“Hey that’s far out, so you heard him, too!”
It was a schoolfriend, Si Shoreman, who introduced me to David Bowie. I was fourteen, and he was a couple of years older. In fact, I’d been pushed up a year or two, so everyone was a couple of years older, and seemed to know more than I did about everything that counted: that is, girls and music. And Si Shoreman seemed to know more about these vital issues than anybody else I knew. It helped that he had an older sister (this was an all-boys school), and especially that she had an extensive record collection that he was free to pillage.
I would bug him about what he knew, and he would make me tapes: The Jam, The Specials, The Who (he was a bit of a Mod and into two-tone), but above all one day he told me about “Space Oddity,” a song that impressed me in part because it was as old as I was. And then he brought me a tape with two albums each a decade old: Hunky Dory on the one side, Ziggy Stardust on the other.
These two albums astonished me. I’d never heard anything like them before. But they also started me on an adventure into the history of music. They opened up a space between the Ancient History that was the 1960s, and a present that seemed all too familiar. This wasn’t my parents’ generation, but nor was it properly mine. It was an intermediate zone that I could make my own.
After all, I knew what was in the charts at the time: Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Wham, the Human League, and so on. I’d even heard the hits from Bowie’s Let’s Dance: “Let’s Dance” itself; “Modern Love.” But this was the first time I’d had the sense that a contemporary singer had a back catalogue, or that today’s music had a history that could be explored. That the most important thing wasn’t to know the current top ten. That there might be other ways to think about and appreciate music–and perhaps even culture in general.
Bowie’s music was a particularly good place to start exploring. It offered more questions than answers, and to point strangely away from itself, to other realms. Why, for instance, on Hunky Dory did a telephone ring at the opening of “Andy Warhol”? (At first I thought this might be a rare slip on Si Shoreman’s part.) Who, more importantly, was Andy Warhol, and why would we want to “tie him up when he’s fast asleep, send him on a pleasant cruise.” I’d heard vaguely of Bob Dylan, but how was he “every nation’s refugee” and who was the “same old painted lady” who could be sent back home by a couple of his songs? What was “Crowley’s uniform” or “Churchill’s lies”? Who were the “Bewlay Brothers” and what was their “Mind-Warp Pavilion”?
Ziggy Stardust was oddly more accessible. It offered connections between these fantastic images or arcane references and the life of a suburban teenager. Wasn’t that what “Starman” was all about: the notion that another world could open up, but close by, near at hand. Or “Five Years,” in which the apocalypse is announced in the most banal of surroundings: “Pushing through the market square.” Or the album’s splendid final song, “Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” which opened with the kind of ennui and dissatisfaction with which I was all too familiar (“the wall-to-wall is calling”) but ended with the promise of shared understanding and community: “You’re not alone!”
David Bowie led to more David Bowie: I avidly collected all his records, searching out rarities and oddities. The different covers of The Man Who Sold the World. The gatefold sleeve version of Aladdin Sane. “Heroes” in German. The soundtrack to a BBC production of Baal. Interview picture discs. The stray singles, in 12″ as well as 7″.
Mostly, these rarities were filed away and never played. What I actually listened to were the classic albums, each of which had its own associations and intensities, related to when I first listened to it at length. Aladdin Sane I first heard on a youth weekend in North Wales. David Live, with its fabulous medleys and covers, I played on repeat on a trip to Cambridge. Diamond Dogs was linked to a few days I spent in South London, in and around the youthful stomping ground of Bowie himself: Bromley, Beckenham, Penge. I visited the Three Tuns pub, where he’d founded the Beckenham Arts Lab. He was so close I could almost touch him.
But Bowie also led me outwards again. To the artists that he’d listened to, that he’d met or worked with, whom he’d influenced in turn. Mott the Hoople, Marc Bolan. Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground. Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Philip Glass, Ryuchi Sakamoto. Or in other genres, everything from Friedrich Nietzsche to Nicholas Roeg, Kahlil Gibran to Laurens van der Post. I remember taking notes from a biography of Bowie, putting together a list of all the books, singers, or film-makers mentioned, determined to track them down and check them out.
I was far from being the world’s biggest Bowie fan. Still, for about a decade I was probably a bigger fan than any of my friends. But this was hardly an esoteric interest, and Bowie’s output was sufficiently broad and varied that everyone knew and liked some part of his repertoire. So my memories are always of listening (or singing along) with other people, of my obsession with Bowie being also collective and expansive, a way of making connections.
At school, people might bring in a guitar: someone could play “Queen Bitch”; someone else, “Life on Mars.” Later, there was the time that my friend Charles was staying with me, and decided to listen to every single Bowie album in my collection in chronological order, a mission that took days. Or when I was driving friends back late after a day trip to Brighton, returning to South London (by now we had moved there, to Bowie heartland), listening to Ziggy Stardust on maximum volume, speeding up the M23. But as the album wasn’t over by the time we got home, it simply made sense, in the middle of the night, to continue on to the centre of town and pay our respects to Heddon Street, the site of the original photo shoot for the Ziggy album cover.
Heddon Street, which I have visited countless times, alone or with varied groups of people, is a pretty good image for what Bowie meant to me. When I started going (it’s been gentrified since) it was a run-down cul-de-sac, which in the album picture looks like ground zero for whatever disaster has led to an urban dystopia. Yet in fact it’s just round the corner from the upmarket shops of Regent Street, and a stone’s throw from the tourist trap of Piccadilly Circus. You could have passed its entrance a hundred times and never realized it was there, but once you knew, you felt like you were the possessor of some semi-secret knowledge, a slight but significant deviation from the everyday and the mainstream.
Ducking through an archway, you would escape the Regent Street crowds to slip into the deserted alley, gradually making sense of your surroundings: so this is where the photo was taken! You’d see the nameplate that still said “K. West,” and just past that a telephone box with graffiti on the wall: “I love Bowie.” “Ziggy was Here.” And you knew that not only had Ziggy been here, but other people like you, who had heard him, too.