I can vividly recall seeing David Bowie on 'Top of the Pops' for the first time. As he sang 'Starman', he put his arm around Mick Ronson and pointed out of the telly straight at...
...no, actually that wasn't it at all. It was 1979 and it was 'Boys Keep Swinging'. At which point I had absolutely no idea who he was. The track sounding vaguely new wavey, I probably assumed it was a debut single. Yet it was not the music but the video which so beset my young mind.
While in Berlin he'd often gone to see drag queens, and been taken by the way they'd 'break out' at the end of their act, sweeping off their wigs and smearing away their make-up. So he made a video which went like that.
I don't think I even got it was the same guy each time. But then I didn't get much. Were these the “poofters” which playground bullies accused you of being before shoving you, but of who no-one else seemed keen to speak? But then they were singing jubilantly about being a boy, while pulling off all that stuff. But then they were wearing it in the first place... It seemed impossible to parse. Besides, are they actually allowed to broadcast this? And why isn't my Dad slamming off the telly in a fit of rage, like he normally is? This is all really strange.
'Scary Monsters' was only a year later. But a year's a long time at that age. And that was my Bowie album, the one that happened for me in real time, the one through which I found out who Bowie was. The impact of the video of 'Ashes To Ashes' and the others was immense, but that's been covered enough elsewhere. And besides this time the music mattered too. And 'Ashes To Ashes', despite its hit status, was atypical of the irreverent playfulness of the album. It seemed thrown together with cavalier disregard for the way music had always been made, with Bowie intoning “beep beep” over the top like Road Runner. It still made no sense. Songs came with sense-defying titles like 'Up the Hill Backwards'. Was 'Fashion' a critique or celebration of the fashion industry? Beep beep. But what had been befuddling now felt beguiling. Somehow, it made my sort of no sense.
But if one year was a long time, then try three...
By 'Let's Dance' Bowie was performing dance music in big suits and arenas. He played the nearby and newly opened Milton Keynes Bowl, and many of my schoolmates went. If I say I tried to stop them I'm not really exaggerating. The fervour with which I reviled and denounced it all seems somewhat ludicrous looking back. Martin Luther had a softer reaction to Papal indulgences. The night of that gig, I'm sure I must have placed myself in a chair and deliberately not gone.
(Besides, what was to follow suggested I should really have held onto my ire. 'Tonight' made 'Let's Dance' sound a whole lot better in retrospect. In the Seventies Bowie had used music as a bridgehead for everything he wanted to do. By the Eighties it had become a day job he was stuck with. He later called the period a “netherworld of commercial acceptance”.)
But however absurd and self-righteous I was being, isn't that what popular music is for? Not chin-stroking connoisseurship but the chance to assert your own identity via the positive and negative reflections of album covers?
And Bowie knew that more than most. Even if I wasn't in the first audience for 'Starman', even if I didn't get the full force of the thing, I got enough of a deflected blow to get it. Bowie wasn't doing it for you, like a car-crashing rock star you could live through vicariously. (Even if he did all that too.) He was doing it so you could too. You didn't have to be the person everyone had always told you that you were. You could create your own self and then inhabit it. When I asked my workmates for their favourite Bowie era everyone said their era. Even when that meant dates in the Eighties or early Nineties. Which is crazy talk. But only if you're doing it by assessing the music.
That's why it was so fitting his best-of album was called 'Changesonebowie', particularly the audacious use of “one”. That's why the standard press reaction of asking everyone their favourite track doesn't cover it. That's why the cliché of his being a “musical chameleon”, trotted back out so many times in recent days by know-nothings, is so inadequate. Bowie was a musical shaman. The changes were the crux of the thing. He didn't just change, he represented change. As he sang, “I could make a transformation as a rock 'n' roll star”.
Coming soon: More Bowie stuff. What else?