David Bowie – some memories

It’s a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
So the beginning words of “Life on Mars” emerged from a slightly tinny, small record player in the fourth form common room of my school. A classmate from Plymouth had bought the single. It was about the only record we had between us. We played it almost continuously. We always left it on for the studio phone ringing and the bit of chat at the end.
But her mummy is yelling “No”
And her daddy has told her to go

That was in 1973. In March 1974 I used a direct mail company advertised in the NME to get an early cassette copy of “Diamond Dogs” sent to me at school. I can still remember the thrill as I opened the package and saw the extraordinary artwork. Listening to it for the first time was just amazing. What a cornucopia of exciting sounds!

In 1975 I appeared on Radio 1’s “Quiz Kid ’75” with Alan Freeman. It was recorded in Taunton. David Bowie was my specialist subject and I was particularly joyful when I got all the questions right. I had particularly anticipated a question about where the David Live album had been recorded.

Alan Freeman asked me why I liked David Bowie and I replied “I love the lyrics of the songs”.

There was a real magic to all David Bowie’s lyrics. I read somewhere (and this is no doubt apocryphal) that he sometimes wrote couplets (two lines) of lyrics, then put all the couplets on separate bits of paper, threw them up into the air and then collected them together randomly to form the song. And when you look at some of his lyrics this rings true a bit: the words make sense as couplets but are slightly mysterious as a whole.

In 1979ish I gave a lift in my treasured yellow Ford Escort to some friends who were agriculture students at Reading University. They were macho fellows. One of them started rooting around in my glovebox looking at the dozen or so music cassettes in there. Virtually every one of the cassettes was a David Bowie album. Mr Macho Agriculturalist looked at the cassettes with growing and obvious distaste and asked me:

Are you gay?

This caused silence in the car. My negative answer caused even more silence, indeed a pin could have been heard descending for the rest of the journey. It didn’t seem the right time to point out that David Bowie was actually bisexual. I figured that such a subltlety would be lost in the ensuing verbal mêlée.

But that anecdote perhaps encapsulates what David Bowie meant and means to me.

Growing up, I could feel, perhaps sub-consciously, that I was not an “alpha male”. Most boys at school identified themselves through playing rugby or cricket. I never got on with balls. I was more into literature, music, history and debating. So when David Bowie came along at last there was something I could identify with. That creative, avant-garde, nebulous, androgynous identity. I could latch on to Bowie and it gave me some greater sense of who I was.

I lived in a rough, tough all-male boarding school on the fringe of Exmoor with lots of mud, cold, ice and greyness. David Bowie gave me a very welcome glimpse, or escape perhaps, into a technicolour, kaleidoscopic world. A blast of “Hunky Dory” gave me the strength to carry on. Listening to it again now, I can see why. It is a masterpiece.

But, then again, with Bowie there were so many masterpieces.

It will be a very long time before we see another artist with his depth and breadth of creative genius.

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