David Bowie is dead. Weeks after the event it’s a phrase that still carries an air of incomprehensibility, no matter how many times I say it out loud. Each morning I’m asked, “How are you today?” And each morning I say again, “Alright.” And yet, David Bowie is dead.
There will be a day which doesn’t start that way but it isn’t here yet. Your Girl Reporter is not given to ostentatious displays of mourning. But David Bowie is dead. And, like the great art he made, it means everything. And nothing.
It means nothing because his presence in my life is unchanged. And, at 25 albums spanning 50 years, his potential is unarguably fulfilled.
Everything, because at 25 albums spanning 50 years his legacy has been packaged so perfectly, as if Bowie really was in active collusion with that old flexing whore Time itself.
It’s too neat, too packaged, too perfect. Too Everything and Nothing. Pop music, after all, was never going to change the world. Until – in the hands of David Bowie – it did. Ask Berlin.
It all feels a bit too Ziggy – who was dead by the time I arrived at the party. I can first remember Fame and Golden Years, playing on the jukebox at a bar called Thingummy’s in Hong Kong’s Wyndham Street. Yes, I was too young to be rock ‘n’ rolling but I felt much too old to die.
Why? Because all the great music had been made and the artists who had made it all were dead. All the great thoughts had been thought, all the great journeys had been taken. We were on our own.
I was 15 and bored with all the shallow crap that was Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 each week on Commercial Radio. And I was tired of the saccharine version of myself depicted on the television and in the magazines. No. I wasn’t that Barbie doll.
And then along came David Bowie to give expression to that ennui and walk with me on the razor’s edge between the bright lights and the dank stairwells where the dirty deals are done. Ask any child in the city.
From the way-too-cool-for-school Young Americans and its perfect plasticity we mined his back catalogue, discovered with a hurrah (expressed as a muted nod because we were cool…) that this one wasn’t quite dead yet and played along loyally from the moment we caught up.
Tin Machine was the only album, by any artist, I have purchased on the day of its release and, if some were disappointed with it, Your Girl Reporter’s view was and is that if David Bowie wants to just be one of the guys in the band for a while that’s cool too. I’m in.
And then of course there was Labyrinth – that movie moment that scarred so many of the next generation as they watched their mums with all that carefully calibrated cool collectively lose it. Sorry kids. We knew one day you’d understand.
My daughters, with six years between them, each had their own very different relationship with Bowie.
Lady Severine Sinful said he crashed uninvited into her adolescence. “He was mum and dad music and then just as I was finding my own musical heroes he started working with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails,” she said.
For Ms Sinful it was the collaborations with people like Reznor that earned Bowie his place in her affections. “It would look on the surface as though Bowie wasn’t doing anything but in fact he was making really interesting music with artists of my generation that I admired – and casually out-gothing everyone while he was at it,” she said.
Her younger sister the Little Chef on the other hand embraced him from the moment she saw him – on a DVD collection of all his music videos, in order – and has never let him go. “He’s been a part of me for as long as I can remember,” Chef said.
There was a large and lovely bloke known as Big John at a pub called The Plough on Hastings’ West Hill in the south east corner of England. He told me one day he was the world’s biggest Bowie fan. “Well my daughter is the littlest,” I said. “Next time you see her, ask her about any Bowie song you like.”
One summer afternoon I watched them – a six-year-old and a man in his 40s – chatting as equals about Bowie, his music and his life choices. “That woman,” the Little Chef said. “She was no good for him.” Chef also disapproved of his gaunt appearance as the Thin White Duke, tutting that he was far too thin and declaring wisely that it was probably because of drugs.
When I asked her what Bowie meant to her, Chef recalled John and other friends of the Baxters. “There were so many adults who burned their favourite albums for me, or gave me videotapes of concerts and movies – everyone I ever respected seemed to love Bowie and wanted to share him with me even though I was a little kid,” she said.
Chef still has the bootleg CD they gave her at The Plough – complete with joke song titles like Big John (I’m Only Dancing).
Ask any of the bereft what David Bowie meant to them and, remarkably, no matter their age or background they will have a similar but unique intimacy in their relationship with his music.
bowie leaves us and then a 9th planet appears, i don't need to read your science article—
Stephen Bell (@atstephenbell) January 20, 2016
Everyone has their own Come to Bowie story – but the first of the following links was one of my favourites, not least because – thanks to the wonders of YouTube – even those of us who weren’t there get to relive the moment too:
How performing Starman on Top of the Pops sent Bowie into the stratosphere – David Hepworth, The Guardian 15 January 2016
From British suburbia to the dusty outback of Australia the tributes flowed. This one has a timeline of Bowie’s career at the end which is the best I’ve seen:
Why those who were teenagers in the 70s will feel the loss of David Bowie the most – Kathryn Flett, The Telegraph, 11 January 2016
David Bowie inspired me, says Bangarra’s artistic director Stephen Page – Tara Callinan, National Indigenous TV News
The Baxter award for the Most Disturbing David Bowie Think Piece goes to:
Bowie and Murdoch – both powerful shapers of our modern culture – Matthew Norman, The Independent 13 January 2016
David Bowie’s part in the fall of the Berlin Wall – Siobhan O’Grady, Australian Financial Review 12 January, 2016
From Vandross to Reed to Reznor – David Bowie was a genius at spotting, promoting and collaborating with artists – Amanda Marcotte, Salon 12 January, 2016
How Labyrinth led me to David Bowie – Charlotte Richardson Andrews, The Guardian 12 January, 2016
The David Bowie song that fans are listening to most – New York Times interactive, 12 January 2016
© Sally Baxter 2016
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