Golden Years: Remembering David Bowie
When David Bowie died a year ago, suddenly and shockingly, his illness having been kept secret from all but his closest friends and family, there was an outpouring of grief in London not seen since the death of Princess Diana. Public mourning was concentrated in Brixton in south London, where Bowie was born and spent the first six years of his life. Flowers piled up by a Bowie mural opposite Brixton Tube station. Impromptu singalongs were held among those who, day and night for weeks after, came to pay tribute to their fallen Starman.
I was one of them. Bowie was the only pop star whose face I hung upon my wall as a teenager. I loved all his albums, but Ziggy Stardust had a special place in my heart and on my turntable.
How can people now comprehend just how radical he was to us in the early 70s? Merely dyeing his hair marked him out as a freak, let alone posing in a dress on his album cover (a version soon suppressed by his record label), dressing in bodysuits by an avant-garde Japanese designer, or sticking an alien rosette on his forehead or a lightning bolt across his cheek. His defining movie role, out of the dozens he was to star in, was The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976, in which he played an alien. It felt like type-casting.
Bowie was to change the face of music not just once, but several times. He was the figurehead of Glam Rock, influenced punk and the New Romantics, and was still releasing challenging, relevant music five decades after he began. I finally got the chance to interview Bowie in 1995, on the eve of the release of Outside, a sort-of-concept album set in a dystopian near-future involving art and serial killing, with many lyrics jumbled up and reassembled using a randomising programmes on his computer.
‘There’s an emotional engine created by the juxtaposition of the musical texture and the lyrics,’ he explained, when I told him I’d found the lyrics hard to fathom, but evocative when set to music. ‘But that’s probably what art does best,’ he said. ‘It manifests that which is impossible to articulate.’ It’s hard to imagine another pop star being so articulate, so well read, so restlessly inquisitive.
In many ways, Bowie defines London. Fashion-forward, outward-looking, pluralistic, inquisitive, experimental, creative, unconventional – he was all these things, and all these attributes make the city great. On the anniversary of his passing, pay your respects to rock’s ch-ch-changing chameleon.
Look around: Bowie is London. And London is Bowie.