Bowie and I

THE funny thing is I have no claim to David Bowie. I wasn’t there. Not when he killed Ziggy Stardust in ‘73. Not to wonder at what his convalescing in Berlin would yield. I was too young or too apathetic to attend his much-mythologised Dublin shows in the Baggot Inn, Olympia or Point. I don’t have platform shoes, and not just because they’re hard to come by in size 16, nor are my vinyl copies of Low or Hunky Dory scuffed from 40 years of nightly rotation.

No, discovering Bowie 20 years ago through bands like Mansun and Suede makes me a relative newcomer in the grand scheme of things. I’d always known what he was and accepted him as part of the general pop backdrop. I once met a man who had a woolly Aladdin Sane tattoo on his bicep and shrugged in disbelief at my cheek after I asked him why. I saw a 50-year-old woman erupt to life like a teenager to ‘Young Americans’ at a funeral wake. Years on, the 15-year-old me tried and failed to perfect the bass-slaps of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ in my bedroom but I can’t pretend that the song was a staple of that Doors-mad period.

How then do I end up years later flying to London to see the David Bowie is exhibition in London’s V&A and queuing for hours to get in? Why do I start reading books and buying magazine specials on this musician? Why did I spend one of my eight precious days in New York sitting in the window of a SoHo bar in the hope I might catch a glimpse of him leaving his apartment across the road? Why did my girlfriend make me sit down before she delivered news of his death at 7.30am on Monday morning? And why did I cry into her shoulder moments afterwards and remain fragile for while later?

Bowie came to signify so much to me as my life palette broadened. The filter narrowed and this gangly, chain-smoking creature from London emerged as something crystal-cut, something that was a singularity of soul, daring and art who I gradually pushed out to a very select archipelago of awe. I couldn’t get enough. It felt like the world had had a head start and I tripped over myself to catch up. The mysteries consumed me. The effortless cool was a cryptic crossword and the energy of his reinventions and left-hand turns, from soul to glam right up to drum and bass, were the stuff of theoretical physics. It wasn’t so much “who is Bowie?” as “how is Bowie?”

The sensation remained on loop. There’s he is suddenly collaborating with Trent Reznor. A few years later, it’s Arcade Fire. Then he’s there, casually bringing the planet to standstill with an abrupt “comeback” single called ‘Where Are We Now’, less a question than a taunt. And yet it wasn’t a “comeback” as he was never gone, really. The regular parachute drops were to remind us that he would always come and go as he pleased, looking and sounding stunning in the winter of his years and making a mockery of the “Greatest Hits Tour” lot.

So, no, I’m not one of those people contacting radio shows with anecdotes about meeting him on the Quays or sharing a fag down Baggot Close. My silver isn’t tarnished by Tin Machine or that reportedly iffy 1987 Slane headliner. I never interviewed him so I can’t say what a really nice, down-to-earth, regular bloke he was (even though I’m sure he was). And I’m OK with all that. More than OK, in fact. The idea that he was genetically different to me and composed of atoms that I cannot comprehend works better for me. It makes him every bit more precious. And eternal.

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Published by

Hilary A White

Dublin-based arts journalist and reviewer, specialising in film, books, music and human-interest stories. Sunday Independent / Irish Independent / State.ie / RTE Radio 1 / Today FM

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