The shocking news of the death of David Bowie yesterday knocked me, along with millions of others, right off my stride. More than that, for the first hour or so, with the radio playing clips of his hits and snippets of insight from people who knew him, it felt as though my heart was being torn open.
For Bowie was one of the very few artists who through his words and music really did lead me by the hand through the years from adolescence into young adulthood: those years when you are at your most open and impressionable, wide-eyed and clumsy, greedily drinking in all that is new and vibrant and exciting around you. Watch that man. I did. He showed me what a creative spirit could achieve, what it was to be arresting, exhilarating, disturbing and utterly entertaining.
Like everybody else, I heard a song called Space Oddity in 1969 and I was hypnotised. I bought the album. In the following six years he produced a staggering run of one brilliant record after another, peak-Bowie, each one evolving, inviting us to turn up the volume, to dance, to listen and explore and sing along. Ziggy said he’d like to meet us but he thought he’d blow our minds. Well, he was right.
I loved the acts, the looks, the glamour. I had a feather-cut and a pair of pale blue boots with a bright red star on the sides but was too buttoned-up to go very much further down that road. But mostly for me it was the music: the cascade of great songs, especially of that early period, all the way through to the album Young Americans, a personal favourite. When it was released he was still only 29. Forty years later and he is gone, far too soon. He wasn’t even with us long enough to ever know if there’s life on Mars. But maybe he knows today. Knowledge comes with death’s release, didn’t he once sing?
In 1976 I finally got to see him on stage. He was surrounded by great musicians but I couldn’t take my eyes off him from the opening song (Station to Station – I still have the set-list and the ticket, obviously, priced 35 francs) right through to the second encore (The Jean Genie). I’m not a musician but I do know a great song when I hear one. Neither am I a performer but I can recognise charisma when it hits me hard between the eyes. David Bowie was just so impossibly, bewitchingly cool.
Even his death, it seems, was a form of art. It is a death which like that of a very few others (John Lennon, George Best, Marvin Gaye, for example) has shaken me to the core, has rattled my foundations. Each passing of such a giant has made the world a shade darker. Until the next rare genius comes along.
David Bowie. Born 1947, died 2016, an inspiration since 1969.