Almost a year later, to the day, and I still haven’t heard how it was announced on the radio. I’m a big radio listener so it’s my first port of call for pretty much everything. Christmas 2015 was upon us and I was holding out on an advance order of Blackstar. The publicity machine had begun to roll; music mags and journos were in a fever. A Bowie album on the way, yay! Was this a return to regular releases? He’s back in the game big time, isn’t he? And working on something for the Broadway stage. All must be right with the world.
Sure enough, the disc arrived courtesy of my husband, on Sat 9 January 2016. I poured over the layout, graphic design, lyrics, band line up; I sniffed it a bit, checked the weight of card used and tested it to see how the spine would look alongside my extensive Bowie collection in the CD rack – yes, generation download, I still have a rack. But I didn’t play it. I don’t know why. I just didn’t play it.
On Sunday 10 January 2016 at about tea time, 5pmish UK time, I was sitting at the dinner table fiddling with the CD and chatting with my husband about my lifelong connection with Bowie’s work. I’m not sure he was listening all that hard but I rumbled on anyway. We talked about how popular culture works on the young and teenage brain; how very few influences really stay with us throughout our whole lives, through all the changes. We talked about my four (only four!), visits to the V&A exhibition David Bowie Is…and how I met a lady there who had been a neighbour of Bowie’s in the early days and helped him make stage costumes for gigs, helped with babysitting and didn’t complain about his piano practice. You know it will be really weird when he dies, I said. He’s such a major figure. It will be like it was when Elvis died. It will be hideous when the day finally comes, as it inevitably will, that David Bowie dies. I still didn’t play Blackstar.
Early Monday morning felt slow and as usual, I didn’t want to crawl from the duvet to face the week. It was still dark, about 7am. My husband came back upstairs from his breakfast ritual – he’s always down before me, emptying the dishwasher and brewing tea while the day comes to life. I’m sorry, this will upset you he said. David Bowie is dead.
We all have moments when bad news smacks us on the back of the head like a spade. This was one of them, accompanied by a heavy, churning gut wrenching. For many this is of course just another celebrity death, the first of a very high number that would come to characterise 2016. But Bowie was no celebrity. He was a creature entirely of his own imagination and one which shifted the cultural frame of reference beyond all recognition. He set out a whole new raft of creative possibilities.
Bowie arrived for me on our TV screen against the drab backdrop of 70s Britain, in a riot of glorious technicolour and space age sound, when I was far too young to comprehend him or what he stood for. When Space Oddity was released I watched the video as a curious child and begged my Dad to buy me the ‘spaceman song’ so we could play it at home on our Hi Fidelity turntable. Much later I would be transfixed by Bowie and Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops. In the background, I could vaguely hear my Dad complaining that you couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. No matter. I was locked onto the screen, on those eyes, that mosaic jumpsuit and flame hair. Of course I couldn’t fully comprehend it then, but Bowie embodied something immediately recognisable yet out of reach – a magical world far away from our small council house. Bowie made it possible to believe that you could be anything or anyone you wanted to be. He came at us right out of a world of moon landings and H G Wells. He was arrestingly beautiful, androgynous, dangerous. Plus, he had that voice.
Bowie’s back catalogue is astonishing. The low points in his output would be highs for many. Even his dodgy albums are interesting. Film, theatre, literature, fashion, the visual and literary arts, were all expanded in scope in his hands. As the V&A exhibition demonstrated so well, David Bowie was so much more than a pop star in the ultimate pop star era. And he knew it.
Bowie established and maintained an archive which even included tissues soiled with wiped lipstick. Sketches, lyrics scribbled in excercise books, drawings for ambitious stage sets, costumes, shoes, tailored suits, diaries, fan mail. This same self awareness would save him from destruction when he left LA quite sure he would otherwise die of the excesses of fame and cocaine. Only Bowie could see an upside to life in smack-soaked, Cold War Berlin with Iggy Pop. Fortunately his instincts were correct. With the significant assistance of human firewall Corinne (Coco) Schwab, he was saved from himself and the following years saw him create the definitive Berlin trilogy. From then onwards until his death, Bowie’s wilful pushing, pulling and reshaping of the possibilities of sound, vision, music and performance would render his output impossible to pigeonhole. Like quicksilver, attempts at definition slipped away just as soon as they were formed.
News of Bowie’s death eclipsed those of others who began to be counted in the huge 2016 haul of souls. Alan Rickman, George Martin, Prince, Leonard Cohen, all followed in a seemingly relentless run, even to Christmas Day when George Michael’s departure nipped in just ahead of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. It was one big rush hour for the reaper.
Bowie said that he resented death. That the idea of leaving his daughter crippled him with grief; that it wasn’t the dying so much as the infinity of being dead. He said too that it wasn’t death that mattered but what you did in life. While it’s easy to recall the gaunt, haunted, walking cocaine-corpse of early seventies Bowie, it’s important to look beyond that, to the greater part of his life and work. In most images he carries a broad, joyous smile of Hollywood teeth, all fixed up and far from his own postwar originals. He evidently delighted in his wife Iman. He was a loving and devoted father, twice. He knew he would also be a grandfather. Imagine that. Imagine David Bowie is your grandad. The quality of his wide ranging creative output is unquestionable and his reputation as a consummate, artistically generous, gentlemen rock god, is repeatedly endorsed by his collaborators. David Bowie lived life. Really lived it.
All that day, 11 January 2016 as the news was confirmed, I could not listen to the radio. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want that solemn newsreader voice in my head. I didn’t watch the hastily scheduled TV tributes. I didn’t read the obituaries either. I still haven’t, even though I collected them all and kept them in pristine news editions. Throughout the whole maelstrom, I read just one column.
In his short piece for the Guardian newspaper on 13 January 2016, Hari Kunzru summed it all up. ‘…Bowie’s slipperiness was a riposte to the kind of hostile questions that dog the inauthentic, that dogged me as a teenager, that still, come to think of it, dog me today. Questions meant to fix and crush. What are you? Where are you from? Bowie taught me that when they demanded your identity papers, you didn’t have to comply. Or, if you wanted, you could invent your own papers, tell whatever damn story you pleased. His bravery and breadth will not be seen again in the world. Nor his exalted sensibility or his beauty or his voice. We will miss him.’
That day, I slid Blackstar into the duff sound system in my car and listened to it for the first time. It is still there.