A Weekly Song: Episode 2 - David Bowie
On Dec 31st 2018, arsonists lit a fire in the Shurgard Storage facility in Croydon, south London. The building burned down and nothing could be salvaged. In one of those lock-ups were fourteen large plastic tubs containing various Abadzis family photo albums and other unsorted images and memorabilia that my sister had stored there after the death of our mother earlier in the year. Mum was an inveterate, almost compulsive photographer, recording our childhoods, our family life and every event she ever went to. Even though, in later life, she owned a digital camera, she was still very much analogue in her approach – images got printed out down at Snappy Snaps, and weren’t backed up on exterior media. She was a technophobe.
She liked to sort through all her photos and put them into various scrapbooks and photo albums. Her favourite thing was memory, telling and retelling the stories that sprang from it, reframing it, celebrating it. The photos were an archive of our family, of her life, of my childhood.
When we were clearing out Mum’s house, I realised I had no photos of my grandmother. Nan, as we knew her, my mother’s mother, was a seamstress, a raconteur and an endless supplier of sweets and chocolate, which was dispensed from a handbag that seemed to possess TARDIS-sized interior proportions. She could play the piano by ear and never missed an episode of Coronation Street. My cousin Mark lived with her, in a small council flat on the first floor of the Wood Dene Estate in Peckham, south London.
In the 1970s, Peckham was not the trendy, cosmopolitan sahf Lahndan enclave it is today and, though it was probably not more than a couple of decades old, Wood Dene had seen better days. It was dark and dilapidated, uncared for, corners of it reeked of piss, but it was our playground. It was where Nana and Mark lived. When we were kids, we spent a lot of time on that estate, in that flat. I would sometimes watch Doctor Who there, on Saturday evenings.
It was in this flat that I first encountered David Bowie, who was introduced to me by Mark, already a fan. I was – what, seven, eight? Mark, older, was highly creative and aware, and often encouraged my nascent interests in anything and everything.
That evening, we’d watched Doctor Who, and Mark began telling me about another alien, who sang songs about Starmen. Hadn’t I seen this on Top of the Pops? I wasn’t sure I had. Mark produced the sleeve to Aladdin Sane and I was perturbed by the airbrushed drops of liquid on David Bowie’s collarbone. Something about the look of it reminded me of those weird science fiction books with giant spaceships or tentacled aliens on their covers that were found in WH Smith. Mark opened the inner gatefold.
“It’s the Laughing Gnome bloke, remember?”
I did recall – I had indeed seen that on Top of the Pops. A bloke with clown make-up who did speeded-up voices like the puppet pigs, Pinky and Perky.
Mark added helpfully, “He’s a spaceman. He’s got no willie!”
It was true. Back then, I didn’t register the two Ziggy Stardust-style lightning flashes behind Bowie, just his resplendent androgyny as he stood proudly, eyes wide and hand on hip against a white backdrop, the lower portion of his body airbrushed into a shining silver blankness. Something about this alien made me uncomfortable. I handed the gatefold back, and I very clearly remember saying this to Mark, with the kind of icily absolute conviction only a child can muster:
“I hate David Bowie.”
Perhaps it was fear of love, of loving the alien, because after that, David Bowie was someone I was always aware of. Over the years, the childish anxiety about his strangeness morphed into curiosity and growing appreciation. David Bowie was sort of like Doctor Who, because he kept changing into someone else.
It’s three years since the release of Bowie’s final studio album, Blackstar. Aladdin Sane was a lifetime ago – my lifetime, anyway. I think of I Can’t Give Everything Away as Bowie’s last song. Technically, it isn’t – further tracks were released on Lazarus, the soundtrack to his off-Broadway musical, but it’s the outro to Blackstar, which was released on his birthday, two days before his death. Three years ago today, as I write this.
Trying to recall now what that track sounded like on first listen, before the news of Bowie’s death, is an effort. I know I registered the line, “Skull designs upon my shoes,” and I had a sudden image of him looking down at his feet and the empty grin of a death’s head looking back. There was a sense of surprise at the mournful, sampled harmonica refrain from A New Career in a New Town from Bowie’s game-changing 70s album, Low.
What couldn’t he give away? What more was there to give, when that’s all he did?
Two days later, the meaning of the song changes when my wife Angela wakes me in the middle of the night and says, “Bowie’s dead.”
It’s as if you unwittingly cross a frontier, and you can’t turn around and return to the place you just left because it’s gone. It’s like the separation of day and night, when something was illuminated and now it’s not. You know it’s still there, but you can’t see it. Your senses fail, but there’s still the perception of a shape, a hollow, of something half-glimpsed that should be there and isn’t. It’s a river forded, across which the bridge back will never be built.
Wait – the sample from A New Career in a New Town – is that a joke? That’s a joke, surely.
“I can’t give everything away...”
Always leave ‘em wanting more, eh, Dave…?
The sax swirls and coruscates and goes off on a separate journey, away from his voice…
It took me a while before I could listen to that song again.
I listened to it while I was staying with my mother in early 2018, as my siblings and I nursed her through a short but terminal illness. While clearing her house, I had the presence of mind to pocket a picture of my grandmother. It’s now one of only two photos I have of Nan, one of which shows her sat at the piano with Mark, both of them playing by ear. Mark had a synth keyboard that he used to noodle away at in his room, and I have a memory of him attempting to deconstruct Life On Mars...? and remarking upon its complexity. Peckham, Bowie, my mother and grandmother…
I think about the photographs in the storage facility, all my mother’s carefully curated memories, consumed by fire.
“This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent…”
Blackstar (and the extraordinary videos that accompany it directed by Johan Renck) is evidence of an astonishing act of self-knowledge and willpower, a final performance of grand theatre. I Can’t Give Everything Away, as its parting shot always leaves me with a sense of melancholy, because its Bowie’s farewell. I didn’t know that when I first heard it, but now I can never shake that perception. Yet it stands as a mockery of death, an act of ritual and creation in the face of the final curtain.
Much has been written about Bowie turning his death into a work of art, but as far as I can tell, he tended to do that with anything that wasn’t his private life. Anyway, isn’t that what art is for? Isn’t the point of it that it experiments, that it maps out new territory, extending to the farthest shores of culture to bring back new ideas? It functions as society’s imagination, pushing the envelope of what’s known and acceptable, foraging in the marginal and slowly making it mainstream. The best of it makes something out of nothing, something new out of something old, or turns negatives into positives, which is exactly what Bowie did.
Time is corrosive. The harsh reality of a fire, or of cancer as it rages through the rooms of a life, is that it fast-forwards the effect of time and things become ashes sooner than you’d hoped. In the end, all you can hope for is to be remembered.
Happy birthday, David Bowie. Now and every day and forever.
The arsonists haven’t won yet.
I wrote a tribute to Bowie upon learning of his death.
The Wood Dene Estate in Peckham where my grandmother lived has long since been bulldozed and redeveloped.