David Bowie and me
How the artist helped to change Chris Brazier’s life.
I have a psychological resistance to weighing in with an instant comment on the latest news event, which is a major drawback for a journalist in any era, let alone one operating (however reluctantly) in the age of social media. But it would seem wrong on the morning of David Bowie’s death to come in to work and carry on business as usual without saying something that at least acknowledges the impact he had on my life.
I can perhaps help justify this blog on a website dedicated to global-justice issues by saying that, for me, as for many young men at the time, Bowie helped to change my whole perspective on gender and sexuality – my notion of what masculinity meant was transformed as much by how he presented himself as by the feminist books I was to read in later years.
But when I say he had an impact on my life, I mean it in a more practical way. David Bowie was the subject of my first ever published article. In 1975, while I was still at Nottingham University, the Melody Maker (the most established, though not the hippest, paper devoted to popular music at the time) ran a student rock essay competition. My effort, analysing Bowie’s popular appeal, won second prize and was duly printed.
Partly encouraged by that success, I decided to devote my dissertation for an English degree to an in-depth literary analysis of Bowie’s lyrics up to and including Low. I had a hip young tutor on board but we thought it politic to conceal the true nature of the project from the professor heading the department, a dry Dryden specialist who had never heard of the musician and was told he was a minor contemporary poet. One of these days I’ll get around to posting the full text of that dissertation online somewhere for the (limited) interest of Bowie obsessives and future students.
In addition, you could say that my first ever job was attributable indirectly to Bowie. The door at Melody Maker having been nudged open by that competition essay, I barged it open by proposing to editor Ray Coleman that he badly needed me to refresh his paper’s notoriously dismissive and staid coverage of the incipient punk revolution – I had been following the Sex Pistols and The Clash around the clubs through the spring and summer of 1976 and was keen to proselytize about them and what they meant. This was the single most punk thing I ever did in my life and was actually way out of character. But it was the kind of chutzpah likely to be respected in the rock world more than in any other and it worked – he called me down for an interview and, to my delighted surprise, offered me a job on the paper’s staff for when I finished my degree. Later on, when Bowie hit town on the Heroes tour, the paper published a special that contained a brief summary of my take on his lyrical genius.
I never met or interviewed Bowie in that heady period and maybe that was all to the good – it doesn’t always do to meet your heroes face to face and, besides, I don’t doubt he would have found the idea of a ‘literary’ approach to his work highly amusing. And I must admit there was a long patch of his career when he lost me – pretty much from the Tin Machine period right through to his extraordinary reinvention at the V&A exhibition and the subsequent revelation of The Next Day.
It’s hard not to see this late work now – let alone the careful timing of Blackstar and Lazarus – as a determined (and conspicuously successful) attempt to control and repackage his own heritage and reputation in the knowledge that the end was coming. Had he died four or five years ago, when the first rumours that he was seriously ill started to circulate, there would have been similar tribute paid to his extraordinary generational impact but he would surely have been perceived as someone revered for historic wonders who was now basically past it. In contrast, we now know that his career arc has come to another peak and that he was to the last a creative artist still capable of great work – and still able to surprise us even as he says goodbye.
Chris Brazier is co-editor at New Internationalist.