In 1975 David Bowie announced, ‘I’ve rocked my roll. It’s a boring dead end. There will be no more rock and roll records or tours from me. The last thing I want to be is some useless fucking rock singer.’ Fortunately, for me and many other fans, Bowie didn’t hang up his guitar at the grand old age of 28.
In June 1972 I was a mere eight months old when the iconic album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released, launching Bowie’s career into the stratosphere from where he was to become one of the most influential artists of the late-twentieth century. By the age of three, having been exposed to the radio that played constantly in my parents’ house, I was familiar with songs such as ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Changes’, ‘The Jean Genie’, ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Starman’ and ‘Sorrow’. At that stage I wasn’t taking much notice of the man whose music I was becoming attached to, but that was soon to change.
By the mid 1970s, every Sunday night at 6pm, I would be glued to our black-and-white television watching Countdown, hosted by Molly Meldrum and featuring artists such as ABBA, Blondie, Bay City Rollers, Skyhooks, Suzi Quatro, Leo Sayer, Sherbert, Air Supply, Pussyfoot, Marcia Hines, Bryan Ferry. And, of course, David Bowie. Countdown was my favourite show because it introduced me to the people whose music I was hearing on the radio, with their crazy makeup and hip costumes, and it opened my mind to a world beyond the paddocks, new houses, wide streets and Sunday roasts that featured in my conservative upbringing. I became an odd child, going about life in my own unique way: wearing mismatched ensembles and occasionally embarrassing my mother by insisting on wearing red tights on my head when we walked to the shops. At school I was considered ‘offbeat’ and endured many years of bullying by my peers, which caused me to withdraw further into a world of music and books.
Being attracted to the weird and unusual, I was fascinated when a drug-addicted, skeletal Bowie singing ‘Golden Years’ appeared on television. He was a creative, autodidactic non-conformist with a bit of kooky mixed in, he appealed to the outsider, and his music was about alienation. He spoke to me.
My interest in David Bowie turned into an obsession in 1980. One evening after school, sitting in front of our new colour television waiting for Dr Who to begin, Bowie’s film clip for ‘Ashes to Ashes’ came on. Mesmerised by the chisel-faced Pierrot walking on an alien landscape, interspersed with images of a man in a padded cell, the music made me feel slightly sad and nostalgic. We didn’t have a video recorder so I would switch on the television at 5.55pm every weeknight thereafter, hoping for another glimpse. Video clips were fairly new and Bowie was one of the most innovative video artists at the time, producing alluring short films that moved away from the usual simple promotional clips filmed in studios. It inspired me to start creating collages from images I cut out of glossy magazines, and perhaps influenced my decision to study graphic art in high school.
One evening, three years later, I was reading a novel, Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, when suddenly in the distance a crowd erupted into whistles and shouts and some music began playing that I immediately recognised. Bowie was performing a couple of kilometres down the road at VFL Park, and it was so loud that I could hear it from the top of my house. I wanted desperately to be there.
Bowie has been the soundtrack to my life. His music is eclectic, intellectual and often nostalgic, his crooner-like voice distinctively recognisable. It isn’t just his singing that impresses me but his arrangements and sheer aptitude. He makes interesting use of instruments like the Stylophone in ’Space Oddity’ and ‘Slip Away’, and has a knack for bringing together the right musicians such as Brian Eno, Tony Visconti, Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Nile Rodgers, Mike Garson, Mick Ronson and many others to sculpt his music into something indelible and new.
His love of literature and art has been a huge inspiration for his work. In the early years, he was fascinated by Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground and read writers such as Nietzsche, whose work inspired tracks on The Man Who Sold the World. Kerouac influenced the teenage Bowie, evidenced in ‘Subterraneans’ on the album Low, and Orwell’s influence is stamped all across Diamond Dogs, with tracks like ‘1984’, ‘We Are the Dead’ and ‘Big Brother’. I remember discovering Diamond Dogs in my teens, being completely swept up in its dark dystopia.
In 1986, my parents took me to London to expand my experience of the world and I spent most of the plane trip listening to the Top 40 on the jet’s sound system. The film Absolute Beginners had just come out and the title song played at least once an hour over the long flight. The video clip, shot in black-and-white with flashes of colour alongside the Thames with Albert Bridge in the background, played through my mind and will forever be associated with that first trip.
It was a formative time for me: I was beginning to find my place in the world, discovering who I was. The punks I saw hanging around London with their bright Mohawks, piercings, tattoos, slashed T-shirts, chains, leather and attitude impressed me. Bowie had paved the way for them over a decade earlier and his influence was about to be seen in the emerging Britpop and the Young British Artists like Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin who would soon make their mark on the world stage. While in London I endured a trip to Madame Tussaud’s where I came face to boot with Bowie’s waxwork dummy standing on a small stage while ‘China Girl’ played from a speaker nearby. It didn’t quite cut it.
Bowie wasn’t just a musician. He successfully turned his hand to acting, appearing in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Just a Gigolo, The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, which had been adapted from the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post, a book I studied during my second year at high school. Children of the 1980s remember Bowie for playing the goblin king in Labyrinth. He also appeared in The Last Temptation of Christ, Zoolander, The Prestige and Il Mio West, and played Andy Warhol in Basquiat.
By the early 1980s Bowie had amassed an impressive output of creative and often experimental work. In 1983 he went mainstream with the album Let’s Dance; its funky title track was a hit along with ‘China Girl’ and ‘Modern Love’. The two albums that followed, Tonight and Never Let Me Down, lacked inspiration. Tonight sounded like a casual affair recorded on a tropical beach and even Bowie admitted years later that Never Let Me Down was ‘my nadir’. After a brief experiment with his band Tin Machine in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bowie released another mainstream album, Black Tie, White Noise, followed by some more experimental albums. The Buddha of Suburbia had a sound reminiscent of the Berlin Trilogy, Outside saw the reunion of Bowie and Brian Eno to create a conceptual album about Art Crime, and Earthling was a drum’n’bass experiment that narrowly missed becoming a disaster. Thereafter he returned to a simpler, toned-down sound with the albums Hours, Heathen and Reality, which is possibly his best album since Scary Monsters.
Recently, as I approached turning 40, I began to look back over my life and have realised the huge part Bowie has played. Revisiting his albums, I experienced a new understanding that as a teenager I had been too young and naïve to fully appreciate. I also took the time to properly listen to his three most recent albums and discovered that I loved these just as much as his old stuff.
Even now I don’t have a preference for any one album or style, as Bowie mixes so many sounds and ideas into each of his ‘phases’ that you always come away feeling that you get something out of it. Throughout his career Bowie took enormous risks and managed to pull them off, possibly because he didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought. He once said, ‘I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.’ Even artists like Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Roxy Music and Queen never went to quite the same extremes as Bowie.
Eighteen months ago, I travelled to Berlin, a city with a history that had always intrigued me. I’d read Le Carré’s Cold War spy novels as a teenager, Isherwood’s Berlin novels as an adult, and studied contemporary European history at university – all of which led to a particular interest in 1920s Berlin. Bowie lived in Berlin in the mid 1970s, when the wall was up and the city was a very different place. Before my trip I read Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town by Thomas Jerome Seabrook, one of the better books written about him. I arrived in Berlin armed with my iPod containing Bowie’s entire catalogue, including the three albums that are often referred to as the Berlin Trilogy – Low, Heroes and Lodger.
For five days I wandered around Berlin, taking in the sites by day, strolling along the Spree and through the Tiergarten, wandering around the museums and galleries at Museumsinsel, drinking beer in outdoor cafes, shopping at Alexanderplatz, and in the balmy evenings kicking back along the canal in Spittelmarkt, in what used to be part of East Berlin, and listening to the avant-garde Berlin Trilogy. It was like a metaphysical experience – my head was in 1976 while my body was in 2010. I couldn’t have chosen a better setting to revisit those three albums, in particular Heroes, which was the only album of the three completely recorded in Berlin. Low was considered ‘a work of genius’ by Philip Glass, who used both Low and Heroes as a basis for his Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 4, and acknowledged Bowie’s ability to make ‘fairly complex pieces of music, masquerading as simple pieces’. At the end of this stroll back in time, I departed Berlin to embark on a road trip around Europe to the sound of ‘Fantastic Voyage’, the first track on Lodger.
It’s been eight years since Bowie’s Reality Tour, possibly the last and certainly one of the best. I listen to the live recording frequently. It was a memorable tour because Bowie was at his best, with so many years of experience behind him. He seemed happy, relaxed and confident. The sound was huge, he performed brilliant arrangements of old material and his voice had never sounded better. Unfortunately the tour was cut short after Bowie collapsed backstage; he required heart surgery soon after. He’s kept a low profile since.
Bowie turned 65 in January and there has been much speculation in recent years about his retirement. He’s given so much already that I won’t be disappointed if he has finally hung up his guitar. Bowie’s career has been phenomenal and he will leave behind an enormous legacy. His music is iconic with an underlying style that holds all the layers together while avoiding repetition and never sounding dated. Lately, I’ve encountered younger people discovering Bowie for the first time. And when I was browsing my local bookshop the other day to the sound of the Hunky Dory album playing in the background, I was happily convinced that Bowie’s music will live on for many years to come.