From the age of 15, when I saw him in the Ashes to Ashes video, dressed as a Pierrot, walking his mother down that apocalyptic beach, holding her hand, David Bowie was what I had instead of God. He was a human being, from the same London suburbs I came from, who had found a way to let the universe flow through him, as art. That video gave us a full spectrum of Bowies: he was a rock star, an astronaut, an artist, a maker of metafictions ("Remember a guy that's been in such an early song..."), an autobiographer ("we know Major Tom's a junkie... hitting that all time low..."), a writer and reader ( his “take an ax to break the ice," riffing on Kafka's "A book must be an ax to break the frozen sea within"), a clown, an alien, a totally self-created individual, and also a bloke, from a place I knew, with a mum. He wasn't ashamed of anything. He accepted it all.
My life was completely transformed in three minutes and thirty five seconds. I saw a way out of the deep, painful trap I was in, at 15, in Tipperary. He broke through the ice of the frozen sea within me. I wrote my first lyrics, the next day, in pass Irish class, head down, surrounded by oblivious guys who later ended up in prison, or dead. That weekend I bought my first album, Low (it was reduced... I couldn't afford Scary Monsters, the new album from which Ashes to Ashes came). I was singing in a band within a few months, and went on to make albums, books, computer games, plays… I never had to get a job.
He saved my life. My friend who never knew he was my friend. My constant companion. I was discussing a brand new song of his with my daughter the day before he died; both of us loved it. ("Girl Loves Me", from Blackstar, with a lyric written in Nadsat, Anthony Burgess's invented language from A Clockwork Orange.) In the hours after he died, I dealt with my emotions in the way he’d taught me to. I cried, sure, but, as I did so, I wrote and recorded a song, tears splashing off the lyric sheet; transformed the unbearable into art. A song just for myself, and for him. A thank you. I loved him till the day he died. I always will.
Julian Gough's first children's book, Rabbit and Bear: Rabbit's Bad Habits, is published on January 14th by Hodder Children's Books
The great John McGahern said that what the artist needs first is "a way of seeing". David Bowie had that.
For those of us who were young in the 1970s, Bowie was nothing less than an icon of irreverence, wildness and freedom. It seemed impossible that providence would bring such a figure into your living room, but there he was, via Top of the Pops, pouty, shouty and glammed to the nines, hand on his hip, winking and slinky, simultaneously camp and macho, earthly and inter-galactic, the sexiest storyteller of his generation. All categories melted and melded and were gorgeously remade. He didn’t follow the rules. He made new ones. And he never bothered to italicise the point that he was being transgressive. Either you got the point of Bowie or you didn’t.
He contends with Dylan, the Stones and the Beatles for being the most influential rock artist of all time. Without him, there’s no Roxy Music, no Smiths, no Blur, no Siouxsie Sioux, and that’s only to note the most wonderful of the direct inheritors. Like Yeats he was, as has been often remarked, a brilliant self-inventor, but was also always careful to surround himself with peerless collaborators, including Brian Eno, Stevie Rae Vaughan, Nile Rodgers and Iggy Pop. As his interviews revealed, he was a pop music obsessive. He listened, re-listened, never stopped believing in his genre, but saw how it could be broken open to other immensities.
Like the Beatles, he had fantastic taste. He knew when to front up and when to hold back, how to flirt with an audience, how tact is the storyteller’s best friend. As for his live appearances, I see him as one of the great performance artists of the twentieth century. Bowie gave a show. Once seen, you remembered. Significantly, he was the only early ’70s artist who would be beloved by the iconoclasts of punk. They knew he was punk a full decade before them, always witty, surprising, naughty, tongue-in-cheek, suave, a tease but a crooner. He could have blown the Sex Pistols away, but he didn’t bother to try. He knew, in the cool stakes, he was it.
From the stupendous raw power of the Spiders From Mars to the marvellous introspective work of Low and beyond, he was one of rock’s mere handful of unique artists. His writing, at its best, was second to none. Rebel, Rebel, When You’re A Boy, Young Americans, China Girl, Gene Genie, Rock and Roll Suicide, Suffragette City. What a gallery of utter masterpieces. And what individual lines of recognition-stirring poetry. “Time takes a cigarette/puts it in your mouth/You pull on your finger/then another finger/then your cigarette.” Every kid who ever heard those words knew exactly what they meant. “She could spit in the eyes of fools/ as they ask her to focus on/ sailors fighting in the dance hall/ Oh man, look at those cavemen go/ It’s the freakiest show/ Take a look at the lawman/ Beating up the wrong guy/ Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know/ He’s in the best selling show/ Is there life on Mars?”
So many stupendous songs abide by which to remember him. But today, as I waited to collect my youngest son from school, my iPod shuffle happened to put on Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love, with Bowie singing the delicate, bell-like chimes on the chorus. He’s so hesitatingly gentle, so subtly generous, in the way he approaches that vocal. Bowie had the pipes. He could have opted to sing Reed off the stage but he didn’t. I found it impossibly moving the first time my stepsister Lisa Suiter played it to me years ago, when we were both teenagers, and today it moved me to grateful tears. It’s the voice of a smart, funny south London kid who loved pop music and glimpsed what it might do, the redemptive power of a song in this lonely and beautiful world. “Satellite’s gone/ way up the stars”. Saint Peter’s in for a memorable encounter.
Some people drive the train. David Bowie built the tracks. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that the only plausible mission of the artist is “to make people feel they’re glad to be alive, at least a little bit”. There are not many artists who’ve ever managed to achieve that highest of accolades. In my own life, David Bowie was one of them. He was part of my soundtrack, my passport, my pillow. I feel I was enriched to be around during his spell on the planet.
And I feel that if you can listen to Rebel, Rebel and not be a tiny bit glad you’re alive, you’ve got an answering-machine for a heart.
Joseph O’Connor’s novel The Thrill of it All is published by Vintage. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick
David Bowie – gifted, androgynous, forever experimenting and always with a seamless grace – had a fixed place among the angels . He transcended age, fashion and crass celebrity.
Edna O’Brien’s latest novel is The Little Red Chairs
– See David Bowie died.
– See now – that makes no fuckin’ sense. Wha’ you just said.
– I know wha’ yeh mean. How can Bowie be dead? He was never alive, like the rest of us.
– Tha’ makes no fuckin’ sense either. But it’s bang on.
– I remember once, I was havin’ me breakfast. An’ I saw me da starin’ at me. So, I said, ‘Wha’?’ An’ he says, ‘Are yeh goin’ to work lookin’ like tha’?’ I was still servin’ me time and, like, I was wearin’ me work clothes. An’ me overalls were in me bag. So I didn’t know what he was on abou’. ‘Get up an’ look at yourself in the fuckin’ mirror,’ he says. I was still wearin’ me Aladdin Sane paint. Across me face, like.
– You were ou’ the night before.
-Not really. Only down the road. Sittin’ on the wall beside the chipper, with the lads. Sneerin’ at the fuckin’ world. But that was what it was like. Bowie was our God.
– He has a new record ou’. Last week, just. Know how I know?
– Me granddaughter. She showed me his video. “Blackstar”. Unbelievable. Brillant. Scary.
– Business as usual.
– It’s so fuckin’ sad.
[ https://www.facebook.com/roddy.doyle ]
The first thing I did when I heard the news was put on my copy of Low and think of all the times I had listened to it before. I love a lot of David Bowie records but this is the one I come back to time and again. There’s something so captivating in the making, and re-making, of sound that always leaves me wondering how he got there from where he had been before. There aren’t many artists who manage to be both evolutionary and revolutionary but that’s what he was and his insistence on pursuing the niggle of creation, wherever it lead, is as valuable a lesson in artistic integrity as his musical legacy is great.
Eimear McBride’s award-winning first novel is A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
If you were 16 in 1969 – you saw the Russian tanks rolling into Prague, you saw the first landing on the moon, you heard David Bowie singing Space Oddity – that haunting, tragic-comic figure of Major Tom, floating around in his capsule, far above the world. It was only later that you realised how it described not only a man strung out on drugs but a more general kind of isolation and loneliness. He was describing the time we were in.
And then he quickly moved ahead. He turned up in Berlin and created another classic pop-rock description of world events with his song, Heroes. This time, it was the image of lovers at the Berlin Wall. He sang it partly in German. It had the same effect as John F Kennedy’s speech, claiming to be a Berliner, outside the Rathaus in Schoenberg. Heroes became the cultural version of those food aid planes, called raisin bombers, lifting the Russian blockade on Berlin.
He had the gift of personal freedom. His music, his voice, his image and his deeply evocative lyrics, had a way of counting the stages in which the world freed itself. And then he looks back at Berlin years later. He asks where are we now, describing himself as a man lost in time. For me, as for many people, he created a huge breakthrough inside. He took us all up there with him – far above the world.
Hugo Hamilton’s latest work is Every Single Minute
I’ve always had guides when it came to music and I remember the when and where of every significant artist for me. As a young boy my older brother played me Al Green in our bedroom. In secondary school a friend led me to Kate Bush. I remember who introduced me to Nina Simone at a summer camp, Bessie Smith in the common room at college, Billie Holiday at university digs and David Bowie on the A406 in London.
My cousin Sharon was my Bowie guide. We worked and lived together and she was a huge fan. We’d play his albums on the way to and from work, learning the words to as many songs as we could and then we’d sing along for hours at night putting on his accent and acting out his camp characters. I loved his theatricality and his blurred sexuality. I have always been attracted to flamboyant, challenging people. Secretly, I always wanted to be one but after some half-hearted dabbling I couldn’t face the ridicule it drew.
When given Proust’s questionnaire by Vanity Fair: “What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?”, Bowie answered: “Living in fear”. For those of us who live in fear we could live vicariously through artists like him. My cousin and I have booked a Hunky Dory sing-off soon. I think I’ll imagine him sitting there and us singing to him. I think he’d love us and be impressed at just how secretly fearless we are.
Paul McVeigh’s debut novel is The Good Son, shortlisted for Not The Booker Prize and Best of 2015 Elle Magazine. He is co-founder of the London Short Story Festival and associate director of Word Factory
I was always more of a Morrissey man than Bowie. I just couldn’t relate to the “otherworldliness”, and I’ve never been interested in clothes or fashion – too many bad memories of being dragged around Dunnes Stores as a child to buy trousers and jumpers. (Also, it’s a certain bet that any band in the ’80s who claimed to be “influenced by Bowie”, I would have hated). But, still, for anyone of my generation, Bowie was huge. The Golden Era of pop, clearly evident if you listen to Tony Blackburn’s Pick Of The Pops on BBC Radio 2 on Saturday afternoons, was 1964 to 1978, and Bowie was slap bang in the middle of it. When I think of the man, it’s Star Man, Life On Mars, Rebel, Rebel, Suffragette City. (I have a very clear memory of cycling into Drogheda on my bike singing Star Man to myself over and over again). Of course there was the later stuff in the ’80s, but the ’80s were the worst decade ever for music (all right, Ashes To Ashes is pretty good).
My favourite Bowie tracks are Young Americans and Sorrow.
I saw him (and Iman) on an Aer Lingus flight to London once. He was laughing and joking and seemed very happy.
He’s not dead – he’s just re-invented himself.
Arthur Mathews’ TV writing credits include Father Ted and Toast of London. His books includde Well Remembered Days: Eoin O’Ceallaigh’s Memoirs of a Twentieth-century Irish Catholic
When I first met David Bowie I was, of course, thunderstruck – a blond quiff, an electric blue suit, a silver cigarette-lighter and a cheery ’ello! This was on the southside of Dublin, in a back garden, on a warm summer’s night and there I was seated beside him on a rickety wooden chair. Did I entirely hold my nerve? I doubt it. I’d encountered famous people before but this was like meeting the unicorn.
That said, for a fabulous creature, he was an extremely nice guy and he talked happily about movies and books. And he listened a lot too – picking up on names and recommendations. He was smart. Funny. And very good company. But the strange thing was – and this might sound ridiculous – he never once stopped looking exactly like David Bowie. It was the elegance, the happy grin and, of course, the eyes – the left pupil permanently dilated.
I’m so lucky to have met him, to have talked with him and to have seen him perform at close quarters. He wasn’t a unicorn. He was an artist – one of the very greatest of our times. And he was a class act too. Last week he released his final creation and, just as we all were distracted by the genius and the wonder of it, he quietly slipped away. And now I’m thunderstruck again.
John Kelly’s latest novel is From Out of the City
1984: the China Girl video seemed to appear on MTUSA every Sunday, along with Dan Hartman, Huey Lewis and the News, Duran Duran, and Madonna who offered sweet relief from their sax solos, as she floated around Venice with a lion in tow. I didn’t know then that her performance had its roots in Bowie’s ability in the 70s to invent a part only he could play, to write himself into the ways people saw themselves. But, soon after the heavy rotation of China Girl and Let’s Dance, I picked up the first Bowie album I saw, Pin-Ups, in McKenna’s hardware shop downtown in Listowel. I didn’t miss the delay and mysterious languor of Bowie’s videos. Instead it was like a sugar rush to hear him surge through Sorrow and Friday on My Mind and Here Comes the Night, spilling fuzzy guitars and sudden time-changes onto songs that, in his hands, always seemed to end too quickly. Two minutes and out, new life in the songs, a fizzy excitement at seeing someone make something up and not outstay their welcome, an art he has taken to an extreme with Blackstar, his dramatic, almost posthumous and preposterously brilliant new album.
John McAuliffe is the chief poetry reviewer for The Irish Times. His latest collection is The Way In
I am 17 and there he is, in his fifties, crooning “tragic youth was going down on me” while sliding his hands down the sides of his body, only a few metres away, and I am enchanted. This may be the beginning of a fascination with older men that needs to be curbed, but for the moment I am having the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever had.
I am at a three-hour David Bowie concert (I discover later the length is because it’s being filmed for release; I discover even later how many of the people I will meet and love as adults are here) and it is too surreal and beautiful for words. These are iconic songs, knitted into the fabric of movies and ads and life, and as an adult when I meet people who say they don’t know much of Bowie’s work I explain to them that they do. They must.
I am gazing – gaze is the only word for it – at the man on the stage. I don’t know then that I will be less intensely devoted to music as I get older, that he’ll be one of very few artists I still pay attention to. I don’t know that concerts will become less magical and that the prospect of a standing ticket and proximity to the stage will seem unimportant in comparison to being able to sit down and rest weary feet. I don’t know – but would be glad to – that I will spend every summer of my twenties teaching at a summer camp where I will insist my teenage students watch Labyrinth and my reasoning will be “because Bowie”.
I don’t know that when I hear there’s a new album out on his 69th birthday I won’t race to it immediately, because I am busy and an adult and I can get to it later. Seventeen-year-old me demands immediacy. This gig is immediate. Vital. I have never been so aware of the present moment. I am so happy to be there. To be witnessing him. To know that he is a real human, this legend, only a few metres away, gorgeous and crazily talented and keeping us deliriously transfixed. I am alive and aware and screaming out lyrics. I am – I’m allowed think this, I’m an intense teenager – at one with the music, with the crowd, with the universe. I am a diamond dog and a rebel rebel on a fantastic voyage. I am a starman waiting in the sky and an absolute beginner. I am 17 and in love with music in a way that you can only be at 17. Except it turns out that, even as an adult, the death of an idol alters, and shakes, your whole world.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative writing facilitator based in Dublin. Her next novel, Nothing Tastes As Good will be published by Hot Key Books in July
My inaugural Bowie moment happened at the end of the 1970s in a suburban Dublin school, when the boy behind me in class tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at the large garish badge on his grey school jumper and asked: “Is that a man or a woman?” I really couldn’t say, because the bloodless face in the photograph – later I’d spot the references: Warhol, Garbo, Buster Keaton – was like nothing I’d seen before. A figure of such brittle poise and remote demeanour that the very question of its sex appeared moot. “I don’t know!” I blurted. “Exactly,” said the clued-in kid, “because that’s David Bowie.”
I’ve often wondered if the boy in question had been similarly touched, because from that moment I was lost in admiration and curiosity. How had I missed this – whatever this was, exactly – amid the weekly round of Top of the Pops and chart rundowns on radio? The music came a few months later: a borrowed compilation cassette played to death, my prepubescent dreams unspooling now around the lewd and cryptic lyrics of Suffragette City, Golden Years and John, I’m Only Dancing. And suddenly there he was on television: angular, real and ashen as he sang about someone called Major Tom and seemed to describe a lost state of being-between that I could only imagine: “I’ve never done good things … I’ve never done bad things.”
The cliche holds for several generations now: among all else he did, David Bowie turned us into readers, and some of us into writers. It’s true, of course: without Bowie’s lyrics and interviews and the evidence of his own voracious and mostly autodidact attachment to books, I might never have found my way to the Banba secondhand store in Rathmines on the hunt for Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, JG Ballard, all the Beats and especially William Burroughs. It’s been said many times in the past couple of days: Bowie was a great student, educator and enthusiast.
But in truth – for me at least – his influence on the word, on my words, was always textural rather than teacherly. Bowie taught us about style, showed us that style was a matter of controlled ambiguity, told us above all that it needed to be reinvented with every song, every word, every note. His language was just as mysterious as his shifting personae, sonic inventions and magnetic gaze. As a kid, I never much cared what Bowie’s lyrics meant – I was seduced and inspired instead by their hip opacity and stentorian strangeness, his knowing swerves into sentiment, the way as a singer he could give a phrase or even syllable a particular italic bend and in the process summon whole worlds, interior and out there.
Brian Dillon's latest book is The Great Explosion: Gunpowder, the Great War, and a disaster on the Kent Marshes. Read his extended essay on Bowie, first published in the Dublin Review, here.
The news of David Bowie’s death is doubly shocking because, decade after decade, we have been awaiting expectantly each of his transformations and metamorphoses. It is startling to have to consider that he is mortal after all, that the process of his re-invention might end – even if Bowie himself once confessed to being rather surprised, after so much sex and drugs, at finding himself numbered still among the living.
And yet, as the legacy being discussed in the last twenty-four hours reveals, the process will not end, due to one extraordinary quality that David Bowie possessed - evident above all in the most important of his guises for me, that of a writer. He had the capacity both to transcend this world and at the same time to be an ordinary, human, material part of it. In his lyrics, and in the comments he made about his art, about fame, about style, about the places and people he knew, he was always ironising the process of self-reinvention and self-fashioning.
Retrospective classification might claim him now as a harbinger of gay emancipation, or an embodiment of transgender identity – but, even though he contributed richly to those revolutions and moved them forward, what he represented for me and for my generation was the power of becoming and re-becoming an individual, always with a connection—as his modest if mysterious air proved—to the ordinary self, the unassuming creative force, the one who was doing the inventing.
Neil Hegarty is the author of Frost: The Authorised Biography. His first novel, The Inch Levels, is forthcoming.
My adoration for David Bowie has grown stronger by the year, so I was gratified yesterday when the internet and everything else was completely saturated by him: it showed that the immensity of his achievement and his impact on the culture had in no way been forgotten. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to visit the David Bowie Is exhibition in Paris, having read Brian Dillon's excellent essay about its London run in the Dublin Review, and rueing that I had missed it first time round. Bowie was a popular modernist, a portal through which autodidacts of multiple generations could explore rich vistas of art, literature, fashion, music, film, and so much else.
For my favourite Bowie song, I choose Absolute Beginners, for the simple reason that it is the most romantic song I know. I’ve also been returning again and again lately to his wild and enigmatic vocal performance on China Girl, particularly in the epic, deranged middle verses, which, for the hell of it, I will quote here:
I stumble into town just like a sacred cow
Visions of Swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone
It's in the white of my eyes
My little China girl
You shouldn't mess with me
I'll ruin everything you are
I'll give you television
I'll give you eyes of blue
I'll give you man who wants to rule the world
Rob Doyle is the author of Here are the Young Men and the short story collection, This is the Ritual, out this month
We imitated everyone but him. You couldn’t imitate him. It went without saying, somehow. It was axiomatic, like the light speed barrier. Dave Gahan, according to legend, was recruited as Depeche Mode’s lead singer on the strength of his rendition of Heroes, but that was different. That was Dave Gahan. And besides, the story was probably apocryphal. In any case, we knew our place.
We tried to be everyone else, God knows, not least Depeche Mode. We tried to be Kraftwerk and New Order, Dead Can Dance and Laurie Anderson, Japan and The Blue Nile. But never him. He could be anyone, of course. He was protean, chameleonic. These qualities, already, have become the refrain in our lamentations. But that wasn’t it. That wasn’t the reason.
It was partly a problem of timing. We formed our “band” in the late eighties, a bedroom synth pop duo that persisted, however notionally, for the better part of two decades and distinguished itself only by its titanic lack of achievements. By then, his light reached us only indirectly. Our generation encountered him first in the video for Dancing in the Street, which MTV played on heavy rotation for what seemed the entire duration of our adolescence. Even in the perplexing get-up he assumed for that promo – a mackintosh draped over what appeared to be notably opulent pyjamas – he was a figure of undisguisable splendour. In Jagger you saw a sagging complacency, a billionaire dad who had lapsed into something perilously close to wedding dancing. In him, you saw something else, or glimpsed it. The rest, though, would have to wait. We had a lot to learn.
And we were apt pupils, if nothing else. We never quite got around to our own legacy, though hundreds of hours’ worth of recordings were consigned to various shoe boxes, but we were fanatically diligent scholars. We worked things out by ear, playing back cherished songs with maniacal persistence until they gave up their secrets. We spent an entire afternoon unravelling the intro to West End Girls, a week recreating the fantastically intricate arpeggios in Trans-Europe Express. We dissected the canon, teasing apart the connective tissues of influence. We came to him, inescapably, to the primary sources. We studied him, especially the Berlin albums, with unfeigned reverence. But we didn’t listen to him as we did the others, hunched over our banks of Moogs and Rolands. Something stilled our usual impulses. We never did the forensics, with him. We never attempted the pathology.
It wasn’t the voice that put us off, though the voice is certainly elusive, a nominal baritone complicated by oddly fissile harmonics, a voice that is always on the verge of escaping its register. We had tackled other vocalists, after all, whose technique might have appeared more daunting. Even now, on occasion, when I am alone in the house and have been sufficiently radicalised by Saint-Émilion, I will morosely channel David Sylvian or sidle up to Scott Walker. By any dispassionate measure, of course, these performances are appalling, but it isn’t a question of fidelity or of verisimilitude. Those we dare to imitate may be artists that far surpass us, but they are artists we can try to be. We had taken the others apart, in the course of all those years. We knew how they worked.
You couldn’t do that with him. You couldn’t anatomise him. It wasn’t just the androgyny, though that didn’t exactly simplify matters. It wasn’t the reinventions, because you could pick just one of his personas and still find yourself flailing. The problem was that you didn’t know where to put yourself. You couldn’t locate him, in the music, couldn’t follow his moves. His identity wasn’t just fluid, it was gaseous. You could look all you wanted, but the mechanics were always incomprehensible. He was never just the starman, never just sitting in a tin can. He was beyond that, nebulous and celestial. Whatever it was, what he did was coming from everywhere, like background radiation. It had already passed through everyone you had learned from, everything you thought you knew. You could look all you wanted, but it had seen you first. It was all around you, gazing its gazeless stare.
Paraic O’Donnell’s first novel, The Maker of Swans, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in February
I was nine, watching Top of the Pops in my Aunt Nancy's house in Clondalkin, when David Bowie performed Starman and slung his arm around Mick Ronson's shoulder and changed the world. I had been in love with Marc Bolan for a year, but I was pretty sure he was seeing other people, so it was all right. I read about Bowie and pored over his photographs in Music Star and Popswop, which strictly speaking were comics for girls, but one of the points of glam was to mix the pink toys and the blue toys up until we didn't know or care which was which any more. Bolan faded away, but Bowie took what he had started and brought it to places Bolan wasn't interested in or capable of going.
Declan Hughes is the author of the Ed Loy series. His latest novel is All The Things You Are
It was over the cold, wet, Wicklow winter of 1979 that I fell ever more under the spell of Major Tom, although his Space Oddity hit single had hooked me hugely 10 years before. I was minding my friend Audry’s cottage a few miles up the hill from the Powerscourt Waterfall, feeding her kitchen woodstove day and night, while listening round the clock to Bowie’s 1975 Young Americans album which I’d only just discovered. Listening on vinyl no less, on an LP which Audry’s young daughter Lucy had kindly left behind.
Whether it was the R&B echoes of my own young American upbringing, or simply his sound and vision, there was no looking back after that. His 1987 Pepsi ad – even with Tina Turner and all its theatrics – was painful to watch: rock & roll and commodification being polar opposites, but who of us has got it right every single time? And how many of us who heard yesterday’s news and songs “didn’t want to break down and cry”? Bless you, Bowie.
Anthony Glavin’s new novel Colours Other Than Blue will be out in March
Last year, I went looking for a record pressing plant that was no longer there, the RCA factory in Washington, Tyne and Wear. It had been opened officially in 1970. I talked to people who had worked there – a man who had worked as an engineer, fixing the machines that produced the vinyl records, a printer who pressed sleeves for the records produced by the plant, and a woman, Audrey Young, who worked as a secretary in the office.
In 1971, David Bowie signed to RCA, and Audrey told me that soon after he turned up in the canteen of the record pressing plant. It was a surprise to the employees, who were shepherded into the room without knowing who it was they were there to see. They watched as Bowie cut a cake to celebrate his signing to the record label, then they went back to work. His first album for the label, Hunky Dory, was a step forward for him, and the beginning of a run of brilliant records for the label.
The plant had been a sleek, modern construction in photos I had seen, but, when I went to find its site, I had to push through overgrown hedges to find what remained of the building. I walked across a vast expanse of discoloured tiles, thinking about Bowie’s visit and wondering about the location of the canteen where he had cut the cake. Such things go through your mind when you’ve decided to write about what’s lost.
In August 1977, between the release of Bowie’s Low (January) and Heroes (October), Elvis Presley died. Presley was on RCA, and the plant, which was under threat of closure, went into overdrive to meet demand for his records. But it was a short-term spike that hid a longer-term decline, and the plant eventually closed in 1981.
On waking yesterday morning, I heard the news of Bowie’s death. Like many, I was shocked. I found Bowie’s endless shape-shifting, embodying what critic Nik Cohn called the “underlying restlessness” of pop, always intriguing, challenging, frustrating. He instinctively understood pop music as both a product and an art form, with its own mythology that he could embody and subvert. The figure of Bowie is itself a work of art, an enigma that endures.
At lunchtime yesterday, I walked into my local HMV store. A large poster bearing the image of a star hung in the front window, the cover art from Bowie’s new album. Inside, I walked to the rack that held Bowie’s albums and observed customers flicking through the CDs, picking one or two up and walking to the till. I thought then about the demand for Elvis records that kept the Washington record plant open in 1977.
I picked up a copy of his new album, Blackstar, and saw that it was issued under the RCA imprint, now a subsidiary of Sony. It was his first original material on RCA since 1980. Since his death, his final album has been seen as a cryptic statement about his death, and its lyrics analysed in a highly literal way. For my part, I wondered what his return to RCA meant.
Karl Whitney is author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin
I played hard to get with Bowie for years. It was that thing of not wanting to be seen digging someone that popular. I shared a Young Ones-type flat with Bowie-worshippers. You came home to Ziggy, fell asleep to Hunky Dory, hid Aladdin Sane so the buggers couldn’t play it and drive you nuts. We had knock-down, drag-out fights about who was cooler, Bowie or Dylan or Cohen or Joni or Springsteen. I thought they all were then along came Heroes and I finally had to admit I’d been in denial all along. Admitting error is good for the soul and I was wrong about Bowie, one of the few artists, please note, who can get by on one name.
His achievements and the range of his influence would take pages to relate but the irresistible thing about him was his self-possession, his style and his swagger. He looked fantastic. No cooler dude ever bestrode a stage. He made Iggy and Jagger look reptilian by comparison, Dylan hobbity. Raphael would’ve been pushed to do him justice.
In fact he was little Davy Jones from Brixton, a working-class kid whose whole career was one of bravura self-creation. The sixties produced loads of these guys, weaned on vinyl rock ’n’ roll and determined to tunnel out of the drab postwar gulag. It’s probably a geezer intuition but the feeling that the generation now hitting their seventies was sui generis is inescapable and one of the best of them is gone now. Sad.
Bert Wright is administrator of the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards and curator of the DLR Voices Series and the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival
It is just after one o’clock in the morning. My phone lights up with a message from another planet and three words that don’t belong together: “Bowie is dead.”
David Bowie is dead.
It was cancer that took him, a cancer he kept private from this world – my world – of which he was so much a part yet always apart.
David Bowie had cancer.
Four words that don’t belong together.
The strange and unsettling sounds of Blackstar have filled the rooms of my house since the album’s release on his 69th birthday, three days ago. Lazarus stopped me in my tracks this weekend and prompted me to mention to my daughter that I thought it sounded like the work of a man at the end of his life – a brilliant, beautiful man who for decades has illuminated the edges of my life – my world – with his sound and vision. But I didn’t dwell on the thought. Maybe I didn’t want to tempt fate.
In the middle of any David Bowie song, I can find bits and pieces of the stories of my life. My favourite colour, the best to wear for a television camera, is blue, “blue, blue electric blue”. The ringtone on my phone reminds me who I am at inopportune times when I’m dressed in a suit. “Rebel, Rebel,” it blares out. “How could they know? Hot Tramp I love you so.” Hot tramp. Swirling in my brain when I miss you on a Saturday, “Let me put my arms around your head. Gee, it’s hot, let’s go to bed.” Let’s. On a day when I’m in the deep end again, but unafraid because yes, yes, “we can be heroes, just for one day”. We can do anything. We’re a different kind.
Beginnings and endings. Question marks. Full stops. A pause. A change of key. A post-script. A footnote. Always, always a Bowie song.
Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?
More than one.
Selfishly, I want you bound to earth again, David Bowie, and all the young dudes to carry the news. I want Time to take a cigarette and Ziggy on guitar, and forever – I want – forever – to just let the children boogie.
Bowie is dead.
Maybe I feel the way my husband felt when Lou Reed died. He was profoundly saddened by the death of the strange stranger who somehow knew him and his wild side better than I did. I know that now. He refused to talk about Lou Reed’s passing, struggling, I suppose, with the reality that there would be no more new tales from the dirty boulevard. Or maybe there was something else, a psychic inkling that just 18 days later, he would fly, fly away too.
Unable to talk about it, I wrote instead about Lou Reed dying. Just 12 days before my husband died, I found myself recollecting – but not aloud – the first time our daughter discovered her beautiful hands. For me, her besotted mother, it was a magical milestone, as though our girl was the first child ever to make such a discovery. Her fingers in constant motion, I called it “hand ballet”. Transfixed, as though under a spell, she paid rapt attention, staring intently, unblinking, at those little fingers that would all too soon cooperate to clap hands, tie laces, create pictures, make music, whisk eggs, and wipe away tears.
Never would I have predicted a moment in my adult life, when I would so easily suspend in one singular thought my baby girl and the late Lou Reed, their elegant hands in motion – she saying hello to her hands, he waving goodbye. His wife, Laurie Anderson, wrote that Lou Reed spent much of his last days on earth “being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature. He died on a Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.”
Beginnings and endings.
This past weekend, as I listened to Lazarus and David Bowie telling us that he would be free – just like that bluebird – I thought back to a sunny drive-in kind of Saturday before I gave birth to my daughter, 18 years ago. Her daddy and I were in the room that would become her nursery, nervous and unprepared for the extent to which our lives were about to change. We were absolute beginners. We absolutely loved each other, and the rest could go to hell.
Superstitious, we had decided not to find out if I was carrying a boy or a girl. Thus, the nursery was “gender neutral”, its only splash of colour a painting of animals and birds in a forest, vibrant in primary colors. I don’t recall the details of our conversation that afternoon, but I remember a pause, when my husband peered at the painting and pointed out the bluebird perched in dark green foliage. I hadn’t noticed it before.
“Look,” he said. “A little bluebird of happiness waiting for our new baby. A bluebird of happiness. Isn’t that something.”
Yes. It was. It really was something. It was a moment – a moment we clung to as long as we could. We were absolutely happy, we were creatures in the wind, we were Pretty Things. We were heroes.
Thank you, David Bowie, for dazzling me with your ch-ch-ch-ch-changes so I have never been afraid of mine. For keeping me young and curious and hopeful even on the darkest of days, on a day like today.
I absolutely loved you.
Rest easy now.
[ blogger ]