David Bowie: How a master of invention changed British culture for decades

For me and my generation, the Bowie generation, his death is more momentous than John Lennon's

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The Independent Online

"It is indeed true," said someone from his management office when I spoke to them early this morning. “We found out about an hour ago, and we’re finding it very difficult to function. He really is gone.” I’m not sure if I woke them up, but I know I wasn’t the first person to call. Oddly, I heard myself through that by-now rather old fashioned form of communication, email, as various friends and colleagues ‎sent messages from the US. A few minutes later, requests to write obituaries followed.

All of which obviously swirled around the shocking news itself. When people die, especially significant people, others can busy themselves, expressing false emotion, and offering professional consolation. With Bowie, it has been different, as I know so few people whose lives have been unaffacted by him.

For me and members of my generation, the Bowie generation, his death is more momentous than John Lennon’s. Of course it would be invidious to compare the two, but it is still difficult even now for me to grasp just how much he meant to me. I was a teenager when he emerged, and was one of the many people who saw his performance of “Starman” on Top Of The Pops in the summer of 1972 (I had just turned 12), one of the many millions whose lives were altered at such an impressionable age.

David Bowie in Numbers

For my generation, it is almost impossible to overemphasise just how important David Bowie was to us, not just in terms of music and fashion, but also in terms of how we carried – and continue to carry – ourselves in the world. I remember exactly where I was when I heard about John Lennon’s death, but Bowie’s passing will stay with me in a different, more permanent way.

I knew Bowie a little, and unlike many famous people who can have a little sheen rubbed off them when you meet them, Bowie became even more intriguing when I did, because his curiosity, his obsession for ‘the new’ appeared to be innate. He was as important to the Seventies as the Beatles were to the Sixties, and yet his reach and his influence continues today in a way that we have yet to quantify, try as we might.

I knew he had been ill – many did – but I had no idea he had been critically ill. Having been in touch for several decades, when he became ill around a decade ago – caused initially by a series of minor heart attacks – he disappeared from view. I knew he had bought a huge apartment complex in Downtown New York, I knew the people who sold him his house in upstate New York, in Woodstock, and I knew his personal publicist and management company extremely well. Yet recently every communication had been through a third party, almost as though he was pushing himself away from the world.

The first time I met Bowie, he asked me for a light for his Marlboro. I was an extra on the dreadful vampire movie The Hunger, in which Bowie was starring with Catherine Deneuve. It was my job to walk up and down the metal stairs in Heaven, the gay nightclub underneath the arches in the Strand, as “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus blared out of the speakers. For a 20-year-old Bowie obsessive this was a dream come true, a day that turned into an anecdote that would eventually kick start a very odd relationship, one that continued for over 30 years. Like everyone who grew up with the man, Bowie would confound, annoy, and occasionally disappoint me, but I never, ever found him less than fascinating.

He was my own personal fascination.

When he become ill, he pushed himself away from others, too, although he kept an almost obsessive eye on those in his orbit, especially if they were writing about him. A few years ago I wrote a book about Bowie’s performance on Top Of The Pops in 1972, an extended essay that tried to form an opinion about the Seventies from those four short minutes on a television programme. I needed various permissions from Bowie to use various photographs in the book, and over a period of a few weeks he eventually agreed to me using them.

However I also included several facts in the book that I knew to be wrong – some descriptions of the BBC dressing room, some quotes, and some outfit changes that I knew to be inventions (as I had actually invented them). I did this as I hoped he might contradict me, and actually give me some more material for the book. But Bowie remained mute: even though he had tacitly endorsed the book, he would rather I print the myth.

That was Bowie all over.

In fact his entire professional career was one of myth, legend and invention. Brilliantly so.

When I was writing my Bowie book, as I was writing the final chapters, I went to‎ visit my father in Cheltenham (this turned out to be the last time I saw him before he died). He asked me what I was working on, and I told him that was writing a book about Bowie’s extraordinary performance on TOTP, and how he influenced an entire generation of music and fashion obsessives. When he asked me why I reeled off the various elements of his performance that had been so challenging, so inspiring, and so transgressive. I described the way in which Bowie had toyed sexually with his guitarist Mick Ronson, the way in which he had dressed like a pansexual spaceman, the way in which he looked, the way in which he sashayed across the screen like a 1920s film star, and, saliently, the way in which his flame-red hair, his dayglo jumpsuit and the general glam colour fest had almost colonised the programme. I explained that this was the moment when the 1970s finally outgrew the 1960s, when the monochrome world of boring, boring south-east England had exploded in a fiesta of colour.

My father looked at the floor, took a moment, and then said, very quietly: “You know we had a black and white television, don’t you?”