I’M SITTING here in more floods of tears than any teenage pop fan, listening to a magical song from 1969, released when I was two years old, writes Suzanne Harrington
It’s David Bowie’s ‘Memory of a Free Festival’, from his Space Oddity album. On the radio, they’re playing Bowie back to back. His voice is echoing through my house, and his picture — as Ziggy Stardust — sits permanently on my desk, a constant reminder of what creativity looks like.
David Bowie was my hero. I can’t even believe I’m writing that in the past tense. When Lemmy died days after his 70th birthday, there was an international upsurge of affection, a sense of wonder that he lasted as long as he did; with Bowie’s death, days after his 69th birthday and the release of his latest album, Blackstar, his gorgeous parting gift to us, there is only a sense of shock. Of heart-breaking loss.
Bowie wasn’t just a musician. He was art, he was culture, he was fearless and unpredictable and brilliant and complicated and connected all of us and made us feel that we could do anything.
He reached out through the records, through the performances, this skinny freakshow with the South London vowels and the crooked teeth and the alien eyes, imploring us to give me your hand, telling us you’re not alone, you’re wonderful.
#Bowie You're not alone, give me your hand, you're wonderful— SuzanneHarrington (@soozysuze) January 11, 2016
Not having older siblings, it was a school friend’s big sister who first put me onto him via a battered old copy of Hunky Dory. I was about 12, and I played it over and over on a wonky old record player in my bedroom.
I had no idea what he was on about — from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads — but he was speaking directly to me. Then I saw the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video on Top of the Pops and it blew my mind. Was this the same David Bowie who sang to me in my room? All menacing and mysterious in that clown costume? I ran out and got Scary Monsters and listened to it to death.
Then he did ‘Let’s Dance’, which was a great pop single from a great pop record, but more confusing than ever. Was the David in the 1980s’ suit with the blond hair the same David who had been walking in front of the bulldozer on the beach with the Blitz kids? The same one from Hunky Dory?
How could he be all these different people?
I didn’t even know about Ziggy or Aladdin Sane back then. When Bauhaus covered Ziggy Stardust in 1982, I thought it was their song — until someone shoved the Ziggy album at me.
This was years after the 1972 Top of the Pops performance with Mick Ronson and the other Spiders from Mars that, in pre-break-the-internet days, melted the telly instead — but even a decade later, Ziggy still melted my head.
David Bowie was the coolest creature that had ever walked amongst us. Not a pop star or a rock god, but a forcefield that drew you in and made you listen, fascinated, enthralled. He held us. He had us.
And then he didn’t. For a while, he wandered off course, doing terrible things — albeit with unkillable style — with Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, going for mainstream pop instead of following his own glorious strangeness.
But by then I was joyfully working my way backwards through his music, discovering the Berlin albums, the coked-up funk, the bleakness — which Bowie was this? — and watching the films, and wondering just who on earth this man could be.
The obsession with outer space and aliens all the way to the Laughing Gnome and Tin Machine. What was he doing?
I only saw him perform once, at Glastonbury in 2000 (I was six months pregnant — my baby is growing up to be a Bowie fan as well). At the opening day of London’s V&A exhibiton of his life, music and memorabilia in 2013, I wasn’t the only journalist stood open-mouthed and overwhelmed in front of giant screens of him performing in the 1970s, his flaming hair and iconic lighting-flash make up, his rail-thin body in costumes that were not costumes, but works of art, his snaggle toothed smile and the feeling that he was aloof, but with you, that he was untouchable, but reaching out.
That he was a human alien, from a place of great benign strangeness.
And then the dignifed and — we presumed — inevitable withdrawal from performance and public life, living quietly in New York with his wife and daughter.
He’d even had his teeth fixed. Fair enough, we thought. He’s done enough. Until March 2013, when out of nowhere came an album — The Next Day — without as much as a press release. Took us all by total surprise.
Three years later, Blackstar, another album of glorious, odd, perfect Bowie.
Again without any fanfare. Wonderful, we thought. David Bowie is back amongst us, making music again. And two days later, he leaves us for good. Goodbye Mr Bowie. You meant everything.
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