Where were you when you heard the news? My ma had always said she could remember precisely what she was doing, how the day felt, when she heard Elvis Presley had died. I’d never understood what she meant, not really, until today. I thought I would never forget the white of the tablecloth at the Santa Catalina Hotel, the swirl of Spanish and German, a little Russian and English being spoken around me. A half-eaten piece of bread and a third cup of coffee, growing cold. A little cheese and an apple cut in four.
On 11 January 2016, at the end of a week away to kick-start the new novel. My head was full of untethered words, ghostly characters not yet ready to step into their skins on the page, Huguenots and Catholics, 16th-century massacres. Checking my phone only once a day. Just in case something urgent came up.
At first, I didn’t believe it could be true. Hadn’t Bowie released a new album only last week, on his birthday? I scrolled down my Twitter feed and saw all the people – so many people – sharing memories, quoting their favourite songs. And I felt, what, exactly? It wasn’t grief. I’ve always been suspicious of public outpourings of shared grief for someone they’ve never even met. Loss, maybe? It felt like loss, though I was astonished at the strength of the feeling.
And then I was no longer in the crowded dining room but back in my childhood bedroom. Vinyl stacked on the floor. Fourteen or 15 in an unflattering school uniform, playing “Station to Station” over and over. Lifting up the stylus at the end of the track to drop it again back on the LP, the hiss and crack of the portable record player, the sound of metal on metal of the railway tracks as the song began again. I was the girl with the mousy hair in “Life on Mars” or a Kook, or dancing around to the honky-tonk beat of “The Prettiest Star”.
I bought an EP of “Boys Keep Swinging” – not sure why, given that it was never one of my favourites – as well as two copies of Lodger itself. I learned plenty from Bowie songs: rude words (sung with courage, without audience, in the same teenage bedroom); that Bob Dylan’s real name was Robert Zimmerman, that platform shoes are the best shoes in the world and that Major Tom was a junkie.
I learned you could tell a whole heck of a lot about a person depending on whether they pronounced “Bowie” like bow-and-arrow or bough (no, no, no). I saw him play live only once: the Serious Moonlight tour, Milton Keynes Bowl, in the summer of 1983. The stage some way off, a hot evening, goodwill and the excitement of being part of something as everyone roared along to “Modern Love” and “China Girl”. I learned that white suits don’t suit everyone.
Anyone who counts themselves a Bowie fan will have their list of songs that mean the most. In part, it’s because of how a melody can link us so powerfully to our young selves, to a particular time and place. To emotions we’d thought lost or buried too deep to find. It’s a cliché to say that the best music, the music we value, acts as a soundtrack to our lives, though it’s no less true for that; it’s a cliché to say that music brings people of different ages, nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities, ambitions, possibilities together. Like everyone, I have that metaphorical crumpled list of Desert Island Discs in my pocket. So why, sitting in a hotel a long way from home, does Bowie’s music, the news of his death, feel more significant?
Critics, musicians, directors, those who knew him, will pay proper tribute. I’ll read it when I’m home, all the analysis about his influence, about how and why he changed things, and why his work matters so much. He smudged the lines between life and invention. He stood – and will continue to stand – for all the outcast girls and boys. He refused, with charm and grace, to be defined by anything – by class or country, by record producers or television programmers. Fluid sexuality, fluid gender, fluid chords and cadences, a storyteller who floated free from tradition and restriction.
Most of all, he had a rare ability to create with joy. Whenever I saw him in an interview, I thought he looked like someone happy to be in the world. A man who fell to Earth and did wonderful things while he was here.
The first novel in Kate Mosse’s trilogy “The Burning Chambers” will be published by Macmillan in 2018
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie