Great planning, David
So THAT’S what Blackstar was about. David Bowie, who died yesterday aged 69 after a long illness, said farewell in the most eloquent, meaningful and stylish way possible with his last album released only days ago. He left his fans a valuable parting gift that will speak to us for as long as there’s music and human beings to listen to it.
We did a collective “Aaah” as we learnt the worst and realised he was talking to us beyond his mortal death; Blackstar is a letter to us written over the 18 months since he was told that the cancer he’d been diagnosed four years ago would kill him in a year. (The exact timeline of his illness isn’t quite clear at the moment of writing.)
Last night, the night he died, journalist Charles Shaar Murray and I were grooving to the CD which had just arrived. It’s deeply saddening to know we were dancing along to it even as he took his last breath. However, now that we do, a whole new dimension has opened up where we can still be with him, fathoming the unfathomable, working out his puzzle, reading the hieroglyphs he left us.
David entered my life before I even hit puberty and has never left. I was transported to heaven in 1969 by his single Space Oddity and again when it was re-released in 1972. My cousin bought me a cassette of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and I never looked back.
Ziggy kid and lifelong Bowie fan
If you were a dreamy, creative kid who didn’t fit in, David was your guide, big bruv and your own personal Starman. It wasn’t just that he was supernaturally gorgeous: he exuded love and that’s what we valued. Of course, I know he was a chameleon who you could project yourself into and onto but I won’t call him a blank canvas because he was anything but blank. He had the ability to hook out your innermost best and make it fly.
And the music …
He gave shape to the inchoate and told us ‘Oh no, love, you’re not alone’. It’s hard not to embrace that when you’re convinced that you are.
‘Life on Mars’ made me cry because I was the girl, maybe not with the mousy hair, but with the dysfunctional family in a world of which I was desperately trying to make sense. David was steering me from a sunken dream to the seat with the clearest view, and I was indeed hooked to the silver screen which was my escape.
‘Her mummy is yelling no,
and her daddy has told her to go.’
Okay, it was actually the reverse, but parental rejection was so familiar to me that for a long time this was MY song.
A major part of David’s appeal was that he was looking up at the stars away from the sailors fighting in the dance hall and wondering if there was life on Mars way above the daily turmoil. The highest note in the song is that soaring MA-A-ARS at the peak of the chorus that lifts you into another realm of consciousness, like he’s waking you up and leading the way out. And we eagerly looked up there with him. In ‘Blackstar’ he’s doing it again, still our leader — well, more pioneer than leader — but with us quivering in fear behind him as he prepares to make his final journey.
I’d dance myself into a Rite of Spring frenzy to ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Width of a Circle’. I felt the torment of the singer in ‘John, I’m only Dancing’ being drawn to someone he shouldn’t, and behind it all, that guitar that could wail and chuck out a stomping rhythm. On TV, ‘Starman’ introduced us to David’s blonde guitar-toting sidekick, Mick ‘Ronno’ Ronson, who was also the recipient of our powerful young emotions. I can remember most of the lyrics up to and including the Diamond Dogs album even when I can’t remember what I had to eat last night.
I missed the legendary Rainbow gig where his mentor, mime artist Lindsey Kemp, shared the stage and Roxy Music was the support act, but I was determined to make up for it when more London dates were announced. Under age I may have been but I was a girl on a mission. I bussed it from Mare Street in Hackney and queued overnight at the Kilburn State Gaumont and the Hammersmith Odeon in order to secure front-row centre seats.
We early birds at the head of the queue bonded tightly, guarding each other when we went to pee under Hammersmith Bridge, saving each other’s places in the queue and sharing provisions. It’s lovely to watch the DA Pennebaker film of the final Ziggy gigs and spot everyone forever young and filled with love. (I can be seen briefly during ‘Width of a Circle’.)
The build-up was spectacular. David’s frocks annoyed the hell out of elderly relatives when his photos were published in the tabloids, confirming to us that he represented something a world apart from their rigidly oppressive minds. At Hammersmith we buzzed with anticipation. Someone read out a piece in the NME about David announcing he was retiring, shock, horror, the first time I ever heard the name of the journalist, Charles Shaar Murray.
Quick, there might not be enough of him to go round. But thankfully there was.
We all dressed up. There were all sorts of variations on David’s iconic haircut and Angie Bowie’s platinum white do. Angie was Bowie royalty, being married to him and very much part of his creative team, much loved by the fans. I still vividly recall her in a red and white striped top and white pants, walking from limo to the glass doors while we squealed with excitement and craned to get a peek. The Mainman crew (Warhol’s Cherry Vanilla and Leee Black-Childers et al) were all there. Lulu turned up. Wow. I mean, she was a mainstream entertainer and even she was entranced by the outsider transitioning to insider and cultural icon.
Of the fans, I made close friends with Dena, on whom I developed a crush, and her mate John Shipcott who would babysit Zowie (Duncan Jones) and thrill us with tales of hanging up David’s wonderful costumes and, glory of glories, show us photos of the house interior on pain of death if we told anyone. And Debbie who had the best Angie haircut thanks to an indulgent mum. I remember a guy called Henry who was a dead-ringer in his carroty spiked hair and Ziggy flash. It was all sparkle and glitter, lurex and spangles.
For the final three gigs at the Hammersmith Odeon I sprayed my green peplumed leather jacket silver (the one I wore to school instead of the requisite green serge blazer) and wore it with white trousers. My mother allowed me to wreck our beautiful Chinese parasol that smelt strongly of mothballs by gluing on big silver letters that spelt ‘David is my Nirvana’, ’cause I’d just learnt what Nirvana meant and felt this was an appropriate time to use it. When I opened it in the front row, I was rewarded with a kiss blown directly at me. I still recall the sensation of my heart thumping through my chest, tears wellng and my spirit soaring out of the top of my head. David had NOTICED me!
Buying front row tickets was a bit of a waste for as soon as the lights went down and Wendy Carlos’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (from Stanley Kubrick’s movie of Clockwork Orange) struck up with its ‘bom, bom, bom, bom’, everyone rushed the stage anyway. This was quite dangerous because the orchestra pit between us and beloved David was guarded by an iron rail that came up to mid-thigh, way below your centre of gravity. Your legs were seriously in danger of being broken in the crush. The security guards — who were far from modern thug bouncers and looked after the fans — regularly had to drag us over the rail and out of the melee.
Some harboured fantasies of then being led backstage where they could meet our hero but I suspected they’d just be released into the wilds of Hammersmith outside the back door and have to start all over again from the main entrance. I spent long periods of the three shows bracing myself on the shoulders of security, several of us sometimes leaning on each bloke. This meant that I could barely use my 8mm Bolex movie camera but I surreptitiously shot a fair bit and would take it to all my 1970s gigs. Sadly, my mother threw out my film years later, but that’s a horror story for another time.
The climax and moment of greatest tension … well, there were a few of those. ‘My Death’ when David left the longest pause and we all yelled, “ME!”. David going down on Ronno’s guitar. Or the end of the show wondering if there would be an encore and they’d all come back on and thunder through ‘White Light, White Heat’.
On the third and last night when my legs could no longer take it, I wandered into the almost empty Odeon lobby and perched on the Herbie VW car doing promo service for the movie due the following week. A tall bloke wandered over and struck up conversation and eventually asked me if I wanted to go to a party that night. I said yes and that’s how I ended up at the Café Royale in Regent Street for David’s retirement party. I may have been traumatised along with everyone else by his onstage confirmation that this would be his last gig, but going to the party was a powerful consolation prize.
Here we were in one of Oscar Wilde’s hangouts. Brian Conolly, blonde singer of The Sweet, was not terribly nice but Lulu, Angie and Mick Ronson were so kind. I was filming Lulu and Angie with my little Bolex when Angie said something I couldn’t hear and Lulu repeated it, saying, ‘She said you’re too gorgeous.’ By now I was feeling like Cinderella with three hours to go before pumpkin time.
When David walked in he filled the room which was already rammed with stars. He was short in stature but huge in spirit.
I was too shy to crash into his conversations but I did chat to Mick Ronson and took a selfie movie, now sadly gone with all my other 8mm footage and belongings in the Great Mother’s Purge.
I took the film and projection kit into school when it came back from the developer’s for anyone who was interested – about half a dozen of us — and it dawned on me. Whatever the imagination-free say or do in their efforts to crush you underfoot or drive you under the tread of their tanks, there was indeed room in this world for someone like me.
At my lowest, when all the nightmares came today, his single ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was riding high in the charts. It formed the second bookend on my hopeful childhood and youth, the first being ‘Space Oddity’. I needed an axe to break the ice but that wouldn’t be happening any time soon. In the meantime, David provided a musical memory from which to draw strength and I thank him for that.
RIP David. Love ya. xxx
[Edited 16.01.16 to say more about the music of Life on Mars]