It’s all been said of course. The death of David Bowie was a real shock and there has been an avalanche of tributes to the man and his legacy across every medium. But I simply have to talk about what he meant to me. It would be totally wrong not to. It’s completely personal, and that’s what I feel I can see in everything I’ve read. Story after story, crystal clear and always very personal about the huge impact Bowie had on their lives. A seismic, shared experience that genuinely seems to connect so many people, especially from my generation, who seem to have witnessed him for the first time at exactly the same moment – 7.30 on Thursday July 6 1972.
David Bowie - Homo Superior.
Bowie had been around for a while in 1972. When he performed ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops, he was performing a song from his 5th album as a solo artist. However, I don’t seem to be able to find anyone who had any real awareness of him before that performance. This is not typical – there’s usually at least a handful who claim to have been ‘there at the very beginning’ when any significant cultural event or icon is discussed. But, in Bowie’s case, this appearance seems to BE the beginning and although I never heard him directly state it, I suspect Bowie would have concurred. So much has been said about that performance and there’s little I can add. But I think I might be able to give some additional, personal context for those who might, with some justification, suspect that the impact of this moment might be just nostalgic hyperbole.
Now that virtually every artist is well turned out, groomed, culturally aware and ‘branded’ it is genuinely difficult to understand that in 1972 absolutely nobody was like that. On that week in 1972, this is how the top 20 looked:
1. Puppy Love – Donny Osmond.
2. Rock and Roll Parts 1 and 2 – Gary Glitter.
3. Sylvia’s Mother – Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.
4. Circles – The New Seekers.
5. I Can See Clearly Now – Johnny Nash.
6. Little Willy – The Sweet.
7. Breaking Up is Hard to Do – The Partridge Family.
8. Take me Bak ‘Ome – Slade.
9. Join Together – The Who.
10. An American Trilogy – Elvis Presley.
11. Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day – Gilbert O’Sullivan.
12. Sea Side Shuffle – Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs.
13. Betcha by Golly Wow. The Stylistics.
14. Mad About You – Bruce Ruffin.
15. Rockin’ Robin – Michael Jackson.
16. Walkin’ in the Rain with the One I Love – Love Unlimited.
17. School’s Out – Alice Cooper.
18. Starman – David Bowie.
19. Vincent – Don McLean.
20. Silver Machine – Hawkwind.
Much of this will make little sense to generations for whom ‘Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show’ will mean absolutely nothing. This next bit might help though. At the beginning of every show, there was a chart run-down which nobody ever missed. It meant more to most people than the football results that were tapped out on Saturday afternoons for a tedious length of time on a thing called a ‘teleprinter’. Thursday night at 7.30 was the moment when everyone discovered ‘who was number 1’, something that had gained disproportionate significance given the many genuinely important events that were impacting the lives of most people in Britain at that time (Google it). The chart run-down was accompanied by photographs of the artists and the top 20 was read out in reverse order.
This louche line-up of style was what Bowie was surrounded by that Thursday:
Now, the post modern world has re-framed some of these artists. We can now find some kind of ironic cool in 70s Vegas Elvis. Noel Gallagher is always at pains to insist there was something cool about Slade, who, in 1972, had recently dropped a full-on skinhead look in favour of the emerging ‘glam rock’ style that had been first seen in Marc Bolan’s T-Rex persona. This was incidentally about as close as anybody got to contriving a style that would help with their commercial success. The band usually had an idea and just did it – in a very home spun way. Slade would always look like the pally, black country working class lads they always were. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it was hardly a major fashion statement or anything transformative.
Good as some of these artists were, you’ll have to take my word for it that nobody on this list (with the possible exception of Alice Cooper) was in any way, cool to a 14 year-old boy, or frankly anyone, come to that. I don’t remember anyone asking for a ‘Donny Osmond’ at the barbers, or anybody turning up at school with an Elvis haircut (that was the teachers). And, if you were caught expounding the virtues of Gilbert O’Sullivan, it was proof positive you were destined to become an accountant or a civil servant (if indeed you survived the afternoon break). Not even the boys who were constantly doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award dared to mention The New Seekers or Dr. Hook.
Nothing need be said about the likes of Gary Glitter. It was the 70s, what can I say?
In my school, blues rock was the genre for the ‘lads’. The ‘lasses’ liked either teenage boys or the many, American R&B groups that were always in the charts. I was having none of it. The problem was, that meant I was having none of anything, because there wasn’t really anything else.
So, when Bowie appeared on Top of the Pops, framed close with Mick Ronson snuggling up with his guitar it was unlike anything else. Like me, nobody can really put their finger on it. But, for me it was like a time portal had opened up that looked very comfy to climb into that would transport me into a future where I somehow ‘fitted’. There would no longer be any need to try hard to understand why I should be wearing a great coat and listening intently to prog or blues. I wouldn’t have to pretend to be a proper bloke to get by at school or to attract girls. Most importantly, just because I was watching this whole thing on telly, this surely must mean that this guy couldn’t be the only one who felt the way he so clearly did – there must be others (just like me – how dare I?).
I have no real idea why I could have assumed that this performance had anything to do with art, poetry, New York, self-expression, subversion, sexuality. But I did. It was just obvious somehow. And I promise you this is no exaggeration, from that moment forward NOTHING WAS EVER THE SAME AGAIN.
What I couldn’t possibly have known though, was how rich the seam was that lead to Bowie in the first place, and how much richer still was the gold mine of influence that would immediately follow him. The Velvet Underground, Warhol, The Doors, Garage Rock, Mods, Bolan, Japanese theatre, French mime, European fashion, William Burroughs, D.H. Lawrence, William Blake, Dada, The White Album, Edith Piaf were all just there, waiting to me to discover. These were not the subjects I was discussing at school, either in or out of the classroom.
Later, I started going out to newly formed Bowie/Roxy nights where I met everybody that would come to be my cohort. And of course, they all became punks which put a tin hat on virtually everything else for me and them for decades. We didn’t need anything else – there was a whole life in Bowie and Punk – we wanted for nothing.
It annoyed the hell out of the people who didn’t get it. It seemed that all you needed to be was about 3 years older to completely miss it by seeing it as showy and superficial next to Dylan, Hendrix, The Stones and even Sgt. Pepper. And, if you’d made a commitment to Genesis, Floyd, Yes etc. It was just too big a shift – too much effort. It seems that the only ones who would go forward would be the ones who had nothing to give up – nothing to lose and everything to gain. This nihilistic devotion was only going to piss them off. Worse still was what happened to their supreme confidence that they would always get the girls. How could the quiet, nerdy, arty softies ever have a chance? When the Bowie fans started dressing weird and looking frankly like girls, the great coat brigade were sure they were right. The very fact that you weren’t tittering to the line ‘you gotta make way for the Homo Superior’ like they did, was proof positive that your sexuality would keep you away from girls anyway. Well, guess what? It didn’t turn out that way. Within a year, there were literally no girls left for them. Who would have guessed?
If all this sounds like post rationalisation try this: Find a Bowie fan who didn’t marry a Bowie fan. Find a Bowie fan whose friends are not ALL Bowie fans. Find a Bowie fan with a Phil Collins Album (irony doesn’t count here. If it’s ironic, you’re not fans of either). Find a non-Bowie fan who’s familiar with Brian Eno. Find an artist who’s not a Bowie fan. Find a designer who’s not a Bowie fan. Find a writer who’s not a Bowie fan…
You won’t. Because Bowie is a big part of why they’re doing these things in the first place. It’s almost as if I’m implying that all cool people are Bowie fans and all non-Bowie fans are uncool. Well I am, although of course it is all on a scale, one that I would place myself much closer to the bottom of than the top. But I crossed the line and that’s good enough for me.
I know this can all sound a bit small and superficial but it’s really not, and better writers than me have articulated this many times, so I won’t attempt it.
He’s no longer here and It hasn’t really sunk in what that means. Guilt is heavily associated with grief and I think that’s why this feels different to me to say, Lennon or Elvis, both of whom died at pretty formative times in my life and both of whom I admired. My first and strongest feeling was ‘I can’t say thanks now, and I could and should have’. I’ve seen him live a couple of times and I’ve bought pretty much everything he’s done (and I mean bought, not just listened), but I never put pen to paper, never put myself out there and tried to say something regardless of the likelihood of it ever being read. I regret it.
It’s just another reminder of how we take things for granted. It didn’t occur to me that time would run out. Whether he was doing stuff I liked and admired or not, he would always be there, doing stuff. And, there would always be time for me to express my feelings if I so wished. Well, there wasn’t time and he won’t be there doing anything, any more.
Fan mail is like any other expression of positive feeling. It’s a good thing and nothing to be ashamed of. If you’ve got anything good to say about someone, say it – right now. I wish I had.
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