Saturday, 12 January 2013

Bowie and Me

In his typically humorous memoirs, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson frequently comments on his status as a baby boomer and philosophises about the way in which the average boomer’s expectations of life differed from his or her parents’.

Born in 1951, Bryson is definitively a baby boomer as, born in the final quarter of 1960, I am too. Maybe I limbo-danced my way into the great boomer party at five seconds to some mythical midnight, but I have no less a right to consider myself as part of this great post-war reproductive experience.

One thing that quite clearly separates us from our pre WWII parents is our status as perpetual teenagers. This is something that was made blindingly obvious to me last week, when David Bowie released his first new work for a decade.

Even if Twitter had existed when my Mam had been 52, as I am now, I can hardly imagine her tweeting “OMG have you heard the new Andy Williams album? #amazeballs” to her followers; yet many of we Bowie fanatics have been rediscovering our teenage years with the news that our favourite Starman is on the brink of releasing a brand new album at the age of 66.

One comment that I saw on The Guardian’s website struck me as particularly apposite: “David Bowie made me who I am today” it read and, had it name checked almost anyone else, I would probably have guffawed; loud and long. Yet how can I scoff when I have to admit that in my own life there is a Bowie-shaped fault line?

All it took was one picture; an exotic, glamorous creature reclining on a chaise longue, one arm raised gracefully over his head, a head which is incidentally adorned with gloriously long tresses. Oh, and did I mention that he was wearing a dress?

That picture which, I later learned, featured on the cover of an album entitled The Man Who Sold the World, was to divide my life into BB (Before Bowie) and AB (after Bowie).

BB KJ was a happy, innocent child who liked nothing better than to throw on a pair of blue and green tartan ski-pants, a jumper knitted by my grandmother in wool of such an intense colour that it could probably be seen from outer space and a pair of wellies (I was a style icon even then) so that I could ‘help’ my grandfather in his vegetable garden. Granted this assistance generally involved accidentally slicing earthworms in half with my mini-spade and marvelling that they didn’t die, eating peas straight out of the pod and wandering off when some random thought distracted me, but it was a healthy, out-of-doors existence and it suited me very well.

AB KJ was a very different beast. All I recall after seeing that picture (and where was it, I wonder now; in some teen magazine possibly?) is training bras, Clearasil and the development of a very bad attitude. To my grandfather’s dismay, the genie was out of the bottle and it was never going to be pushed back in, however hard he tried.

A long-haired man in a dress was quite possibly the worst thing that you could have ever shown Granddad; let’s just say that he didn’t share my enthusiasm for all things Bowie, who quickly became the centre of my pre-teenage universe. Why would anyone bother with Donny Osmond and David Cassidy (sorry, boys) when the man who fell to earth was carving out new territory?

Bowie quickly came to represent the possibilities of the world outside my little rural patch of West Wales. I cannot imagine how a man in a dress, more beautiful than many women, would go down at the Martletwy Young Farmers’ Club but something told me that he would have to be very handy with his fists to avoid a good kicking.

Of course, what I did not realise that the late sixties and early seventies would later be famous for its celebration of androgyny and ‘gender-bending’ as it later came to be known. We Bowie-istas like to imagine that our hero sprung, fully formed, from the rib of Zeus or something equally mythological but, as Peter Doggett reminds us in his excellent book, The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s, Bowie is nothing if not a magpie, albeit a very intelligent example of the species.

With input from (amongst others) Anthony Newley, mime artist Lindsey Kemp and his contemporary, Marc Bolan, Bowie began his process of Ziggyfication and unwittingly became the template for many other later music stars, including Madonna and Lady Gaga. My first Bowie album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, reaching backwards to embrace Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, before he reached what, to me, will always be his apotheosis, Aladdin Sane.

Due to his talent for recreating himself in a variety of fascinating guises, Bowie’s career has been something that we fans can constantly dip into at various stages along the way. Tin Machine did not appeal to me, although 1999’s distinctly Hunky Dory-ish Hours did.

The nearest I have ever come to meeting Bowie was during my time at drama school in 1981, when a fellow student volunteered her boyfriend to help with the sound on a production of Godspell since, “he has worked in the music industry a bit.” He turned out to be Tony Visconti, producer of both Bowie and Bolan and on meeting him I was so hysterical to be shaking the hand that shook the hand etc. that all I could manage was a high-pitched squeak. Prepare ye the way of the lord, indeed. My middle-aged self, of course, is furious that I lacked the gumption to make him a cuppa, sit him down and winkle as many stories out of him as I could when I had the chance.

I have no desire to meet Bowie in the flesh; to me, as to many of his fans, he is an almost mythological creature. To discover that he has, for example, bad breath and a post-nasal drip would make him human and that is one thing that I cannot afford to acknowledge.

No, even as an old geezer with a career that spans 45 years, Bowie has to retain that air of inscrutability and exoticism that has epitomised his personae since the beginning and with Where Are We Now he has proved that he retains his seductive air.


  1. Very nice piece KJ. Hope you enjoy the new album. I'll stick with my Little Bombadier for now!

  2. Lovely piece, KJ! The man himself would be very pleased that you see him as mythological. After all, he is the man who said: “I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, 'Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.'"

  3. Many thanks for the kind comments, both. I still find it almost impossible to view Bowie as anything other than the man who fell to Earth!