NO-ONE has come close to being as daring, sexy, provocative, exciting and fearless as David Bowie, writes Aidan Smith
You wait ages to get the chance to write about David Bowie in the grown-up pages in the middle of the paper and then exactly a week later – refusing to believe what the Archbishop of Canterbury on the Today programme is telling you, your children refusing to believe your reaction to the news – you have to write about him again.
Seven days ago, in common with the world, the piece was about his new album, Bowie’s new, zazzy, jazzy direction and how he was still relentlessly questing, having just celebrated his 69th birthday. Now, in common with world and, who knows, maybe some far-off, far-out planets as well, I’m mourning him. As someone tweeted during the outpouring of grief yesterday morning: “We were so thrilled to have him back that we failed to notice he was saying goodbye.”
• OBITUARY: David Bowie, musician, actor, cultural icon
Bowie’s death coming just three days after Blackstar’s release looks like showbusiness’s most sensational final act. When he killed off his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust at the end of a concert in 1973, the shock caused many to think he’d never sing again. Then, two years ago, he broke his longest period of inactivity with a comeback that no-one, but no-one, in this no-secrets age had even sniffed. There’s having a flair for the dramatic and then there’s being David Bowie, or there was until yesterday.
Certainly his long-time collaborator, Tony Visconti, hasn’t disabused us of the notion. “He always did what he wanted to do,” said the producer of Starman through to Blackstar, “and he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life - a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it.”
Last week’s piece mentioned the part Scotland and Scots had played in his story and right away I wondered if I’d over-egged the connections. But this is what fans do and everyone’s doing it now he’s gone: if you live in Beckenham or Brixton or Berlin, all places he once lived, you’ve been placing flowers and candles in doorways. If he played your town, and especially if he sprinkled glitter and aquamarine eyeliner residue on it during those determinedly dull denim-and-cheesecloth 1970s, then you’ve been remembering the songs and thinking about who you were and who you were with, and maybe who you really wanted to be and really wanted to be with, on an unforgettable glam-rock night.
We’re taking his death personally because if you were too young for Elvis and still not quite the optimum age for the Beatles, then it had to be Bowie.
• READ MORE: Key dates in the life and times of David Bowie
And this is remarkable when you think about it. A staid, conservative, meat-paste kind of country – that was the view from abroad back then – produces a male pop star with tangerine hair, different-coloured eyes, fang-like teeth, a fondness for dresses and an obsession with aliens. Then a generation of girls, and boys, falls head-over-stack-heels in love with him, unable to believe he’s been quite that rude on his song Time.
It’s fair to say parents of that generation didn’t altogether “get” Bowie. They’d look up from their newspaper or their knitting, squint at the TV and inquire, with varying degrees of outrage: “Is that a guy or a gal?” When people talk about all those epic moments in the communal observance of Top of the Pops leading to a breakdown in familial understanding, what they really mean is David Bowie performing Starman, draping a louche arm round his guitarist Mick Ronson, before the pair bill and coo together: “Let all the children boogie.” Starman is my kids’ favourite Bowie track on the in-car mixtapes but they just like the churning glam chord progressions; they know nothing of the amazing life and thrilling times of its creator. They didn’t even know what he looked like until asking to see some photographs yesterday while their father tried to compose himself over his Corn Flakes. Pop is everywhere now; you don’t have to search for it or wait for the weekly chart show to come round. The sense of discovery doesn’t exist anymore and some would argue the feeling of wonder has gone, too. Where is the “strange fascination” he sang about in Changes these days? Lady Gaga would try and tell you it’s not all bland although even she bows down to Bowie.
• READ MORE: Seven songs that defined David Bowie’s career
But let’s face it: no-one since has been as daring, sexy, provocative, exciting and fearless. It wasn’t just his gigs that were notable events; for the Edinburgh Evening News I once reviewed a Bowie queue. Mechanics, civil servants and shop-assistants had made such a magnificent effort to look space-agey and decadent at 5am to wait in line for tickets for his Murrayfield show in 1983 that they deserved the recognition.
Now, you could argue that Bowie himself wasn’t decadent, sexy, etc, all of the time, after his golden years of the 1970s. In 1989, for instance, he summoned the faithful to West Lothian. Not UFO Central, otherwise known as Bonnybridge, for the Ziggy revival many would have loved, but Livingston to hear Tin Machine, a kind of heavy-metal hobby-band. Well, if you weren’t wowed by the latest transmutation, there would another one along any minute.
Sometimes Bowie crashed, but never in the same car. He’d create a persona, crush its sweet hands, dream up something new. Maybe he would have wanted to be a better actor than he was, but goodness me, his life was brilliant enough. Pop contemporaries either died or were reduced to repeating themselves long ago, unable to keep up. Even Bob Dylan, who he probably wanted to be at some point, makes Christmas albums now. There has been no-one quite like him, nor will there be.
The stars look very different today.