When my ten year old son told me David Bowie had died just before he set off for school, I stopped what I was doing and paid attention. Something flashed across the TV screen confirming it but for some reason my son qualified his statement, causing an onset of confusion. I thought it was part of an act that Bowie was doing to promote his Blackstar album which had been played continuously in our home for the two previous days. My daughter who usually knows everything hadn’t heard Bowie was dead, rendering all possible disagreement futile.
With the kids off to school, the matter was quickly forgotten until my wife came downstairs and told me it was true. It could have been the clichéd day the music died but it wasn’t. There has been nothing but Bowie music and concerts since. Walking though Dublin on the night he died, Bowie seemed to be playing every bar I passed. He was on the bus as well.
An artistic icon who helped define much of popular music, he helped shape our teenage years and ears at a time when glam rock was in swing and characterised by such characters as Suzi Quatro, Gary Glitter, Mud and, of course, Sweet. But none of them held a candle to Bowie who was much too musically promiscuous to have been fossilised in Glam Rock. It did not create him. He evolved both into it and beyond it.
Had Glitter died from the illness that claimed Bowie it might have caused some rethinking about the disease, maybe even seeing it terms that are used to describe the parson’s egg, good in parts, given that cancer just doesn’t kill the ordinary Joe but can also kill cunts. The dirge for Glitter would have been cries of “Great. Fuck him.” And then onto the music of the day. There would be few renderings of Glitter entreating listeners Do You Wanna touch me? and even fewer replies of “yes.”
Bowie was something else.
Working on a building site in the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1973 I use to hang out at lunch time with a guy who at 18 was three years older than me. On his work bag were stencilled Linfield, Liverpool and Rangers. I guessed he was hardly from the Falls or Ardoyne. Glen’s passion for soccer was matched by his love of music, in particular the music of David Bowie. I wasn’t a fan, having earlier heard him with Major Tom and more recently The Jean Genie, which was released a few months before I was on site. Glen advised me to go home and listen to Bowie, and Drive In Saturday which was in the charts at the time. I preferred Slade but took him up on it. To this day it remains my favourite Bowie track. Given the prolific output of the guy, Drive In Saturday was not short of competition: just that it hits the sweet spot in a way that nothing else from the prodigious Bowie range quite accomplishes, brilliant as they are.
Two years later when in Magilligan jail, I thought I could sometimes see Glen sitting at the front of huts in the Loyalist Cage across the road, blaring out Black Sabbath from the record player. I thought it was him probably because I wanted it to be him but sort of concluded it wasn’t because ... there was no Bowie.
That same year I received the first Album that I ever actually owned. My mother sent it in to the jail: The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. It must have been worn through by the time I was released. It didn’t stop someone else getting it when I left the jail. Leaving those sort of things behind for others was a time honoured tradition.
Bowie was always there, if not upfront then in the musical undergrowth. Omnipotent and omniscient to his devoted fans and omnipresent to the rest. When we came out from behind the doors of the blanket protest in 1981 awaiting us in the canteen was Bowie singing Under Pressure with Queen for Top of The Pops. It seemed appropriate given the pressure cooker we had lived in for years. So many moments in time in jail are associated with a Bowie number.
In the days leading up to his death his music from Blackstar was a constant in our home courtesy of my wife. It was good stuff and I marvelled at how he was still putting it out at his age. Then I had no idea of his condition.
Bowie was a staple of my taste for so long. My MP3 player (I must ask one of my children if they are really called that these days) is populated with tracks from his albums.
He lived a long life. A year short of the three score and ten many think is our due, despite his lifestyle choices that ravished many bodies, destroyed countless minds and shortened numerous lives. He survived the 27 Club by 42 years. Almost forty years after he attended Marc Bolan's cremation in Golders Green he was still making music. I guess it is one of those occasions when we can genuinely say his life is being celebrated rather than his demise mourned.
Way to go for the Starman whose star never faded.