Where Are We Now?

Well it’s the end of the day when we heard that David Bowie died. I don’t know if I’ll ‘always remember where I was at the time’ because I’d just woken up. I remember exactly where I was when I heard Joe Strummer died – I was in Piccadilly Circus and saw the Evening Standard headline: JOE STRUMMER DEAD. That was a real shock – Strummer was my generation – I’d even played on the same stage as him (my 15 minutes of music hall fame, supporting the Clash at the Electric Ballroom on their London Calling tour). But today I feel a different kind of shock. David Bowie was my hero (when I had such things – and perhaps I still do). Strummer was great, but he was one of us. Bowie was something else. A star, obviously, but so was Strummer. So are they all. So are we all, on a good day. But David Bowie was The Prettiest Star.

How you move is all it takes / to sing a song of when I loved / The Prettiest Star…

I remember where I was the first time I heard that song too… it was the day Aladdin Sane came out, and I played the whole album out of the window. It was an event. And I went to see him live on the Aladdin Sane tour – although he later called that a continuation of the Ziggy Stardust tour (‘Ziggy goes to America’) but at the time we all knew he was Aladdin Sane… anyway, it was the best gig I ever went to. The highlight was Jean Genie, with Bowie climbing up the wall of speakers with the roadies trying to catch him, while Mick Ronson blasted out that riff forever and a day, until Bowie was swinging by one arm from the scaffolding high above the stage. Incredible.

But he was more than a great pop star. He was an inspiration to those of us whose understanding of both our sexuality and our creativity was nascent, but we knew it was there, and we knew it was ours. I guess all of this is common knowledge today – but it was rare at the time, I can tell you, and precious then and now.

But for all that – the amazing pop sensibility, and the liberating persona(e) – there was something more. I realise today that I feel I have lost a father figure. The first Bowie album I got into was Hunky Dory. At the time, my mother was in mental hospital, my father had left us, and I was basically just a piece of Teenage Wildlife, to quote one of Bowie’s later songs (off Scary Monsters – for some the beginning of his decline, but for me the last of his classic albums). The song I listened to the most off Hunky Dory was Kooks.

Kooks was written for his son Zowie, of course, but I imagined it as my own. And it got me through a very lonely time, until eventually (between Young Americans and Lodger) I ended up in art school (‘the last resort of malingerers, bluffers and people who don’t want to work’, according to Strummer). So David Bowie really did engender something fundamental in me. And that is why I feel like I have lost a father figure.

I even realise that the long period of his so-called ‘artistic decline’ corresponded in me with the rejection of a father’s authority. I remember seeing a show of Bowie’s art in a rental gallery in Cork St in the mid-90’s. The only half-decent piece was an Egon Shiele-esque painting of Iggy – the rest was really a bit iffy. Afterwards I went for a cup of tea in a local cafe and there he was. I pretended not to notice him of course, partly through deference, but also a kind of embarrassment, based on what was left of my youthful arrogance – my old hero was now making worse art than me! I remember thinking ‘Why don’t you just give up and grow old gracefully’? This thought also applied to his musical output of the time. Later I understood the answer was that he was an artist, and so it mattered more to him that he made art/music than that it was ‘successful’ (see below). Another lesson from the surrogate father. And anyway he did grow old oh so gracefully. And where am I now?

But as the psalmist says: ‘If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up’. So thank you David for helping me through my life to the point where I know I know… and may you rest in peace.

ps some creative advice from the artist himself: ‘All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience – my work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it.’ (nb for ‘selfish’ here read ‘generous’ – to quote from another Christmas song: what I can I give Him: give my heart.