I was fourteen. I had a stupid haircut that lumped-up over my ears and parted naturally down the middle, the way it always has, the way it always will if I grow it too long, although back then Too Long was an impossible dream away.
It was Wiltshire. We had cows and grass and snow and frost and car crashes that left blood all over the road walking home from the school disco on a Friday night. Only once. How often does that need to happen?
We had a pork pie factory and a brewery in the centre of town. On Tuesdays, you could hear the pigs screaming until noon when they were all dead. After about one o’clock you could smell the lard as the carcasses were flensed with a steam hose. On Thursdays, huge clouds of steam wafted the smell of hops all over the Georgian mansions that had become a bank and a cafe and a row of offices in Fore Street, just up the hill from the eighteenth-century single cell jail house and the Gateway supermarket.
And then there was David Bowie. And we didn’t know what to make of all that New York and space and saxophone zoot-suited androgynous stuff at all. WE didn’t have androgyny in Wiltshire. Ok, the manager of Gateway had a bit of a turn and invited first the delivery van driver into a new lifestyle and then invited his new friends in day-glo singlets into the store while there were customers still there. But it wasn’t much like the kind of thing David Bowie might sing about. We had a shot-away ex-hippy definitely not ex-junkie calling himself Ziggy who used to unwantedly follow Theresa Powell around. But again, probably even David Bowie would have had a hard time making a song about that, that anyone would want to listen to.
He was singing about another planet, one none of us had ever seen. So were the New York Dolls. So was Iggy. So were the Velvets. So were The Eagles and Little Feat and all kinds of massive bands. But Bowie did something none of them did. I don’t to this day know what it was. This is the day he’s died.
I loved Hunky Dory. When it came out I used to play Ashes to Ashes, the whole album, while I took breakfast in my digs in my first term at Bath, the sound of a tortured ghostly clown singing while I ate bacon and eggs in a newish house in distinctly not-newish scruffily Georgian Larkhall, still my never-happen fantasy place to live, snuggled under Solsbury Hill in the frost, my Triumph 650 waiting to take me to uni, up the hill that trashed my clutch the first term I was there.
Heroes had been the anthem for a time in Bristol and Bath, a time of leather jackets and silk scarves and patchouli and cowboy boots on Park Road, hanging around the record stores and bookshops, living our preposterously tamely genteel version of street-life that was unimaginably alien to parents brought up on rationing. Our rebellion was making sure all our girlfriends were on the pill. That’s how wild we were. You think I’m joking.
This was still a time when I went to the doctor one day to discuss the pros and cons of this policy with my family doctor, a man so cool he hand-rolled liquorice papers in the surgery while telling you not to smoke. He didn’t approve of our practice. It wasn’t the idea of shovelling hormones into people whose hormones were all over the place that he objected to. Just that when, as he put it, the word got around that a pretty young girl (he had that kind of voice, the kind of voice you could say that with, then) was on the pill it was people like me that were the problem. Me? You’re like dogs with a plate of meat, he told me. I was shocked.
You’re like dogs with a plate of meat, he told me. I was shocked.
And all the while we could be heroes. And nothing could keep us together. And then nothing much that I listened to from David Bowie until Heathen, twenty? thirty years later? I liked that. Then nothing for another decade until the desolate survivor-story of Where Are We Now. I haven’t heard Blackstar. Not except the Radiohead version, the one that like so much of Bowie’s stuff, takes me back to Radio On and Bristol and Bath and silk scarves and girls with curled hair and Afghan coats. Cold cheeks and warm lips. The flash of white teeth bared in a smile in street light. Blame it on the black star. Blame it on the satellite that takes him home.