Since Bowie’s death I’ve brushed off a few tears, hugged a young friend who was in a deeper kind of mourning, enjoyed some wonderful performances on YouTube (this one isn’t his song but the delivery is intensely beautiful) and watched Channel 4 News on 11th January, when the death of a rock star was the headline of the day. I’d already bought Leslie Black Star and Station to Station for his birthday in March. We’re waiting like good children to hear the new and final album, written and recorded through illness and with death in mind, which will doubtless be more a moving experience in the light of his passing. This blog post isn’t about my love for him because I haven’t been an adoring fan, simply an admirer of much of his music; I didn’t make the kind of connection with Bowie as a human being that I make, in different ways, with Meryl Streep, Sylvie Guillem, Van Gogh or Carol Shields when I watch or read their work. But I want, as a woman who grew up with his songs and went on to accept the way I present after alopecia set me apart – and as an author who chose a lyric from a Bowie number as a book title – to write about why, as a cultural figure, he’s important to me too.
I was born in ’56 so I was a teenager by the time Space Oddity made him famous. It’s a song that still makes me mutter on, every time we play it in the car, about its sophistication within simplicity and the complete originality that keeps it fresh. And I remember, a little later, watching the video of Ashes to Ashes with Dad on Top of the Pops: one of the first really elaborate examples of pop video as art work and of course, utterly, compellingly bizarre. I loved the song but the creative force himself was a little beyond my comfort zone – and I imagine some way beyond Dad’s. The hits I replayed most often as I sat on the floor beside his old box record player were all from that era, but they were story songs, tender and romantic: Man of the World by Fleetwood Mac when Peter Green was a dark-eyed, broken soul, Father and Son by Cat Stevens, Your Song, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Nilsson’s Without You. They felt so headily ‘me’ that they’ve been embedded in my sense of self ever since and I hope some of them will play a part in my funeral. Being more interested in words (and tragedy) than music, I found Bowie lyrics fun to sing along to but they made no more sense than nursery rhymes. However, I was into colour and embraced Cavalier fashion in the process of crying over that tragic hero Charles 1 (!) so I enjoyed the Ziggy hair and cat-suits even though the druggie side of Bowie’s identity scared me.
At thirteen I knew nothing about bisexuality, homosexuality or sexuality of any kind (which will seem incredible to anyone born in a later decade but I didn’t know when I started secondary school how babies are made or what lesbian means) so the rest was a mystery. I didn’t swoon over Bowie, who seemed an unknowable, distant figure. I don’t think I ever saw him interviewed once we got our black and white TV. So he didn’t make it onto my school ruler – with Peter Frampton, Chip Hawkes and Dean Ford from Marmalade – and when I lost my heart it was to Georgie Best along with James Stacy from Lancer. But by the Sixth Form I had a Shelley obsession and found John Donne the most appealing man in the National Portrait Gallery. I was becoming, in my own ‘Susan is very quiet in class’ way, a little bit deviant, shunning a lot of chart music, joining CND and writing poetry about the Biafra War and Apartheid. And even though I was still innocent in spite of extensive reading, I assumed I’d marry a poet-musician with long hair. Barefoot would have been fine and painted toenails and an earring or two would be no problem at all. My appreciation of Bowie’s music was already on the rise.
Most of us adopt a series of different images in our lives. Some follow fashion, copy their heroes and like to be part of a cultural tribe. Others choose difference, or discover that different is simply who they are. Bowie was a shape-shifter like no other and why he chose each persona we may never really know; he was the most private of showmen. I moved from trying and failing to embrace trends at sixteen to deciding that I didn’t want to conform, that my values were pacifist, anti-materialist and religiously left-wing, that I’d never be pretty or slim, smoke, swear or have sex before marriage. All of this put me in what felt like a minority and in my own idealistic way I felt like an outsider. And now, four decades later, while some values have stuck and others reshaped, I feel even less need or desire to conform. I’ve messed up and fallen short, I’ve learned a lot and embraced new causes, but I admire individuality, creativity and passion more than ever.
As a woman with no hair, married to an unconventional man who encouraged me to believe my difference is beautiful, I am increasingly drawn to people who in some way don’t or won’t conform to some kind of norm. “I love the way you resist stereotypes”, wrote one young reader, and yes, I create unorthodox characters in titles like JUST FOR ONE DAY, which is about the kind of courage we need to stand up for a friend who is different, or just to be who we are. We’ve heard a lot about Bowie making it easier to be a freak, and I like to think he’d approve of me being bareheaded in the world and not caring what the world thinks. (Someone called my look ‘edgy’: a word that might have been invented for the ‘Cracked Actor’.) I have a young bisexual friend who expressed gratitude for Bowie’s honesty – a breath-taking three and a half decades before LGBT rights became enshrined in British law – in ‘coming out’ in advance of the phrase itself. Whether I would have liked the man I have no idea; I know he called on world leaders to address climate change so we’d certainly agree on something. I realised long ago that as a singer-songwriter he was exceptionally gifted. With an voice that could be smooth or dark as well as spiky but was always unmistakeably his, he left a musical legacy more varied and complex than survivors Elton John and the Stones. My favourite song? Heroes. I’ve no idea about the dolphins and kings but oh yes, we can be heroes – and in resisting this government for the future’s sake and or climate justice, we’re going to have to be.
“The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” Bowie