Three moments from the early 1970s.
1972, the Cellar Bar at the Hutt, Ravenshead, Notts. The Hutt was a Berni Inn, purveyor of prawn cocktail, steak & chips, and Black Forest gateaux – but the Cellar Bar was a dark and crowded space where a 14 year old could get served with Babycham or Bacardi & lime, and where the juke box was turned up LOUD. I didn’t even know this was Bowie, I just knew it was exhilarating, intoxicating. And dangerous.
Seeing that clip now from Top of the Pops, it’s hard – impossible even – to make sense of how shocking, how ridiculously daring and provocative it seemed at the time when he draped his arm so casually around Mick Ronson’s shoulders and they sang together, close. There was no other topic of conversation the next morning at school in Mansfield. But for some of those boys and girls who knew they could never conform to the gender roles assigned to them, who knew they were different, and were scared and thought they might be the only ones who felt that way, it was a moment that changed their worlds, it gave them hope and courage.
Listening to Aladdin Sane on the record player in our living room, staying within arms reach of the volume control so that we could ramp it down speedily if the parents came within earshot at the point when the lyrics got seriously inappropriate.
Bowie was the unifying factor in the otherwise rigid musical demarcations of the time. I loved Motown, Simon & Garfunkel, and Bowie. My friends loved Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, and Bowie. My brother loved Gong, Hatfield & the North, and Bowie. And as for the boy who is now my husband of 38 years, who introduced me to Hendrix and Crimson, amongst others (and who I introduced to Motown and reggae) – Bowie was our musical meeting place. The fact that he could play some of the songs – well, reader, I married him…
It is those memories that are the most powerful, from those teenage years when everything was so intense, when we were trying to work out who we were and who we wanted to be. Bowie was part of that – he made us question, made us imagine possibilities, showed us we could reinvent ourselves if we wished.
That continued through the decades since – we backtracked from Ziggy to Hunky Dory and Man Who Sold the World, and even to the early singles when he was Davie Jones, with the King Bees, The Lower Third, and various other short-lived bands. No amount of nostalgia or grief will make me remember The Laughing Gnome with fondness, or some of the other early tracks. But even then, there was the sense of someone who would try anything, experiment fearlessly, take risks. And the variety was dizzying, from the heavy rock of Width of a Circle, to the delicate An Occasional Dream or the whimsy of Kooks.
We awaited each new album with a mixture of excitement and trepidation – would he let us down? would this one disappoint? No, and no. And how extraordinary that on Saturday night, just a day and a half ago, we prepared ourselves to listen to the new Bowie album, by playing the Ziggy Stardust farewell gig and Philip Glass’s Low Symphony. And he didn’t let us down. This one did not disappoint. I tweeted that night:
#musicnight No other artist that I’ve been listening to for > 40 yrs is still doing new stuff today, still sounding so fresh.
And then this morning I woke to the news that he is gone.
So tonight, we will play songs from across all of the years in which Bowie has been part of our lives. We will raise a glass to the Starman, and probably get a little drunk and sing along, and cry a bit. He may be gone but we have so much music, enough to sustain us, enough to inspire us.
Don’t let me hear you say life’s
taking you nowhere,
Come get up my baby
Look at that sky, life’s begun
Nights are warm and the days are young