In a friend’s room before a College social event. He is dressed up for the occasion in androgynous style with shoulder length hair and jewellery. ‘You look just like Bowie’ another friend intones. Cue someone putting on a David Bowie compilation. ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Changes’…then ‘Life on Mars’ hits me in the solar plexus. I was aware of it before, if only subliminally, the song never really getting a purchase on my consciousness. Now it’s the melody that hits home first; a roaring, Rachmaninov-type tune graced with Rick Wakeman’s classical styling. Then the words. This is clearly someone who has absorbed everything going on around him, who can have a contempt for the common herd (“The mice in their million hordes”) but who can also have compassion for a young girl’s disillusion with everyday life and desire to abandon herself to the silver screen where she can join her heroes.
I have a sudden urge to get into this music; I buy a singles compilation and am amazed by Bowie’s diversity, his evocation of the future, of alienation and the intensity with which he evokes his experiences, whether positive or negative.
Six months later, in the wake of a Bob Dylan obsession I discover David Bowie again through the Hunky Dory album. I feel awkward and estranged, not fitting in with the prevailing mid 90s mode of hedonism. Meanwhile, I struggle to comprehend the intricacies of 18th century politics, precipitating essay crisis after essay crisis. My work’s down the drain… In these circumstances Bowie’s evocation of alienation speaks directly to me. Even his exhortation in ‘Quicksand’ (“Don’t believe in yourself”) rings true in my mood of querulous introspection. “I’m not a prophet or a Stone Age man, just a mortal with potential of a Superman.” These words from ‘Quicksand’ speak of my need to define my own persona. While I am still not good even now at what is commonly called ‘self-realisation’, these words of encouragement, together with others in John Lennon’s Imagine album and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks still give me inspiration today.
Other memories come to me at random. Christmas 1994. It’s bitterly cold and I am staying overnight at the house of a relative and her partner, a Bowie fan, has lent me some of his records. I listen to Low, feeling that those icy sounds seem appropriate to the intense cold and the metaphorical coldness and silence of the year’s end, when the old year is slowly dying and the new one struggling to be born, its birth pangs accompanied by indeterminate sounds ands half-understood words in language nobody has yet translated. Bowie’s pose on the album cover seems to reflect this, a man in profile resolutely facing an unknown future.
Then I am discussing David Bowie in a park in Oxford with a musician friend. To be honest, he’s not my thing at the moment; the wide-eyed pastoralism of Van Morrison’s Moondance has resonated with me more in recent weeks. Yet as my friend discusses Bowie’s flirting with androgyny in songs such as ‘Rebel Rebel’ I am fascinated by his challenge to conventional gender stereotypes. My response to the androgynous images which I have already seen of Bowie, with their narcissistic self-exposure, now makes more sense, fitting in with his cries of “touch me!” on ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, possibly his most openly homoerotic song.
Cut to October 2013, seemingly a lifetime away from these early encounters. I’m watching a Bowie tribute act at my local restaurant. The band plays all the old favourites; the early hits, then the Ziggy Stardust years. It’s only when they get to the ‘Plastic Soul’ period that things suddenly get transcendental. Their performance of ‘Young Americans’ lifts me onto the roof. The sax riff goes right through me. Yet there’s more to this song to me than that. It reminds me of an old relationship. The woman in question was American, and before her inevitable departure stateside she uttered words of encouragement that were not a million miles from Bowie’s “We’ve lived for just these 20 years, do we have to die for the 50 more?”. I get up and dance. Is it the memories stirred by the song or the live performance that gets me? A bit of both I guess. Just hearing a replay of the single would not have had the same effect.
David Bowie is full of such moments. You notoriously can’t come to Berlin without being aware of his ghost. The very buildings seem to echo to the mechanistic sounds from Low that mesmerised me when I first heard them in the mid 90s – the angular, metallic melodies, rhythms that seem subliminal but gradually all-pervading, words spoken in a language you can’t quite grasp. That to me captures the essence of Berlin, echoing a dark past that refuses to die and a future that just might belong to all of us, where diverse populations live cheek by jowl, each engaging in ceaseless acts of self-invention.
David Bowie’s songs are indelibly part of my own past, punctuating it at crucial moments, yet they speak to me now in their openness to the new and their message that we discover ourselves not through introspection so much as through constant re-definition.