Lying in bed in the dark, just the light of the radio alarm clock illuminating my face. 6.50am, the radio clicks on and the presenters on BBC Radio 5Live are chatting, sounding bright and vibrant, despite the early hour. Then, five minutes later, Nicky Campbell, the male counterpart of the morning show, says quietly:
“I think I have to read this breaking news, don’t you?”
There’s a long pause, before Rachel Burden, his presenting partner, said,
“Yes. I think you should.”
Another pause. This was bad news, I realised. Really bad news, a major disaster.
“David Bowie has died,” said Nicky.
I sat up in bed, trying to assimilate what I’d just heard. It wasn’t a 9/11 or a 7/7, more an Elvis Presley or John Lennon moment.
But let’s move away from the scene and let me explain that I wasn’t a big Bowie fan. As a youngster, Bowie and I had a rather distant relationship. I can remember sitting in the bedroom of my best friend from school, Huwy Griffiths, and listening to the album Hunky Dory. More specifically, ‘Andy Warhol’, ‘Queen Bitch’ and ‘Life on Mars’, which still remains my favourite Bowie song.
But still, I wasn’t smitten. I never ran out to buy Bowie singles and albums. But he was a constant in my formative years. ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Jean Genie’ remind me of Tuesday nights at the youth club, buying fruit salad sweets from the tuck bar (which my mum and dad ran) and fighting in the school gym.
But still, his music was in the background. I had friends who painted the Ziggy Stardust pattern on their faces but stopped short of dressing like a girl. Unless they were girls. I watched him on The Old Grey Whistle Test when my dad and his mates returned from the pub and sat making disparaging remarks about his voice and appearance.
Bowie was like Genesis. I never quite fell in with it all, despite the (now) obvious advantage that both of them were very popular with girls and therefore were a good way of meeting girls. For example, the afternoon I spent at our neighbour Mrs Docherty’s house with her five granddaughters. Mary, the eldest, was a massive Genesis fan and insisted that I listened to ‘Nursery Cryme’. She was 17, with long dark hair, pale skin and freckles, a classic Irish Catholic girl in a light cotton dress to keep cool in the summer heat. I was 15; as I sat in Mrs Docherty’s comfy chair, Peter Gabriel murmured about giant hogweed while Mary sat on the arm and absent mindedly ran her fingers through my hair as her four sisters sat on the sofa, smiling benignly at me. I was terrified.
Four years later as a student, I met a girl who found Bowie’s album ‘Heroes’ an incredible aphrodisiac. I’m sure you can join the dots on this particular story. At the time, I was extremely grateful for Mr Bowie’s Berlin period.
Lady Barton St Mary is a David Bowie fan, so I started to listen to more of his music in my twenties. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘China Girl’, ‘Let’s Dance’… all played in our house. Admittedly, the Tin Machine project passed us by, but Bowie was always a staple by this time.
But the really weird thing is, I generally disliked most of his songs on first listening, even ‘Rebel Rebel’ or ‘Jean Genie’, before discovering they were, in fact, brilliant.
When ‘Where Are We Now?’ was released, Gerald, my old friend, told me how awful it was, a dreadful dirge. I concurred; but, two weeks later, I downloaded the track on Spotify. Looking at the side bar of my Spotify page, I noticed that Gerald had been playing … ‘Where Are We Now?’ by David Bowie.
However, I had a new experience just after Christmas. David Bowie released the single ‘Lazarus’. I instantly liked it. I downloaded it, along with the album, Black Star. I was finally a David Bowie fan.
Then, the following week, Nicky Campbell was telling me that David Bowie had died from cancer, that he’d been ill for some time but had kept it quiet.
That morning I played ‘Lazarus’ in my car on the way to (almost) voluntary work and realised that this song was his farewell message – “Look up here, I’m in Heaven…”
Suddenly I realised that David Bowie wasn’t on the periphery of my life; he’d made a significant contribution to the official soundtrack of it.
David Bowie is dead.
This can’t be right.