I heard a rumour from Ground Control, oh no, don’t say it’s true…
The world has lost some of its magic. Absolutely heartbreaking. It’s been almost a week now but I’ve been so upset about Bowie leaving us, that I’ve only just managed to start putting everything into context. Let’s start at the beginning…
When I was 9 my parents took me on a weekend trip down to London. Manchester might only be a train ride away from the capital at the other end of the country, but to me it felt like the other end of the world. London is so different to the rest of the country; it never feels like you’re in England. Down there you’re just as much a foreigner as all the other tourists.
One highlight of the trip was a visit to an attraction called Rock Circus. An extension of Madame Tussauds, this was essentially where they put all the rock n’ roll waxworks. Elvis, next to Michael Jackson, next to Buddy Holly, next to the Rolling Stones. You get the idea. It doesn’t exist anymore. I guess they decided that London had its share of celebrity waxworks at Tussauds.
At the end of the exhibit, we were ushered into a small viewing room. Everybody sat down – maybe twenty of us – and the lights dimmed. The familiar orchestral tune-up of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started, the curtains opened, and there they were, the Beatles themselves. Well, obviously it wasn’t them; it was their waxworks, dressed in the fluorescent military garb from the front of the Peppers album cover. And just like that iconic image, they were flanked by endless rows of cut-outs of the Beatles’ heroes.
They roared through that opening track as much as you can expect a bunch of mannequins to. Their jaws opened and shut in time with the vocals, and to this 9-year old it looked pretty damn good. They probably segued into With A Little Help From My Friends – I can’t remember – but they finished and everybody clapped and cheered.
The curtain closed, and a minute later, a quiet acoustic guitar faded in. I now know it’s a C major going to an E minor, and back; but I wouldn’t have known that then. Then the curtains opened again, the scene has changed to a starfield in outer space and there’s some oddball – a waxwork again obviously – slowly spinning around in a spacesuit, with a bung eye and crazy snaggleteeth.
‘Ground Control to Major Tom…” he sang.
Ladies and gentleman, my introduction to Mr. David Bowie.
I next ran into Bowie a couple of years later. At secondary school we had to go out into the big, bad world to do some work experience. I landed a job at a small engineering firm called B.J.Engineering. BJ engineering? Isn’t that what pimps do? It was the kind of place where they send the student to the local hardware store for a long stand, or to the sweet shop for a bag of clitoris drops. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer any such pranks; but for two weeks I had to answer the phone, saying “Good morning, B.J.Engineering, can I help you?” There’s nothing like starting at the very bottom.
On my first day, the foreman of the place went to the bookies on his lunch-break, and returned excitedly with a music cassette. It was a new album – Changesbowie – that had just come out that day. At home time, he offered me a lift to save me from the bus-ride, and the new cassette went straight onto the car stereo. I recalled the first song on the compilation – Space Oddity – from the London trip and the foreman’s enthusiasm for this weird looking singer planted a seed.
I then caught a great drama on the BBC in 1993 – The Buddha Of Suburbia – and noticed that the music for the series was performed by David Bowie. This guy is fucking everywhere, I thought, and he’s still relevant.
I started off with The Singles Collection when it was released in 1993, and I’ve been working my way through all of the individual studio albums ever since. I first got into the glam-rock Bowie (The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane), then I turned backwards to the singer-songwriter Bowie (Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory), then forward in time again to the strung-out on cocaine Bowie (Station To Station), onto the Berlin Bowie (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger), then to his early ‘80s pop reinvention (Let’s Dance).
These days I tend to jump all over the place. A little bit of Stone Love here, a little bit of Speed Of Life there, followed with that hypnotic bass line from Let’s Dance. Lately, I’ve been listening a lot to Seu Jorge’s studio sessions from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. For the uninitiated, this is a great collection of Bowie covers by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge, played on a Spanish acoustic and sung in Portuguese. They’re wonderful interpretations – abstract yet ambient; even Bowie himself was a fan. “Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs acoustically in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with,” he is quoted as saying.
As a guitar player it’s the guitarists I tend to categorise Bowie by; and what a choice! Who do I want to listen to today? Mick Ronson? Earl Slick? Carlos Alomar? Robert Fripp? Nile Rodgers? Stevie Ray Vaughan? Absolutely incredible – what a roll-call! Bowie and Rodgers were in the crowd when Stevie Ray Vaughan played at the Montreau Jazz Festival in 1982, and despite seeing Vaughan booed off stage by the festival’s purist attendees, they still went backstage and offered him the gig playing on the Let’s Dance album.
My friend Vini and I would joke endlessly about Bowie’s music video for Be My Wife. His demeanour and actions in that video prompted many a drunken impression back in the day. That’s definitely the strung-out on cocaine Bowie right there. It’s like he’s doing an impression of himself. It would only be a better impression if Phil Cornwell from Stella Street was doing it.
In January 2011, the 7” of Be My Wife even made an appearance at my wedding. My wife and I also put a nice CD together of all of our favourite songs to give away to people as a memento, and we included Wild Is The Wind on there as it’s a song that we both love so much. It’s nice that Bowie was part of that day.
The first person I thought of when I heard about Bowie’s death was Adam Buxton – from comedy duo Adam & Joe. Their enthusiasm for anything Bowie-related is legendary (they even did a nice little song about Bowie’s appearance in Labyrinth) and Buxton is such a super-fan, even taking Bowie as his specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind, that my first thoughts were that Adam & Joe would never get to interview him.
(As a sidenote, it’s probably Adam & Joe’s fault that I love Ashes To Ashes so much. I had almost written the song off – I’ve never been fond of nursery rhyme style lyrics – but their love of the song opened up its world of magic to me. There is a lot going on in that song, both musically and lyrically, that it never gets old.)
Mark Twain once said ‘When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.” I feel the same way about Bowie – it’s just one of my natural instincts. If you love Bowie, then I automatically like you. How can any self-respecting muso not dig what he does? He subverted and crossed so many genres, he is his own genre. When I listened to rock, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to metal, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to punk, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to electronica, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to soul, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to jazz, I listened to Bowie. When I listened to blues, I listened to Bowie. Whenever I take a break from listening to music, I still listen to Bowie! I have a great Bowie t-shirt that says everything you need to know: “There’s old wave. There’s new. And there’s David Bowie…”
The surname has always been a subject of debate. Born David Robert Jones in Brixton in 1947, he changed his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones. The surname comes from the Bowie knife – that’s why it’s Bow-ie to rhyme with snowy, not Bow-ie to rhyme with Maui. Let’s try to get it right from now on.
There are so many moments that endlessly go around in my head. Like the story about celebrities being afraid to perform on TV with Bowie after Bing Crosby and Marc Bolan both met their end after duetting with him. Or the time that Bowie introduced the famous famine clip at Live Aid. Or the time Bowie serenaded Ricky Gervais on Extras: “Pathetic little fat man…”
I once found myself in the Auckland Wintergardens, standing on the very same spot that Bowie had stood, being reprimanded back in 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. We should never forget that he was a great actor – and could have filled the screen with great performances had he not concentrated on music.
Back in my days playing Delta 7, I used to do a cover of Ziggy Stardust during our acoustic set. It was probably my favourite Bowie song back then. Around the same time, I was lucky enough to see Bowie headline on the Sunday night at Glastonbury. His band started playing the opening bars of Wild Is The Wind, and after a few minutes, Bowie sauntered out in a palatial, quilted gold coat that looked like it had been sewn with the pubic hair of angels.
Surely he wouldn’t play Ziggy Stardust, I thought; he’s just here to play the hits. But my friend Vini was adamant: “He’ll play it!”
Bowie thundered on through the set – all the songs you’d expect – but still no Ziggy Stardust. I had resigned myself that he wasn’t going to play it, but first song into the encore, there it was, that crashing G chord. Usually, I leave the festival in a funk as I don’t want to go back to the real world, but that year I left a very happy man.
My only photograph of Bowie from that evening.
A couple of years later in another band, we used to rehearse on the top floor of an old mill in Manchester (Sankey’s Soap for those who remember). We used to be able to hear the Bowie tribute band in the room below our doing note-perfect renditions of songs like Five Years. I never actually saw the band, but the music was so spot-on, I’m glad I never did. It would have spoiled the illusion.
One of my favourite punch-the-air Bowie moments in recent years was attending the New Zealand premiere of The Cove in Auckland, with director Louie Psihoyos in attendance. I challenge anybody to find a more apt use of a song than Heroes on the end credits of that film.
In light of Bowie’s death, Psihoyos posted the following message on Facebook: “David Bowie could have charged us tens of thousands of dollars to license “Heroes” for The Cove – we didn’t have that kind of money – but one could dream. Pop songs by superstars like him can license for 6-7 figures. He made his publishers take the absolute minimum they would take and we were charged nearly nothing for that song. Rest in peace Mr Bowie, you are my hero.”
Last week, when the news broke about Bowie on Monday night, comedian Jimmy Carr was playing a stand-up show in Auckland. The news broke during the intermission. Now this is tricky ground – an offensive joke from Jimmy Carr is as sure as death and taxes (pun very much intended), but he treated the situation gracefully: “Looking on the plus side we’re all a little cooler now as the coolest man on Earth just died.”
I’m going to give the last word to a member of a vinyl group I’m a member of on Facebook, Bernado El Masiosare. It’s a popular sentiment we’ve heard before, but in this case it seems very appropriate:
“Whenever you’re sad, just remember this world is 4.5 billion years old and you were so lucky to live at the same time as David Bowie.”
The last photograph of David Bowie, having fun promoting Blackstar on his 69th birthday.