Remembering David Bowie on air

How radio presenters across the country shared anecdotes in memory of the singer.

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“His music will be played in a thousand years’ time . . . the light of Lou Reed’s life . . . Even his death was a work of art . . . It’s appropriate to cry . . . I’ve touched the sun . . .” Phrases from PM, Today, BBC 6 Music, Radio 1 and Radio X in the hours after David Bowie’s death, an announcement that so shook the Heart FM newsreader Fiona Winchester that she briefly reported the death of “David Cameron”.

On 5 Live Nicky Campbell allowed for long moments of paper-shuffling dead air, and a confused Marc Riley on 6 Music confessed that he had gone to sleep innocently tweeting favourite pictures of the singer the previous night (Bowie on stage in LA, a schoolboy Bowie in Bromley).

Martha Kearney on World at One (Radio 4) broke from her unusually long script to interview the keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who simply described him as “a doer. If he wanted to experience something he just did it.” Wakeman recalled how Bowie went to live above a post office in Berlin to “understand communism”, only to come back a couple of weeks later blithely declaring, “Well, that’s not the answer either.”

These sorts of comfortingly familiar stories were traded all day on Radio 4, definitively asserting that, to Bowie, the point was not only metamorphosis, but that things should be done fast, be caught on the wing. Not until The World Tonight (10pm) was other news reported first, by which time Bowie’s unifying quality had been ­established to an almost embarrassing degree. That and the ineffable sense that, despite his shy childhood and suicidal half-brother, and more savage albums like Diamond Dogs, this was (irresistibly) not someone with a terrible wound, a mortal injury to be salved by his art.

In 1975 Lester Bangs (who had sat behind a fangirl at a Bowie gig in Detroit, listening grim-faced to hours of: “Daaaaaaay-vid! Daaaaaayvid! Ooh, when he comes out I’m just gonna . . . touch him!”) memorably praised the singer’s voice as a “trilling limey warble”. But for your correspondent it was the dainty faux-fey of his speaking voice in The Man Who Fell to Earth that remains ­inimitable: the quintessence of detachment. A quality that few managed on Monday.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie

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