Hearing the news early this morning, that David Bowie was dead, and seeing it ripple out across Twitter and Facebook in real time – seemingly everyone I knew (or had ever heard of) was affected by the news.
There have been so many people saying things like, “He told me it was okay to be different when everyone around me told me it wasn’t.”
I’ve been so excited to hear the new record, you know? I’ve always been interested in hearing what he was doing. He was the first songwriter or musician whose work I can really remember discovering for myself – rather than through my friends or my parents’ record collection. That counts for a lot, I think.
I first encountered him through a tape that my uncle’s friend had made. Hand-lettered J card and everything. It began with ‘Space Oddity’ and concluded about an hour later with, I think, his version of ‘Dancing In The Streets’. In between there was ‘Starman’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘TVC 15’ and ”Heroes” and ‘Sound & Vision’ (which I can remember feeling impatient with, at eight years old, listening on earphones in bed in the dark, because yes, for the first half of that song he’s simply nowhere to be heard) and ‘D.J.’ and ‘Fashion’…
My parents didn’t have any of his records. I had to head out and get them for myself, second-hand, from Scorpion Records in Wycombe and in the market stalls in Poole (while visiting my grandma). By now I would have been 13 or 14? I can remember sitting on the bed in her spare room poring over the Low and ‘Heroes’ LPs that I paid £8 each for, looking at the sleeves, trying to imagine what they’d be like when I got home to my record player.
And then 1. Outside came out, and I saw him do ‘Spaceboy’ on Later, and ‘Strangers When We Meet’ is definitely one of my favourite songs by anyone, and for at least a couple of years thereafter I wanted nothing quite as much as I wanted to be a guitar player in David Bowie’s band. It seemed like the most fun a young man could possibly have. Well.
(I’ve gone back and deleted so many paragraphs from this post that are just stories I can remember of how I’ve listened to his music; when/where I listened to it; what it made me consider doing; what it made me desire; what I think I learned from it about music, or writing, or something else; who else I checked out on the basis of some allusion or reference he made…)
In my favourite songs of his, I think I can hear him joyfully playing with what a pop song is, what we expect a pop song to do, what we expect the person who sings a pop song to do (or, later: what we expect a pop star in his sixties to do…). Songs inhabited (particularly on Outside, but elsewhere too) by contesting voices; words that sometimes resist understanding and other times are perfectly, horribly clear; instrumental breaks made up of tangled wreckage…
But when all that is said and done, there are still songs – quite a number – like ‘Changes’, which doesn’t have any of that po-mo stuff going on: it’s just utterly gorgeous and very true.
He had great taste and good fortune in collaborators: Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson, Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar, Reeves Gabrels, others I’m sure I’ve overlooked. I think he understood that to do what he wanted to do in the way he wanted to do it, he needed ‘lighting directors’, ‘set designers’, ‘script editors’. In my favourite songs of his, all of these elements come together at once to produce something very special, something that for me has worked so well, and often so immediately, with the vividness of one of my own dreams, that I can’t help feeling a sense of loss today.
His work has excited and fascinated me for as long as I’ve been paying any sort of attention to pop music. It’s not sad, but instead weird, to think that there won’t be any more of it. I’ll get used to the idea, of course, but I think that for me, listening to his music felt like being able to visit an entire other imagination, lush and strange and sometimes dangerous, and never (okay, very rarely) boring. I don’t know how many other artists’ work I’ve experienced this kind of bond with. And that his songs so often make themselves felt with that sense of play, of lightness, of delight in possibilities … I suspect that’s a good lesson for anyone who wants to make art.
And this song is such a strange, wonderful thing. What a way to say goodbye.