David Bowie in 1973. Photo: Michael Ochs/Gettuy
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From the archive: Martin Amis on the “mild fad” of David Bowie

The feelings David Bowie aroused will vanish along with the fashion built around him, argued Martin Amis in 1973.

First published in the New Statesman on 6 July 1973.

When Glam-Rock superstar David Bowie flounced on to the Hammersmith Odeon stage last Monday night, recognisably male and not even partially naked, it seemed that we would be denied the phenomenon-of-our-times spectacle which your reporter was banking on. The preludial ambience, too, was discouragingly humdrum: behind me in the audience upper-class slummers boomingly voiced their fears of having to endure a “really grotty” supporting band; in front of me teenage couples snogged with old-fashioned – not to say reactionary – zeal; beside me a joint was lit and furtively extinguished; and on stage, prior to curtain-up, a fat old teddy-boy appeared, asked Hammersmith if it was feeling good, wanted a louder answer, got one, and left us with a lie about the anticipated time lapse before Mr Bowie’s arrival. Once under way, admittedly, that musician went through various stages of déshabillé – now in orange rompers, now a miniskirt, now in hot-pants, now a leotard – but we never got to see the famous silver catsuit and pink jockstrap. Bowie did, it’s true, have a habit of turning away from the audience and sulkily twitching his backside at it before floating off to arouse each aisle in turn with his silky gaze – but there was no sign of the celebrated sodomistic routine involving lead guitarist Mick Ronson, no acts of stylised masturbation and fellatio with microphone and mikestand. Perhaps Mr Bowie just wasn’t feeling up to it that evening, or perhaps Mr Bowie was just a mild fad hystericised by “the media”, an entrepreneur of camp who knew how little, as well as how much, he could get away with.

But despite these austerities the superstar’s dinky weapon of a torso remained the centrepiece of the concert. When Bowie entered, half the audience rushed the stage and the other half got to its feet; during the interval, the fat teddy-boy lumbered on to coax and cajole everyone back to their places; when Bowie re-entered, half the audience rushed the stage and the other half got to its feet – or its knees. Interestingly, this physical presence was exerted with none of the Grand-Guignol goonery of an Alice Cooper (black leather and bull-whips) or a Gary Glitter (moronic foot-stomping), and without any of the sincere, and therefore quite charmless, exhibitionism of the beefy Mr Ronson. For all his preening and swanking Bowie often seemed a frail, almost waiflike figure, curiously dwarfed by the electric aura of knowing sexiness and modish violence on which his act depends – panicky strobes, dizzying light effects, a Clockwork Orange-theme ritornello, and SS lightning-flashes.

This incongruity may be responsible for Bowie’s appeal and for what (if anything) is sinister about it. Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently the symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants – particularly cocaine, very much an élitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising – self-parodied narcissism, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as “nihilist” would, of course, be absurd; but Bowie does appear to be a new focus for the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young. Although Bowie himself is unlikely to last long as a cult, it is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused or aggravated will vanish along with the fashion built round him. 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood