Stephen McGinty: Cat that rolled back the years

THIS column comes to you today courtesy of a cat, for were it not for the appearance of a black moggie at nine o’clock yesterday morning, you might very well be reading a 1,500-word essay on the ethics and efficacy of the public apology as practiced next week by Lance Armstrong, instead of a baffled rummage around the life and times of David Bowie.

For those who would have preferred this “B” side, I offer a sincere public apology; try to imagine me standing before you in a dark suit and tie with my head tilted down and the faint trace of a tear glistening in the corner of my right eye. “Reader, I let you down. I let my self down. I should never have strayed off the path of safe, secure subjects about which I know something into that overgrown thicket that constitutes the vast, all encompassing forest of my ever-expanding ignorance. I was wrong. But in my defence, the cat made me do it.”

Let me explain. It all began when the editor of the Perspective pages e-mailed me to suggest that the subject of this week’s column could be the return of “The Thin White Duke”. The point at which I screwed up my face and shouted across the office: “Anyone know who The Thin White Duke is?” should, in one parallel universe, have been the point at which the idea was consigned to the office bucket for Bad Ideas.

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If a writer is unaware that The Thin White Duke constitutes David Bowie’s persona during the classic Berlin “triptych” of albums to which his new single is a world-weary ode (a point explained to me by colleague Craig Brown, a Bowie fan, but not, he insists, a Bowie fanatic) should the writer be permitted to explore his ignorance? On the one hand the answer is no, but I’ve decided to ignore that bitter clenched fist and opt, instead, for the “other hand”, which is open, honest, receptive to novel ideas, and has by far the neater nails and a palm that smells of lavender.

The fact is I can’t have been alone in feeling a little left out on Tuesday morning, when that percentage of the adult population who were cool at school and “got” music, woke up to find that it was Christmas morning once again and instead of presents under the bed there was the first new song from David Bowie in a decade on iTunes, as well as the promise of a new album in March. As adults, the very idea of a “good” surprise, as opposed to those “bad” surprises doled out by doctors and employers, are rare and so to be treasured. The Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies counted as one, and now we know why Bowie didn’t wish to appear in either even though his song Heroes was an unofficial anthem, he was keeping his powder dry until his 66th birthday, when he would dispense a sonic gift to the world.

How happy must you have been, if you were a huge Bowie fan and you woke up to find that he was still at work on his craft and vocation? Quite happy, very happy, ecstatically happy?

I don’t know. But what I did know was that it felt good to see the media celebrating a singer’s musical life, not because he or she was dead, which is what we had done over the past few years with Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and, to a smaller degree, and only because she was younger and her career shorter, Amy Winehouse, but because he was still hard at work.

I started thinking can, at the age of 40, one re-discover pop music? It seems ridiculous, but why not use the re-appearance of David Bowie to explore what lies behind a door that you’ve never really opened. At 13, the age when my musical identity was formed, I opted, as good Catholic boys do, for the black door on which was scratched by Satan’s cloven hoof a red pentangle and embraced the darkness of thrash metal. AC/DC was my gateway drug to teenage years head-banging to Kreator and Anthrax.

Somehow I can’t quite imagine the Today programme playing the new single by Slayer, purveyors of such musical ditties as Reign in Blood and Criminally Insane, even if Tom Araya did marry a Somalian supermodel and opt for the quiet life in Manhattan. (However, I did once spend a weekend wondering whether to buy a pair of skin-tight black spandex trousers, and even had an early Motley Crue album, Theatre of Pain, whose glam look was, I now know, inspired by the androgynous look of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.)

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t completely ignorant, I was aware of a number of certain facts about David Bowie. I knew that he once wrote a sweet note to John Peel in the early days, asking if he could come in slightly earlier for a recording session in order to catch the last train home. I knew that he was bisexual, enjoyed a vigorous relationship with drugs and played the goblin king in Jim Henson’s movie Labyrinth.

I do believe that “uncoolness” is a badge one carries into adulthood, a fact I discovered when embarking on a musical version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Life and Times of Benjamin Button, in which the lead character is born a wizened old man and ages down, to die as a new born baby. For over the past 48 hours I’ve worked my way back through David Bowie’s recording career from Where Are We Now? to Space Oddity. (Don’t talk to me about Liza Jane or Do Anything You Say, I’ll only look back blankly.)

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Here I was, given a second chance to prove my musical credentials, to listen, constructively as an adult, and sense the ripples and eddies of musical transgressions that flow through The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, or the dystopian sadness of Station to Station, I could have plumbed for Glam Bowie or the era of The Thin White Duke (now that I knew who he actually was). I could have nailed my colours to either period and received a silent nod of respect from Craig. I could have done. The songs were powerful, touching, provocative, tinged with sadness and love and the videos and album covers were intriguing now that I had learned about Bowie’s artistic integrity, and his early love of mime and movement.

But …but … but, instead I was swept away by uncool mid-eighties Bowie, the Bowie of the pastel suits and the hip-swivelling, of Let’s Dance, Dancing in the Street and Modern Love, which, on listening, reminded me of 
mid-eighties Elton John (all 
metal-heads had a musical “goomba”, a bit on the side you kept quiet about; mine was Elton John) and so didn’t I feel chuffed to discover that more astute ears than mine had, at the time, drawn parallels between Modern Love and I’m Still Standing? And then there was China Girl and the saucy butt-flashing video.

But what eventually, finally, carried me away was the discovery that it was Bowie who had written the song that accompanied the soundtrack for Cat People, Paul Schrader’s wild mid-eighties movie in which the sauce-pot Nastassja Kinski turns into a black leopard if she ever has sex. It’s bonkers, but brilliant and that’s just the film; the song Cat People – Putting Out the Fire is even better. I listened to it four times on YouTube, while in bed, staring at the film poster in which Kinski’s rain streaked face is juxtaposed beside a black panther’s face, both with the same flashing green eyes.

Yet the next morning, while washing my hair in the shower, I decided: “No – who cares what a Johnny-come-lately thinks of Davie Bowie? The past may be a foreign country, and this week you might have learned that pop music can be a passport back, but don’t annoy the readers with your sad-sack tales of lost youth. Think of something else.”

It was while drying myself off that my wife walked in and said: “I see you’ve got company.” I looked around and peering in through the bottom of the window was a black cat. What could it possibly be, but Bowie’s creativity in animal form, come calling to ensure that I spread the word and explain that there are many rooms in the musical maestro’s mansion and that he’d like as many people as possible to enjoy the Second Coming.