Who was ‘your’ Bowie? The longevity of his career and the restlessness of his creative spirit mean those of us born a couple of years sooner or later have very different memories of the first time we saw the astonishing David B.
I clocked on too late for the mind-blowing Ziggy Stardust, and the Thin White Duke had faded away. When Bowie released Scary Monsters in 1980, I was listening to Shakin’ Stevens (I’m so sorry). By the time I turned teenage, in 1983, he was Bowie the soul man, a louche lounge lizard with white shoes, baggy trousers and a blonde quiff. His appearances on Top of the Pops made me nervous in a way that the puppyish young stars didn’t; the seductive, experienced grace of a man clearly much too old for me, in a rather thrilling way.
Let’s Dance was not his most radical moment, but there was that distinctive voice, that driving bassline, that video of ordinary kids, giggling, flirting and dancing. I’d discovered discos and got my first pair of patent leather red court shoes. I needed little encouragement to put them on and take to the floor. Modern Love, China Girl – all delivered with a worldly authority and ease, all polished and eminently danceable. Later, during Live Aid, a trench-coated Bowie duetted with craggy old Mick Jagger on the infectious Dancing in the Street, awakening me to the power of original soul music.
When I saw earlier photos in Smash Hits, I found it hard to believe this David Bowie was the same man as the skinny kid with the weird clothes and make-up from the Ziggy days. I remember a friend breathlessly telling me that ‘he used to be gay, but then his wife cured him.’ This erroneous information was my first intimation that sexuality might be fluid, that a person could be one thing and then another, could shift like a chameleon.
What I didn’t realise then was that every band I loved in the eighties owed Bowie a massive debt, musically and stylistically. The pop stars I adored celebrated the dressing-up-box carnival of the times – Adam and the Ants, Boy George and Culture Club, the Eurythmics, Siouxie and the Banshees – all cheerfully chucking out the rule book on what boys and girls were meant to look like, as Bowie had done 15 years before. They inspired me, as he’d inspired them, encouraging me to experiment with blue eyeshadow on my cheekbones, black eyeliner on my lips, my dad’s dinner jacket with the sleeves rolled up.
Like many people, I didn’t realise until Monday quite how much David Bowie meant to me. His music, weaving its way through my life. His influence, always a step ahead. I felt blind-sided, unprepared. Other famous people died, and it was sad, but Bowie? Surely not. Like many others, I watched all the old videos, then listened to his crushingly beautiful final album Blackstar until the tears came.
On Tuesday I went to a dance class, which I signed up for in the New Year, having decided to Do Something about the fact I only seem to dance about once a year nowadays. As I went through the door, the teacher was talking about Bowie. She’d put together a playlist – and for an hour and a half, we danced to his music, from Space Oddity to Lazarus. It was cathartic, emotional and celebratory. He had so many messages for us, about how to live and, ultimately, an incredible lesson in how to die. But for me, his message was always the same. Let’s dance.