In 1983 I watched Let’s Dance on RTR Countdown and loved it. Like most people. Like most people I loved the album too. I love the lyrics of China Girl,
I stumble into town just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone
It’s in the whites of my eyes
And Modern Love. Etc.
Then came Dancing In the Street, and Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth. All of which I loved. Yes, even Dancing In the Street, although I now find it makes my skin crawl. I went and saw Absolute Beginners at the St James on Courtney Place when it had been converted into a dreadful cinema. I vividly remember that the theatre was chaotic with shouting and Jaffa rolling and that I couldn’t understand at all what was happening in the movie, but the song – Absolute Beginners – it was so odd, so grand, so cool despite not being cool.
And I was 13 when Labyrinth came out, so that was also great. I especially liked Underground. After that came Never Let Me Down and I kind of thought, “hmmm, this is actually pretty lame” and lost interest in Bowie.
Then, of course, I discovered that Bowie in 1983 was quite some way into an already long, diverse and wondrous career.
Maybe Heroes first alerted me to this. Love’s last notes. The last hard won moments before parting; and the memory of the times when you were great and the guns shot above your heads, and you kissed as if nothing could fall.
In 1995 I sometimes went to Bar Bodega when it was on Willis Street; when the bar bit was a tiny shoe box of a place with a corner reserved for a band, a corner for a bar, and a sweaty, sardined crowd between the two. One night I was there and saw a band called Short who mostly did their own fantastic songs but did one cover: Ziggy Stardust.
Fuck it was good. It sounded about as exciting as rock music should sound and not at all like a catchy song on a crappy radio station.
Then there’s that song: Life On Mars. The movie Breaking the Waves is such an emotional gut puncher that there are little interludes where the director plays a song really loud and you can just watch some scenery, in the dark of the movie theatre, and mentally regroup in between the Acts. In that context I kind of recognised the power of Life On Mars with that magnificent, absurd chorus filled with space opera ennui.
Or then The Life Aquatic gave me Seu Jorge singing Bowie songs in Portuguese with an acoustic guitar. Or buying Hunky Dory because I read Boy George saying it was his favourite album and becoming slightly obsessed by it. Or the Young One’s episode where they quote from Ashes to Ashes. Or Nirvana’s Bowie cover that Steve played me, or well – you get the idea. There are points all along the way in my life, in your life, dotted with him: his image, and his music.
And let’s not forget being disappointed in Bowie, because that’s what a lot of people have been doing for the last 30 years. His early fans hated Let’s Dance and all that, and then people like me who started with Let’s Dance and loved that, ended up hating all the weird stuff that came afterwards. My mate Steve bought the Tin Machine LPs which weren’t actually as bad as I made out at the time, but which were nothing like the cool Bowie of previous decades. When Bowie came to New Zealand in 1983 he was huge but the reviewers were already being disappointed by Bowie.
Maybe it’s his age (maturity?) or commercial rationalistion in his most successful year ever, but David Bowie is moving away from the things that make rock’n’roll so important – spontaneity, tension, bite, anger and risk.
Rip It Up, December 1983
His age in 1983 was about 36.
So that’s part of living with Bowie too – hoping he’d be awesome again.
Which he was. Just now before he died. Black Star is a great album. I can say that without putting on my rosy glasses now that he is dead and wishing it were so. It really is so. I don’t know what he’s singing about, but then this was usually the case.
Time and again I tell myself
I’ll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh no, not again.
Which makes me laugh every time I hear it.
Ah shit, man. I’m not happy. No one is. Everyone has their memories of you in their life, and so everyone will feel your going. For me it’s being that kid in 1983 on Saturday at around 6 o’clock when they would play RTR Countdown and I would wait to see who was number one. You never knew what songs they would play from 20 down to 2, but they always played the number one. There you were, week after week, that cool kind of bored guy leaning against the wall in some shit bar in the Outback of Australia while the video director tried to make some point about Aborigines getting lost in the big city.
And you sang the song, and I listened, too young to be truly into pop music yet, but drinking up the yearning that lives inside rock’n’roll and storing it up for later. Saving it up for that time when you’d say run, and I’d run with you.
The last time I cried about the death of a star was when I heard that Marlon Brando died. It was a strange moment of prescience because Cathy was on the phone and her mother told her, and before Cathy told me something in her tone and her glance at me told me what had happened. Even though there was no way a glance could possibly convey this information I knew. I remember saying “oh no” and feeling a rising surge of grief coming up inside me.
It was Cathy again this time. Via a text from her brother. I need to talk to Cathy about this. I felt the instant drop inside me, and then the slightly distanced feeling that blunts your emotions and leaves you thinking: “gee, I’m handling this well, just like it’s an interesting fact and has no emotional heft at all”. And after marveling at how well you’re processing things you get surprised by the tears.
I know that we live in an age of downloads and that the charts will see Bowie songs rise to the top like when Michael Jackson died, but I really hope Lazarus is the song, the one that goes to the top, his last single, the last ambiguous gesture of the art and life of an artist.
Look up here, I’m in heaven I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?
By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me?
Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me?