Everybody has a Bowie story.
This is mine. I’m a child living in Nairobi, Kenya – a world away, in the days before the Internet, from the pop music that already fascinates me. A visitor from America brings me a C-90 cassette. On one side is “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, which I do not then know to be David Bowie’s 1972 breakthrough record. Ten years after an earlier generation’s collective jaw dropped when he played “Starman” on “Top of the Pops”, this is my own “Starman” moment.
To me, this fictive arrival from another planet is to all intents and purposes a real one. From the eerie syncopated pulse of “Five Years”, and that strange, strained vocal with its apocalyptic images of panic and catastrophe, to the sweeping finale of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide”, enveloping me like an exotic comfort blanket with the message that more of my kind are out there (“Just turn on with me and you’re not alone!”), I am transfixed by this alien artefact. It fills my Walkman earphones several times a day. At this point I barely have any idea who Bowie is or what he looks like (“Let’s Dance”, a global hit that reaches even the African equator, is still a year away). I grasp only that, as one outlander, I have somehow connected to another who speaks for and to me.
A quarter of a century later I watch what turns out to be Bowie’s last appearance on a British stage, when he gives a surprise guest performance with David Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2006. Bowie sings Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne”, and suddenly it seems the most natural thing in the world, his unmistakable London drawl lighting up this other-worldly yet utterly English song. My friend and I gawp at each other in our seats. This is the nearest thing to the second coming we are ever likely to encounter.
Everybody has a Bowie story, and that’s the point here. The bereavement so many are feeling today may be one of the last shared experiences our increasingly atomised pop culture will know. We no longer undergo “Starman” moments – those pan-generational shocks which galvanise the young and appal their elders – and we are no longer producing musical artists who alter the entire course of their art, let alone the wider world, as Bowie did in his pomp, which lasted even longer than that of the only British pop act as momentous as he is, the Beatles.
Bowie’s last classic records came out in the early 1980s, notwithstanding “Blackstar”, the album he released last week, and its predecessor “The Next Day” (2013). I suspect time will prove them fine albums which have been greeted as great ones, although I’m glad we so treasured what proved to be parting gifts. There are people born since his heyday whose aesthetic and way of being in the world would be unimaginable without his influence. It’s the thread that runs through alternative music, via glam, punk, post-punk, New Romance, electro and the more radical side of Britpop, to contemporary artists such as Janelle Monáe and Lorde.
Towering above the influence is the work itself. The run of albums from “Hunky Dory” (1971) to “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” (1980) is unrivalled in pop history for its quality, breadth and impact: ten great records, never ceasing to thrill in their own right, which provided a Decalogue of pop commandments that has directly or indirectly fed and guided an extraordinary number of significant sub-cultures.
If you ever gave a damn about pop music, if it was ever central to you and your sense of who you are, Bowie changed your life, whether you knew it or not – and judging by the outpouring of tributes and memories today, most did know it. We are lately a maudlin lot in Britain, prone to indulging in what has been dubbed “mourning sickness”. But this wave of love, grief and appreciation is the real thing: the grief aside, we felt the same way about Bowie last week, when we didn’t know he was dying. If your tastes veer towards a sharp kind of modernism; if you dress in black or stark primary shades, or in glam prints and patterns; if you dye your hair with unnatural colours; if you decorate your body with piercings or tattoos; if you dance to any one of dozens of types of music; or if, simply, you find joy in pop culture as something more profound than a dispensable lifestyle accessory, then it is a racing certainty David Bowie has helped define you. And if you feel something irreplaceable has been lost, you’re right. It has.