“Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do…”
My A-level philosophy teacher was only seven years older than me. He had a long overcoat, a hatred of Blur and Friends and a great fondness for Quentin Tarantino, back when such a thing was acceptable. When I went to Leeds University – his old haunt – he pointed me in the direction of the best record shops and clubs, advising me to eschew “overrated, beery clubbing” for the underground scene – something I tried to do, with only limited success. He also loved David Bowie, which at first glance seems disappointingly mainstream. Didn’t everyone?
Yes and no. There were, in 1995, two Bowie albums in my collection. One was The Singles Collection, which took us all the way from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘ Day In Day Out’, some twenty years later. I played it regularly, skipping tracks I didn’t like. ‘Space Oddity’ was a play-to-yourself-in-your-room song, the sort of late night opus reserved for those times when I was truly miserable, of which there were plenty (unrequited love will do that to you). My first encounter with ‘Changes’ had occurred some months previously when it turned up in a music exam. I’d never heard anything like it: the chromaticism, the unorthodox piano and string combination (was there ever a song so singularly influential on the musical direction of ELO?) and that pulsing, throbbing voice, singing and not singing, like an eroticised Rex Harrison.
The other album was 1.Outside, the first in an incomplete series of concept albums intended to chart the final five years of the millennium. 1.Outside was sprawling, vast and borderline incomprehensible. It told the story of Baby Grace, victim of an ‘art murder’ investigated by Detective Nathan Adler. Bowie intersects songs with spoken segues, assuming a variety of voices and characters, as was his wont. The world he depicted was dark and dystopian and simultaneously familiar. The songs ranged from industrial to grandiose to downright noisy, the pounding thud of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ hinting at the musical direction he would later take with Earthling. It baffled many (“It would be good,” I remember reading in one magazine review, “to have him back down on Earth again”) but as someone who’d recently discovered Blade Runner I devoured it, determined to solve the mystery, devising anagrams for character names, looking for clues that probably weren’t there at all. It was just so coherent. Only the inclusion of ‘Strangers When We Meet’ – itself a leftover from The Buddha of Suburbia – seems somehow incongruous, although that doesn’t stop it being a darn good song in its own right.
That was – more or less – my introduction to David Bowie. Oh, I’d seen Labyrinth. We all had. My memory of that first time is a little sullied: Labyrinth was, at the age of ten, the video the class elected to watch as an end-of-term treat, winning by a landslide, while my own offering (a movie-of-the-week I’d taped from ITV) barely registered a single vote. That’s the sort of thing that can taint your enjoyment, but the truth is I watched and loved it along with the rest of the class, adoring Bowie’s costume and the colourful Muppet characters – and the songs, although I wouldn’t come to appreciate them until years later, largely thanks to an old friend who would occasionally rap the beginning of ‘Magic Dance’ in the office on those tedious Friday afternoons. Such exchanges also work very well on Facebook, except when this happens.
Me: You remind me of the babe.
Owen: What babe?
Donna-Marie: Labrynth!! ;D
Me: The babe with the power.
Donna-Marie: That’s the power of the babe!
Me: Arrrgh! Stop messing it up!
As an actor, Bowie was variable. On the one hand, Pontius Pilate. On the other hand, this.
I mean, Twin Peaks had its fair share of dreadful acting (James Marshall? I’m looking at you) but this is appalling. I know he’s supposed to be tortured and damaged but there’s no need to leave the audience in the same state. He looks like he’s just listened to both Tin Machine albums back to back. It would be tempting to mark this as a downward spiral, but it occurs some years before Basquiat, in which his portrayal of Andy Warhol lights up the screen. Yin and Yang.
Yesterday James Moran said “I love how we all found Bowie at different times, and all met a different person. He was a Time Lord, and we were briefly his companions.” Certainly Capaldi wanted him on board for series nine, and I have no doubt that he’d have been marvellous as an enigmatic villain. There is, somewhere, a parallel universe where Bowie was cast as the Sixth or Eighth Doctor, and the series was never cancelled. If Everett’s many-worlds interpretation rings true, there is equally another universe in which the show didn’t make it past ‘The Twin Dilemma’. Yin and Yang.
Perhaps that’s the thing. Perhaps we all have ‘our’ Bowies and then enjoy those others he became, in much the same way that we cling to different Doctors. “I like early Bowie,” said Gareth, when I asked him, “but then I’m generally much more of a fan of 70s sorts of things than more recent stuff: early Bowie, early Queen, Genesis with Gabriel, etc. I have his later albums, but I rarely listen to any of them except sometimes the Labyrinth soundtrack. It’s probably a testament to his constant reinventing that he produced things I think are great and also things I thought were terrible.”
I wish I could tell a story about my love of Bowie that actually resonates on some level – how his music helped me come to terms with my sexuality (I’m straight) or helped me deal with the bullies (it didn’t) or how I recognised something of a kindred spirit within him (I don’t). But that wouldn’t be true. Not for me the pithy epitaph that goes viral. He was always a musician first and foremost – I do not and have never worn eyeliner – and while I marvelled at the chord changes in ‘Motel’ or the piano solo in ‘Aladdin Sane’ I never tried to emulate them.
On the other hand, I own most of his studio albums and I have followed and admired him for years. On the other hand, Monday was a black day. I cancelled my morning commitments and wrote a little something for Metro: I do not pretend that it is authoritative, or all-encompassing, or balanced – but it is how I remember him. I look back on my life and realise how present he was, even though he never quite seemed to be one of us. I cried when Freddie Mercury left: months later, Bowie was singing at his memorial concert. I was miserable at university; Bowie was in his drum-and-bass phase. Come the millennium, teenage angst had given way to navel-gazing introspection, with ‘Hours…’ playing on a loop. When I was miserable throughout most of 2002, ‘Heroes’ kept me company. And when Sam Tyler jumped from his roof, he was accompanied one of my favourite songs. Through it all, Bowie is a constant, a dark angel, overseeing my life, and your life – someone who we assumed would be making music until he was ninety or beyond. He was edgy and dark and brilliant and sang and did things that defined us and would never have occurred to the rest of us – we could relate to him, and we never could, and that was his appeal. At the Brit Awards 1999 he burst forth onto the stage like a man who has fallen into the fountain of youth, showing the kids how it’s done while simultaneously becoming one of them.
We’ll go out as we came in. It’s 1995, and one of my favourite musicians duets with one of my favourite pop bands. The single mix is not exactly Bowie, at least in terms of how it sounds, but it’s a testament to his chameleonic tendencies that it works so well. And the video…well, it’s David Mallet, rather than Bowie, but I look at this, and I look at my own work, and I wonder if there was some influence there after all. Either way, we’ll have the music. We always will.