On Monday this week, we woke up to the news that David Bowie had died. Since then, there has been an unprecedented international outpouring of shock and grief. And it’s underlined everything we already knew about this one-of-a-kind human being, with commentary crystallising to paint a fascinating portrait of a universally adored artist.
This person in the public eye, who defied categorisation and flaunted and explored gender fluidity before it was even a thing, taught the world a thing or two about acceptance, diversity, identity – and what it is to be free. At the same time, he unleashed on the world a dress-up box of imaginative, unique music that – it transpires – soundtracked people’s lives.
His influence has been far-reaching – and that’s beyond music and performance. Inspired and heart-warmed by the internet’s countless tributes, we asked some of TGA’s contributors to add their voices to the many and share with the world what Bowie meant to them. The stories we got back were heartfelt and personal.
Jessica C. Andrews, writer:
My first encounter with David Bowie was through television. A cover version of ‘Life on Mars’ was featured on an advert for life insurance. I was hooked after one listen.
‘What is that song?’ I asked my mum. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye; all thirteen years, smudged eyeliner and pink fishnet tights curled up on the end of the sofa.
‘That’s Bowie.’ She said.
I grew up in Sunderland and as a teenager felt disconnected from everything. I read books obsessively and spent Saturday afternoons wandering around the only art gallery, enjoying the bright white space it made in my head. I crammed my mind full of strange ideas and craved escape and excitement and anything that was different from the stale, squat houses I passed every day.
I started dancing. My boyfriend and I went to gigs and club nights a few times a week. They were such a release for us. We used to put on Bowie and do our makeup together in my bedroom, under the picture of David and Angie at their wedding, so perfect in afghan coats and tasseled scarves. We donned sequins, glitter and fur and slipped under disco lights until school the next morning. ‘Rebel Rebel’ was our song. We thrived on being the ‘tacky thing’ he sung about. He was proof that a glamorous world beyond our mundane one existed, hope that there was a city somewhere that was brighter than the one we were living in.
I can remember being very young and dozing on a friend from school’s living room floor after a party. The first sunlight spilled through the window as ‘Sorrow’ played from his parents’ record player. We were full of ideas about what the world might be like and the kinds of people we could be.
No matter how late I stayed up the night before, I always went to school. Bowie was an artist and an intellectual and showed me that learning was a way out, too. I listened to him on my MP3 player on my way to registration, hating the endless red and yellow pattern on the backs of the bus seats. His voice spun inside me like a secret.
‘Your dad loves Bowie,’ my mum used to say, as I twisted to ‘Suffragette City’ across the kitchen tiles. My dad wasn’t at home very much when I was growing up, which filled me with a yearning to be acknowledged by him. I had no memory of Bowie being played in our house when I was child. Our mutual admiration for him was coincidental, but I clung to it, as you often do when you find a connection with a person by whom you want to be loved.
The Terry O’Neill image of Bowie in the mustard yellow suit, cigarette dangling from his lips, always reminded me of my dad. I bought a postcard of that image and sent it to him once, in an attempt to connect with him. I thought that he would look at it and feel that I understood things.
I moved to London in search of adventure, where I met a boy who shared the same romantic ideals as me. I decided we were good together after we were watching a performance of Bowie on television, and we both forgot to breathe at the same time as he strained to reach the high notes in a song. At that time we felt the same things.
I was given a record player as a Christmas gift, a few weeks before Bowie died. My mum gave me a box of my dad’s old records that had been gathering mould in our garage. I sat on the edge of my bed and flicked through them. They were all Bowie, every single one.
It seemed so fitting that on the night of Bowie’s passing I spent the evening wearing glitter with my friends, spinning around my room to my dad’s records, dressing up in fur and drinking red wine.
When the tributes to his life and work started spilling across computer screens, I felt betrayed. My connection to his music seemed so personal that it was inconceivable that all of these other people could have felt the same way.
But as I moved through the crowds in Brixton on Monday night, I realised that was exactly the point. Bowie belonged to everyone; to me, to my dad, to Brixton, and to anyone who ever felt like they didn’t quite fit.
Megan Beard, writer:
Each summer I would spend a few weeks with my dad and step-mom in Lincoln, Nebraska. They were eccentric alcoholics, and at the best of times it was like being in an episode of Ab Fab (except Midwestern and poor), at the worst of times like being cast in a hippie version of a Tennessee Williams play. I became good at escaping the situation at their apartment by spending lots of time with the older gay men who lived in their apartment building and a mutual friend of my step-mom’s named Janet.
Janet had a childhood disease that left her bones brittle, preventing her from moving around too much lest she break a bone. This caused her to be quite fat. When we walked down the street together, she in her mobility scooter, me at her side, people would drive past and yell hateful things about her weight at her. She blew it off the same way that she blew a lot of things off over the years as the ‘queen fag hag’ of Lincoln, a former punk singer and one-time sex worker in Hollywood. Nothing anyone could say could sway her strength.
When things would get dark at my dad’s place, I’d escape to Janet’s small apartment. We would stay up all night eating Chinese takeout, watching things like The Haunting and listening to records. I could talk to her like I couldn’t talk to anyone else back home in the conservative suburb of Kansas City that I lived in. I had few friends, and drifted between being invisible and being bullied.
One night, she handed me a cassette. It was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. She told me that if I ever felt lonely, I should listen to the last song on the album, ‘Rock & Roll Suicide.’
The next day, I went to go hang out in the park near my dad’s place. I popped the cassette into my Walkman (it was 1994), and fast-forwarded to the last song on the tape. I’d never before had a song reach down deep inside and grab on to that sad, lonely place. He reached through my headset, took my hand and declared: “You’re not alone.”
Back then, I thought my sorrow and pain were unique only to me. Now that I’m 36, I realize that so many kids were and are just like me. They also found redemption in The Goblin King.
But now we’ve come to the end of the journey that has taken us from gender rebellion to a final, beautiful exit. He left the world with a perfect exit song in the masterpiece that is ‘Blackstar’. He reminded us that we can all do bizarre and fearless things with our lives. Hell, he wrote the soundtrack.
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance.
Thank you for this dance, dear Lazarus.
Roxanne de Bastion, writer, songwriter and Berliner
Some days you wake up to find the world a different place. Sunday night was not kind to me, I finally fell asleep around 3:30am, after much tossing and turning. When I awoke from a series of bizarre dream sequences, it was nearly noon and my head felt heavy. Still in bed, I opened my laptop and checked Facebook, a particularly bad habit of mine. I saw my dad’s avatar. He had updated his status to: “The stars look very different today”, and then I saw a message from my mum, which simply said: “David Bowie ist tot”.
I grew up in Berlin. My mum, having witnessed the rise and fall of the wall (and Ziggy Stardust) is the archetypal Berliner. She also happens to be the biggest David Bowie fan I know. I do not own a single Bowie album and yet, I felt a profound sense of loss that day.
Berlin is a free city. It’s cheap, it’s harsh and to the point. It’s dress down and smoke up, do whatever you want and don’t worry about the money. You just need the right attitude and to be good at recycling. David Bowie moved from LA to the little insane ‘island’ of West Berlin in the mid 1970s in order to sober up and get his act together. An odd choice, but if your best mate is Iggy Pop, I guess anything goes. And, as it goes, he found inspiration, kicked his cocaine habit and wrote and recorded ‘Heroes’ at Hansa Studios with Tony Visconti. Regardless of whether or not you own Bowie albums, if you are a Berliner, that song is part of your identity. The intro alone holds a firm grip on my heart. I cry every time I hear that last verse.
In 2014, Bowie released The Next Day. The single ‘Where Are We Now’ revisits Berlin, a place and a time of undeniable significance to the artist. The lyrics in that song are so personal and full of longing. I’m so familiar with the places he references, it feels very much like a shared experience, and as if the song was directed at me. Which is, of course, what a great artist does.
It is so rare that an artist’s last releases are on a par with those that heralded fame. As a songwriter, that is what I strive towards. What an achievement to have your last album, at age 69, be truly great. It’s not just a gesture.
I have never had the pleasure of seeing David Bowie perform live, nor have I ever made it through Station to Station without getting a little impatient. Like many, I was surprised by my grief. However, there are those who contribute so much of their soul to our collective experience that the lack of their earthly presence is felt by all. The world was a difference place on Monday morning, but Berlin will forever have the love that David Bowie poured into those songs and David Bowie, wherever he is now, will forever have the love of us Berliners.
Faye Lewis, New Music Editor, TGA:
At times it’s hard to separate myth from reality. Especially when it comes to David Bowie. In the case of the Thin White Duke, it’s practically impossible to divorce the tragedy of his battle with cancer – one that has gone unknown by the general public – from everything that he was during his very public 50-year career. And yet it’s his new album Blackstar that paints the most human portrait of Bowie while simultaneously further enhancing his most mythological traits.
Bowie was the master of disguise and my parents were both fans of his, referencing his theatrical identities from Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory to The Thin White Duke. My mum would often burst into impromptu renditions of ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Gene Genie’ while washing up. And as an 80s infant, my first real taste was the film Labyrinth. Mr Hall, my primary school headmaster, would always play it when there was a heavy downpour and we couldn’t go outside. I have vivid memories of 200 children aged between five and 11 sitting, dumbfounded, straining their eyes to see the tiny TV wheeled in to the front of the assembly hall.
University was my next encounter with Bowie, where – like the pretentious twat I was – I spent my first term student loan on a record player, a red light bulb and vinyl from Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Echo and The Bunnymen – and David Bowie.
Sat in my student hovel, with its asbestos warning sticker above the window and terrible, terrible 70s peach curtains – Newcastle’s Henderson Hall – the album Low seemed a rather fitting companion alongside Lou Reed’s Berlin album. As much as Marc Almond’s Tainted Life biography did in influencing my hideous living arrangement and state of mind.
Until Blackstar, Outside was the album I sought to listen to most. Co-written with Brian Eno, its weird collection of avant-garage riffs seemed to me to explain why he was tagged with the ‘genius’ title. While the album was mostly criticised by journalists (as I would later discover), at 18 the post-apocalyptic soundscapes were a complete departure to the David Bowie my parents played when I was growing up and were more in line with bands like NIN or Machina era Smashing Pumpkins, which I loved.
In 2011 I moved into a flat in Stansfield Road, Brixton with my friend Lucie who told me we were living on the street David Bowie had once resided in. I didn’t believe it but it turns out he did live next door to us at number 40, though I only found this out on Monday after his death.
It is easy to understand why the nation mourns Bowie. His presence was always felt, his music a touchstone for everybody – whether self-professed fan or lay listener.
Blackstar’s release encapsulated the Bowie experience in all its life and death. Both aesthetically and commercially, Bowie has continually altered the sound and experience of music, offering the masses something authentic. People connected to him. With Darkstar, people connected to him in a deeper way than ever. For those who have lost someone they love to cancer, the prophetic song Lazarus becomes more than just haunting, it’s bittersweet. His final farewell is one of posthumous potency:
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
His death is truly sad and yet as Bowie always does, there’s a sense of the unending that Darkstar captures. When it comes to his mythology, nobody has been as adept at creating their own than David Bowie. Or more specifically, all of his alter egos. Bowie was a true visionary, to whom we sadly bid farewell.
Megan Beard has put together a playlist of David Bowie covers for your aural delectation. Listen to it here.
Follow Kim on Twitter – @K_imbot