David Bowie made his last appearance in my heart forty-three years ago. It was 1972, and I was twenty-one years old. At that time my world revolved around a group of close friends and housemates. And a pile of weather-beaten bits of vinyl, also known as LPs. The sleeves were emblazoned with the acid graphics of the time. They were falling apart through frequency of use. The records themselves were scratched, sometimes beyond recovery.
I was penniless most of the time, though a night job at the Cadbury’s chocolate factory provided enough money to pay the rent, buy a few pints and add to the stock of albums that lay on the floor of my very basic bedroom. A mattress for sleeping on, another one for sitting on, a beaten up gas-fire and the all-important record deck and speakers. An ashtray full to overflowing. Plus a few cushions on the floor and posters on the walls. Oh, and a radio of course.
I lived in the moment. I had no big plans for the future. But I was on a journey of exploration more intense than at any time until recent years. I was learning about people, about politics, about love and about other stuff best left unsaid.
Music was at the centre of everything. I was a true fan. Not the sort that went to gigs that resembled Nuremberg rallies, where thousands united in adoration of the Rolling Stones or Deep Purple. My fandom arose out of listening, really listening, to stuff in small spaces with a few friends. Or on my own, with eyes shut, carried along by a baseline, a drumbeat or a guitar solo. Listening to lyrics I knew by heart over and over again. Lyrics that meant something to me – perhaps because of the first time I heard them, and perhaps because the words stirred emotions that went deep, but that other people might never see in me. Because the music was my world – nobody else’s. Sometimes it would be the gateway to other people’s worlds, and sometimes it provided other people with an entrance to mine.
Album releases were big events. I remember at school listening late at night to the first airing on the radio of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. Ever after, waiting for the next Beatles LP was like waiting for a birthday.
So it was with David Bowie. Just once. He’d already released The Man Who Saved the World. Unearthly stuff. Literally. A reedy voice singing about Major Tom, and other songs that reached the heart. Hunky Dory drew me in, but Ziggy Stardust was something else again.
From the screaming despair of the first track, Five Years, I was hooked. The humour, the sarcasm, the emotion and the pain. Nothing else I had heard that year came close.
I devoured the English music rags – Melody Maker, Sounds and the New Music Express – for stories about him. I suppose the mime, the costumes and the orange hair that so obsessed the journalists added to the whole experience, but for me it was all about the music.
So when tickets went on sale for Bowie’s first tour after releasing Ziggy, I and a few friends grabbed them. I probably got them from the local Virgin Records store, which in those days was a tiny shop in the town centre full of incense, Oz and shop assistants who looked like they had recently left the fields of Woodstock, and intimidated you with their effortless cool. Beads, badges, waistcoats and moustaches like Lemmy’s. And lots of peace, man.
Thus it was that on August 19th 1972 a bunch of us hitch-hiked down from Birmingham, were dropped off at Hendon, where the M1 motorway finished, and took the tube down to the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, in North London.
I remember very little of the concert, perhaps because I was so in the moment that I forgot to remember. I do recall the support act, Roxy Music, all pose and ostrich feathers, the quavering voice and padded shoulders of Bryan Ferry. But of the main attraction, virtually nothing. It must have been good though, because I was with my friends and I loved the songs.
I have no idea where we stayed that night. Probably on the floor of a refugee from Birmingham who lived in a ramshackle flat in Notting Hill.
Anyway, we hit the road back to Birmingham, standing at the Hendon intersection with thumbs out, and made it home tired and happy. Ever thereafter, we were able to say that we were there.
Strangely enough, that was the end of my love affair with David Bowie. I didn’t connect with his later work. I felt that style had become more important than music – all that stuff about Thin White Dukes and Diamond Dogs. But I guess that was the time. Everybody was making fashion statements.
Soon after, I stopped being a fan, because music became a business for me. It was hard to feel the same way about rock stars when you come up close to them. Arrogant, colourless, intoxicated, with thuggish managers and supercilious record company reps, and contract riders that demanded all kinds of ridiculous things to be placed in their dressing rooms at concerts. Not all of them, but more than a few.
The only people who remained rooted to the ground were the local musicians who still loved what they did. But they were usually the ones who didn’t make it – at least in terms recognised by the music industry.
After a few years I left the business and went on to other things. It took me some while to wean myself off the detached cynicism that had grown within me. But eventually my relationship with music became more akin to a marriage than a series of love affairs. I could afford to buy plenty of stuff and listen far more widely than ever before. I returned to classical music, which I had more or less abandoned after Sergeant Pepper.
And now music is just part of my life. Much of what I listened to in the early Seventies I still love deeply, but some of it makes me giggle at my pretentious musical taste.
The vinyl is still around, languishing in the attic, unplayed. I have a library full of CDs, but I hardly play them either. Everything’s on my laptop, and when I listen to stuff it’s through headphones or a portable Bose speaker. What were once treasured possessions are now ephemeral bits of data.
I haven’t listened to Bowie for years. I suppose I will now he’s dead. Perhaps I’ll discover something that touches me in his post-Ziggy output.
But I’ll love him forever for the part he played at a time in my life when the present was everything, and the future would take care of itself.