Like millions of others I was shocked and saddened to hear of David Bowie’s death. And maybe like many others I was surprised to find myself more upset than I thought I´d be. Why?
My answer would be that, firstly, he showed me, (and Fitz and Pete and Hal and Becky and Margie and Anne and millions of others, teenage wildlife all….) how you could be English and a citizen of the world. No small thing for young men and women from the north of England growing up in the 70s and 80s alienated from the official culture of the ‘yookay’; Margaret Thatcher, Jim´ll fix it and Rolf Harris paints the Queen…again. Secondly he embodied a different, liberating kind of masculinity, and finally there was the particular emotional appeal of his most deeply felt music.
David Bowie, nèe Jones’, family background was what we, in Liverpool, might have called ‘dead average’; definitely not moneyed or privileged. He was a south London, a Beckenham, boy, his Dad a charity worker, and he studied at the local technical college in Bromley. The substantial job he had in trying to shape for himself a cultural and intellectual identity out of this inheritance can maybe be seen in that his earliest idol was the working class variety performer, Anthony Newley!
But shape an identity he did. Taking positively from English cultural influences like Marc Bolan, the mime of Lindsey Kemp, ‘1984’, George Orwell`s dystopic vision of the future, and working later with the great English film director, Nic Roeg, nonetheless, he looked to wider horizons than Britain. So he borrowed from Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Japanese Noh theatre, the soul music of the States and the electronic music of Germany. Home could be Kyoto, Berlin or New York. Unlike other rock aristocracy of his generation who have acquired as many honours from the Queen as they have estates in the Home counties, when Bowie was offered an honour he rejected it saying whatever the recognition for his work was that he wanted it certainly wasn´t that.
More important still though than his insisting on his status as an intellectual and an artist (Tina Weymouth, bassist in Talking Heads once described her version of hell as waking up in and not being able to escape from a room in which David Byrne, Brian Eno and David Bowie sat around all day discussing their ‘ideas…’) was his flagrant, early career breaching of the normal rules of masculinity. At a time when bone headed thuggery was often a perfectly acceptable role model for boys, Bowie, intentionally or not, playing Ziggy Stardust mock fellating his fellow Spider from Mars, Mick Ronson, on stage, and by just being so unashamedly beautiful as he was, released the pressure cooker of defining male identity in terms of how many ‘birds’ you could pull or how many fellas you’d recently hit and said it was ok to be interested in yourself. If this meant finding yourself interested in others who were like you, other men, then that was absolutely ok too. So I could and did feel ok about dying my hair, getting my ear pierced, wearing eye liner and felt confident, like thousands of his fans, in my contempt for homophobes everywhere. Did any, as Bowie later described his younger self, ‘closet heterosexual’ ever do more for gay rights and for tolerance?
And then there was of course the music. We all have our favourites. (…I´ve always loved ‘Young Americans’, the histrionics of ‘Word on a Wing’, reputedly recorded when he was drunk and a bit strangely I find ‘Everyone says hi’ always brings a tear to my eye…) but I think David was right when he said (I paraphrase) that in the end he really only had one subject, compassion for the vulnerable outsiders; the couple of kooks; the doomed couple of Diamond Dogs; the exposed couple in the shadow of the Wall; the Oddity adrift in space; the excluded aboriginal of Let´s Dance. And that was what made his greatest creation, Ziggy Stardust, so affecting, our compassion for him, the doomed rock and roll suicide, was almost impossible to separate from compassion, even love, for the stick thin, palely beautiful David Jones playing him.
There is some wonderful documentary footage of Bowie playing his final gig as Ziggy. He sings, alone on stage, Jacque Brel’s ‘My Death’. The song ends with a question. ‘What lies behind the door?’ Into the pin drop silence that follows a fan shouts ‘Me!’ And a thousand fans then also shout ‘me!’ Their hands, reaching out to him, puncture the spotlight. It was hard for them to let Ziggy go, but no harder than for us now, finally, to have to let David go.