When you’re very young, you don’t have much in the way of peripheral awareness.
So in 1975, when I was four, sat on the floor of the dark cosy living room at 106 Railway street, Splott, Cardiff all I remember is the glowing TV, huge and warm. That and the vision and sound on it- space footage and a song about a spaceman. Nothing much existed beyond it.
This was the re-release of ‘Space oddity’ and the introduction of my friend David Bowie into my life. It remains my first musical memory.
I was beguiled even then. My first exposure to magic. (Bowie was realer than the imaginary friend I cultivated during those first years. (Hi ‘John’).
And then ‘The laughing Gnome’ on the Tony Blackburn breakfast show with Arnold the dog barking off tape, words and pictures, Gnomes and Goblins scurrying across the breakfast table via the radio. The downstairs radio being the first thing I heard on waking each morning. The room itself seemed to laugh when ‘Gnome’ came on.
Two years later, we’d moved. My seven year old self is walking home from school through a sun bleached kodachrome print of an afternoon. There on the dashboard of a parked car is the ‘Space oddity’ cassette. The spiky hair- do. The definite face. ‘Oh, yes, remember him’ I think. ‘I must find him again’.
‘Rebel Rebel’ as the soundtrack to a ‘Charley’ perfume TV ad. My mother got excited when a TV advert came on for a Bowie Ronco compilation album. The Kenny Everett show. ‘Ashes to ashes’ on Top of the pops. A new decade. My childhood holding on.
Bowie was there, mysterious, occasionally omnipresent. I was too young to claim him as mine. As I entered my teens I didn’t know it then but he was the father of the music I bought – Japan, Duran, Visage. The 1980 ronco compilation was probably the first album of his I owned. He came to settle in my life like a cool cousin I only occasionally met at family gatherings or a sharp uncle who took me aside at Weddings and said ‘Read this, hey have you heard these? Awww, don’t take any notice of your dad, do what you wanna do’.
1987. Me and my mother watching Pinter’s ‘The birthday party’ on TV while the Glass spider show plays a couple of miles away. We could just make out the echo of ‘Heroes’ over the telly. Bowie would have approved of our choice.
When I moved from home at 15 his music became furniture wherever I lived. His albums bought out of sequence on tape, second hand vinyl. ‘David Bowie in his own words’; I read it in one sitting at 17. When I dyed my hair and applied foundation and powder every day for years and years this was inexorably due to Bowie even as I was aping the second David, Sylvian.
I didn’t truly become obsessed with Bowie until I was in my 20’s. I bought a bootleg VHS compilation at Camden market and my then girlfriend and I watched it over Christmas in Archway. Bowie encapsulated Christmas from then on.
I didn’t hear ‘Station to Station’ until after I’d recorded my own first album.
But his singing had always been an influence. Bowie sounded like someone pretending to sing, beautifully. If he could, I could pretend to too. I did. I was taken with the idea of the big voice coming from the small girlish body. If you couldn’t naturally sing, approach it as a stylist…
Bowie became a template, a vocabulary for me.’You know that snare sound on ‘Low’? Can we get that’? He was beautiful yet funny, too. He didn’t seem vain, queerly. He became a constant reference point. He grew into a family member for me. A distant, rich, eccentric, kind uncle that I could invite into my room wherever, whenever.
I never met him. The producer of ‘Space oddity’ and ‘The laughing Gnome’ came to my flat once. You can read about that here –
I saw him through the door of Virgin, Oxford Street in 1999. Teeth and hair. A halo behind him almost, like a fresco on a church wall.
Walking with Momus in NYC in 2001. ‘That’s David Bowie’s penthouse’ teased Nick. ‘Why don’t you climb up and say hello’? I jokingly straddled a drain pipe. ‘Nah’ I said. ‘I’ll meet him some day’.
A few years ago I wanted to approach him to write the sleeve notes for my Colin Wilson album. I got as far as a postal address. I didn’t bother. Colin and I talked about Bowie. ‘He seems like a very nice, clever man’ said Colin. Colin was right.
His latter albums meant much more to me than his earliest. ‘Hours’, ‘Heathen’, ‘Reality’. These were albums I bought on release, that sound tracked some of the happiest, most creative and stable years of my life.
I awoke at 4am last Monday. As far as I knew he was still alive. I’d listened to ‘Blackstar’ once and was going to approach it again. Radio 4 was on and some part of me was ennobled knowing that David Bowie was somewhere, doing something.
When the FB news feed came up at 6am ; David Bowie dead’ I felt wrong. Then the news broke on TV. Radio. Perhaps I was still asleep. My pre dawn bedroom took on the queasy architecture of a nightmare.
But it’s true. And I feel like it’s us who have died. The world is less cool. Uglier.
And I close my eyes and I hear the countdown in ‘Space oddity’, counting in my own becoming all those years ago in Railway street… Bowie singing to me on the morning of my life.