I switched on social media with my tea and toast, and saw a news piece. Like a lot of us, at first I thought it was a stunt. Normally I’d be suspicious of the public outpouring of grief that followed, but my first reaction, like yours maybe, was honest. ‘Oh no, don’t say it’s true’.
Within an hour there were spoof news items, and within 15 the inevitable social shaming backlash was circling our collective heels. If there’s a definition of sociopathy, it’s a joy in other peoples sorrow. The same spiteful shits won’t leave well alone.
For me, like so many others it would seem, the news was personal. I was grieving for my childhood. DB was the reason I joined a band, named after a bit of the artwork on the back of the Diamond Dogs album. The first song I learnt was Rebel Rebel, in slack key. I played a borrowed, cream Les Paul copy, played through a borrowed (but real) Marshall amp, and fetishised the Mick Ronson sound on Cracked Actor. The first gig we played included Kramps, Stooges and Bowie songs. I’d been playing a total of 6 weeks. We took over a formal evening dance hall in South Norwood called Stanley Halls and filled it with young goths, old punks and older rockers, and made a few hundred pounds profit. It was audacious, ambitious - a class A prank on the crappy pub venues we were barred from and the crappy terraces we came from. We bought a shitty sound system with the cash, started rehearsing and recording. I was either 14 or 15, I don’t remember, but from then on, we were participating, not just consuming.
We weren’t old enough to see Bowie do his Starman campery on TOTP, but he was one of us regardless. In the early eighties he was already on the wane, but he was still one of us. We weren't idol worshippers; our use of him was practical, modular, feral, for survival... as it turns out, exactly as he'd modeled. Kids from the satellite, nowhere bits of South London – Brixton, Croydon, or maybe Bromley if you were posh. The same anonymous, small-minded places he grew up in too. DB gave us permission to be different in a world of Tacchini and Farah and flicks, gave us permission to backcomb, makeup, and if necessary (and it was) kick back and spit at the pricks who’d flail into us at every breaktime, with the PE teachers looking on and smirking like the dead eyed SAS wannabes they were.
What’s this got to do with an 'outdoors' blog? Creativity, curiosity, an aspiration to embrace learning about ourselves and others, that’s what. I was a long way from the DofE, my route out was on a red brick road. Without an education in difference and ambition from the Thin White Duke, I’d never have got out of that poisonous, piss stinking place, and that’s why, this time, it is personal.
But DB was a big part of my early musical, literary and artistic education too, a series of questions posed through scanning liner notes and lyrics: just who were Eno, Brecht, Reich, Warhol, Burroughs, Thompson, Dylan, Beefheart...? The first time I heard the piano solo on Aladdin Sane my world melted, and still does. The bedsit Avant Garde have always popped at Bowie for being popular and a magpie, but this misses the point entirely - therein lies the legacy. He borrowed everything and owned nothing, just like us. Permission taken not requested: try it on, succeed or fail, move on. Together, we made this rubbishy, plastic world our own.
There’s a class implication too: Bowie identified as working class, with a brain. Cast yours back before Blair and Asbos, before Thatcher divested of the Unions, invested in an Underclass and we all rolled over and dumbed down, to when working people had interests, hobbies. My grandparents did amateur dramatics and opera in their free time, in their community. ‘Hard working’ people. Maybe they were kooks… but pillars, not pariahs – still given a berth in the Music Hall, even if it was a little wide. Intelligence was not rewarded in the proles, but a space for it could be commandeered by those with enough lust for life to take a chance. Bowie was a surrealist showman in exactly that tradition - an enthusiast. He showed us a way to remake ourselves, to be curious about the world, and for that I am forever in the debonair, maverick chameleon’s debt.