John Meagher: 'I was so close to Bowie that night I could have reached out and touched him'
Say it ain’t so. Please. Not Bowie. Not now.
Gone from us just days after delivering one of the most intriguing albums of his entire career. I listen to Blackstar now and hear it in a very different light. The album I thought might kick-start a whole new chapter will be the full stop on a quite extraordinary life.
It’s heartbreaking news for the world to rise to, and especially those who hold great music close to their hearts. He was a one-off, a genius, a conjurer of some of the most incredible pop we’ve ever known. Cliche though it may be, the world is a far poorer place today. A cultural icon is gone.
Three years ago, we woke the January morning of his 66th birthday to a comeback single, the elegiac Where Are We Now, which almost nobody had seen coming. And there was news of a forthcoming album too, The Next Day, which was greeted with a welter of glowing reviews that March.
Oh, to rewind time and be in that moment again. Or to return to last Friday, when Blackstar was released and generated such justly excitable talk of a new beginning. That one had been flagged for the previous three months, so the element of surprise was gone, but it didn’t matter: it’s an even better album than The Next Day, and one that many reviewers like me thought looked forward, rather than back.
Now, on the title track, I hear him sing ominously of “the day of execution” and wonder if he was referring to his own imminent demise. No doubt the album will be picked apart in the coming days for other clues about its creator’s state of mind.
Poor health shortly after the release of the Reality album in 2003 had robbed the world of new David Bowie material for the best part of a decade. He stopped touring in 2004 and last played live at a charity concert 10 years ago. He refused to engage in the usual promotional rounds for the last few years, a move that only accentuated his iconic status.
In a world where over-exposure can cheapen even the best art, he would have been acutely aware of the benefits of letting his music do his talking.
It’s impossible to over-emphasis Bowie’s importance on modern culture. The man born David Jones first made his mark 50 years ago and has challenged us ever since. The back catalogue is incredible.
His body of work from third album The Man Who Sold the World in 1970 to Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) in 1980 is arguably the greatest in music history - 11 albums of new material that helped shape music forever. And the evolution of his sound in that period is every bit as dramatic as that of the Beatles the decade before. No one else helped soundtrack the 1970s quite like him.
He inspired incalculable numbers of musicians and artists - rock bands, pop stars, classical composers, filmmakers, writers… And it wasn’t just his adventures in glam rock, electronica, pure pop, you-name-it that would fire the imaginations of so many - they were also drawn to that willingness to take risks, to try new things, to borrow liberally from elsewhere and to make influences his own.
U2 recorded Achtung Baby in Hansa Studios Berlin simply because Bowie had worked there with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti in the late 1970s. I went to Hansa last summer during a visit to the German capital and stood in the centre of the magnificent ballroom where he had recorded Heroes and imagined I was there 1977 when he was in the absolute peak of his powers.
Heroes and its predecessor Low are among the most essential of the 25 studio albums he made - and personal favourites - but the beauty of Bowie’s canon is who remarkably varied it is. And how he reinvented himself so spectacularly on so many occasions. In just half a decade, there was the cosmic rock of Ziggy Stardust, the glam thrills of Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, the blue-eyed soul of Young Americans, the exotic electronica of Station to Station and the avant-garde adventures of Low. Wow.
He was a proper pop star too - not for him the down-to-earthisms of such contemporary bores as Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran: this was a gender-bending visionary who largely kept himself removed from the mundane business of normal life. That was certainly evident at the illuminating Bowie exhibition held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum a few years ago when visitors of all generations marvelled at those extraordinary outfits and paraphernalia.
There has never been a doubt that the was cut from different cloth. Just ask those who were old enough to watch Top of the Pops in July 1972 and see him ‘fellate’ Mick Ronson’s guitar during Starman - or those who were at Slane in 1987 for his stupendously outre Glass Spiders tour.
The latter happened during a lean period of Bowie’s career, but even those who disliked the Never Let Me Down album or the subsequent Tin Machine project would have to have admitted that even when he was a long way from his best, Bowie was still more interesting than the bulk of his peers.
I saw him play live twice: first in a stunning two-and-a-half hour show at Dublin’s Point that he was recording for a subsequent DVD release. The career-spanning set still lives vividly in my memory 13 years on. His lead guitarist on the night was Dubliner Gerry Leonard, who played on the Heathen, Reality and The Next Day albums: I met him out in RTE on Friday night and he told me how happy he was to be playing the David Bowie Festival in the heart of his home-town over the weekend. Only last night, Leonard was taking part in a Q&A session about what it was like to work with Bowie.
The second time, was in front of an audience of just 400 in London for a curious little show hosted by Jonathan Ross. ‘Wossy’ was clearly star-struck - as were we all. I was so close to Bowie that evening I could have reached out and touched him. Such was his standing in the pantheon he could reduce even the most cynical rock to a simpering fool.
Now, the prospect of seeing him play again is forever gone. There might be posthumously released new material, but it won’t feel the same. He won’t be here, somewhere on this earth.
Goodbye, Starman - you left a legacy that will be cherished as long as music is loved.