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“I'm not a prophet or a stone aged man, just a mortal with potential of a superman.”
I was born in the spring of 1973. Ziggy had already been and gone. Aladdin Sane arrived the month before I did, and while I MUST have heard Space Oddity on the radio many times in the 70s, my first concrete Bowie memory was of seeing the Ashes To Ashes video on Top Of The Pops. The eerie, washed-out colours, the clown outfit, the bulldozer. It was all a bit much for this seven-year-old, but the song stayed with me, with its slap bass groove, spooky keyboards and Bowie’s detached, nonchalant voice singing about some guy called Major Tom. It was August 1980 and Top Of The Pops played that video three weeks in a row. I’m glad he got his money’s worth because it cost £250,000 to produce.
When my musical coming of age crystallized a few years later, Hunky Dory was the Bowie album I seized upon. The man himself was conquering stadiums with Let’s Dance, and while I came to love that album too, hippie singer/songwriter Bowie was a safer bet for this sensitive pre-teen. I hardly understood any of it, but that didn’t matter - music has always meant more to me than lyrics. The yearning melancholy of Changes, the sweeping vistas of Life On Mars, and my favourite track, the whimsical Kooks: “…and if the homework brings you down, then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown”. This was the music I listened to on my Walkman as I took the London Underground back and forth to school each day.
My first and last David Bowie concert was the Glass Spider show at Wembley Stadium on June 19th, 1987. He was well into his late 80s wilderness years creatively, but that didn’t matter. A warm spring Friday night with 75,000 other fans and a setlist rich in classics was perfection to me. I even liked his much-maligned then-new album Never Let Me Down. It bears re-appraisal, particularly the title track and the two other singles. Apparently Time Will Crawl was one of his favourite self-penned songs. Those were the days when you’d buy an album, bring it home and play it until you loved it.
Following him into Tin Machine was a tougher sell. My Bowie journey had started in the 80s and I’d worked backwards playing catch-up. I hadn’t grasped the context of Bowie as a master of reinvention, and I was just a kid with a short attention span. The 90s were just around the corner, bringing with them a musical movement I could get into on the ground floor. So David Bowie and I went our separate ways for a while. When I look at his lists of concert tours I could kick myself for the couple of times he was playing in the city where I was and I didn’t see him. I either didn’t know the concert was happening, or I didn’t feel the urge to go. I can’t say that none of his 90s albums had grabbed me. I simply hadn’t heard them.
Bowie and I found each other again when I started bringing a lot of records back from the UK in the 2000s. I play-grade every record and I used that as an excuse to take a deep dive into every era of Bowie. 60s Bowie, Ziggy, The Thin White Duke, Berlin…all of it. I was finally able to assemble the entire narrative arc of his creativity. It all sits together so beautifully. I usually spend the first week of January buying records in England, and 2016 happened to bless me with a bumper haul of Bowie LPs. When I get back to Toronto, I organize all the records by genre and then alphabetically by artist. By this weekend five years ago I had already graded all the Beatles records and was stuck into the Bowie records. Spurred on by the incredible Blackstar LP which had come out of nowhere on January 8th, I plowed through all the Bowie LPs in chronological order, delighting in the familiarity of those classic albums and their iconic record sleeves. I got it in my head to finish them all before I went to bed on Sunday night, but by 3am I was exhausted and I left the last LP, a copy of Lodger poised on the turntable, ready to grade the next morning.
I awoke before the rest of the house, and sat at my computer to catch up. There was a messenger notice from a friend. “He’s dead”. The friend’s father had been unwell and that’s who I presumed he meant. “Your Dad?” I replied. “No”, he responded, “everybody’s Dad”. I spent the morning grief-scrolling like everyone else. The only difference was that while they were reaching for their Bowie albums, I had just spent the entire weekend playing all his records. It was as if I’d been pre-grieving. I spent the day with my friends Sarah and Paul, nobody wanted to be alone.
By chance that evening Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey were scheduled to play Toronto’s Opera House (not an actual opera house) with their band Holy Holy, performing the Man Who Sold The World album with Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory on vocals. I’d been looking forward to the show for some time, and we waited to see if the concert would go ahead. I was so pleased it did because that performance ignited a joyful outpouring of grief for a thousand diehard Bowie fans, a total catharsis. Nobody else got to process their grief the way we did that night. We totally lost our shit. It was a privilege, and a concert unlike any other I had been to. As I drove back across town from the east end, seven Bowie fans crammed into my Honda CRV, singing Oh! You Pretty Things at the top of our lungs, I thought to myself THIS is how I want to remember David Bowie. With joy, with love, with friends.