From the first moment I heard “Moonage Daydream” under the covers listening to the John Peel show late at night on my little transistor radio, Bowie was my man.
I’ve been trying to explain to my teenage son just how influential he was to my generation and what it was like to grow up with Bowie as an ever-evolving soundtrack, in those ten magical years when he barely put a foot wrong – buying the records as soon as they came out, staring for hours at the covers and the inner sleeves, not just learning the words (even when I didn’t understand them, which was a lot of the time) but absorbing the lyrics like some kind of extra terrestrial air.
The way each new album seemed to catch perfectly the current mood – suddenly ready for change, full of new thoughts and half glimpsed understandings of things we had dreamed of but didn’t know how to describe, Bowie was so often the catalyst.
First love, first sex, dressing up, dancing, experimenting with drugs, reading, travelling, music, watching films…all the things you do when you’re growing up, we did them with Bowie as a soundtrack.
We loved him not just as a musician and performer but as a catalyst for ideas, like an orange haired psychic sieve who could suddenly catch you a falling star from all the crazy random thoughts whirling through the cosmos.
Through Bowie I learned about Aleister Crowley, William Burroughs, Krautrock, Nietzsche, Andy Warhol, Bertolt Brecht, Hollywood Babylon, Egon Schiele, Anthony Newley and Lindsay Kemp. If nothing else, this kind of namedropping came in very useful for annoying your teachers.
Musicians turned film stars are not always a good bet but director Nic Roeg already had form with Mick Jagger in “Performance” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” perfectly captured Bowie’s spooky, emaciated beauty. The casting was a genius mix of art meeting life. Strung out on coke and pale as milk, he looked every inch an other-worldly celebrity as Newton, huddled up in the back of a limo. We watched the famous contact lens scene and screamed. Not so much out of disgust but because you really could believe he was an alien.
In the mid 80s my best friend (and huge Bowie fan, to put it mildly) was Box Office manager at the ICA in London, and a few of us in our gang had casual work there. It was the sort of place where you’d find yourself serving Bono at the bar, or showing Terry Gilliam to his seat in the cinema.
But the big question was always, What would you do if David Bowie came in? Even though by this time he hadn’t made a great album for sometime. You didn’t even have to be a particular fan. He was still David Bowie. Everyone agreed that they would just be lost for words and crumble in his presence like no other.
Actually, when the day came, my friend was off duty and the guy doing front of house was an American, into hip hop and not quite so awed by middle-aged British rock legends.
“Are you a member?” he asked, hardly batting an eyelid. The rest of us were close to fainting. But everyone secretly agreed that we kind of preferred it that way, for many of us it was better to keep the mystery alive by keeping it at a distance.
It’s a little spooky though to think that even by the early 1980s, he already had such a legacy that there were “Bowie nights” celebrating his style and music. And yet he kept moving on.
Like the night Gary Numan made his debut on Top of the Pops –branded like a stick of rock with the mark of the Bowie clone, he looked and sounded as if he’d been listening to Heroes in his bedroom for a year. He had it all down pat – the synthesiser, the black clothes, the voice with more than a trace of Bowie doing Anthony Newley.
He would have really carried it off – except that Bowie was on the very same programme and completely trounced all contenders with a completely new direction in “Boys Keep Swinging”.
At a time when the nearest thing you’d get to a drag artiste on TV was Dame Edna Everage, he turned from a tongue in chic groover, all shoulder pads and quiff, into a trio of bored transvestites, one of them a dead ringer for Maggie Thatcher in her dotage. But that was Bowie for you. Always one foot in the future.
We’ll miss you, space boy. “They’ll never clone ya!” indeed.