If you’re of my vintage, your first reactions to finding out that Bowie had sashayed off this mortal coil may well have been shock and a discreet little blub. Luckily, I’m in Hungary with my Darling. Her bemused reaction to my sadness has helped me maintain what passes for a stiff upper lip on my boatrace.
When, aged eleven, I fell in love with Bowie, watching him do ‘Starman’ on Top of the Tops, it was his absolute joyful otherness that hit me. (Even if it was an oddly familiar strangeness to a kid like me who devoured American comics and Saturday afternoon wrestling.) He didn't appear to give a shit.
In the ten or so years to come, up until the ‘Blue Jean’ single, I adored Bowie. I loved him for the way he looked, the music that was never less than splendid pop (even Low) and the people he turned me on to – from Genet to Iggy. I also bought into Bowie’s celebration of his own lack of authenticity, his breezy embrace of the ersatz, his plastic soul.
Bowie broke through at a time when authenticity, in the form of monstrous hairy denim bores like Rory Gallagher, still played the blues. Bowie didn’t do blues, thank Cthulhu. (Although there was that shrieking, histrionic, bingo-hall version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Round and Round’ on the b-side of the glorious ‘Drive-In Saturday’.) I didn’t realise it at the time but Bowie’s championing of the fake was all part of making a splash, while pissing off the hairies who never took him seriously enough.
It was also a great hook for adolescent boys who find the whole notion of not feeling anything hopelessly romantic. Because Bowie’s soul was a long, long way from plastic.
Who can I be now?
The sheer emotion in Bowie’s, ahem, oeuvre really hit me when I first listened to the 2007 version of Young Americans, the album he called ‘plastic soul’.
Two tracks which weren’t on the original album, ‘Who Can I Be Now?’ and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me (With Strings)’ are every bit as soulful as the music Bowie was supposedly appropriating to the point almost of parody. ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ – I don’t know if the ‘With Strings’ is part of the title or a description – also has the great line ‘leaving another girl to weep over the breakfast tray’.
When I finally realised just how unplastic so much of Bowie’s stuff is, I went back and listened to his golden years albums from a completely different angle. In so many songs, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me’ from Diamond Dogs or ‘Word On A Wing’ from Station to Station, for example, Bowie’s voice is drenched in what sounds like absolutely heartfelt emotion.
Today, I think it’s this emotion that gives Bowie’s work so much of its force. Lou Reed, Bowie’s on-off sparring partner, once said that the power of rock and roll was that it made those of us who love the music feel a little less alone. Without sounding too corny about it, Bowie enabled us to feel part of something special for many years and he did this by baring his far-from plastic soul over and over again.
And didn’t he stage-manage his final exit from our fascinated gaze with consummate grace? I only hope there wasn’t too much real pain at the end.