The Age of Bowie
INTRODUCTION: STRANGE FASCINATION
He is backing into a dark forbidding wardrobe and closing the door on himself at the end of the video to ‘Lazarus’, a tranquil story of life and death, told in reverse . . . The idea had been suggested to him by someone on the shoot. At first, he is not sure whether it is something he wants to do. Then he smiles and decides, yes. I’ll do that. ‘That will keep them guessing,’ he says, always a kidder. It will look like a final exit. The very end of a true story. Of the journey of a man whose alternate selves took him on a fantastic adventure through space, time and sexuality. Everybody knows him now, and he is going somewhere else.
He hides himself . . . Inside the cupboard, there’s a tomblike darkness. There is nothing much to do. He pulls off his wig with a sigh of relief, pleased to be momentarily relinquishing the burden of playing someone else. His mind starts to race as he stands there, in the dark, wondering about what in fact people might think, about the agitated way he moves backwards, the way his eyes are obscured in the video, and how he only sort of breathes. It feels like he’s fallen out of history. While I’m here waiting, he thinks, it’s a good job that there is a lot to think about. A lot to remember, if I haven’t forgotten. A lot of things that I’ve done. A lot of books I’ve read. A lot of places I’ve visited. The people I’ve known. The strangeness of the world. It makes my brain whirl. I could think about my life for a thousand years.
He patiently stands in the quiet dark and shuts his eyes. He imagines he is alone on a stage, and about to sing a song to an
audience in front of him, anticipating his next move, his every move, reading so much into every gesture and word, into every thought, because some believe they can hear him think. He thinks about what he will sing, about what the opening line will be . . . he takes a deep breath . . . he opens his eyes and it seems to be darker inside than when he first climbed in . . . he hears a voice . . .
• • •
It is 1970, I am thirteen, and at some point during the year I hear the name David Bowie spoken for the very first time. I come to realise that someone called David Bowie is alive. I knew nothing about him, but I began to notice that there was someone on the planet with that name. The name seemed very ordinary, but something about it meant it cut right through to where I was, and cut deep. The surname made an everyday David seem much sharper. Somehow you caught sight of your own reflection in the name, and something else, which you couldn’t yet make out.
When I heard him sing for the first time, not long after I had heard someone say his name – ‘here’s “The Supermen” by David Bowie, when all the world was very young’ – he had a voice that felt made up of unusual things, one that pierced straight to the heart of me. It was something that my brain was clearly missing. The sound of him put me on high alert, and I thought here was definitely someone I should get to know. I didn’t know much about anything at the time, and was at the very early stages of working out who I was and what on earth I was going to do with myself, but he really caught my attention.
I found him, and at the same time, he found me; he was, I was soon to understand as I discovered more about him, on an almost desperate, conquistadorial mission to find as many listeners and fans as he could, to fill in the blanks inside him he felt were blotting out his soul, which meant he needed to be found. To find some fans, and at the beginning just a few would be fine, he was devising new sorts of ways he could be found and once found never ignored.
During the 1999 commencement address he delivered at Berklee College of Music in Boston after receiving an honorary doctorate, he would say that as a musician he had been ‘on a crusade to change the kind of information that rock music contained’. He confided that growing up he adored John Coltrane, Harry Partch, Eric Dolphy, the Velvet Underground, John Cage and Sonny Stitt. ‘Unfortunately, I also loved Anthony Newley, Florence Foster Jenkins, Johnnie Ray, Julie London, Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Edith Piaf and Shirley Bassey,’ he went on, referring to that part of him that would consistently disrupt his enduring, probing curiosity for the obscure and transitional.
Music, he discovered, was a great game of ‘what if’. ‘What happens if you combined Brecht/Weill musical drama with rhythm and blues? What happens if you transplant the French chanson with the Philly sound? Will Little Richard lie comfortably with Schoenberg? Can you put haggis and snails on the same plate? Well, no, but some of these ideas worked out very well.’
As a boy without then knowing who any of these people were – except Shirley Bassey, mostly for singing ‘Goldfinger’, contributing appreciable glamour to the provisional myth of James Bond – what first pulled me in was his potentially deranged blend of something warped and deeply thoughtful with a definite, kinky show-business flourish. The mixing and merging of the strange with the familiar, mortal grossness with the airy spirit, sounded like nothing else I’d heard – and ultimately ever would hear – because there were few others so drawn to both the offbeat and the ostentatious. It’s very rare for a performer to cross so easily from the experimental to the opulent and the embellished, infatuated with artifice and excess but possessing an inquisitive, militant spirit. Both ends of the spectrum, the freely chaotic or the defiantly melodic, the so-called good or bad taste, could make the mind spin through very interesting changes and make constant new discoveries.
To find Bowie as a teenager, and be found by him, was incredible,
and, perhaps, inevitable. At that point, those of us becoming teenagers in the early 1970s needed something of our own, having been too young to catch the 1960s. We’d missed the Beatles, we’d missed the Stones – as something that belonged and spoke directly to us. Bowie wasn’t, though, that easy to find in the early 1970s, when music was not everywhere, all the time, instantly available with a swipe or a jab, where every day was yet to be packed with endlessly available event, product and entertainment.
Nothing was then easy to find when you were in your early teenage years hemmed in by parents, school and a solid set of very fixed expectations. There were few places to find the new, and what places there were tended to be hard to find, out of sight, needing some form of permission or disobedience to access. Difference was hidden; you had to work hard to get there.
I had heard Bowie in the background the year before I started to develop an insatiable interest in pop music, thinking of his hit song ‘Space Oddity’, but that had been one of those songs that just appeared, closely harnessed to the climax of the 1960s space race, and then disappeared, as though it wasn’t actually by anyone. It was conceived by committee especially for the occasion. Men landed on the moon, and occasionally as the astonishing footage was shown, you could hear the song, as though the man on the moon and the singer of the song was called Major Tom.
I first heard his name said across the airwaves on self-proclaimed ‘wonderful’ BBC Radio 1. This was the central place where you came across pop music at the time; one of the only places, especially when you were too young to go out to clubs and concerts. The one place to actually see pop was the weekly half-hour Top of the Pops, a family show where smuggled into its wholesome midst were stunning signs and sightings of the mysterious underground you heard tantalising rumours about at school, whispered through names of groups and seen on album sleeves that had a touch of witchcraft about them. Top
of the Pops would feature dramatically deranged-looking rock musicians using lively, immediate pop songs to sing about lust, paranoia, fear, anger, rebellion, mystery, because if it was in the charts, it would be broadcast. That was the rule.
It didn’t matter how long the hair of the male lead singer, how outlandish and dubious the clothes, how obviously stoned-seeming the drummer, how subversive the lyrics, being a hit gave it a free pass directly into the home of millions of viewers courtesy of a relatively generous BBC policy.
Even the Who, demanding that you all f-f-f-fade away, a classic, unholy four-letter word teetering on the lippy tip of flailing singer Roger Daltrey’s tongue, had made it through onto what was essentially a souped-up variety show. A programme generally watched after a shared teatime in the same room by parents and their children, silently appraising a random parade of performances that meant very different things to the different generations in the empty spaces of their mind waiting to be filled, or emptied further.
These occasional insubordinate cameos by groups wearing the clothes and expressions of revolutionary spirits gave the whole procedure the edge of something that challenged the apparently secure nature of the relationship between child and adult, between teenager and the everlasting normal society they were expected to enter without a second thought. There was a general sense as these occasional surreal bombs exploded in the middle of ordinary British houses on ordinary British streets that it wasn’t really happening, and even if it was, it would all soon be over and normal service would be resumed.
Bowie, though, in 1970 was more in that distantly rumbling underground, his travels then limited to the smaller, dirtier venues and mundane local halls and clubs across the land, separated from any possible appearance on Top of the Pops. He was out there somewhere, but I could never find him. I would discover that once in the late 1960s after a late-night folk club performance in
Stockport where I lived he missed the last train and had to sleep on the platform overnight. This meant we were to an extent sleeping together, under the same clouds, or sleeping only separated by a couple of miles. It took me forty years to learn that. At the time he might as well have been orbiting Saturn for all I knew.
A young, naive teenager didn’t yet possess the understanding of how to break into that impenetrable-seeming underground. What clothes were necessary, how long should your hair be, did you need special words, a knowledge of arcane symbols? Pop music cliques then by their very nature contained a rarefied inner elite that seemed impossible to join.
Bowie wasn’t then getting much if any play on the radio. Except to a few loyal followers, he wasn’t that well known, despite having had the surprise top 10 song the year before, quickly forgotten in the way things were back then, because life seemed to be moving fast into the future and a few months could make the difference between having your hit and being forgotten.
His hit might even have cost him his few hard-core fans, as they were the sort of discriminating, or snobby, music lovers who viewed commercial hits as a sign of artistic worthlessness. The world then was clearly divided between the album and the single. Rock already had its own equivalent of the highbrow versus lowbrow battle. One side, it had been decided, had more value than the other. Albums were serious; singles were trivial. Those of us that slipped naturally between the two worlds were viewed at the time as extremely weak-minded. For those that did slip more easily between the two worlds, it seemed a very good way to locate the future.
Constructing an idea of the future – any future within reason, even if it had its own problems – was vital at the time, a pushing away from a disorientating war that your parents and their parents were still suffering from, the gloom, conflicts, monotony and general effects that were hard to escape. Mainstream society and culture was committed to maintaining itself as it was for its own security but coming under pressure.
An alternative future was slowly taking shape around life in the 1950s, so that the basic, dreary flatness of the nation was showing the first electric signs of the shapes, colours and attitudes about to dominate the world, and propel it into a very different age altogether. A storm of progress was brewing. This was pop culture beginning to make its way to the centre of everything, and introducing a global informality, a new world order of noise and image.
Rock music, a warning sign in the mid-Fifties, an invading force by the mid-Sixties, was helping the young escape the pressure from elsewhere, its exponents and fans relishing and celebrating not just the new possibilities of personal freedom and independent thinking. They were also keeping a vigilant eye on those freedoms and independence being interfered with by those who tended to be responsible for wars and miscellaneous national and international crack-ups. In the grander scheme of things, to transcend the effects of the war, incite a galvanising sense of optimism, it was needing something outrageous and difficult to believe, like the Americans flying to the moon, and walking on it, and beaming the evidence back to earth and the television sets that were themselves an invading force.
Rock and pop could supply equivalent capsule moments of adventure and wonder, with images that in their own way were as vividly of the moment as an astronaut planted in a moonscape. Sometimes the incongruous impact of pop could seem as strange to a young mind separated from wider, more poetic and artistic influences as the classic image Karlheinz Stockhausen had used when he described his 1955 work Gesang der Jünglinge (‘Song of the Youths’) mixing up human voice with electronics as being like ‘finding an apple on the moon’ – an ordinary thing being transplanted into an extraordinary place. (Oddly enough the moon landing itself in 1969 as shown on television had the quality of being an apple found on the moon. There were no apples. The astronauts were the apples. When Jethro Tull appeared on Top
of the Pops, like frugal New Age farmers from Narnia, they were the apples, and Top of the Pops was the moon.)
The future arrived down on earth through music, which could then take you to another planet. Bowie symbolised the future first of all when you heard the sound of his voice, and then when you saw him, in a photograph, or, eventually, on the TV, his appearance sealed the deal. You could see it in his eyes; mixed in with his own sense of amusement, anxiety and engagement, there was something else, perhaps the weirdly attained wisdom of the ages, reflected straight back at you.
Your mind was rearranged, as it turned out it needed to be, even if it hadn’t been when you had only heard him. When I first saw him – and everyone remembers the first time they laid eyes on him performing, and what Bowie, at what period of time – I’m not sure it was something I actually explicitly thought or spoke out loud, but there was definitely a feeling of, in the middle of all the everyday gloom, tension and endless school routine . . . I could be like that. I could go there, or somewhere close. Not that I would dye my hair, brighten my face with cosmetics, trace mystical shapes with my fingers, wear flowing robes and Turkish shoes, matter-of-factly claim to be from out there to fulfil a special mission through music, to recreate the cosmic order, but in my own way, I could find my own way.
• • •
Because his music wasn’t specifically cheerful enough, or straightforward and conventionally comforting, I will have heard his name said for the first time in a low, deliberately unexcited monotone by John Peel. That was David Bowie, ‘The Supermen’, strange mad celebration, and very little else. The first time ever I heard his name. One of the few times anyone said it on the BBC in 1970.
Peel was the late-night disc jockey who first played some of the most exciting music I would hear, and music I still listen to today. It turns out that this music wasn’t about postponing the
process of growing up, which was one view at the time. It was there to become a part of your whole life, and often make more sense the older you were.
Peel wasn’t a fake friend, the sort of disc jockey who was going to pretend to be happy with life and burst with mock delight at the music he was playing like his daytime colleagues. It wasn’t his job to perkily wake you up in the morning and put a spring in your step, or keep you chuckling through the day as you got on with your dull routine, at work, or doing the housework. He wasn’t playing at being social tranquilliser or stimulant. As a gentle-seeming, quite amiable eccentric, he was actually more of a social irritant, opening up channels to pioneering, racy new music that had, or gallantly pretended to have, a greater meaning. His motives were difficult to work out, although it was clear he was not in favour of romantic claptrap. He didn’t appear to have a purpose at all in what he was doing, but in a way that was the highest purpose of all.
His job as he saw it was to play music, the loveliest, strangest he came across. It was up to the listener to work out for themselves what they liked or didn’t like of all the music he played, and whether it was meant to calm them down or psych them up, or whatever else, and for what reason. You were given few direct cues about the value or importance of the music by the legendarily sardonic Peel. He would unfussily open a gate, usher you forward, and leave you to work out whether you were in a muddy field or an unforgettable new world, perhaps under stars that would stretch forever.
He was treating his listeners as people who knew their own minds, or why would they be listening to him, and the often eerie and extreme music he was interested in. If you were a Peel listener, you were definitely taking music more seriously than those that weren’t. You had come to some specific decision that would take time to articulate about how hearing other voices through the music they played was going to stop you going mad; listening only to the sound of your own voice was definitely going
to challenge your senses, and you wanted these other thoughts in your head, to help get a perspective on the reality unravelling around you. You weren’t alone, even as you were on your own.
Listening to Peel scouting the far, unmapped frontiers of music, through constant crackles of static on a tiny transistor radio that smelled of plastic and excitement, in bed, usually under the blankets because it was school tomorrow, was a forbidden activity that added an extra layer of thrill to the tantalising, unusual sounds you were hearing. You shouldn’t have been doing it. It was a secret venture. And you found secret hiding places that contained the difference you were craving. It also seemed, as it is with the great broadcasters, that Peel was only talking to you; there was no one else.
I found Bowie all on my own, as far as I could tell, bravely tracking John Peel late at night, coming across the living, breathing Bowie and feeling as though he, like Peel, was only for me. He was right next to me. So close he could hear me breathe, in my bedroom cocoon, and be very knowing when my breathing got faster. Even before he actually sang it on ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’, quoting one of his memorable, one-of-a-kind finds, Jacques Brel, he was getting right inside your mind and making it clear, imploring that oh no love I wasn’t alone and we were in this together, and he was getting inside my head, and I was getting inside his. I could hear him thinking. Give me your hands . . .
Bowie was calling to me that year, gathering me in. During the next few months when I began to concentrate on the depth and intrigue of pop music I started to think about him all the time, falling for him in a rush with what you could call love.
I started to read the music magazines, especially the New Musical Express. By 1972, the year of his real breakthrough, relieved that a recent lull in proceedings was not permanent, determined not to ever lose his grip again, he was all over the music papers. This was at a time when the sole source of information about the activity and attitude of pop stars was through music papers, and the writing
about pop stars contributed to their image and impact often by constructing a riveting, semi-fictional framework around them. Reality and fantasy were being mixed up. The nature and meaning of pop and rock stars were being invented, on the understanding that the importance of what they were doing needed to be exaggerated, articulated and celebrated. There was a sense of mission in these new sights and sounds, and the writing set out to reflect and enhance that idealistic and/or self-serving velocity.
Growing up, Bowie had been an avid reader of music papers, and he recognised the importance of their role. However famous and apparently remote he became, he only stopped making himself available for interviews in the last few years of his life, when the idea of silence had a greater resonance in the middle of a now over-saturated non-stop talking pop culture, where more and more people were blankly demanding ‘look at me’. He found other equivalents of the interview and the profile, other ways of drawing attention and expressing, or protecting, himself.
He was brilliant to interview, with his own sense of how to make things up and invent new truths and doctrines; he always had something to say, taking the whole idea of himself very seriously and yet also as a game he was inventing as he went along, writing himself into being, escaping both from and into reality. Music paper interviews were a great way for musicians with something to say to talk about themselves, and he clearly loved doing this. He used them as therapy, a chance to brainstorm new ideas, make new plans, boast about his prowess, blur boundaries, and generally sell himself and his rapidly forming worldview, on the hunt for kindred spirits ready to join his campaign and surrender to his ways.
Along with the interview there would always be photographs. In all these photos, there was that secret thing about his eyes that suggested that however serious, or not, he was being, in how he appeared, and arranged himself, it was coming with a suggestive, confident wink. Come and try me. Come and buy my records. If you dare . . .
I started buying records during 1970 and 1971, slowly at first, because they cost more than my pocket money got anywhere near. Every bit of money I managed to muster went on books or records. The records I got hold of one by one became precious things, at first mainly singles by T. Rex, who were having their breakthrough year; they were the first things I owned apart from toys and comics that I could truly call my own. Bit by bit, month by month, my collection of mostly singles grew, some bought in a bargain bin at my local record shop, cheap because they had been pre-used in jukeboxes, but still carefully chosen and cared for like nothing else in my life.
Among my first records bought at full price, or asked for as birthday and Christmas gifts, alongside Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople and Jimi Hendrix, were singles and albums by David Bowie that started to be released at the end of 1971 into early 1972. They each had an RCA label in bright space-age orange and a futuristic label logo that suggested both A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The intense future world orange along with the enigmatically plain title and songwriting information on the label would become inextricably mixed up in my mind with the world, and the name, of David Bowie. If I see that orange now, I still feel an internal blood-tingling swoon, a moment of delicious pause knowing that there will soon be magic, and a whole new set of clues about what to think next.
News announcing their release in the music papers updating rock every seven days would mean weeks of build-up before the moment I could actually hold the record in my hands, stare at it like it was something sacred, and play it, A-side and B-side, side one and side two, over and over again, until it was completely a part of me. The anticipation, the run-up and the space around a record, allowing your mind to roam free dreaming up what was about to happen, became as much a part of the music as the song itself.
The cliffhanging wait, the dreamy fantasising, the intense
hope, amplified the feeling of excitement as you slid the record you had finally managed to get out of its sleeve, having saved up for weeks, because buying a record then was more like going on holiday than simply deciding to listen to something and instantly making it so. It was an event, often an occasion, and usually inextricably linked with those moments of relief – holidays, Christmas, birthdays – in a year where school and routine were most of the time slammed into your being. Mostly, you had no choice: with a record you had managed to buy, suddenly, you did.
The orange label would appear, the gleaming black plastic with grooves that gave you a first sense of what you were about to receive, in terms of how tightly, or loosely packed, they were etched into the vinyl, how many gaps there were between tracks, and you would catch your breath at the sight of the title on the label, as though it had been sealed in place by Bowie himself. The titles alone, often giving language a new twist, a novel tug, because of how the words now sounded taken over by Bowie for his specific use, released a torrent of new associations and possibilities.
At the beginning of 1972, using timely Christmas money, I owned David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album, a single taken from it, ‘Changes’ with ‘Andy Warhol’ on the B-side, the first introduction for many of us to not just the artist but art itself, and an anomalous collection of his early, pre-‘Space Oddity’ songs that had been released to cash in on his brief chart status in 1970 on a budget-priced album called The World of David Bowie.
From the very beginning of my experience with David Bowie, things didn’t go in chronological order: re-releases, deletions, compilations, radio sessions and television shows featuring songs from albums not released for months, all threw time into a mixer, producing bits and pieces of Bowie from different periods that were more raw material for the personal collage you were making out of David Bowie, in the way he made collages of sound and vision from what he found and felt.
The World of David Bowie featured a cover where an angelic
but slightly shocked-looking Bowie stared out under lit-up golden curls that made him look like a close, puckish hippie cousin of his old friend Marc Bolan of T. Rex, fast becoming a spellbinding Top of the Pops regular, increasing Bowie’s burning need to make it onto the show.
The songs on The World of David Bowie were only a few years old, but compared to the songs on Hunky Dory, they seemed to come from a very old-fashioned, hare-brained world. It made me think of live-action Disney movies, Danny Kaye, the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the ‘Little White Bull’ of Tommy Steele. Here was Bowie as a cheeky, cheery-seeming chap giving away how much he wanted to win friends and impress people. It filled in some details about where he had come from, as an entertainer, but it wasn’t exactly the Bowie I’d first come across under the bedclothes taking me by surprise with suggestive, fleeting thoughts about the energy of his mind.
I could sense, even though it was not something I understood, that the sound of the songs were not as rich, as unconventionally enchanting as the songs on Hunky Dory. I responded to a sound on Hunky Dory that suited more that look in his eyes, the shapes he would throw in photos using his limbs, mouth and the tips of his fingers.
The comedy was subtler, the tragedy deeper, the cuteness more cosmic, the love songs not as bouncy. And on the fantasy cover, a freeze-frame from a dream, his hair was brushed long and blond, and his obsessions were clearly more with the deeper truths of existence. I couldn’t have explained it like that to myself at the time, but I sensed it. I sensed that the earlier Bowie was not the same as the later Bowie, and that no matter how many times Mick Jagger or John Lennon changed their appearance, or their music, they were still staying where they were. Bowie wasn’t.
Thinking of Bowie’s ability even in those early days to generate gorgeous, blooming but unorthodox melodies, even on songs that otherwise meandered to cryptic, pseudo-anthemic conclusions,
it was as though between that late Sixties period, when he was imagining appearing in charming if off-beat musicals, and Hunky Dory, when he had lived through experimental theatre, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, he had distilled out the sugar candy. Even his sweet songs where he lingered inside some metaphysical cabaret club were less cloying.
I had a small collection of David Bowie, but I wanted more. He was ready to hand out more. In the first months of 1972, with Hunky Dory at best a cult success, a music paper hit but a mainstream miss, there was a sudden surge of activity, an acceleration away from the atmospheric night-time woodland of John Peel towards the shining lights, tacky delights and semi-naked dancing girls of Top of the Pops.
The fans were tangled up in the middle of this, helping to cause it, because we were more or less doing what Bowie told us to do, looking where he said to look, leading us on, having us on, with the conniving force of someone who knew what we were thinking, as fans, because he had been, and still was, exactly that type of fan. There was a building sense of togetherness. He knew exactly how to manipulate and stimulate the fan’s desire for some form of permission to be different and to turn the ordinary idea of buying records into something positively greater.
In the early 1970s, he became a kind of teacher, so much more inspiring and motivating than my real teachers at school. In the middle of a lifeless provincial world that severely limited possibility and gave you very few options, his explosive mind and the way he represented it through astonishing, changeable appearance and vivid otherness suggested you didn’t have to be so stuck. You didn’t have to be so deferential.
Bowie had made use of things he had been taught as a fan by the artists, entertainers and performers he’d found, and passed on this information with the added extras of his imaginative input. ‘When I heard someone say something intelligent, I used it later as if it were my own . . . It’s just like a car, replacing parts.’
He sang that he had no inspiration on ‘Soul Love’, a lucid song about love, and death, from his 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but of course he absorbed so many influences – ‘You nick a touch of this, you nick a touch of that. Then you do it better simply by using Scotch tape, sawdust and a little imagination’ – and passed on his secrets, advice and techniques for others to use. His intention was to gather others in the search for the flaming dove. The more people looking, swapping clues, suggesting routes, stumbling across treasure, believing in the presence and ultimate meaning of the flaming dove, the more likely it would happen. It might be an endless project, but it should never stop.
That Bowie is referring to ‘the flaming dove’ on a relatively unheralded song from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the album that finally lifted him to fame in 1972, is itself a sign of how far his reading roamed in the constant quest for learning, and material, how wherever you looked in his songs there were words, lines, phrases, images, quotes that could set you off on a wild trail of your own learning.
‘The flaming dove’ is a definite clue he had been reading, or reading someone who had been reading, T. S. Eliot, and noticing Eliot’s own endless recycling and reframing. Eliot refers in the fourth section of ‘Little Gidding’, the last poem in Four Quartets, to the dynamic symbolism of the dove in the Bible. The dove represented the Holy Spirit, and there are many passages in the Bible where doves are descending, symbolising the descent of the Holy Spirit. A bright dove descends on Christ at his baptism.
In the flaming sense, it was the dove being sacrificed as an offering to God of something with great spiritual value, a symbol of peace, and the flaming dove is an allusion to the phoenix, born out of flames symbolising birth and the immortality of the spirit. The flaming dove to Bowie was freedom; later, much later, he would use ‘that bluebird’ to express the same feeling, but at a very different stage of life.
Flames are constant through the war poem ‘Little Gidding’. The dove is both destructive – breaking the air with flames of transcendent terror, German planes dropping fire-bombs above a stricken, very vulnerable London a few years before Bowie is born in the city – and purifying – discharging us from sin and error by fighting the fire of war with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
At fifteen, I had no idea of any of this, and it’s probably simply another way of interpreting what Bowie might have been up to, leaving everything wide open, which was part of his skill; but the way he sang the words, and how the words themselves powered out of an electric pop song, had such force you sensed, you felt, that he was bringing with him a tremendous amount of knowledge and energy.
In the same way as a reader of Eliot’s Four Quartets might not know all – or any – of the other writers, myths and references Eliot is placing into a brand-new context, but can feel that he is building his living, breathing, weeping world from so many other places, listeners to Bowie do not know the exact details of the borrowing, thieving and rewriting, the nicking of word and sound, but can feel the intoxicating intensity.
Every Bowie line seemed like its own artwork, filled with detail waiting to be understood. The flaming dove perhaps meant nothing outside the fact that it sounded wonderful when he sang it – perhaps all he thought about at the time, finding unusual words to sing with brassy style – but what made the difference was that he had the type of mind that thought of putting the flaming dove into a pop song. Maybe it was just a response to how often he had heard ‘Oh for the Wings of a Dove’ on Sunday radio when he was a child, a transforming of a dull, monotonous time into a fiery piece of showing-off. He was setting his boring past on fire, dropping bombs on a previous life, moving on as fast as he could.
You might interpret ‘the flaming dove’ as being a sign of how obsessed Bowie was with the reality of evil, and how often his songs longed for transcendence. Once you start following a trail
inspired by Bowie on a song like ‘Soul Love’, and who he had been inspired by, you can begin with a search for the poetry of salvation, with Eliot’s description of Charles Baudelaire as a ‘deformed Dante’ and take it from there. Or you can simply consider the song to be part of the greatest masterpiece of the glam rock era, with little meaning beyond that, but who needs any more meaning than that.
According to the legend, glam rock emerged in Britain in the very early 1970s largely as a consequence of the arrival of colour television, which encouraged madcap male dressing up in satin and lipstick on Top of the Pops, and from a need to spray gaudy, intoxicating colour over a nation that seemed made up of black, white, grey and depressed red brick.
The glitter and colour might have been gaudy, but it also implied a certain rough but welcoming luxury in a narrowed, monochrome world. With Bowie, it also seemed he was embracing extravagant costume and radical rainbow colours – appropriated from underground clubs, hippie loungewear, drag bars, Hollywood movies, avant-garde haute couture, bohemian vagabonds, experimental art laboratories and an idiosyncratic history of theatre – in order to express the luminous brightness of his mind.
He flooded ordinary everyday reality with exotic information, and made intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous and accessible. Those indifferent to his ways would probably have just seen grotesque sexualised pantomime, heard noisy, repetitive, overheated nursery rhymes and a narcissistic, half-naked, fidgety, goofy, effeminate singer wearing hobgoblin hair trying far too hard to impress. To those who got it, he was at ease exhibiting his mind and body in the public glare so fantastically, and if you had cracked the code, he was dramatically splitting reality wide open and penetrating time itself. The perfect role model for a teenager.
He communicated like little else at the time an abundant sense of confidence. A confidence that there would always be a future,
and because there always would be, why shouldn’t the dreamers, stargazers and prophets take hold of it? And if there wasn’t going to be a future – and he faced up to that eventuality with a defiant sometimes nihilistic relish – then let the fearless fantasists and artists take over for the grand finale.
He was putting together the world and a historical version of it in his own way, and that made more sense than what the grown-up world proposed, still snagged by the choking effects of the war and other shattering wars that followed, and an inability to set new things in motion. His spirited curiosity was contagious, a revelation the way his transfixing, freakishly modern Top of the Pops appearances – surely flashed back from the future – steamed-up pop singles and future-fancying albums lustily recommended an experimental mentality. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.
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The moment of understanding that there was a creature on the planet called David Bowie will be weighted towards 1972 because that was the period Bowie charged into his fame like he was being chased by something diabolical. All the dots he’d set up over the preceding years were joined up. He came out of nowhere with such a bang and such a series of flashes, because he had not come out of nowhere, it had been a long time coming, he had been building and building, inventing, discovering and sorting out the foundations and preparing the blueprints. His new fans throughout the nation, not knowing how many others existed, had no idea about any of this. The beauty of it was how sudden and fantastic it seemed.
He seemed invincible. I don’t know if it was the relief, the sheer enjoyment, that he had finally made it, but it gave him a rock-hard certainty even in those few months before it actually took off. It had all come true, that thing he had thought about and planned since he was a teenager, a boy. There was a kind of
laughter written all over his arrival in the charts and Top of the Pops in 1972, even when he was pulling a serious face and acting just for the hell of it like a holy prince of enigma taking charge of his surroundings.
It was as though he had been proved right in why he had wanted this fame, because it made him feel as though he had super powers, and all eyes were on him as he made his next move, which even though it was a song or a television appearance was greeted with such excitement it was as though he had flown through the sky and into the clouds or saved a city from a sudden typhoon. He had the look, focused in a pair of eyes that had definitely seen things, even if he’d made most of it up. Nothing was going to stop him, and the last thing on anyone’s mind, most of all his, as he rode this incredible wave, and gathered new followers by the second, was death. Even when his songs were about death, and there were all sorts of words floating through his music that made it clear that death was something often on his mind, it was all about life. Look at me. Look at me looking at you. Look at how amazing this is. I am never, ever going to die.