On the evening of Thursday July 6 1972, between Nationwide and Tomorrow’s World, David Bowie invented tomorrow’s world – the one we’ve lived in ever since.
On that summer evening, with his snow-white pallor and carrot coiffure, he sang Starman with his band the Spiders From Mars – and something changed forever.
It changed the moment he draped a limp, louche arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulders, pulling him into a near kiss on the harmonies – causing uproar among mums and dads all over Britain.
Remember, this was a country where a decade earlier National Service was obligatory, and where homosexuality had been legalised just five years before.
Yet a man who often wore a dress – “a man’s dress” said Bowie – who came out to Melody Maker that same year with the words: “I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones” – was not only blurring boundaries, he was ch-ch-changing everything. Things were never going to be the same.
“I had to phone someone so I picked on you..hoo…hoo” – Bowie turns and glances, looks straight down the camera, smiles coyly, points and then twirls a beckoning finger at every outsider kid in the land. Every one who’d ever been bullied, overlooked, teased or picked last for games just found a very special new friend.
Elsewhere in the charts Gary Glitter was singing D’You Wanna Be In My Gang. But no one did. Not now.
For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, the passing of David Bowie is a moment of huge and seismic generational grief. We knew the greatness and heft of Kennedy and Presley and Lennon – but even so, they felt like giants from a different era.
Bowie was ours, the first pop star of the post-Apollo age. He fell to Earth from Outer Space – well Brixton and Beckenham, actually – but he was an alien emissary come to save us from the three-day week and Gannex raincoats.
We watched Starman and it was a moment of epiphany, of revelation – for a generation, for kids gay or straight, male or female, from the nation’s crap estates and provincial towns and stifling suburbs. It was a validation of the right to be strange, to be unusual, to be you
Suddenly it was OK to be weird or gay or geeky, a fey boy or a tough girl, a weed or a nerd, wonky-toothed or boss-eyed. Bowie was all these things and he was the coolest rock star ever.
We tried to dress like him, dance like him, sing like him. Some – Morrissey, Suede, Gary Numan, Boy George, Johnny Rotten, Kate Bush, Phil Oakey, Adam Ant, all children of Bowie’s alien strangeness – succeeded in it pretty well.
When he got bored with Glam he discovered and championed the eerie and glacial music coming out of Germany.
Thus when everyone else was pogoing or perming their hair, Bowie was making Low and Heroes – pop music of icy and stately sophistication that still today sounds like the pop songs of tomorrow.
He went to live in Berlin with Iggy Pop in order to give up drugs… and he succeeded. He could clearly do anything.
Bowie made it cool to be smart. His lyrics were strange and impenetrable, his interviews and shows full of references to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Fritz Lang, so we had to go to the library to find out who they were.
The Scottish musician Nick Currie wrote a wonderful blog in which he said Bowie was a kind of internet before the internet was invented – a clearing house for weird, new, ravishing ideas not just from rock and roll but from the visual arts, theatre, film, literature, fashion and gender politics.
We didn’t need Instagram or Wikipedia. We had Bowie.
And he was a very British Starman, following the tradition of the eccentric outsider from Peter Pan to Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Who.
When I was a teenager I had a hard-as-nails, foul-mouthed garage mechanic mate who loved David Bowie. He would sing Kooks and Oh You Pretty Things at the top of his voice when he was drunk – a joy to behold.
I hope he was singing last night – with all the rest of the kooks across the world.
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