David Bowie was the emblem of the Seventies and beyond, materialising on the musical scene like a veritable Space Oddity, as perhaps no other artiste since – arguably eclipsing even those giants of the previous generation, the Beatles and the Stone
Much has been written about him, including the very recent rave reviews of his latest album. This individual expression is from the viewpoint of one who grew up (or didn’t) to his music across different spaces and places – literally from ‘Station to Station’.
Oxford in the 70s pulsed to the sound of David Bowie – the only remotely close competitors being Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry – in our rooms, across corridoors and up and down staircases, and from party venues; from one steeple of the dreaming spires to the other. Come Friday or Saturday, that weekend anthem ‘The Jean Genie’ could be heard across Magdalen Bridge emanating from the Oscar Wilde Rooms in Magdalen; as ‘Virginia Plain’ reverberated around St Giles issuing from Balliol. I can hear both, and the excitement and joie de vivre they inspired (diffusing the worst of essay crises and tutorial traumas), decades after and continents away.
It is often said that everyone can remember what they were doing, where, and with whom when the news of John Lennon’s assassination broke. With David Bowie, each major melody brings back associations of where and when one heard it, thus becoming a choral background to those years of ones life, like a lasting enchantment or a continuing opera.
My first individual exposure to David Bowie was in my friend Robert’s stately rooms in St. Swithin’s quad in Magdalen. Sitting on the floor (where else?), ‘Fill Your Heart’ did exactly that, becoming my instant and lasting favourite among many well-loved numbers. The medley of his voice, the piano and the lilting melody did the trick, and does anew every time I hear or imagine it. ‘Forget your mind, and you’ll be free’: what more enjoyable, easier way to meditate and relax could there be?
That other iconic track from ‘Hunky Dory’, namely ‘Changes’, takes me back to Michaelmas term as I sat with Lisa (contemplating our week’s work) in my stylish little room in Garden Building in St Hilda’s, the autumn leaves swirling outside as if in time to the music, and the rhythms equally addictive whether played on my own music machine or coming from Diana’s room directly above.
‘Young Americans’ was the backdrop to much that was happening on the world stage in the 70s, and I associate my holidays in Germany (where my parents were then posted, and which country – both West and East – Bowie had also taken by storm) with the rolling rhythm, stunning sax segments and ‘sock in the jaw’ title track – perhaps the first precursor to rap – and the soaring vocals of ‘Win’, as much as with that favourite of the Oxford Summer Ball scene, ‘Waterloo’.
He went on reinventing himself across the 90s and into the new millennium
The chameleon-like Bowie again changed track dramatically with ‘Station to Station’, the stark black & white album cover reflecting the mesmerising music inside, most notably the title song and the arresting ‘Be My Wife’. The atmosphere conjured up whilst listening to all this at full blast chez family friend Helen – who knew David B personally – at the American Embassy in Moscow – where too the superstar had a multitude of followers – was electric.
A real regret will remain missing experiencing him in concert.
Come the 80s and the era of song videos, Bowie was again front and centre with the surreal ‘Ashes to Ashes’, now watched as well as heard on TV. I had now come down from Oxford, and moved with my family to Holland, then Denmark, where (as in the rest of Europe and in the US) it was recognised that ‘there is old wave, there is new wave, and there is Bowie’.
He went on reinventing himself, his music, and his styles across the 90s and over 2000 into the new millennium; ever adventurous, never stepping back from his love affair with ‘sound and vision’; his devotees steadfast and swaying to his songs from Honolulu to Hong Kong.
His latest album ‘Blackstar’ has been widely hailed as a fusion of rock with jazz, and it is amazing (if one can stop being amazed by him) that he devoted such time and trouble to its production – from the overall theme to the finest, minutest – while in the throes of so serious an illness for (though mercifully no longer than) a year and a half. His parallel production ‘Lazarus’ with hindsight tells his own (hopefully immortal) story.
And so to the Man Who Fell to Earth, the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, the master of that ‘crash course for the ravers’, and all alter egos of this idol of trillions, this most extraordinary of entertainers who inspired and fired with enthusiasm ‘My (entire) Generation’, thank you for the music.