Archive for category Music
I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan lately. Early stuff – Witmark demos, basement tapes, that sort of thing. Raw and rough, but with such immense power.
Do his lyrics constitute poetry? I’ve often considered this question, and argued with others about it, not just in relation to Dylan but to other songwriters whose lyrics are held up as shining examples of the art. I don’t think there is any absolute answer.
Many brilliant song lyrics absolutely only work when they are sung. On the page they might seem flat and clumsy, but when you hear them they take wings and fly and soar and take your heart with them. To be a great songwriter does not require one to be a poet – Lennon & McCartney rarely achieve the kind of lyrical brilliance that I would want to defend as poetry; for the most part there are moments, rather than whole songs, as sublime as those moments are. The brilliance of Holland, Dozier & Holland does not lie in their lyrics, and whilst Smokey’s are witty and clever, and less prone to ‘confusion/illusion’, ‘burning/yearning’ cliches, I can think of no individual songs that I would want to present as poems. R Dean Taylor’s wonderful ‘Love Child’ works because of the way the lead vocal and backing vocals are woven together, especially in the coda where Diana Ross’s voice takes the melody with ‘I’ll always love you’, with the urgent rhythms of the backing singers pleading with the lover to wait, and hold on. On the page though, all that is lost.
So do I believe that Dylan is a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Yes, yes I do, despite all of the caveats that so often apply.
Firstly, the lyrics are quite clearly the driving force of his songs. Not accompaniments to the music, nor a vehicle for the voice (indeed the voice divides opinion considerably more than the lyrics), rather the reverse. Secondly, the immense variety of his work deserves recognition. Even just considering his earlier work, which is what I know best, you have the pared down, desperate simplicity of ‘Hollis Brown’, the jaunty viciousness of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, the surreal imagery of ‘Hard Rain’… Thirdly, these are words of visceral power that stay with you and whose portent transcends the time of their writing and the specific concerns that inspired them.
Take ‘Hollis Brown’. The relentless rhythm is matched by the relentless words, the repetition hammering home the hopelessness
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
This kind of repetition is a feature of many folksongs, presumably to help with their transmission in an oral tradition, but here it’s more than that. Hollis Brown walks his rugged mile, walks the floor and wonders why, and his babies’ cries pound on his brain, on and on until he can see no way out other than to spend his last lone dollar on those shotgun shells.
Critic David Horowitz has said of this song:
Technically speaking, “Hollis Brown” is a tour de force. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale. This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown’s plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other….
On the same album as Hollis Brown, there’s ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’.
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The invocation of Medgar Evers’ name and brutal death set up expectations which are undercut at the end of the first verse as Dylan asserts ‘He can’t be blamed’. And the final verse contrasts Evers’ burial, lowered down as a king, with the unanmed assailant’s future death and his epitaph plain, only a pawn in their game. I know I was not the only person who found those words circling in my mind after the murder of Jo Cox, and again after the upsurge in racist harassment and attacks post-referendum.
Then there’s ‘Hattie Carroll’. That killer final verse:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six month sentence…
Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
If that weren’t enough the album also includes ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘The Times they are a Changing’, ‘North Country Blues’ – and from the viscerally political to the personal and the melancholy of ‘One Too Many Mornings’.
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind
which reminds me of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘You and Me Baby’
Except for you and me baby
This is journey’s end
And I try to hang on to all those precious smiles
But I’m tired of walking and it must be miles
That’s just one album, by a man in his early twenties. And his first two albums had given us the satire of ‘Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues’, ‘Hard Rain’ and, in real contrast to the melancholy and reflective farewell expressed in ‘One Too Many Mornings’, this:
I aint saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
A much less well known song than some of those above, one which I might not have come across had Jimi Hendrix not covered it, is ‘Tears of Rage’.
We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day,
And now you’d throw us all aside
And put us on our way.
Oh what dear daughter ‘neath the sun
Would treat a father so,
To wait upon him hand and foot
And always tell him, ‘No’?
Tears of rage, tears of grief,
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief
Andy Gill, in his 1998 book, Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages, suggests a link to King Lear:
Wracked with bitterness and regret, its narrator reflects upon promises broken and truths ignored, on how greed has poisoned the well of best intentions’, and how even daughters can deny their father’s wishes.
and to the Vietnam war:
In its narrowest and most contemporaneous interpretation, the song could be the first to register the pain of betrayal felt by many of America’s Vietnam war veterans. … In a wider interpretation [it] harks back to what anti-war protesters and critics of American materialism in general felt was a more fundamental betrayal of the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Sid Griffin in his Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band, and the Basement Tapes, noted the strong Biblical theme running through the song, particularly the ‘life is brief’ motif which links to Psalms and Isaiah, and Greil Marcus wrote that
in Dylan’s singing—an ache from deep in the chest, a voice thick with care in the first recording of the song—the song is from the start a sermon and an elegy, a Kaddish.
So should we worry that this prize is the thin end of the wedge, that, as some BTL commentators have claimed, this means the next Nobel Prize for Literature could go to Lady Gaga or Elton John, or whoever. Seriously? The prize has been awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Who could really dispute that Dylan has done that? His influence on other musicians has been extraordinary and creative – Sam Cooke wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ in direct response to hearing ‘Blowing in the Wind’; Jimi Hendrix drew on Dylan’s work to create his innovative take on the blues; John Lennon’s songwriting was challenged by Dylan’s songs to become rougher and edgier and to go beyond the teen romance preoccupations of the Beatles’ early ’60s output; Bowie parodied Bob Dylan’s 1962 homage to Woody Guthrie, “Song to Woody”, addressing Dylan by his ‘real’ name: “Hear this, Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you”.
And undisputed poet Simon Armitage has talked about the impact of Dylan’s songwriting on his poetry:
1984 was also the year I started writing poetry. I wouldn’t claim that there’s any connection, that listening to Dylan made me want to write, or that his songs influenced my writing style. But I do think his lyrics alerted me to the potential of storytelling and black humour as devices for communicating more serious information. And to the idea that without an audience, there is no message, no art. His language also said to me that an individual’s personal vocabulary, or idiolect, is their most precious possession – and a free gift at that. Maybe in Dylan I recognised an attitude as well, not more than a sideways glance, really, or a turn of phrase, that gave me the confidence to begin and has given me the conviction to keep going.
Of course Dylan resisted being ‘the spokesman for a generation’ – who would want that pressure, that endless demand? In the past, too, he’s demurred at being described as a poet, calling himself ‘only a song-and-dance man‘. He’s been said to have chosen his nom de plume in tribute to Dylan Thomas, but has (at least sometimes) denied that. Indeed Dylan has given us many different narratives – that’s how he has defied definition, alternating between telling us stories about himself, often contradicting the previous story he told, and telling us nothing at all.
As is the case right now. From Dylan himself, on the subject of his award, not a word from this man of powerful words. An acknowledgement appeared on his website, and then disappeared again.
So who knows? And who, in any case, would want it to be any different?
Tramlines. A concentration of musical joy into one exhausting, exhilarating weekend.
We saw 18 bands – could have fitted in a few more, perhaps, and certainly there were so many more that we wished we could have seen. But heavens above, what we did see…
The sheer variety is one thing. Even limiting ourselves to a cluster of City centre venues, we went from indie pop to instrumental jazz to hypnotic electronic trance to grunge to ska to bluesy soul.
Only two bands were known to us, and both of those only through previous Tramlines. Nordic Giants‘ visceral post-rock with accompanying films left us stunned last time and no less so this year – we stumbled out of the City Hall ballroom and took refuge in the Cathedral for Beaty Heart’s psychedelic drum pop.
And we went back for more from Allusondrugs, having been blown away by their urgent psych-grunge with accompanying manic leaping about and flailing of locks a couple of years back. Still just as potent, and the venue enabled the more fearless members of the audience to hurl themselves about with abandon too, joyfully thudding into one another, and screaming out the words. The bass player – and his bass – surfed the crowd too at one point.
Saturday afternoon means the World Stage, in the Peace Gardens. The sun shone for us all and the music was infectious and energetic. Steel City Rhythm‘s reggae fusion featured mad ska dancing and we all danced too, albeit with rather less energy and agility. And Danish band Whiskeyordnen turned up in dapper suits (jackets were soon discarded) and delivered what they variously describe as Worldtheaterjazzfunkrock, Chaoslounge, Fusion, Technojazz, instrumentally tight and delightfully engaging.
Sheffield Cathedral has always been one of our favourite Tramlines venues. It’s not just the deliciously transgressive feeling of sitting on the floor of the Cathedral drinking Moonshine (this year sitting just behind a dude in a Antichrist Bootcamp t-shirt…), it’s that, with the right band, the acoustics become part of the performance. Most bands playing there for the first time are very powerfully aware of the nature of the place, the associations it has and the atmosphere that its architecture creates. This year the music seemed especially well fitted to the venue.
Mt. Wolf, Meilyr Jones, Beaty Heart, Dan Mangan, King Capisce all played with it in various ways, allowing subtle or soaring vocals to resonate, rhythms to echo, and harmonies to multiply. Meilyr Jones at one point abandoned the stage to swim across the stone floor, still singing. And Dan Mangan too left the stage and the amps and performed for us as we sat on the floor around them. The finale was Moon Duo, whose space-rock sounds were accompanied by a light show playing hypnotically across the Cathedral stone work.
What I’ve found myself unable to do this year is to pick one absolute, no real contest, stand-out moment. We didn’t see a duff band this year, and that wasn’t achieved by playing safe. With the two exceptions noted above, we knew nothing about the bands we chose to see, other than the brief (and often enigmatic) blurb in the programme. We took a punt on them, and were rewarded with performances that were at the very least enjoyable and engaging, and at best exhilarating, engrossing, moving and intoxicating.
Throughout the weekend, the city was suffused with music. It seemed to be spilling out from every doorway, every venue packed, the vibes, or so it seemed to us, joyous, positive and inclusive. There’s lots to be anxious about just now. We know that the city is not as united as it seemed to be, as we flitted between gigs and street food emporia. We know too that the aftermath, a sea of cans and bottles and general debris, will not look so lovely and will take a heck of a lot of clearing up. But if we can be united in music for a weekend, dancing together in the sun, that gives me hope. We walk back to the road, unchained.
The children of the summer’s end
Gathered in the dampened grass
We played our songs and felt the Yorkshire sky
Resting on our hands
It was God’s land
It was ragged and naive
It was heaven
Touch, we touched the very soul
Of holding each and every life
We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day
Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon
To paint that love
upon a white balloon
And fly it from
the topest top of all the tops
That man has pushed beyond his brain
Satori must be something
just the same
We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes and saw machines of every shape and size
We talked with tall Venusians passing through
And Peter tried to climb aboard but the Captain shook his head
And away they soared
the ivory vibrant cloud
Someone passed some bliss among the crowd
And we walked back to the road, unchained
“The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.”
(David Bowie, Memories of a Free Festival)
Our Tramlines 2016 was:
Friday 22 July
Leadmill: Northern Adolescence, Gramercy Park; Cathedral: Mt Wolf, Meilyr Jones
Saturday 23 July
Peace Gardens: The Unscene, Steel City Rhythm, Bell Hagg Orkestar, Whiskey Ordnen; Cathedral: Dan Mangan; City Hall: Nordic Giants; Cathedral: Beaty Heart
Sunday 24 July
Crystal: Starkins, Allusondrugs; Peace Gardens: Sushi; Leadmill: Reflektor, Hot Soles; Cathedral: King Capisce, Moon Duo
PS Early Bird Weekend tickets for Tramlines 2017? Sorted.
To celebrate Glastonbury weekend, check out the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, with Damon Albarn. “When there is violence in the world, you have to make more beautiful music, and make it more intensely.” Music in exile becomes a kind of homecoming.
We don’t know what impact there will be from Britain’s withdrawal from the EU on refugees and asylum seekers. We can be certain, however, that people will continue to flee war and persecution, and that those who get here, by whatever routes, will continue to face bureaucracy, prejudice, detention and destitution. So the work of charities who dedicate themselves to campaigning and fundraising and organising to support them will continue to be vital.
Assist Sheffield is one of those organisations.
ASSIST Sheffield is currently the only Sheffield charity focused on destitution among asylum seekers.
- To provide accommodation, food and support for asylum seekers in Sheffield who are in conditions of need, hardship or distress
- To advance the education of the public, and other statutory and voluntary organisations, in order to assist the inclusion of asylum seekers into the wider community
- To raise awareness about the plight of asylum seekers in our city
Who we help
We help asylum seekers whose initial claims have been rejected, and who are therefore destitute.
We only give support to people who can demonstrate their situation.
Unfortunately, we cannot support everyone who needs help. We prioritise those who don’t have any other means of support from friends or family, those who do not have somewhere safe to sleep or regular access to food and those who are particularly vulnerable, for example because they are unwell, elderly or pregnant.
If you can, support this work by donating or volunteering.
Saturday 25th June
Rudio, by Lucy Haighton
A ‘meet and greet’ movement based workshop.
NB: This workshop will take place in the Adelphi Room at The Crucible Theatre (55 Norfolk Street)
The Art of Migration Showcase, featuring Bashar Farhat (poet), Mina Salama + Special Guest
Performances from a vibrant mix of talented regional artists with migration and refugee backgrounds. Commissioned by Arts on the Run.
Puppetry Worskhop, by Vertebra Theatre
Exploring immigration through puppetry!
Silk Road, by Incomplete Collaboration
Migration explored through poetry, sound and art.
Eastern Europeans for Dummies, by There There
Brutal beginners guide to Eastern Europeans.
Tanja, by Strawberry Blonde Curls
Locked up. Shipped around. Sold as sex.
Finally, I get to do my Desert Island discs. Kirsty Young appears to have lost my contact details, but no matter, because this year the 24 Hour Inspire featured a pop-up radio station, and I was asked to choose 6 tracks, a book and a luxury, and to talk about them with interviewer Chella Quint.
But how to pick just 6 tracks? It would not, realistically, have been easier if it was the BBC 8. Or even 12, or 20… Not when music has been such a huge part of life, not when it matters so much.
Listening, as I often do, to contributors to Desert Island Discs, I can see a range of different approaches to the task of selection. Some take the biographical approach – linking the tracks explicitly to key points in the life story they are describing. This is interesting, and enriching to the biography, but it may mean that the music doesn’t stand up in its own right, and has purely nostalgic value. Some just pick 8 tracks they kind of like – but you can tell in this case that music is not a passion, not an obsession but a pleasant accompaniment to other things. They have not agonised about those choices, they haven’t felt as though they have personally betrayed the artists who don’t feature in the final cut. That’s fine, but I can’t be like that.
When music really, really matters, the problem is not finding 6 or 8 or however many tracks, it’s finding a rationale for selecting for this particular purpose, on this particular date and time. That’s how I come to terms with it – on another day, in another context, I could and likely would have an entirely different set of tracks. So, what was my approach this time?
First off, I wanted to be able to say something about each track. Not just, this is brilliant, I love this, listen to this bit (although in a normal music-listening context there is a lot of that). But something about why it matters to me, how I encountered it, what it does to me. Secondly, the context. It’s the 24 Hour Inspire, so the music I pick has to be something that moves me, challenges me, disrupts me, inspires me.
Even outside this particular context, I can’t be doing with music that is merely pleasant. It has to move me – that can mean intellectual stimulation (a Bach fugue, for instance, or much of European postwar ‘classical’ music), emotional impact (much sacred music, even though I’m a humanist, and a host of songs that for some reason – lyrics, context, something in the tune, something in the vocals – make me well up or want to punch the air), physical effect (heavy grungy sounds, infectious dancey sounds, music that makes me move my feet, my hips). These are not mutually exclusive categories, of course, as my choices will demonstrate.
TRACK 1: SONGHOY BLUES – SOUBOUR
There had to be music from Mali. Because that’s where so much of the music I love was born – think Muddy Waters, think Hendrix – before it was transported across the oceans on the slave ships, asserted its power as it blended with the folk music and hymn tunes it encountered in the Americas and then made its way back home again.
Songhoy Blues grew up listening to the rich Malian tradition, and griots such as Ali Farka Toure – and to Muddy Waters and Hendrix. You can hear all of this in their music. I’ve written previously about some of the reasons why I feel such a strong emotional connection with West African music, and about the other powerful dynamic in contemporary Malian music – the resistance to the murderous jihadist bigots who invaded the north of the country, and banned football and music, inflicting brutal punishments on those who failed to comply. Songhoy Blues’ sound is joyous, a powerful riposte to the bigots, a reminder that the ‘grey zone’ as they call it is full of colour, full of melody, harmony, rhythm, full of beauty and warmth.
And this year of all years, there had to be Bowie.
TRACK 2: DAVID BOWIE – SUFFRAGETTE CITY
This one goes back to my first encounter with the Star Man, which I wrote about on the day his death was announced. It’s not necessarily my favourite ever track but it’s deeply significant as the start of a relationship that has continued throughout my teenage and adult life, and will continue, despite his death, because all of that music is still there to enjoy and explore.
Crimson were part of my teenage years too.
TRACK 3: KING CRIMSON – RED
I’ve always said that Red was my favourite album from the 70s manifestation of the band, and often said that ‘Starless’ was my favourite track on that album. But for desert island purposes, Starless would be so wrong. It could actually feature in a ‘songs that must never be played during a lonesome, marooned and possibly hopeless sojourn on a desert island’ list. Instead I picked the title track, a grungy heavy instrumental that I always loved, that I remember listening to, drinking cheap cider, sitting on the floor at my boyfriend’s house, and rocking out.
Kirsty MacColl would have to be with me on the island.
TRACK 4: KIRSTY MACCOLL – FREE WORLD
I imagine she’d have been great company in person – certainly the musicians she collaborated with talk about her with enormous affection and warmth, but also respect. She certainly deferred to no one – Johnny Marr tells a lovely story of her taking Keith Richards to task for getting something wrong on the guitar, and Keith accepting it meekly… Kirsty’s songs can be funny, poignant, sharp (sometimes all three), her voice is gorgeous, and she’s one of a number of women in rock/pop music who have managed to make their own rules, to do things their way, against the odds. This song makes me want to punch the air and change the world.
Another voice of rare beauty – actually one of the loveliest voices ever, anywhere:
TRACK 5: SAM COOKE – A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
This song is heavy with the hope and the hopelessness of the early sixties civil rights movement – people holding on to the possibility of change whilst being confronted daily with implacable hostility to change. I think of that – but I also think of the fact that an African-American currently sits in the White House, and for all the injustice and inequality that remains, for all the entrenched prejudice, things can and do change. I would never have believed, twenty years ago, for example, that gay marriage would be legal in so many parts of the world. And for all that there are still so many places where to be gay is to be outside the law and in danger of violence, it happened without that much fuss here, and in other countries, in the end. Even outside the social justice activist world, most people seemed to say, tacitly or otherwise, good on them. I have to remember and have faith that every time things seem hopeless, that a change IS gonna come.
And finally to the least well-known track of my six.
TRACK 6: FLOBOTS – WE ARE WINNING
The Flobots are hard to pin down – the highly political lyrics, spoken and sung, are backed not just with guitars and drums but with viola, cello and trumpet and the effect is intense and powerful. This track is marvellously idealistic, optimistic, hopeful. We are Winning. It doesn’t always (often) feel like it, but it’s something to hold on to, something to keep you keeping on. It speaks to my belief that what we do matters, precisely because this world is all there is. As Joss Whedon put it, in Angel: “If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters then all that matters is what we do. Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.” And there’s a particular pertinence in these lines in the context of an event that celebrates learning, teaching and research: There is a war going on for your mind. If you are thinking, you are winning.
We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.
Resistance is victory.
Defeat is impossible.
Your weapons are already in hand.
Reach within you and find the means by which to gain your freedom.
Fight with tools.
Your fate, and that of everyone you know
Depends on it.
Selecting my six tracks might have been tricky, painful even. I feel I owe a personal apology to so many artists I love but have left out, and if I were to do this again (I ‘m more than willing, guys) I could easily come up with another six, and another, and another…
But these felt good. The 24 Hour Inspire is all about inspiration (obviously), and I feel inspired when I hear these songs. I feel energised, and optimistic, and I want to dance, and to punch the air and change the world. I hope at least some of the songs will affect at least some of you in similar ways. I’ll add the recording of the interview when it’s available. Meantime, enjoy!
Amongst the many Bowie tributes which have appeared on my Facebook wall and Twitter feed (indeed, there has been little else today), there was this poem, by a friend and former colleague. I know Katherine Inskip as an astronomer and University teacher – I had no idea she was a poet. And this, written as an immediate response to the loss that we’ve all been feeling, is just so right. Thanks Katherine.
He died at the dark of the moon
and I cannot help but wonder
if he knew, or if the change,
this once, was not his own.
For he lived as the moon does,
strange and bright, inconstant
as time itself, casting fluid
shadows into space.
And if we felt some echo
in his forms, his songs, his life,
the moon would not do less.
He died at the dark of the moon
at the moment when all things change.
And he died as the moon does,
with its face turned out, away.
Gone from our sight forever.
Gone, for a while.
Gone, but no less bright.
Fascinating Bowie tribute focusing on Bowie in Berlin, from That’s How the Light Gets In.
Just gonna have to be a different man…
In Berlin: Imagine a City, Rory MacLean writes of how, in 1976, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’s blazing star fell to earth in Berlin. Bowie arrived in the city a haunted, haggard wreck: barely six stones, sleepless and wired on cocaine, possessing little sense of his own self-worth. ‘I really did have doubts about my sanity’, Bowie wrote later. But, according to MacLean, Bowie found himself in Berlin (and he might know since, fresh out of film school, he was a young assistant to the director on the film shot in the city at the time, Just a Gigolo).
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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