BY Michael Bracewell in Opinion | 11 JAN 16

David Bowie: 1947 – 2016

As magic is the power to influence events, Bowie's power found a personal truth in millions of people, and moved them, even changed their lives 

BY Michael Bracewell in Opinion | 11 JAN 16

On what would have been David Bowie’s 74th Birthday, frieze delves into its archive and returns to this moving tribute by Michael Bracewell, first published at the time of the revolutionary artist’s passing in 2016.

On 10 January 2016, around the world, millions of David Bowie’s fans were shocked and saddened to hear the news of his unexpected and untimely death. All of them have their memories of the man and his music, their reasons why this musician and star touched their lives in a particular way, and all of them are precious in their own ways.

The great thing about being a fan is that fandom is a democracy. The greatest music stars in the world are fans of other musicians. It is a wonderful conversation, and anyone can join in. Bowie did this on a chat show in Britain around 15 years ago.

Courtesy Outside Organisation

He was talking about going to see Little Richard’s rock and roll tour, in Brixton, south London, when he was a young teenager. The Rolling Stones were supporting; Bowie recalled with a laugh how the Stones’ fan-base at that time comprised about six people, including himself, all of whom rushed the stage as soon as the band appeared. Between numbers, an unimpressed older man in the stalls stood up and shouted at Mick Jagger: ‘Why don’t you lot get your bloody hair cut?’ To which Jagger replied, with stroppy hauteur: ‘Wot? And look like you?’

When I watched this interview I had no idea that Bowie was such a great raconteur and could be so funny. I once heard from another musician that most great singers are also excellent mimics and certainly his impression of Jagger brought the whole scene to life. What was also great was how excited Bowie had been when his wife bought him Little Richard’s tour jacket for a birthday present. It turned out to be enormous. ‘I’m not so sure about the “Little” thing, though’, he remarked. ‘The man must have been huge!’

It seems strange now, when like millions of other of Bowie’s fans around the world I spent much of 11 January fighting an overwhelming desire to weep, that the first thing I should recall and feel warmed by was the memory of a TV chat show. There was the scary American one – Dick Cavett, maybe – from the 1970s, on which Bowie looks dangerously thin and gaunt, with glittering eyes, a horribly nervous giggle, and appears to be drawing cabalistic symbols on the studio carpet with the tip of his cruel-looking walking stick. People said he was living on milk and cocaine. How cool did that sound, to a fan in suburban London in 1976?

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, 1972. Courtesy Outside Organisation; photograph: Brian Ward.

And then there was the time when he appeared by satellite from Los Angeles on the Russell Harty show, looking so incredibly beautiful, with a strawberry coloured streak in his slicked-back hair. On that occasion he seemed remote and short-tempered and gave Russell a hard time about God. He announced a European tour and we had no idea what to expect; and then he arrived on the brink of the whole Berlin thing, subways and synthesizers, moving on from the white-soul Philly sound phase and that appearance on Soul Train singing ‘Golden Years’: ‘in the back of a dream car 20-feet long, don’t cry my sweet don’t break my heart – doing alright but you gotta get smart.’

Like every fan, I have my memories: the near unwatchable sequence in the 1981 German movie Christiane F when the teenage prostitute overdoses in a toilet to a soundtrack of ‘Heroes’. Or of going to see Iggy Pop on his ‘Idiot’ tour, some time in the late 1970s, and Bowie walking on with his jacket hanging over his shoulders, standing to the side of the stage, smoking a cigarette, playing a keyboard for a couple of numbers. Or Stanley Dorfman’s video for ‘Be My Wife’ in 1977 – alienation hadn’t looked so cool since James Dean starred in Giant.

And then in 2013, when ‘Where Are We Now?’ – so simple, yet one of the most beautiful and complex love songs ever written – arrived out of nowhere; and suddenly feeling this ancient, keening tug from the music and the voice, back to something inside me that meant something of enormous importance.

David Bowie performing on the Heroes tour, 1978. Courtesy Outside Organisation; photograph: Andy Kent

In Tony Oursler’s video to accompany the track, the camera pulls back and there is Bowie – standing by a wall in a basement wearing jeans and a ‘Song of Norway’ t-shirt; he is looking at us looking at him and his expression is relaxed, although he seems both slightly curious and wary to be seeing us all again. To me, it felt such an intimate encounter – meeting my great love again after all these years; my love of the early summer of life; and there he is, now, waiting, neither offering or demanding, but so very present. ‘As long as there’s you – as long as there’s me…’ And now he’s gone.

‘He disappeared in the dead of winter’ – so begins W.H. Auden’s great poem, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ (1939). And Bowie did the same. A disappearance. I am not particularly interested in theories about how he did what he did, or what he might have meant by it all. It was magical, as magic is the power to influence events. This power found a personal truth in millions of people, and moved them, even changed their lives. The critic Simon Price once wrote, about watching Bowie on stage: ‘This man invented me.’ I believe that extravagant claim to be true. For myself as well, perhaps. And you? The relationship between fans and stars is profound, and absolute. Auden writes of Yeats: ‘The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.’

He disappeared in the dead of winter. Well – auf wiedersehen, my darling, and thank you.

Main image: David Bowie on Top of The Pops in 1974. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.