Sunday 17 January 2016

Goodnight David Bowie – One In A Million

I found out via a friend on Facebook about your demise, oblivious earlier in the day when the rest of the world had already heard.  I didn't believe it. Who would? Who could? My brain hurt a lot.

Why, I’d just posted a picture of you for my profile picture on Facebook to wish you a happy birthday, your 69th,  a couple of days before. When you were younger you thought you’d die young, like Marc Bolan maybe, but when you passed middle age I thought you’d go on and on. Instead you winked out on the same date as my father – cancer also took him twelve years ago on January 10th.

Everyone has their own personal memories of you and what you meant to them and I am no exception. I am one of a million, not one in a million as you are. I grew up listening to the charts. I remember Space Oddity in the charts in 1969 when I was ten.  

David Bowie in his early years

Your songs were becoming big hits for other people: Oh You Pretty Things for Peter Noone, and All The Young Dudes for Mott The Hoople which you wrote to save their ailing career – still one of my favourite ever songs. But it wasn’t until you appeared on Top Of The Pops in 1972 playing Starman that something turned on inside me.  I didn't realize then that others would report, years later, that this appearance of yours had been life-changing for them too. But to me, as a not-quite-thirteen-year-old you made a lasting impression, with your spiky hair and androgyny; your unworldly eyes – each a different colour. And the song was wonderful.

David Bowie singing Starman

I became a big fan.  When my family moved back to the outskirts of Liverpool later that year, my sister Ann and I developed our character-inventions. 'Our people' we called them, though we started out acting real characters, like you and Alice Cooper – another of our heroes - before inventing our own.

I remember seeing my brother ready to go out somewhere, one night, with my oldest sister, and I
asked him where he was going. He said he was going to see you. I was so jealous.  I wanted to go too!  Nowadays we can check it all online and I see that the date you appeared at Liverpool in 1972 was September 4th at the Top Rank. I had to wait until the following summer in 1973 to see you at Liverpool Empire. My first ever concert.

In September 1972 I went to a new school and met new friends. One of my friends, Sharon, was a Marc Bolan fan, but also a fan of you. She knew things. Like the date you were coming to the Liverpool Empire and sometime in the spring we took the bus into town to buy tickets. I remember us sitting upstairs on the bus, excited with anticipation, and we bought three tickets, one each for us and one for my sister Ann.

That concert was on June 10th 1973.  I didn’t need to check on the internet because it’s indelibly written on my mind as is the fact that you did two performances, though when I checked the internet it was of course confirmed.  I just wish there was some footage somewhere.  Maybe some will be unearthed some day. We had no cameras in those days, well few did, not like today’s kids with their iphones, ready to document every note, every chord, every flaunt and swagger. We went to the later performance on that date and could hear your first performance from outside. To think you were just on the other side of those bricks, that side entrance.  Did Sharon speak to one of the bouncers who talked about people falling in the pit - where orchestras normally play? There were denim-clad and dyed-hair kids buzzing with anticipation. It was just over a week to my 14th birthday.  I didn’t have a great selection of clothes, I wore an orange t-shirt, one discarded by my oldest sister, maroon loons, and love beads - all the rage then. They cost about 10 pence but they broke during the concert. Some scattered off the thread and I threw the rest of them at you.  We were so near the front we were crushed against the bar of the pit.  We didn’t care.  We don’t at that age.  I was so mesmerised by you, I reached a trance-like state as you delighted us with your songs and your change of outfits, all ostentatious and outrageous and camp.  

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust Tour

At one point, when you were singing Starman, the bit where it goes ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you-oo-oo’ as you did the you-oo-oo’ you pointed to three different people at the front. One of them was me.  Was I the second one you pointed to?  Maybe if we could play these things back we would find it wasn’t as we thought.  It is all a blur now but at the time, I knew, I was a hundred per cent certain I was one of those you pointed at and 'had to phone'. For you it was just another concert, just part of what you did, night after night, but for me?  I don’t remember whether that was before or after my resolve, but somewhere in that concert I decided it wasn’t enough just to watch you. I had to be up there with you – just for one second, so that you would know of me, that I existed, and it would be just me and you, for that one second.  But something went wrong. I jostled in an effort to carry out this resolve, Ann must have moved too, Sharon last seen trying to make her way across one of the bars in the pit and being thwarted by a bouncer.  I think I wanted to head to the stage door, hopeless and naive and starstruck teen that I was. But we were jammed packed like sardines, and there were some horrid opportunistic young boys - (well, we assumed they were young, all the people at the front were adolescents) - who from behind jabbed their fingers down our pants (mine and Ann’s), taking advantage of our enforced restriction. We couldn’t even bat them off because there was no room to swing an arm.  God how they jabbed. It was excruciating.  But we couldn't even see their arms, let alone their faces. We’d not come for this, but this was the 1970s for you. I guess we'd already invaded each other's space so the vile boys thought they could trespass some more.  I'm sure we tried to move but they moved with us in the scrum and if we had been able to turn, a scuffle would have ensued and we'd have lost our place.  I didn't feel my body violated so much as my enjoyment. How dare they? What were they doing there if they just wanted to finger girls?  But I don’t want to dwell on that, except to say that by the end of the evening my bra was torn and Ann’s handbag was stolen along with her make-up.  Or it may have been her handbag was emptied of its contents. The whole place was a wreck. The seats were all ripped up and Ann was most upset about her handbag.  Sharon gave Ann a bit of her make-up on the bus home and earlier a kind bloke helped Ann look for her bag or its missing contents and gave her his programme of the concert, as a sort of consolation, which we still have somewhere. We come across it from time to time when moving house or searching the boxes in the cupboard.  I wish I could locate it easily along with one or two other things, like that picture I did of you all in dots.

But through the years I have been determined not to let those scumbags ruin my memory of what was an otherwise magical experience.

The following day Ann sat an O level which she failed, but suffice to say, if she didn't know the stuff by the night before it was too late anyway.

I bought the Ziggy Stardust album not long after the concert. It was my first album, and as is with any firsts, you always remember and treasure it. I played it to death. I got my hair cut that autumn and somebody told me I looked like you with it short where previously it had been straggling to my shoulders, thick like a mop.

I went on to buy Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold The World, your earlier albums which enjoyed a revival as did Space Oddity which Ann bought. She also bought Aladdin Sane. They were our favourites.  Ann picked up The World of David Bowie, one of your earliest recordings where you were likened to Anthony Newley, for a few pence. It is probably worth a few bob now. The hits kept coming. After Starman, there was The Jean Genie, Drive In Saturday, Life On Mars, Sorrow. In 1974, when you had already moved on from your Ziggy era, I had a Bowie cut, or an attempted one.  It didn’t quite work as yours did but I have a few passport mementos from that time.  I confess to being quite obsessed with you.

My attempts at a Bowie-cut, 1974

I decided to dot my ‘i’s’ like yours with the circle on top, rather than the dot.  As mentioned earlier, I did a pencil sketch of you all in dots – I came across it a few months ago but again I can’t find it now

that I want it. I think I wrote the date on it. It was 1974 sometime. I was rather pleased with it. It was a good likeness. I did another one of you, possibly in felt tip, in numbers, rather than dots, but I wasn’t as pleased with that one. Ann also did drawings of you. But they are elusive, like you always have been. That’s what I tell myself about the disappointment at not being able to locate them, at not having the stamina any more for hauling boxes out of cupboards. Maybe I should do another, for old times' sake, in your honour. It was in the summer of 1974 also, that I got drunk for the first time - and I mean seriously drunk -  on holiday in Harlech. Ann and I took the train to Barmouth, where we met some guys who shared their wine with us on the beach. We left them puking while I felt this strange new lease of life and liberation as I sang 'Drive In Saturday' at the top of my voice down the high street as heads turned. I remember seeing them but I felt no embarrassment although I did do some other embarrassing things as one does when under the influence!

In our shoplifting phase, I think it was Ann who nicked a book called The David Bowie Story from a Liverpool store. It wasn’t expensive but we didn’t have much money and we read it from cover to cover, devoured the pictures and the details about your background. Another memento lost over the years to mildew or a charity shop or even the cupboard!

David Bowie as a child - then David Jones

At the beginning of 1975 we watched Cracked Actor, a documentary about your life so far. I was very interested in masks and personas and mental illness then.  You said something about ‘I’m glad I’m me now’.  You felt a bit schizophrenic, you said. Like you felt Ziggy was taking over and you no longer knew where he ended and you began. That’s why you killed him off.  I wrote something about having a new understanding about why you’d done that, because now I was all of 15, and so I was starting to get it, why you needed to change, evolve, kill off Ziggy. I started to get why you didn’t want to be stuck, typecast, stereotyped! It made sense to me all of a sudden.  You’d done something very clever. You’d quit while at your height.  Only a few people can pull it off.  But you did it not only for your sanity. But because you were ready for the next challenge. That was you. Always you. Those notes of mine are probably with the elusive drawings. In a too-safe place.

David Bowie in 'Cracked Actor'

I liked Young Amercians. I liked the funkiness of Fame.  I wasn’t so keen on the stuff you were doing in the mid and late 70s but I admired you for it.  People have always said you were a master of reinvention; it’s become a cliché, but it’s true. I went to see The Man Who Fell To Earth at the pictures and later watched Elephant Man on TV as well as other plays featuring you.

As Ann said on Facebook the other day, “I love the way David Bowie invented characters and they became a part of his life. Kate and I act out characters together and we live in a fantasy world which becomes our reality in the way that Ziggy became Bowie's character. These characters often become bigger than us.”

The many faces of Bowie

For years I have included many of my characters in my writing. Nowadays everyone unashamedly acts out characters in everyday life – people adopt personas on social media all the time!

After your Ziggy era Ann and I got into the next big exciting thing in music – punk, new wave, the colour and theatre of the New Romantics. Would these have happened if it wasn’t for you? So much that we now take for granted, can be traced back to you and your innovation. You were at the cutting edge with your gender fluidity and your appetite for change.

I saw you again in 1987 with my friend Jacky as part of your Glass Spider Tour. When I say ‘saw you’, that is a bit of a stretch. You played at Wembley Stadium on June 19th that year, the day after my 28th birthday. I was in bed the day before with a stinking cold.  The cold was still heavy on the 19th but I wanted to go so we travelled by train from Bournemouth. Jacky bought me a brandy or something.  It will be in my 1987 diary.  We went to an art gallery first but I just sat in a daze. The evening came and Big Country were on first in the pouring rain.  Then you came on.  Wembley Stadium is a far cry from Liverpool Empire.  We only had a distant view of the stage so they had screens up, only our screen wasn’t working. So we missed all your theatrics, except for the odd couple of minutes we caught of you courtesy of the people in front who lent us their binoculars once or twice. The rain was relentless.

David Bowie in later years
I have followed what you’ve been up to in the intervening years, from time to time. Not obsessively. You mellowed into something warm and humorous, like that sketch you did with Ricky Gervais. There was the recent art exhibition of portraits of you at the V & A. There were people who knew you earlier in your life, like a former vicar at my mum’s church who’d played in a band with you. In fact, I Googled it and lo and behold there’s an article in the Exeter Express and Echo about his early days with you:

Former vicar Alan Dodds who played in schoolboy band The Konrads with Bowie

The man who owns the shop Papermoon in my home town also claims to have known you and his dog is called Ziggy. So I feel I am connected with you, tangentially, as it were. They knew you, I have met them, ergo we are connected. From time to time I would fantasise about meeting up with you, via these people, although in truth I knew it was never likely to happen!

You have always been there in our lives, doing something, pushing the boundaries. But still we could not predict you.  You knew when you made Blackstar and Lazarus. You knew the effect it would have on us.  Mysterious, enigmatic and one step ahead in death as in life.  Always full of surprises.  And you kept one more for your departure. We should have predicted you would use death as another art form.  It seems obvious with hindsight, only most of us don't have the foresight. But it is one thing to enact death, when it is distant and far-off, quite another when it is happening. How brave, how poignant.

We thought you were immortal. But time takes a cigarette, his trick is you and me, boy. In the end, we are all stardust. Ashes to ashes. Planet earth is blue, mourning you. Part of my past, our collective past, has died with you.  Your passing has made us all too aware of our own mortality.

Yet part of you will always be immortal. Isn't that why we bequeath our art?  You always will be a legend. Your music, your legacy, it will always be. You were more that a rock star: you were an innovator, a musician, a poet, a philospher, a style icon, a trailblazer, a risk-taker, a visionary, not quite of this earth.  

Goodnight Starman.


  1. Great piece. Full of your own personal memories, opaque to the average reader. Yet.. why not? Our memories are all we have, and your piece won't read like any of those other obituaries (see the mice in their million hordes).

    1. Many thanks, TiddK. Yes it needed to be was what he meant to me personally which prompted me to write it but hopefully there'll be stuff there that may resonate with others.

  2. Thanks for this Kate. Reminds me how lucky we were to have Bowie. I never saw him live, but he certainly played a backdrop to my life in the early seventies before punk came along.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Colin. Good to know he and his music was there in your life before pre-punk!