Sunday Times, 17 January 2016
In June 1987, in a spectacularly nondescript room in the Hilton Rotterdam, I met David Bowie. He was 40, but he still had the air of a cocky south London boy.
“Skeletally thin, tight black Levi’s, grey suede loafers, massive blond cockade and a mysterious bruise under his left eye” was how I described him in The Times. I didn’t, perhaps kindly, mention the appalling teeth, later fixed. There was a strong smell of cigarettes, which probably explained the brown-stained teeth. I remember very clearly the way he sat as he spoke, his legs spread, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped. He was matey but distant, as is the way with cocky south London boys.
By then, as I noted, he had already rung his most celebrated changes: Davy Jones, the not-quite star; Ziggy Stardust, the glam-rock alien; the angst-ridden androgynous superstar Aladdin Sane; and the haughty Mitteleuropean Thin White Duke. But he seemed when we met to have paused in the role of earnest rocker.
“I think I’m pretty straightforward,” he said. I knew he was playing with me, or perhaps he just believed what he said when he said it. “The ever-changing David Bowie and all that, it’s just an easy tag to put on me. I just like changing the staging every time I go out. I was quite poppy at the start, then I started getting quite arty. Now I think I’m somewhere between the two.”
In the days since his death, one theme has become clear — he was, indeed, the ever-changing David Bowie in two distinct senses. First, there were his own deliberate changes, which concluded with the change of which no one, at first, saw the significance: the musical Lazarus and the album Blackstar — “on the day of execution, on the day of execution”. In his last video, he writhes, blindfolded, on a hospital bed. This was, very consciously, a death foretold. “He wanted to manage his absence,” a friend of his said. And it was, in its way, consistent with the goals of the gifted generation of which he was part. “I hope I die before I get old,” the Who sang, and in 1977 Bowie said: “And who wants to drag their old, decaying frame around until they’re 90? Just to assert their ego? I don’t, certainly.”
Unlike his previous transformations, this last change had been the one we all must make. In death he became, courageously, one of us, or, as WH Auden wrote on the death of WB Yeats: “He became his admirers.”
Second, there were the changes wrought by others. The anguished reactions of his fans provided evidence of something I noticed in the Hilton Rotterdam. There was a neutrality, an openness, about him that sometimes became vulnerability. In spite of his colourful personas, Bowie provided a blank sheet on which people could write their own meanings and fantasies. Dozens of times last week, I heard surprisingly young fans say that Bowie taught them they could be whatever they wanted to be. And one of the most acute celebrity reactions came from Graham Coxon, of Blur. He said of a Bowie lyric: “It’s just something to do with the vagueness — you can interpret it to mean something personal.” (And the youth of the fans says something else. They absorbed the best of their parents’ music, the music of rock’s primal and golden age. This also means, sadly, that they, like the rest of us, must steel themselves for a long era of rock-god deaths.)
Bowie emerged, a decade late, from a very British pop- music revolution. The Stones and the Beatles had started up in the early 1960s, deriving their energy and content from America — 1950s rock and pop, blues, country — but adding the local ingredients of class and generational rebellion, softened, in the case of the Beatles, by cheeky lovableness. What all these new guitar bands said, and celebrated, was the fact that this generation was going to be utterly different from the last. This included being different from previous rockers. Tom Jones told me that the macho, hip-gyrating Elvis felt he had been superseded by these thin, pale stars from Liverpool and London. Jones, a kind of throwback, gave him hope.
Bowie came late to the party, only fully arriving in the 1970s. But he was, and was to remain, the quintessence, the climax, of British pop. Not only was he thinner and paler than any of them, he also went much further down the road they had built.
Implicit in the first wave had been a certain sexual ambivalence. Unlike the old hip-thrusters, these kids preened and strutted, they cared a little too much about their clothes and, within the male bonding of the guitar band, there was something a little, well, disconcerting. This almost became explicit with the near-dress that Mick Jagger wore at the Stones in the Park concert in 1969, but Bowie came right out and said it with a performance of Starman on Top of the Pops in 1972. Both in tight jumpsuits, Mick Ronson and Bowie pouted, flirted and cuddled their way through the song. This was, note, only five years after the legalisation of homosexual acts in the UK.
It all had to be shocking to work — and it was. Bowie was exuding a certain self-conscious decadence, a touch of prewar Berlin cabaret, a motif that was to stay with him for the rest of his career. (Look up the lyrics of that apparently harmless rocker The Jean Genie to see what I mean.) He was also toying with audience expectations. In this, he was fully self-conscious, calculating and a touch cold. He said to me in Rotterdam: “I’ve stopped writing with my audience [in mind]. I don’t think I ever wrote for them.” Like any decent artist, he knew, as Graham Greene put it, he had to have “a splinter of ice in the heart”.
There was an artiness about this, visual as well as musical. Bowie always had a superb eye, and he realised, as soon as he stopped being Davy Jones from Brixton, that he could use it. He may have been following developments in New York, where, in the 1960s, a visual artist, Andy Warhol, had created a rock band, the Velvet Underground, who abandoned the audience entirely in favour of a superbly musical, sneering nihilism. I once saw them in one of their incarnations and felt, exhilaratingly, that they did indeed despise us. The lead singer, Lou Reed, was to become Bowie’s American alter ego.
In fact, their relationship began with them almost writing the same song. Look up the lyrics of Bowie’s All the Young Dudes and Reed’s Oh! Sweet Nuthin’. Both are about the lonely, the wrecked or the dispossessed, and both defiantly celebrate deviance and social repudiation. It was the mood of the early 1970s, when the sunny mop-top world had given way to a politically apocalyptic darkness.
Bowie’s subsequent trajectory was, for all its changes, entirely consistent with his artistic insights at this moment. Like Tancredi in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard, he saw that everything had to change in order to remain the same.
The themes that connected his chosen personas were distance and strangeness. Ziggy Stardust talked with aliens; Major Tom was an astronaut drifting wistfully to the stars; Aladdin Sane was, indeed, a lad insane; the Thin White Duke, the distillation of the style of the 1960s boys, was, according to your interpretation, “a mad aristocrat” or “an amoral zombie”; and finally, as an actor, he played Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a full-blooded alien. This last was one of the few examples in which a rock star translated a persona, artistically intact, onto the big screen.
In the midst of the affection and tears, this strangeness and distance were often remarked upon last week.
“He just radiated a general queerness/otherness even a child could read,” said the film-maker Desiree Akhavan.
“He frightened me a bit, actually,” said Marianne Faithfull.
Even when he danced as a schoolboy, his movements were described as “mesmerising — like someone from another planet”. The pose was supported by his slender and unearthly good looks and his eye for subtly deviant fashion design (influencing the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier) that seemed simultaneously to invite and repel. In this, as in everything, he knew what he was doing. “Listen to me — don’t listen to me/Talk to me — don’t talk to me/Dance with me — don’t dance with me, no” ran his song Fashion.
This was all catnip for intellectuals. Bowie’s start happened just at the moment when the movement known as postmodernism was being defined. The seriousness and monomania of late modernism were to be replaced by playfulness and a multiplicity of meanings and stories. Buildings were to become colourful and strange combinations of past and present styles, poems and novels broke away from the strictures of the moderns, paintings abandoned abstraction, and rock — well, rock became Bowie.
At a Bowie symposium held at the University of Limerick in 2012, the first paper was entitled There Is No Authoritative Voice. There Are Only Multiple Readings. That’s just how postmodernists say hello, but it is also, obviously, a pretty accurate summary of the distance, strangeness and changeability, the vagueness noted by Coxon, of David Bowie.
But is this the whole story? I don’t think so, because, standing back a little, there is a thread that joins, or perhaps a light that shines through, the life. In Rotterdam, I met a cocky south London boy, and the strange thing is that, through it all, whenever I saw him down the decades, I still saw that same boy. For all his exotica and extravagance, he defaulted to that street-smart kid. Look at some of his last photographs. He is wearing a sharp suit and hat, and he seems to be saying “Hello, mate” while trying to figure out your angle or put one over on you. In his end was his beginning.
He was, in fact, a familiar and ancient British type, very gabby, very beady, a bit tricky, but always entertaining. Almost daily, I meet Bowie plumbers and Bowie lawyers, Bowie newsagents, Bowie doctors and Bowie cabbies. They were always there, it’s just that he put them on stage in a skintight jumpsuit.
I think he knew this in his later years, as he seemed to know everything about himself. It is, for example, startling but, on closer examination, consistent that he pleaded with the Scots not to vote for independence; he believed in Britain. It is even more bizarrely consistent that when he got together with Jagger to do a video for Dancing in the Street, they played it like a pair of bum-bumping old queens doing music hall. You see, the flirt in the jumpsuit is not so exotic, he’s just another incarnation of the screaming English queen.
I will be honest: I was never his biggest fan. Lou Reed was a greater, more uncompromising artist, and there have been quite a few greater songwriters in the past decades. But Bowie’s death has been, for me, a Princess Diana moment. I cared little for her until I covered her death and realised that what I felt was nothing compared with what she meant, in dying, to the people. So it is with Bowie. Postmortem, he has expanded in my imagination into something more than this or that song. He has become, like Yeats, his admirers, and his admirers are the people.
He was, I realise, Everyman written by a fantasist, a south London lad painted by a madman, a folk song sung by a deranged angel. Or perhaps he was simply a working-class hero, which, as John Lennon so truly sang, “is something to be”.