Something happened on the day he died
– David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’
Three things we learned this past week connect in my mind. First came the news that Bowie had died, followed by a huge national outpouring of sorrow and loss. A day later it was revealed that the number of people attending Church of England services each week has dropped below 1 million – less than 2% of the population – for the first time, with Sunday attendances even lower at 760,000. Finally, amidst widespread condemnation, leaders of the Anglican communion meeting in Canterbury agree – in the words of Giles Fraser – ‘to punish its American franchise for the temerity of marrying gay people, sending out the message to the LGBT community: you are a problem, and we will establish our unity on the basis of your exclusion’.
The meaning of these stories, it seems to me, is that they reveal how British society has changed in the decades since Bowie first stunned viewers tuning in to watch Top of the Pops on 6 July 1972 to see him in the persona of Ziggy Stardust performing ‘Starman’, arm draped around Mick Ronson’s shoulders, pointing a finger at us all and singing, ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-oo’.
He told me,
‘Let the children lose it,
Let the children use it,
Let all the children boogie.’
The huge response to Bowie’s death this week seems to be an example of the artist who holds up a mirror to society and thereby provokes all manner of awkward questions and disturbances. Four decades ago, what did we (especially those of us in our teens and twenties) see in that mirror? Most definitely a new world of outrageous possibilities: of subcultures, roles and appearances that might be adopted or discarded at will, offering opportunity, individuality and the freedom to express these things which hardly existed in the sooty-grey shades of 1970s Britain.
If you get Bowie on TV and somebody switches on in Ohio or Bradford and they see this person looking out at them, it’s going to affect their whole way of life. He doesn’t have to say ‘Power To The People Right On’. He is the message in himself. It’s like holding a mirror up to society. It makes people react in a specific way that’s better than having them half dead listening to Sandy McPherson.
– John Lennon, 1974
Lennon’s key observation there seems also to pose the question: which is more powerful in effecting real social change – culture or politics? I know that it’s not exclusively true, but sometimes I think that artists – whether painters, writers or musicians – are more likely than politicians or activists to act as lightning rods for unrequited dreams and aspirations, and thereby to bring about change.
Oh, you pretty things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and papas insane?
This week, the responses to Bowie’s death have often tended to focus on this aspect of his significance: as important as his music is, it’s the way in which he contributed to the unleashing of individual and collective desires and demands for respect that truly mattered. The huge changes that have taken place in British society since the seventies – the growing scepticism of tradition and dogma, the increased respect for difference, and the growing rejection of prejudice and intolerance – all have their roots, to some extent, in the electric shock that Bowie applied to our certainties.
I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But the days still seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it
‘Something happened on the day he died’ he sings on the title track of his last album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday and just two days before he did die. What happened was this: we looked into the mirror again and saw ourselves for who are now, changed unutterably in forty years (and isn’t it mysterious how the glacier grinds on relentlessly, year after year, until at the end everything is free, running clear and forcefully onward, the once-buried landscape altered materially?). Last week we saw ourselves as a society, on the whole, not only more tolerant of difference, but enjoying it, too. And we realised that one place where these changes might have begun was when Bowie pointed his finger and picked on us.
And all the fat-skinny people
And all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people
And all the somebody people,
I never thought I’d need so many people.
Which accounts for the mixture of bafflement and outrage at the decision made by the Anglican church in Canterbury this week. And may explain the decline in church attendance as Britons turn away from blind acceptance of ritual and tradition and seek the truth in many sources.
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh, man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
As Yavuz Baydar remarked on Huff Post, over decades Bowie reminded us ‘that all is change, that nothing remains the same, that all it takes in life and fiction is courage and risk, fuelled by the craftsmanship’ to reinvent yourself. And lest this be thought a sentimental mass outpouring emotion, Zoe Williams in a 12 page Guardian supplement (significant and noteworthy in itself) observed that this is not to be confused with grieving for David Bowie the person – we don’t know him – but is more about thinking that you share something with that person, that that person understood you in a way that other people didn’t.
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’re seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on and be not alone
Gimme your hands you’re wonderful
Gimme your hands you’re wonderful
Gimme your hands …
In the same supplement, Samira Ahmed wrote how for many immigrant children like her, growing up in south London suburbia, Bowie proved an unexpectedly powerful inspiration – the good-looking white boy who chose to stand out, attracting hatred and ridicule. ‘I will remember the south London boy who encouraged us all to love the alien within’, she wrote.
And to question what we are told to believe, how we’re ordered to behave; this is Bowie in a 2013 interview with Uncut:
Everyone views everything – past, future and present – in a different way. So I’ve always been intimidated by this idea of absolutes. There can only be one person’s absolute, one person’s end result, one person’s history. Sir Thomas More, poor old thing, went to the block for his absolute belief in the Catholic church. Now I have great admiration for a man sticking to his guns, but on the other hand… he really shouldn’t’ve done that! ‘Have you thought about Buddhism, Mr More? Protestantism? Same deal without the ritual?’ I’m not saying we don’t have a moral duty, or should relinquish all responsibility. We are intelligent animals and we can quite simply see that it’s not right to hurt others. That comes through a consensus of behaviour and opinion, I guess. But we don’t have to feel that if we don’t do right we’ll go to some strange place… without flames, apparently.
Best of all, here’s Bowie, tongue firmly in cheek, quoted in the Guardian in 2001 in an extract from Glam! An Eyewitness Account by Mick Rock:
I still derive immense pleasure from remembering how many hod-carrying brickies were encouraged to put on lurex tights and mince up and down the high street, having been assured by know-it-alls like me that a smidgen of blusher really attracted the birds.
He finished with this:
Next week, I’ll be showing you how to turn all those earrings into a perfectly serviceable chain with which you can anchor yourself for the oncoming tremors of 1975. All you’ll need will be a snotty nose, an abused Ziggy haircut and an ability to pronounce ‘anarchy’. Me? I’ll be pissing off to Berlin, thanks.
This is Jon Savage, author of England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, published by Faber in 1991 on the Faber Social website last week:
‘Queen Bitch’ is a clarion call for weirdos everywhere. It’s not just the sound and the camp lyrics – ‘She’s so swishy in her satin and tat/ In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat’ – and the sense of immersion in a glamorous, deviant subculture, but the knife-edge sense of desperation. Can there a better line for that awful feeling than ‘and I’m phoning a cab ’cause my stomach feels small/ There’s a taste in my mouth and it’s no taste at all’. Mix in asides like ‘choo betcha’, ‘oh yeah’ and the general sense of glee, and something is changed forever.
It’s complex but shattering. Slowly the realisation: it’s actually OK to be gay. Wear this song as a badge of pride, along with the glitter eyeliner. Crank it up – along with Lou Reed’s ‘Vicious’ – and annoy the Grateful Dead freaks. Don’t look back.
In ‘Queen Bitch’ you can hear a door unlocking. Despite the best efforts of many, it has remained open. Thank you, David Bowie.
At the end Bowie sang, so spookily, on his last album:
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
– David Bowie, ‘Lazurus’
Two pieces from the New Statesman make a similar case to this post, both written by individuals about as far from the music journo scene as you could imagine: John Gray writes that ‘his changes were not mere exercises in pastiche, however brilliantly executed. Using a method of cross-matching, he created a space in which new forms could appear; while Philip Hoare notes that ‘the problem with writing about Bowie is that we are all writing about ourselves. That’s how important he was.’