‘The passing of David Bowie is kind of like the death of a cultural parent’

Writer Jaki McCarrick explains how for her and for many, Bowie was a cultural emissary who, unbeknownst to himself, was an agent of change in small-town Ireland, a challenger of the status quo, political nihilism and gender stereotypes

 

After the establishment of RTÉ Television in 1961, the only area of Ireland also to receive BBC (and UTV) signals was the border region. As a result of this, Dundalk, to where my family moved from London in the late 1970s, was in many ways closer in spirit to Belfast and London than Dublin.

If it was a choice between watching The Riordans (and, later, Glenroe) or Top of the Pops, the latter, for most of my peers, won every time. Because of this engagement with the broader British culture, my schoolfriends and I were able to keep completely abreast of the British music scene. It turned out that I was to feel comparatively less bereft (as a 12-year-old) at my family’s move to Dundalk than contemporaries of mine who’d moved at about the same time to the west – or to Dublin – and who only had RTÉ (there was a spate of homecomings to Ireland from Britain in the late 1970s).

Hence, one evening in the early 1980s, I watched – alone as I recall – a BBC production of Bertold Brecht’s Baal, directed by Alan Clarke. I still remember how beguiled I was by the actor portraying Brecht’s troubadour protagonist. I thought, who is this (cracked) actor? What is this drama, this style of work? Whatever it is, I thought, I want to be a part of it. So it was David Bowie the consummate theatre artist, with his training in mime and commedia dell’arte, not the pop star, who first made an impression on me. (This was a period in Bowie’s life when his acting had garnered many plaudits – he’d just played John Merrick on Broadway in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man.) I was 15 years old, introverted and studious, and knew relatively little about David Bowie of Ziggy fame. (Years later, when studying the Theatre of Cruelty, the ideas of Jerzy Grotowski, Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet – I would think of this strikingly physical performance.) So, naturally, I then made it my business to join a band.

Dundalk in the early 1980s was full of bands, and the one I joined – formed from the embers of The Scheme, who at one point had supported U2 – was influenced by the likes of Kraftwerk and The Human League. Choice was one of Ireland’s first electronic outfits (perhaps because of Dundalk’s industrial lineage, one might say it was closer in spirit to Sheffield than Dublin). The guys in the band were huge Bowie fans. They had synthesisers and drum machines. They wore make-up. One even looked like Bowie (Brian “Doug” McMahon, now author of the beautiful book, Brand New Retro). And if I had any conflict between my literary and nascent theatrical leanings – and pop music – I had only to think of that Baal performance, for it augured a new paradigm: the literary pop star.

Choice’s songs, though electronic, were – I realise now – also influenced by Bowie. Andrew Harrison recently stated in the Guardian that Bowie’s themes were “alienation, resignation, romantic futurism, cosmic dread”; these themes were all over our songs. Even our one cover, Dee Dee Jackson’s Automatic Lover (basically, a robot love story), was a nod to Bowie’s futurism.

At Choice gigs I saw that Bowie fans were legion; anyone into punk and new wave was likely to have had their aesthetic formed first in the crucible of Bowie, T-Rex etc. In the 1970s, there was even a gang in Dundalk called the Bowie Boot Boys. They wore Crombies and brothel creepers, combed oxblood boot-polish through their hair to achieve the Ziggy look. They had a “BBB” logo with a “V” through the centre. So it is quite likely that Bowie’s Ziggy and Thin White Duke, his gender fluidity, effete style and make-up, helped in some way to distract/defuse a potentially volatile community: when you have young men in a republican town more interested in eyeliner – or where they might source Oxford bags or size 11 heels or the latest Bowie/T-Rex LP – than in any kind of political ideology, you arguably have a safer populace. So this emissary from “swinging London”, unbeknownst to himself, was an agent of change in small-town Ireland, a challenger of the status quo, political nihilism, gender stereotypes.

Sheryl Garratt states that “a new Bowie album was not just a collection of songs, it was a doorway to new images, books, art, cultural references and sounds”. To those living in small towns (and the suburbs) who may have felt somehow disconnected from main centres (Dundalk is minutes away from the North but still in the Republic, albeit on its fringes), a Bowie album was an event, a vital injection of new ideas and thoughts, a means to feel connected to the greater culture, devoid of nationalism and the limits (and in my case confusions) of national identity. It was a call to read – or read about – the likes of Aleister Crowley, Kahlil Gibran, Nietzsche, Orwell, and many others. It was an opportunity to imagine the future when the present looked bleak (the 1980s recession hit the border region hard); to be inspired by prescient terms like “astronette”, “ravers”, “video films” – from a song written as early as 1973 (Drive-in Saturday), and imagine yourself part of something new, cutting-edge, inclusive. Bowie spoke of big ideas, poetry and modernism to the working class, the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the freaks and geeks – and he never patronised.

In the Guardian this week, William Boyd refers to Paul Klee’s thesis of “loose continuity” – whereby a collection of apparently random occurrences in one’s life makes a kind of sense, retrospectively. After writing for music magazines in London, I studied for a degree in theatre and movement. For my final year project I created an arts magazine, Vanguard, and on the back-cover quoted the lyrics of Bowie’s Five Years. I later gave workshops on Brecht at the Central School of Speech and Drama. I did not become a literary pop-star – but never say never.

The passing of David Bowie is kind of like the death of a cultural parent, felt particularly by those of us who grew up in places where the alternatives to the wider, more permissive world that he presented were not worth contemplating; they were sometimes dark and claustrophobic – as much of Ireland was in the 1970s and 80s.

Jaki McCarrick’s debut short story collection, The Scattering (Seren Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. Her award-winning play, Belfast Girls, premiered in Chicago last year. She is currently editing her first novel, Black Soap

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