The problem with writing about Bowie is that we are all writing about ourselves. That’s how important he was. For a suburban boy in Southampton in the 1970s, there were few expectations of transcendence. If I’d thought at all about my future, I would have felt sorry for the boy I was, rather than the person I would become. But in 1972 Bowie reached out of the television in our front room and, posing like a corrupt, tinselled Nijinsky, pulled me into an entirely new world of art and otherness. Like Oscar Wilde before him, he commodified decadence for the suburbs, an everyday alien in a telephone box, a queer messiah in a man-dress.
As the 20th century lurched into its last quarter, Bowie reflected and deflected the divisions between what was normal and unacceptable. Above all, he offered a new identity – or identities – to anyone questioning their own. This service was not limited to those who knew they were growing up gay, or the lives he saved: “Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful.” He included everyone in the masquerade. That was his power. Straight boys wore nail varnish, satin jackets, platform boots. The fluidity of gender that we are only now addressing seriously was exposed by Bowie. As Tilda Swinton said at the opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “David Bowie Is” exhibition in 2013, we are all his freaks.
In a 1973 article for this publication, Martin Amis wrote that Bowie seemed to be a new focus for “the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young”. Amis doubted whether the star would last long as a cult but added, “It is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused . . . will vanish along with the fashion built round him.” As the extraordinary reaction to his death shows, Bowie became a conduit for a generation of people who considered themselves lost – left behind by the countercultural Sixties and unable to face what came next. He channelled the future, through the present and back to the past, as he sought to reinvent himself. Fashion and image, art and film, literature and theatre were intrinsic parts of that process in a manner unique to him, yet that absolutely foresaw our own age of appropriation.
By 1976, Bowie was already ahead of himself, and us. In Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth – which I saw over and again at a suburban cinema, illicitly taping the soundtrack on my cassette recorder – the star plays (“impersonates” might be a better word) an alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, who arrives from his parched planet in search of water for his people. Secretly, Newton steers a multinational corporation, World Enterprises, which produces revolutionary cameras, electronic equipment, books, cars. The comparisons with contemporary organisations are prophetic.
It is because of these resonances, and others, that the Bowie of this period seems so modern: it was in recent years, when he looked almost normal, that he seemed so strange. It’s easy to discount, as Martin Amis did, a made-up, satin-bedecked harlequin. It is more disconcerting to be confronted by the sombre Thin White Duke, or this ordinary alien-prophet. Back in 1972, the cock-combed Ziggy Stardust had given us just five years; now that those five years were nearly up, the sober-suited Thomas Jerome Newton came to warn of nuclear war and environmental collapse. (In Walter Tevis’s original book, on which the film is based, it is clear that Newton is a Christ figure: not for nothing did Bowie declare that his album of that year, Station to Station, took its cue not from trains, but from Stations of the Cross.)
Bowie the outsider had ever embodied the predicament of the individual in a world both enabled and threatened by new technology. It is no coincidence that his rise to fame with “Space Oddity” (1969) referenced Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968) and its anthropomorphic HAL. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, dark forces marshal to undermine Newton in a country settled by visitors but that now sees them as a threat: “This is modern America,” they murmur, “and we’re going to keep it that way.” Bowie, of course, later exiled himself to the US. But on the inside gatefold of his most apocalyptic album, Diamond Dogs (1974), a ruined cityscape of skyscrapers seemed to foresee the remains of the World Trade Center in the real year of 2001.
In the hot summer of 1976, in white school shirt, black evening waistcoat and trousers, my hair slicked back and sprayed gold, I took the train to London where Kraftwerk’s crackling nuclear “Radioactivity” and the surreal brutality of Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou gave way to the man himself, sunken-cheeked, too thin to be caged by the fluorescent array of strip lights behind him. In the oceanic darkness of the arena, I felt I was utterly alone with him, like everyone else. He was in his new incarnation, as dark as the times: Jean Genet out of Man Ray, burned black and white into our monochrome dreams, singing of “the return of the Thin White Duke/throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”. He arrived at Victoria in a slam-door train and was driven away standing in an open-top car like our great dictator.
In the bankrupt, blacked-out Britain of the 1970s, where the rubbish went uncollected and the dead went unburied, the white computer world of 2001 seemed an even more remote possibility. The white man who had made black music, albeit with a plastic soul, might become our main man. A saviour, or a warning. Soon Bowie would move into what was to be his last truly vital phase of self-creation, in the years leading up to 1980, looking to Europe for inspiration. The Cold War, as much as the Weimar Republic, fuelled his “Berlin” trilogy and his 1977 track “Heroes”: the greatest pop song of its era, or maybe any era, precisely because of that overarching reference, even as it zooms in on its two lovers standing by the Wall. In 1987, Bowie would sing it live in Berlin, against the Wall, as thousands of East Germans listened and cheered from the other, shameful side.
For me, 1976 began in Southampton’s suburbs and ended at a London nightclub in an unregenerated Covent Garden, a Suffragette City at one remove, in a queue where a boy in a leather jacket with a spiky peroxide crop asked me for a light. We were all Bowie’s children there, too. Within a year, he would be singing that we were nothing and that nothing could help us. Now that he, too, has become history, I wonder if it wasn’t his final prediction.
For one man to speak to so many is a rare thing. Yet to the last, he eluded all biographers and journalists: he was too slippery, too vampiric, too controlling to allow anyone else to tell his story. Was there ever an artist so modern? So modern that it puts the notion of his passing in doubt. His last transformation, on his own deathbed in the “Lazarus” video, is upsetting enough for those of us who owe the richness of our lives to him. But perhaps he was just flirting with death, as he flirted with us. I write this from the shores of the country to which he retreated, this very British, very global star. This morning, all I could do was to go out on to the beach and write his name in the sand. The sea soon washed it away.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie