By Adam Simpson (@misfitmovies)
[Most of this was written in the days following the death of David Bowie in January 2016]
I don’t recall the moment I discovered David Bowie. I do remember my sister borrowing his late 70s album Lodger from the library and thinking what a weird photo it was on the cover. Like some guy had been dropped from a height and somehow broke his nose. But in those days when Billy Idol was the summit of my spiky rock n’ roll mountain, this kooky Lodger had no chance.
It all really began sometime in the summer of 1993 when my at boss at Wizards lent me a dodgy VHS of the Ziggy Stardust concert film, and while most teen spirits were grunging to Nirvana, mine took off at lightspeed after a glam rock alien from 20 years into the past. I quickly discovered the isolated left and right stereo channels of Space Oddity and suddenly anything seemed possible.
I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you
I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was the first record I’d heard that told a story and I identified with its isolation/adoration, rejection, death & optimism. From the lonely opening drum beat of Five Years to the desperate final optimistic screams of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, it woke inside me the idea of artistic context; that what was said wasn’t always what was said and how you could express ideas larger than the literal elements written or played. I fell in love with it’s shiny plastic sheen which so ostentatiously belied the underlying themes. To subvert Hubert Selby Jr, Ziggy Stardust was ‘a scream finding a mouth’, and despite the glam, there was mongrel and menace pacing in the back.
No matter what or who you’ve been, No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain, I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
Shortly after I looked across and found myself flicking through 2nd hand gold in Dunedin’s Echo Records when a pristine $10 copy of Bowie’s next work picked itself. I was a great fan of the inner-cover and the more gimmicks & lyric sheets the better but inside Aladdin Sane’s flamboyant gatefold something else; an unassuming mint condition 1973 tour programme.
Blushing like a busted shoplifter, I slid it back and took the record to the counter.
She’s uncertain if she likes him, But she knows she really loves him
It’s a crash course for the ravers, It’s a drive-in Saturday
Failing university and working in a Dunedin video arcade were all part of an ambitious plan, and two years later I finally saw the living Bowie from the cheap seats during his Outside tour at Wembley Arena when he rose out of a small pile of junk that had been left on the stage since before the 12,000 seats were filled. The show was a brazen but perfect fuck you about following your art where it leads and I appreciated that droves of people supposedly walked out after he “refused” to play his hits…the alien was still being rejected and still being adored.
One crummy Saturday in Camden Market I found Hallo Spaceboy as a Petshop Boys pink 45” remix for a fiver and shot away with it while the stall owner fired some poor guy.
1.Outside is a tough, twisted 19 song fight of an album which only relents at very the end holding out a hand and pulling you up so you realise that it’s still Bowie on Strangers when we meet. 1.Outside is David Bowie drinking deep from the well of Nine Inch Nails and there’s the impression of longheld anger but deep relief that you allowed him to take it out on you. There’s also the impression that despite all the aggressive creativity, he still wanted it to be played on the radio.
We used what we could, to get the things we want. But we lost each other on the way.
I guess you know, i never wanted anyone more than you.
It’s little wonder that after such a release, this magpie swooped after the zeitgeist and outdid himself on a drum & bass heavy album in Earthling, and then killed it all off, this time on the cover of 1999’s Hours.., wherein appeared Something in the air; a song reeling with anxiety as a beaming world marched optimistically into the millennium’s mincer. Something in the air is Blur’s To the End, as an ominous robot duet.
The best thing about the Hours era though was Bowie’s appearance in, and developmental aid on, the video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul. While flawed, I loved that this artist had taken another creative chance and been involved in a more literal alien world. I persevered because of the inspiration although I was pretty fucked off that I never beat the boss at the end.
For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing
And nothing has changed. Everything has changed
2002’s Heathen was a return to songs and mystery kicking off with Sunday, a clear-eyed melancholic ballad contemplating a post 911 world that finally kicks over the synth and storms out. Slip Away leaves me longing for a past I never knew; it’s a masterclass in creating nostalgia and Slow Burn feels like someone resigned to the world hinted at in Something in the Air, but with an upbeat, end-of-movie lilt. As always his songs are left deliberately open to interpretation but if for a moment you apply the lens of the World Trade centre collapse to Slow burn, it becomes immense, acute, and extremely sad to me. Which illustrates a bigger point; today everybody talks but no one has anything to say.
But David Bowie does.
All the corners of the buildings, Who but we remember these
The sidewalks and trees…
With 2003 came Reality, opening with New Killer Star, his considered response to the World Trade Center bombing in his neighbourhood, the title gently mocking George Dubbya’s ludicrous inability to pronounce the word ‘nuclear’…and then Reality hit when it was announced that Bowie was coming to Wellington.
Working for the telly I made a pinky promise to myself that no matter what, I would meet him if he did any media, and astoundingly, he was up for a sit down interview at the Intercontinental on that most hip of television vehicles, the Holmes Show. So there was me at the centre of it all, with a camera tripod under one arm and after much deliberation, quiet hand-wringing and more nail-biting, my treasured copy of Aladdin Sane under the other.
I spent about half an hour with our camera crews and their people setting up the room. It was strictly controlled but his chief lighting guy appreciated the help getting the ND gels on the windows…yes Bowie had his own lighting people for TV interviews.
…and then he was strolling past me to his chair, the most relaxed, pleasant, jovial guy on the planet.
We did the interviews first, TVNZ and TV3 got 10 minutes each. There was a very tiny kerfuffle after we tried to fuck them by pulling the gear out but it was just having a crack I think and once the molecular dust had settled and everybody had their interviews in the can, David Bowie came over to say hello, and sign whatever we all wanted.
He looked through my tour programme, chuckled at the costumes, and that was my tiny moment of connection with David Bowie, and that was also that rare thing of meeting your hero and having them live up to what you’d hoped.
They put you down, they say I’m wrong
You tacky thing, you put them on…
Kicking off with the jubilant Rebel Rebel, the gig was great, truly great. A lively, fun, rainy celebration we witnessed from great seats as Bowie sang a joyous jukebox of his best.
When it was all sung and done I found his chief lighting guy, shook his hand and thanked him for such a cool show. He said he was really impressed with my earnestness and asked if I wanted a job helping rig the rest of the shows, I said Wow, Yes! but it never happened because that last bit never happened.
And that was the end of Bowie.
He got smashed up by some kind of heart attack during a later show on the tour, cancelled the rest and pretty much disappeared forever.
The moment you know you know you know.
You wouldn’t have noticed the beaming smile on my stupid dial when after a decade, Where are we Now appeared out of the ether on Bowie’s 66th birthday in 2013. But it was there while listening to this beautiful, reflective and ultimately resolute song. He’s made peace with something, but I’m not sure what. Regardless Bowie was back, shaking off that solemn swerve with The Next Day. A solid, fresh rock album alluding to everything from the shallowness of celebrity culture to mass shootings, and now he would let the songs do all the talking, no tours, no press, just the music. It was all perfectly played though now it appears possibly by necessity as much as strategy.
But the point was stated. It was, and had always been about the music, about the art, and anyone who’d forgotten Bowie remembered fast by sending the album to the top of the pops worldwide including in New Zealand all on the back of not a single interview or gig.
They burn you with their radiant smiles. Trap you with their beautiful eyes
They’re broke and shamed or drunk or scared, But I hope they live forever
And so, with a deep, slow breath I reluctantly arrive at Blackstar
I’d done my regular check with the internets and jackpot, new music. I’d heard Sue and enjoyed that once again any expectations had been confounded by Bowie following his musical passions and then I saw that the single for Blackstar was to be released. Pushing play in my hole at work, it was yet another revelation. Made with many parts borrowed from his own oeuvre into a bold new confident vision which recalled his past, added to the story and crept with that familiar sense of anxious hesitation into another future.
Then Lazarus, the sound and vision of which left me thinking how old his hands looked.
I know something is very wrong, The post returns for prodigal songs
The black-eyed sharks with flowered muse, With skull designs upon my shoes
5 hours later I discovered that Blackstar didn’t add to the story, it ended it. That possibly in the same way that it had always been, the anxious hesitation was in facing the uncertain door of his own mortality, and that Blackstar is David Bowie’s carefully hand-crafted headstone.
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
I doubt he understood what I meant but it was this. Thank you for the inspiration, for being smart and confident and not scared, and for the feeling of belonging to a club of millions of outsiders. Thank you for the music and the words, and the excitement, and the education, and the dreaming, and for opening the window to a universe of brave creativity, and for showing the way…and thank you for signing my record, I’ll never part with it.
I never got to say all of this to David Bowie, but I am now, and today, a year after you passed away, I want to add one more thing…