In an idle moment yesterday I found myself reading Paul Morley’s Financial Times piece about the rerelease of David Bowie’s Station to Station. I’m aware Morley is one of those figures who generate strong feelings in the music world (though let’s face it, when it comes to grudges music people make Al’Qaeda look like amateurs), but the piece reminded me not just of how thrilling a lot of the music Bowie made in the 1970s was, but just how important it was to me when I was growing up.
I think the first time I really became aware of Bowie was in 1980. I was 13, in my first year at high school, and not doing well. I was overweight, unpopular and genuinely struggling to fit in.
Like most Australian kids in the early 1980s, my experience of music was largely mediated by Countdown. I don’t think it’s easy for people who grew up after Countdown’s heyday to grasp its cultural reach, but it really was a phenomenon, not just because everybody – and I mean everybody – under the age of 30 watched it, but because its choices informed Australian popular culture in a really direct way. Monday mornings at school were all about whatever it was that was on Countdown last night, and the bands and music Countdown endorsed were pretty much guaranteed to dominate the charts and airplay.
It’s difficult, in many ways, to reconcile the images of old Countdown episodes and their clusters of screaming kids in ugg boots and duffle coats and footy scarves with Bowie’s cerebral pop, but it was Countdown that introduced me to Bowie, and more particularly, to ‘Ashes to Ashes’. I don’t remember exactly when I heard it the first time, but I do remember the feeling I was seeing something quite unlike anything I’d seen before. It wasn’t just the video, which still looks remarkable today (perhaps not surprising given that at the time it was made it was the most expensive film clip ever produced), it was the song itself, its enigmatic, haunting lyrics, the layered synths and beats, even the ticks and pops of the percussion layered over the top.
I knew Bowie’s name, of course, though I’m not sure I knew the music. He’d been on tour to Adelaide a couple of years before, and I remember watching the ads on the television and thinking he looked like some sort of vampire, but the music came as a revelation, and as soon as I could afford it I bought the album.
I wonder now what I made of Scary Monsters back then. Presumably details like ‘Fashion’s play on “fascism” went straight over my head. But irrespective of how much of what I was listening I understood in an intellectual sense (or indeed an emotional sense: listening to ‘Ashes to Ashes’ at 43 I wonder what my 13 year-old self made of its riffs on loss, middle-aged failure and addiction (“Time and again I tell myself/I’ll stay clean tonight/But the little green wheels are following me/Oh no, not again”)). But I understood enough to know this was music that mattered, and which spoke to me in a very personal way.
I suppose all of us feel the need to read our own lives through the prism of music, and to accord songs and artists more significance than they probably possess. But Bowie is one of those figures, like Dylan, who were genuinely significant, and even today exercise considerable influence (though I’d have to say I think it’s probably better to pretend he never recorded anything after about 1981). And, like Dylan, it wasn’t all about the music either, but about what he represented.
Much is made of Bowie’s metamorphoses, the creation and shedding of personas, from Ziggy to Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke, but in a way the point of him was never the individual personas, but the process of metamorphosis, the sense that identity could be polymorphous, and that the self might be something one could invent.
I’m not sure I would have put it in quite these terms in 1980, but it’s interesting that both the films Bowie has inspired – Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine and John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, are about precisely this process of self-creation, and grounded in a sense of the confusion and yearning of adolescence. They’re about the need to become something and someone else, and of the cost of that process.
I’m often struck listening to people a few years older than me by the importance they accord The Go-Betweens, a band I’ve always found considerably less interesting than others clearly do. But I’m quite clear that once again the music is less important than what the band represented, their conspicuous artiness in a place deeply mistrustful of difference and sophistication, the way they suggested a different way of being Australian, and of ways in which the Australian landscape and European traditions might speak to each other.
For me though it was always about Bowie. In suburban Adelaide in the 1980s I could listen to him over and over again, and imagine a different sort of world, a larger, more urgent one, and just as importantly, a different way of being me. He taught me that glamour matters, and chic, and that being different is something to celebrate.
Much later I met him in person. It was late 1983, and after the Serious Moonlight concert a friend of mine, who had made it his business to get the autograph of every rock star who came through Adelaide dragged me off to the hotel where Bowie was staying to stake him out. The place was surrounded by fans, but we snuck in, and somehow managed to catch him in a corner of the lobby alone. He smiled, and signed my friend’s book, and I shook his hand. Beyond that I’m not sure I remember much of the encounter, other than how slight he was, and the way the ordinariness of his London accent made him seem less glamorous than I had expected him to be. But that, I suppose, shouldn’t have surprised me: the man himself was never the point, what mattered was the music, and the image, and the things that represented. And they’re things I still feel connected to today.