It is late summer ’72 and I am sitting in a café in Marton, Middlesbrough. I was supposed to meet a friend there from school but he didn’t turn up.
There is a jukebox mounted on the wall, one of those where the cards flip as you leaf through them and you can choose a record.
I put in my 5p and play ‘John I’m only dancing’ and the b-side ‘Hang onto yourself’ over and over. I only have 25p and run out of money quickly, having bought a cup of tea, which I linger over.
The girl behind the counter who serves me is unimpressed. She shrugs and then ignores me when I ask her if she likes the Bowie tracks I am playing. I wither and slouch back into my chair, defeated by her indifference.
I am trying to find someone who likes Bowie as much as I do and so far, am failing miserably.
At school, some of the lads like him but not in the obsessively fixated way I do. I don’t know any girls – not a single one – who like him. I guess council estate kids are just not that interested in the weirder pop stars.
In the macho-backwater of Middlesbrough, it is potentially dangerous to admit to liking someone like David Bowie. I’d already suffered ribbing over liking Marc Bolan – the usual taunts of ‘he’s a bummer’ or then turning it on me ‘are you a puff then?’
Bowie took the variety of possible insults to new heights, except strangely, even the really straight kids quickly gained a respect for him. I have no idea why, maybe they realised he could write a good tune or something as basic as that.
I had on me that day, a copy of the Disc music magazine and on the cover there was a headline ‘Bolan slams Bowie!’ My hero Marc Bolan, now having some serious competition was maybe getting a bit rattled by all the attention his old friend was getting.
‘He’s only had one hit…and hasn’t got the balls’ Bolan dismissively said.
David Bowie had just broken through a few months before, with ‘Starman’. I had borrowed the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album from the older brother of a friend. He let me keep it for about a month before I finally had to give him it back.
I couldn’t afford records, I was 13 and if I wanted money, had to wait until birthdays or Xmas as in my household, money was tight and I didn’t have parents who could afford to indulge me too much. It was agony – all these records I wanted to possess but couldn’t!
I did manage to buy music papers most weeks. I knew of up and coming releases then and I remember reading that Bowie’s next single would be a new song called ‘The Jean Genie’. I planned my manipulation campaign carefully. I had to have this one. I got some pocket money from two of my uncles and held onto it, waiting for the single to be released. It is now later in the year, November in fact.
‘Jean Genie’ comes out and soon is at number 2 in the charts. I go out one Saturday to buy it. My Mam gave me the extra 15p or so I needed to get it. I walked into the town, as I didn’t even have the bus fare. It was worth the pilgrimage though. I had already heard it of course: a stomping glam riff with Bowie talking/rapping enigmatic lyrics, a haunting heavily reverbed mouth organ on it; Mick Ronson’s barely audible guitar solo (that made you listen even closer to it) and that great chorus. It got the Pan’s People treatment on Top of the Pops too.
Bowie had now well and truly arrived. ‘Ziggy’ was no flash in the pan one-off. The music papers were already writing about Bowie as a major new musical force and his interviews were compelling in which he said things like ‘I’m very cold. A bit of an ice-man’…and ‘I’m like a Xerox machine’…or ‘I’m really an actor and Ziggy is the most plastic rock star of all’.
He didn’t give interviews like yer average rock star, he came on as someone with interests outside of rock music and gave the impression he was using music as some kind of artistic palette – and although he was in the pop charts, Bowie was ‘rock’ because of the obvious depth to his music. Here was a mind at work, an intellect that was smart and hip to all kinds of hitherto unknown things like The Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges and name-dropped writers like William Burroughs and Jean Genet.
My Bowie odyssey had begun.
Bowie’s next big entrance was as ‘Aladdin Sane’ in early 1973, which I remember was provisionally titled ‘Love, a lad in vein’. Or was that Bowie’s publicist teasing the music press?
I went out to buy ‘Aladdin Sane’ the first day it came out. I took the morning off school to go to Fearnley’s in Middlesbrough to get it. I got the money from a paper round I briefly had. It didn’t last, I only did it to get the money for the album then packed it in as getting up in the morning was something I found hard to do.
‘Aladdin Sane’ was Bowie’s full-on glam sleaze album that captured the decadence and pessimism of the new decade, with a bit of sci-fi doo-wop (‘Drive-in Saturday) and the stagey ‘Time’ being the show-stopping centerpieces of the album. The whole thing finished with a beautiful haunting love song called ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ – although, a love song unlike anything you’d heard before, with imagistic lyrics that seemed random and like the best kind of poetry, ambiguous.
Nothing prepared me for what Bowie released next. Actually, it was an old track from his ‘Hunky Dory’ album. Now Bowie’s star was high in the sky, his old albums were being re-packaged and re-promoted for his new legion of fans to discover.
‘Life on Mars’ was, and remains an incredible song and I remember wondering why the hell had it been ignored when it first appeared in 1971? How could such a beautiful tune and epic, melodramatic arrangement not have been praised to high heavens at the time?
Bowie was now in the tabloids with headlines like ‘Wowie Bowie!’ I remember my Dad holding up the centre-spread of the Daily Mirror to embarrass me. It was a feature on Bowie, with a photograph of him onstage with nothing much on but a jock strap. ‘Is this the singer you like?’ my Dad asked me with an eye-brow raised in mock disgust.
‘Yeah, he’s great’. I said. Then, in clichéd teenage rebuke I said ‘but you wouldn’t understand, I know’.
Bowie, more than anyone at the time, provoked outrage from the older generation. A word they had probably never heard before started to circulate: ‘bisexual’. Bowie had said ‘I’m gay and always have been’ in a Melody Maker interview in early 1972 – just pre-fame – and the papers were starting to bring it up as a red rag to dangle before straight macho sensibilities that had mostly been the premise of rock music. Long hair didn’t make you queer, right? Those rock bands like Deep Purple sang about women and having it off and all things manly. Bowie confronted that cock rock mentality and challenged it.
It’s difficult to express the impact Bowie had on the macho rock culture. Sure, Marc Bolan came on all camp and swaggering, but he never made any proclamations of being anything less than straight ‘I’ve checked it out and prefer chicks’ he once said, keeping up with Bowie, probably lying.
Bowie raised so many questions and became an endless source of fascination and inspiration within barely a year or so. He had an enigma that Marc Bolan surely must have envied more than just a little bit.
Bowie was now massive. All his old albums in the top 30. ‘Aladdin Sane’ had glided to number one, having sold 100,000 copies on pre-orders alone – so the press said.
Then, in July of 1973, I bought my weekly copy of the New Musical Express and it had the headline ‘Bowie Quits!’
It was the talk of the morning in break time at school too.
‘It’s a publicity stunt’ someone said. ‘He wants to go out on top and not fade away, which he probably will’ someone else said.
‘I don’t care, Slade are better’ came another voice.
I was confused more than anything. Why? Why quit when you are a rock superstar? Especially after trying for so long to break through in a major way as he had done?
I was 14 by then and taken in by it. Bowie was indeed quitting. What he really meant was, he was clearing the way for the next phase and effectively firing his band.
One more album came out that year.
‘Pinups’ was an album I acquired by swapping my wrangler jacket for it from someone at school who had bought it but ‘didn’t really like it that much’.
I loved ‘Pinups’ and remembered believing that this was his last album as I had read, Bowie was going to go into films and turn his back on music.
It was all press release tease again and it strung a lot of people along, me included.
Bowie was in fact, buying himself some time to work out his next move, soon to be announced.
‘The 1980 Floor Show’ was meant to be a film or maybe a TV play to precede his next album, a re-working of George Orwell’s ‘1984’well’s . This ambitious project ended up as being the album ‘Diamond Dogs’ of course, as apparently, the estate of George Orwell would not give permission to use the author’s work in this way, recast as a kind of play.
‘The 1980 Floor Show’ was indeed filmed and was screened in America, but never saw the light of day in the UK. Bowie abandoned the idea and made a quick volte face on the project.
It’s hard to know what the actual truth is – had Bowie just changed his mind half-way through, stopped at the song ‘1984’ and completed the album as a compromised version of what he originally intended? Never mind the reasons; ‘Diamond Dogs’ was another great album in Bowie’s rapidly growing artistic canon and his last glam hurrah, with the world he described in ‘Five Years’ now in post-armageddon ruins.
A single ‘Rebel Rebel’ was released as an album trailer and what a great single it was: another classic in fact. I bought the album, this time I can’t remember how I got the money, but buy it I did, about a week after it came out. I remember poring over that weird freak show sleeve, the record company had airbrushed out the dog’s/Bowie’s penis on it but I had read some copies had got out without the airbrush treatment. I didn’t have a copy of that, even if it did exist.
I want to stop my Bowie journey right here, although of course it didn’t end there.
Bowie moved on in 1975 to a new image and new music. It was as radical a move as any he made in that decade.
I didn’t go for ‘Young Americans’ at the time as I didn’t like the idea of Bowie ‘going soul’ and (believe it or not) wondered if he was copping out and trying to reach a more ‘straight’ audience – which in fact, in a way, he was.
As soon as I heard ‘Fame’ though, I realised I was wrong: Bowie’s take on soul was innovative, if only on this track alone – a stripped down, skeletal funk riff that was daringly sparse and not necessarily ‘commercial’ either. Featuring John Lennon – such an unlikely pairing at the time – this was the sound of Bowie never going back to ‘Ziggy’ and saying to his fans ‘come with me or stay behind’.
Bowie did this all through the 70s and thinking of it, he did it all his life.
I could write another twenty thousand words on Bowie easily, but would only be re-treading a lot of what others have already said, in the wake of his death.
I finish here because I wanted to relate that giddy and life-changing moment when you first become a fan and the immediate years after that, when the magic has gripped you and still lingers.
Bowie’s magic has stayed with me all my life and it always will.
So long Major Tom, Thin White Duke…whoever you chose to be, a whole generation travelled with you, including me.