music • 12.01.16
I heard it on the radio half asleep and thought I was dreaming, then in a minute upright, alert to a prevalent sense of loss. It’s curious to feel that way when a cultural figure passes, a person you’d never met. I suppose it’s the mourning of yet another piece of your own history departed and David Bowie was a much admired figure in mine. Following the success of Starman in 1972 he was the man of the moment, an artist who formed a backdrop to our teenage experience. It was an especially formative time when the preoccupations that would be my own life’s purpose, music-making essentially, came together in embryonic form.
We were just sixteen but still sufficiently organised and free of parental sanction to hire a bus and go catch the famous Ziggy tour at Greens Playhouse in Glasgow. The following week we’d see McCartney at the same venue, a gig that was about to be rebranded the Apollo. Over the period we took in a succession of performers who went on to be generational icons, names like Neil Young, The Eagles, The Kinks, Santana, Earth Wind & Fire, Jethro Tull, Free, The Everly Brothers, Hall & Oates, Jeff Beck, Bob Marley, Diana Ross, Frank Zappa, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes and Genesis. By the decade’s end I was working in the business myself, recording headline artists for broadcast. That list was long too and included Alice Cooper, The Pretenders, Ben E. King, 10cc, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, The Average White Band and Rose Royce. There was even a tenuous connection to DB himself when I worked at Hansa in Berlin not long after he had been there with Eno, Fripp and Visconti.
But that night in May of 1973 watching Bowie at his best I was just a young wannabe in thrall to the possibilities of living some kind of musical life. David would himself have been only a little older than us then yet he commanded the stage with all the supremacy of the demigod he had become. We fell in love and came of age to Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane while Life On Mars, all over the radio and the jukeboxes, became a classic in its own time, forever a fixture on my best-ever list.
David Bowie was never off the radar for long. In Let’s Dance with Nile Rodgers he created a work that raised the bar in a decade when production was being murdered by digital instrumentation. At Live Aid, for sheer presence and musicality, he eclipsed everyone on the bill that day including Freddie Mercury and Bono. By the early 2000s, approaching sixty and despite creeping health issues, he still presented as youthful and vibrant, still able to charm an audience, and most importantly still growing as an artist and managing to be relevant.
But it was his final flush that resonated with me as much as anything he’d done hitherto. I was seriously taken by The Day After in 2013, even more so with Blackstar, his swan-song album where he surpassed himself. Over Christmas 2015 I savoured the pre-release tracks in anticipation of the full record to follow. When it came in January I listened with a sense of celebration that a rock musician in his twilight could still be cutting it so. To learn he had terminal cancer throughout its making was astonishing. That he would be gone forty-eight hours later seemed almost surreal. With typical aplomb he had managed to turn his end into an art event.
My last word here is a note of gratitude... Dear David, thanks for being who you were, for the music and for the memories. Given the outpourings of respect this week you obviously meant a lot to a lot of people. You meant the most to me at a time when it mattered, over forty years ago when I was bright, bushy and hopeful with everything still to play for. You were an inspiration and an exemplar. Your work lives on in our collective memory and through it you will not be forgotten.
we fell in love and came of age to Hunky Dory,
Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane