In 1973, I – with two schoolfriends – took a day off from our Suffolk school to see David Bowie play at the Norwich Theatre Royal. It was the Aladdin Sane tour and he, with the Spiders from Mars, were doing two shows. We caught the first, early evening one: after all, it was over 60 miles back home to Suffolk and school couldn’t be avoided the next day. That first experience of seeing Bowie live on stage still resonates.
This gig was a year after the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and its single, “Starman”. The Aladdin Sane tour itself would end in a wildly strange and urgent way a few weeks after my Norwich experience, when Bowie announced the end of Ziggy at Hammersmith Odeon at the performance on 3 July. That was captured in all its darkness by D.A. Pennebaker’s film. (A darkness that, incidentally, artist duo Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard attempted to recapitulate in 1998 in A Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, a performance re-enactment.) In print, the intensity of some of the fantasies that Bowie trigged in his audience was expressed best by Fred and Judy Vermorel’s Starlust (1985), a book that captures the unnavigable emotional violence of fandom like no other text before or after.
Like millions of others, I saw Bowie first playing “Starman” in 1972 on Top of The Pops on BBC1. A million sitting rooms across Britain were never the same after that transmission of a promise that offered such wild and intoxicating difference. It is not surprising that so many of my generation date a profound awakening, a radical call to expression, to this performance.
It’s tempting to say that that “Starman” performance inserted a kind of queerness into mainstream culture. It did, but it was not alone in its action. It was part of a momentum that expressed this. Roxy Music – and especially its disturbing and distracting figure of Brian Eno – did this too, at a time exactly contemporaneous with the manifestation of Ziggy Stardust. Bob Fosse’s brilliant adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s late Weimar-era musical, Cabaret (1972), is very much part of the picture in its seductive stylisation of power and performance. The original stagings of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Picture Show in the early 1970s also fit the period in its linking of the underbellies of underground cultures.People nicked Sally Bowles’s phrase, “divine decadence”, as a kind of cultural shorthand to talk about all this, but looking back now, whatever was going on wasn’t the implosion that characterises decadence but something at the other end of the scale.
But Bowie, in those pre-internet days, was the beginning of an education. I bought the Velvet Underground LPs because he mentioned them and spent hours trying and beginning to understand them; I looked for Jacques Brel. Words that I found out came from Buddhist teachings lead to books on Tibetan Buddhism He mentioned Nietzsche – I read Nietzsche; ditto Warhol, ditto so much other stuff. The libraries, record shops and bookshops of Suffolk were scoured. Brian Eno got tangled up in this for me, and by the time of his Obscure record series, he and Bowie were meshed together for me. Such was the nature of self-directed research.
I mourn him, like millions. But I also celebrate the synaptic connections that he inspired me to begin to explore. May everyone, everywhere, have their own Bowie.