I don’t remember when I first came across David Bowie but it was probably on Top of the Pops, as it was for most of my generation.
This would have been in the very early seventies, and in order to understand the impact Bowie had you have to know a little bit about my life and those of the people around me.
I lived on a large council estate built to house the bombed out overspill of blitzed towns like London, Glasgow and Portsmouth. Our heroes were often footballers, but more often football hooligans. My first memory of wanting to achieve a specific ‘look’ was wanting to be a suedehead (this being the end of ‘skinhead’). I wanted monkey boots, a denim jacket, a feather cut and red braces.
My father was a no-nonsense, ex-forces, manual worker, who I’d followed around the world with my mother until illness forced him back onto Civvy Street and a council house.
I went from a good junior school to a bad comprehensive and everything changed for the worse. I got bullied, my clothes didn’t fit, I had few friends. My comprehensive was staffed by disinterested teachers, and less interested children. We weren’t being schooled to succeed in anything other than staying off the dole queue.
After five years of comprehensive education, a tenth of my school mates ended up doing time, a third joined the Army, Navy or RAF. and the rest were employed in the Naval dockyard.
Top of the Pops was a programme I was both desperate to watch, and anxious to avoid be noticed watching. My father used Top of the Pops as an opportunity to vent his homophobia at every opportunity, while my mother seemed only interested in whether bands wore suits (she therefore approved of The Jam, just).
To my Dad, Marc Bolan, Steve Harley, Freddie Mercury, and especially David Bowie, were ‘poofs and weirdos’. My Dad hadn’t even been a rock and roll fan. His music was Frankie Laine and my mother liked the Light Programme on the BBC.
On the other hand, although I was rather excited by my suedehead and bootboy friends, it was not a world into which I fitted. I liked drawing and singing, dressing in my mother’s heels and putting on make up, reading books and listening to a huge stash of sixties pop singles on a Dansette record player given to me by my aunt (who was only a few years older than me).
Because my parents both worked several poorly paid jobs, I was often left in the care of my Grandmother, Vi, who was, compared to them, liberal and understanding. Not only did she teach me to knit and sew, but she knew Harvey from the Glitter Band (who she’d served as a teenager in the Coop) and Adrian Street (right), the outrageous, be-glittered wrestler.
She’d take me to see wrestling bouts at the Theatre Royal Portsmouth, or the Guildhall.
We’d have front row seats, and after the bouts she’d take me backstage where Jackie Pallo and Kendo Nagasaki would shout “hello Vi, is that your little grandson?” and pat me on the head with hands the size of baseball gloves.
She let me watch Top of the Pops without comment, and saw glam rock for what it really was – good old British variety with great tunes and humour in spades. She laughed when she watched ToTP, but she did it in an affectionate way.
After nagging her about David Bowie, Nan who took me to a record shop in Southsea to buy Space Oddity. It wasn’t the original release but a maxi-single released in 1975, with two songs on the b-side; Changes and Velvet Goldmine. The three songs on this record changed everything.
Those three songs led me to a greatest hits album; ChangesOneBowie, and to a second hand paperback copy of The Man who fell to Earth by Walter Tevis, and every interview with Bowie in every magazine I could find. Bowie seemed to represent and vindicate not only my confused sexuality, but also my feelings of alienation in terms of my gender and personality. If Bowie didn’t fit in then it didn’t matter that I didn’t fit in. In fact it made it cooler.
The interviews I read with Bowie in the music papers (and there were six of them published EVERY week in the UK in the seventies) were like recommended reading and listening lists. So I was introduced to the work of Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed and the Velvets, Andy Warhol, Nico, Kraftwerk, Iggy and the Stooges, New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Eno and Fripp. And from there to punk, krautrock, disco and beyond.
Later, when Bowie dressed as not one but three different women in the Boys Keep Swinging promo video, I knew I was correct to follow and keep following Bowie.
Outside my family, Bowie is the ONLY constant in my life. Outside of people I actually know, Bowie has been the most important person in my life.
Interestingly I never saw him play live. I was always too frightened that he’d disappoint. And I had my own Bowie and I was happy with that. I didn’t want to share him with anyone else in some sort of mass worship experience.
Anyway, I’m going to miss him, though I have him with me in the person I am. Bowie runs through me like my own blood.