the famous Top of the Pops footage of Bowie performing “Starman”, a cultural reference point of the 1970s cited by many future musicians as an inspirational and Eureka moment. Neither did I get the gender bending sexual politics going on in his music at this time although by the time we got to 1974 and the “Diamond Dogs” album the penny had dropped and I was thinking, hello, there’s definitely something else happening here, some kind of pushing of the boundaries ‘though I’m not quite sure what!  I wasn’t alone in that though because the late, lamented Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson didn’t really get it either.  As Bowie told it Ronno was a no-nonsense character from Hull, where men were men busy with doing manly things and as such was decidedly heterosexual. He was deeply suspicious of the glam rock garb and the whole Bowie stage show and theatrical persona of this time. He was persuaded to go along with it and thank God he did because his guitar work and musical arrangements were a huge part of Bowie’s music in the first half of the 70s.

Of the music itself, I’d eagerly await each new release and while some would leave me baffled there was always at least one nugget within so that you could say to yourself, yes, Bowie’s still got the knack. I must confess though that the fabled Berlin trilogy of albums rather left me cold for the most part but that was part of the deal with the Thin White Duke, wasn’t it? Constantly changing, searching, exploring and refusing to be pigeon-holed. If you were prepared to join him on the journey you just knew that somewhere along the way you’d be rewarded for your patience and usually were. Perhaps the actor Simon Pegg said it best –

“If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

Yes, absolutely so.

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