Back in 1972 I started Big School; well, that’s what I called Secondary School when sons 1, 2 and 3 made the scary jump from Primary to the massive Comprehensive a mile away. I didn’t go to the local Comprehensive, that all inclusive type of school introduced during the late 60’s, having passed the 11 plus, which gained me entry to the local All Girls’ Grammar which was tiny, looking back, considering the monolith my sons attended admits 1,000 pupils (would have scared me silly going to such a people-packed place in my long-ago youth – can’t say the sons enjoyed the experience much either.)
One of my earliest memories of starting Big School, apart from jumping into big piles of leaves during lunch break (a game appropriately called ‘leaves’ ) and playing something called ‘Steps’, whereby you tried to jump the length of an entire set of stone steps, just outside the classroom, without breaking your legs (when it came to the naming of playground games, us clever-dick 11 plus’ers clearly lacked the faculty of imagination) was a burgeoning awareness of Pop Music.
Those of us who liked to immerse ourselves in a pile of damp leaves, or run and jump around a bit, were quickly marked down as uncool, even at the impossibly young age of 11. And boy, was I uncool. This fact was confirmed when the cool girls, who appeared to be about 11 going on 33, began bringing leather satchels into school (yes, we carried actual leather satchels) with the words ‘Marc Bolan is Ace’ felt-tipped on the inside, or ‘I love David Bowie’ or, if you were really scraping the barrel, pop fandom-wise:
‘I (heart shape) the Bay City Rollers!’
In one of the few examples when I have actually tried to fit in with the ‘in-crowd’, I also felt-tipped Marc Bolan on the flap of my satchel, so I could pretend that I was into all things Glam Rock, thinking that it was probably better to not stick out like a sore thumb when beginning the scary journey into teenage-hood. What I was actually listening to, back in the sanctuary of the family home, was the soundtracks to Hollywood Musicals and a song by Tommy Steele called ‘Little White Bull.’
As I progressed into the second year one girl in particular, with steely blonde hair, a big mouth and a knowledge of sex entirely inappropriate to her age group, kind of introduced me to the songs of David Bowie. We were polar opposites in every respect (she being quite scary if you got on the wrong side of her) but a sudden shared interest in the fifties’ movie star James Dean meant she thought perhaps I was worth talking to. The amazing thing is that David Bowie made virtually no impression on me, despite the fact that the lovely, but lyrically-challenging (as so many of his songs were) ‘Life on Mars’ would have been filling the airwaves.
I passed through Grammar School happily Bowie-less, favouring Simon and Garfunkel, Carly Simon, The Beatles, Neil Diamond and John Denver (that’s how uncool I was.) I was more of a folksy type of girl, humming along to songs with relatable lyrics, sung by singers who didn’t look as though they’d just risen from the dead.
Because back then David Bowie was an androgynous, skeletal, lip-sticked, eye-shadowed, one-man freak show and, being a kid, I missed out on the ‘performance art’ element, the nods to French mime and the very ‘arty’ nature of it all. The orange hair; the oversized, wonky teeth; the alarming eyes; the pale skin and drugged out gaze presented a ‘front’ impossible to get through to the man underneath. I didn’t like Bowie at all during his crazed cocaine years, until he suddenly went all conservative, dressing in tailored suits, favouring a blond, layered hair-do and ditched the make-up entirely ((along with his bi-sexual wife Angie) currently serving time on Big Brother. This more attractive and less emaciated/walking dead phase happened to coincide with my time spent at Uni. The years 1979-82 saw the release of Ashes to Ashes, Fashion, Peace on Earth/Drummer Boy (with Bing Crosby who I was a fan of) and Let’s Dance (the less weird Bowie period) and I got myself a piano book of Bowie’s greatest hits. After leaving Uni, Bowie dropped off my popular culture radar, aside from a Live Aid performance with Mick Jagger in 1985 and I barely gave him or his music a thought until the news of his death caught my eye on my Facebook feed.
And it would appear that, since approximately 2003, Bowie also barely gave his adoring followers a thought. Ditching the drugs (and suffering a heart attack in 2004) led to Bowie becoming a family man, a faithful husband and an enigmatic recluse. The music just stopped coming. Well, the Bowie-type music guaranteed to be a world-wide hit stopped coming. He may have released the odd album here and there but they must have mostly fallen on deaf ears, the general record buying public going with One Direction and Adele.
But that’s all about to Ch Ch Ch Change because, from the marketing point of view, dying is just about the best thing any artist can do. Every album Bowie ever made is now guaranteed to rocket up the charts and every old Bowie song, uploaded to YouTube years ago, will now score millions of hits.
And that’s a good thing, because Bowie’s voice had been silent for far too long. Maybe he’d been finally happy in his own skin, after the early years spent trying out various edgy and disturbing drug-induced personas, and maybe family-based contentment had killed the Bowie muse, leading to an inability to come up with new songs the equal of the old ones. He had even stopped using the Bowie stage name, preferring plain old David Jones at home.
They say songs are mostly written from an unhappy place and that melodic inspiration dries up when your life finally starts going the right way. For Bowie that ‘right way’ began with the custody of his first child Ducan Jones the now movie director, and the birth of his second child, his now 15 year old daughter Lexi. Bowie stayed away from the drink and the drugs for their sakes, wanting to stay alive to see them grow and, more than anything, that’s why his, sort of, untimely death is so sad.
It took the knowledge of his own terminal illness to set Bowie off down the song writing road again and those songs are a difficult listen. I checked out Lazarus and Blackstar on YouTube, getting half way through each before hitting the pause button. To say the lyrics and images are disturbing is an understatement. These songs are not instant hits and would have probably only taken up residence in the homes of Bowie fanatics. There’s a nightmarish quality to the whole thing, an insane, frenetic energy displayed through dance moves that look like seizures. That David Bowie could make, and act in, this kind of macabre playing out of his own upcoming death, whilst going through chemotherapy and knowing what little time he had left, is remarkably courageous.
That steely blonde classmate, back in the 70’s, clearly recognised a unique song writing talent, one I missed and only caught up with in later years. I may not have been ‘in’ to Bowie but that didn’t matter. His songs were everywhere, getting into your soul whether you were aware of it or not – transcending all his weird and difficult times and all those scary, made-up and lost characters.
The Blackstar album is not how I want to remember Bowie, even if his death has sent it rocketing up the charts (like they say you only miss something when it’s gone.) Heroes is one of his great songs and this video shows him back in 2002 – happy, suited, booted, impossibly cool and impossibly handsome at the age of 55, showcasing that unique voice still retaining its south east London accent.
Goodbye to the Starman – he really did blow all our minds.