My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody’s

Blackstar stillIn the aftermath of his latest release and the subsequent passing of David Bowie, one line remains in my head. “I know how much you loved him.”

My sister rang in her early UK hours to see if I had heard of Bowie’s death, she didn’t want me to be alone. I hadn’t heard the news, and although I am the bigger fan, her face was wet, just like the news guy.

Unlike many writers reporting on his music and surprise death, I had never met Bowie, and only shared the room with him once; 7 December 1995 on the Outside tour in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. But he was an inspiration on many levels to me, a vital component of my changing from boy to man to father.

In early 1990 I heard Jim Kerr, the singer in my favourite band, Simple Minds, say how much Bowie was an influence, even on his band’s name. So as any thirsty 15 year old would I sought out some Bowie. Luckily, ChangesBowie was in my father’s collection.

Come April of that year, I turned 16 and with some birthday money bought Hunky Dory, a box set CD of Ziggy and a cheap LP of Aladdin Sane. Unbeknown to me I had bought possibly three of his most consecutive key works in the maturing Bowie’s catalogue.

The Ziggy box set felt like treasure; images, words and the music telling the story of a plastic rock ‘n’ roll alien. This was the north star I honed in on. The music and character had so much flamboyance and energy, particularly for a boy following Simple Minds and Del Amitri; it was mesmerising. It also seemed so long ago, historical even. The seventies were so distant to me.

Thin White Duke WPSoon to follow was an original Never Let Me Down CD, I didn’t know any better. While often dismissed as poor, I like it, yet I can’t get my head around The Man Who Sold The World (Bowie’s voice grates against Ronson’s guitar), Diamond Dogs (poor production and only a couple of fully formed songs) with the turgid yacht rock of Tonight completing the triumvirate of terror.

As a student in the mid-nineties, I slipped in to a fascination with the Thin White Duke aesthetic and grew the shock of orange hair. A close friend of mine, and fellow music fan, was flicking through the Outside tour book and stalled at a picture, “You look just like him.” Bowie was only wearing black jeans and a blue hoodie, hardly ice cool Weimar, but I felt I had achieved some recognition.

Albums came and went and he just seemed untouchable to me, but the press would either maul or celebrate him. I don’t think at this point he really cared. Hours… and then Heathen astonished and the Reality Tour proved how much of a genuine performer he was, his acting, voice overs and pioneering use of the internet proving he was still so flexible. But then came the silence, and we all thought it was over. A family man enjoying his life.

But there was more to come.

“Like David Bowie,” said my then four year old daughter Ava to her swimming teacher, explaining her new sister’s christian name.

When she fell pregnant, Bowie’s Mum had put forward the idea of naming our child after a character in a book she was reading, a teenage boy called Bowie. With Ava Gabrielle sounding so pretty, a set of names with an edge seemed to create balance, and I wasn’t going to veto Bowie.

bowie-aladdin-sane2As if she agreed with our choice, our little Bowie kicked for the first time on 8 January 2013, David’s birthday just as news of ‘Where are we now?’ broke.

But Ava already knew who David was, he was Starman. I bought the Starman 40th anniversary picture disc single, a song I distinctly recall hearing while at junior school in the early eighties. Ava was all over it; she loved how he looked, she could sing most of the chorus, with a few extra words she added herself, and would say Starman when she saw him. It took her weeks to move off the song on the Bowie Singles Collection CD in the car. She even found Diamond Dogs and The Man Who Sold The World on vinyl in the bargain racks in a local record shop for me, “Daddy! Daddy! Starman,” she called running over with an LP in each hand. Despite not being favourites, I couldn’t let my little girl down, so I bought them at $4 each.

On 1 October 2015, I left the David Bowie is… exhibition in Melbourne drained; emotionally, physically and mentally. I had been through so much that year and time alone to submerge myself in someone I idolised was harder work than I could have imagined, but it very much needed to ground myself back to me.

For hours I was consumed with his whole life story, with many others who smiled as they listened to the narration, music and interview quotes on the supplied headsets, whilst reading about the boy from Brixton, reaching a peak in the last room as footage of Bowie played on the 10 ft high walls fully enveloping the fans inside. After leaving Melbourne, the David Bowie is… exhibition continued the intensity in Groningen, its eighth city.

After a few days I flew back to Brisbane, carrying t-shirts, vinyl (Melbourne has some great record shops), postcards plus the requested badge for Bowie and pencil for Ava, but rather disoriented and out of breath. This was no premonition but a realising how much one person, who you’ve never met, can mean to you through voice, influence, art and character going back a quarter of a century.

In Bowie, I’ve lost someone who had half disappeared from public life anyway. Yet his 10 year silence broken with 2013’s The Next Day, which offered 15 tracks of pop and rock. Straight up music open for everyone to enjoy. His stock skyrocketed, a new compilation Nothing Has Changed added to the burning of Bowie into our subconsciousness.

In early January 2016, Bowie released ★ (Blackstar), a more experimental LP following the mainstream growth created by The Next DayWhether Bowie is this cynical only he and, perhaps, Tony Visconti may know, but he’s no stranger to highly successful marketing to maximise his presence.

During an interview with Playboy in 1976, Bowie said he wanted to make money. His lopsided contract with Mainman was costly from his share. His tours became sparse his music more experimental as if he had accepted he would lose money on his ventures. Yet with his contract drawing to a close he made Scary Monsters (and Supercreeps) and hit the top of the charts with ‘Ashes to Ashes.’

He wasn’t ahead of the game here, he was riding the new wave, getting fans and wider public back onside.

With a new multimillion dollar contract signed in 1982 and his desire to become rich Bowie chose the guy with groove laden songs coming out of his funky ass. “I want you to make hits.” he told Nile Rodgers, and Let’s Dance did just that, making Bowie piles of cash larger than the piles of cocaine he snorted in the mid-seventies.

The ground gained since 2013 has allowed Bowie to push his boundaries once more, to search where his eyes hadn’t looked and the passing of time has given him even more new places to search.

‘Blackstar,’ the single and theme to The Last Panthers TV show, is a 10 minute multi movement piece akin to Station to Station. In places it is as dense as Massive Attack’s most pressured basslines alongside Psalm-like vocals. Placing it on a TV show allows it into viewer’s households and into their minds, another subtle PR victory.

Blackstar WPThe 7 songs in total, zig zag through awkward free jazz and drum and bass rhythms, smooth electronica and creaking, melancholic vocals. Sounds reflecting Low, Earthling and Buddah of Suburbia underline the experimental nature.

★ is an exemplary success, a lithe set of songs which flow gently where Bowie and Visconti’s sonic eloquence is imbued with longing to find new elements of sound. Even in his farewell Bowie was still searching and pushing into new areas for perfection.

Further Bowie reading can be found here:
The Next Day reviewed.
Happy Birthday The King and The Dame


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