The boy keeps swinging swinging on a star now
Barry Egan recalls meeting David Bowie - the star who has generations of music fans mourning his death from cancer
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
In a 2003 interview, David Bowie said he felt "bitterly angry that I won't be doing this for the rest of eternity". Most of us would like to think of him now - like drugged-up astronaut Major Tom - floating "in a most peculiar way", "far above the world", where "planet Earth is blue" . . . and "the stars look very different today".
Last Monday, when Bowie died, the world seemed suddenly like a very different place. Tony Parsons got it right when he said in an online post on British GQ that "four or five generations are in mourning for him today. Other stars - all other stars - speak to and for their own generation. David Bowie's influence ranged across almost half a century. They say that Elvis gave rock and roll a body and Dylan gave the music a brain. David Bowie gave the music a blood transfusion and a brain transplant just at the point when it was dying from exhaustion."
In perhaps a dig at her ex husband, Julie Burchill blogged on The Spectator website that "My lack of feeling is, perhaps, a late-flowering fastidiousness which feels somewhat repelled by the flood of sob signalling which takes place on social media whenever a famous person dies. And a revulsion with a sub-section of my fellow hacks who - for a fee - will say something even if they have nothing worth saying. For every Suzanne Moore - who produced a small, perfectly-performed elegy within hours - I knew that there would be a hundred old bores from the dear dead music press who would crawl out of the woodwork just to put up photos of themselves with the Great Man, in the most distasteful groupie fashion. Hearse-chasing is such a bad look."
Burchill was not finished: "I just spent five minutes waking up my husband Dan and telling him that David Bowie had died. I told him that people were weeping in the streets, and that it was like the Queen Mother dying all over again. Dan listened silently, then replied 'It's nice - but still, all that fuss about Dane Bowers!'"
Katie Price's former flame notwithstanding, I never thought of a world without Bowie; or that Bowie would ever die, even though the hints about death, or his death, were writ large all over his album Blackstar that came shortly before his death.
"Look up here, I'm in heaven. I've got scars that can't be seen" (Lazarus).
"Something happened on the day he dies / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside" (Blackstar).
"Where the fuck did Monday go?" (Girl Loves Me)
"Time, he's waiting in the wings / He speaks of senseless things / His script is you and me, boys" (Time).
"I'll never see the English evergreens... I'm dying too" (Dollar Days).
"I know something is very wrong" (I Can't Give Everything Away).
If Bowie was saying goodbye to us with Blackstar, then the symbolism is all there: it is his heart-rending hymn to the silence of death. Everything on this album is viewed through the prism of death. Bowie's death. Even your own death. Or the death of anyone that you ever knew that passed. I was thinking of my late father writhing in the sheets in the hospice in Harold's Cross.
The video for Lazarus, with Bowie writhing around in the sheets on a deathbed in a hospice with his eyes bandaged, mouthing the words about being "free just like that bluebird" is hauntingly sad, poignantly beautiful - almost like he knew this was his final statement, his swansong, and he had come to terms with his death.
Like some ancient philosopher appearing from beyond the grave, Bowie sings: "Look up here, I'm in heaven." The magnificent melancholic fragility of the track was deepened immeasurably with the news of Bowie's death. Chris Roberts wrote in The Quietus website of how unsettling the video is, "as he walks backwards into the cupboard, into perhaps heaven/danger/freedom, into perhaps an anti-Narnia, a nothingness". His long-term studio collaborator since 1969's Space Oddity, Tony Visconti, described Blackstar as "a parting gift" from Bowie. "His death was no different from his life - a work of art."
Bowie came close to death in June, 2004. (He had emergency heart surgery after a concert in Germany.) The 10-year gap to his 24th studio album The Next Day in March 2013 was full of images of old age, mortality and death. On You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, he sang: "I want to see you clearly before we close the door . . . I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam . . . I can feel you falling, hear you moaning in your room. . . Oh, see if I care. Please, please make it soon."
I'd Rather Be High sees Bowie in a graveyard and laying "down by my parents, whisper, Just remember, duckies, everybody gets got."
And then on the title track, Bowie was noting thus: "Here I am not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree," before stating that there are people who "work with Satan while they dance like saints."
Of course I loved him. I grew up on him and Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke. So it was surreal to meet him, in the summer of 1991. He had that especially surreal left eye that made him look like his character in The Man Who Fell To Earth. You couldn't help looking at it, and thinking it was looking right back at you.
And only you.
Bowie was bored with the story of how, as a youth he was punched in the eye at school by his pal, the artist George Underwood, and a fingernail got caught in Bowie's aforesaid left eye and he was left with a permanently dilated pupil. He groaned when I said that he got his iconic look from a fight just like Brando had his off-kilter beauty improved when he broke his nose messing around on the Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire. I was 23 and trying to tell him that I knew who Brando was.
It is still hard to imagine that I sat in a room with David Bowie for 90 minutes and talked about existence, youth, death, sex, androgyny, LA, Dublin, Brando, Bauderlaire, Brendan Behan, cocaine, and U2.
He loved the story of Bono as a boy on Cedarwood Road in Ballymun in the mid-Seventies, shaking down fellow Bowie fanatic Gavin Friday for loans of his precious Bowie albums. And how when Gavin eventually got Ziggy Stardust, Low or Heroes back from the young scamp Bono, the aforesaid dark masterpieces would be either in the wrong sleeves or the front sleeve would be covered with jam and toffee or, worse still, with the messy finger-prints of the future U2 singer all over the actual vinyl that made the albums often unplayable.
Bowie was hilarious in person. I had seen his famously grouchy TV interviews with Russell Harty in 1975 (when Russell referred to Golden Years as Golden Tears, Bowie snapped: "Get it right, Russell". When he asked Bowie what he'd be wearing on stage in his forthcoming London concerts, Bowie replied: "I haven't a clue Russell; do you know what you'll be wearing in six months time?"). But this was Bowie on a charm offensive. He kept calling me Brendan because he said I looked like Brendan Behan. (He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and white trousers. So I told him he was in no position to slag me when he looked like an extra from Miami Vice.)
Unfortunately, he was there to ostensibly promote his dreadful band Tin Machine and their new album Tin Machine II. Which is a story in and of itself. It was a bit like Orson Welles after Citizen Kane. In fact, after albums like Low, Station To Station and Heroes, Tin Machine II was on a par creatively for Bowie with Orson's Sandeman's port ads. Deep down, though he wasn't letting on - not least with the members of the fuck-awful Tin Machine sitting in on the interview - Dame Bowie seemed to know it. He joked that Tin Machine probably kept him out of The Traveling Wilburys - or worse still, "I could have gone to Las Vegas."
I had read so many intense interviews with David Bowie that I was expecting much of the same. What I wasn't expecting, however, was funny, slapstick David Bowie.
"Tin Machine got together for this album," he began, "around this remote studio in Switzerland and just started. After the first song we knew exactly what we were looking for."
Bowie paused before continuing: "Unlike Bono."
Bowie paused again. "But on the other hand we still haven't found what we're looking for." Another pause. "But we're still on a street with no name."
I pointed out to him that one of the new album's songs, If There Was Something, had him proudly proclaiming to the world that he could have sex for 24 hours. "But Bryan Ferry wrote that!" he answered before adding with a chuckle: "There is a funny story about that. That line is in fact incorrect. I couldn't get the lyrics down from the album. So I got another copy and it had a Japanese translation. So they had written down what they thought they had heard. I've now got the real lyrics from various sources and they are nothing to do with each other. In fact the line is, 'I would climb mountains', but with my lack of listening properly and using the Japanese translation says - cue more massive laughter from Bowie - 'I could come all day'."
I tell him he needs a hearing aid. "No. No. No. I just don't read Japanese translation very well, Brendan," he laughs.
"But," Bowie added, "I think it stands. Not upright," he laughs, referring to the song and indeed the cover of the album, which featured Bowie and the band in all their naked glory. Prior to its release, it caused a moral frisson with the censors in America (as well as the record stores in the Bible Belt who wouldn't stock this Bowie porn for fear of being hit by a lighting bolt from an angry God in heaven). "We didn't want to make people too envious so we just put on these Greek statues instead," Bowie explained. "A friend of ours, Edward Bell, came up with the idea. He painted a Greek God four times. "
"He's erect in posture only!" laughed Bowie suddenly morphing into Bernard Manning. "We're standing firmly behind this! We won't let this become a bone of contention, Brendan."
And then just as suddenly Bowie snaps back into being serious once more.
"So we were in the ridiculous position of changing the cover [because of the outcry over Bowie's balls etc], and what we did instead of airbrushing out the genitals..."
So, you put George Bush there instead, David?
"Oh, no, no, Brendan," Bowie laughed, "Something far more interesting than that. We mutilated the genital areas. So now it has the effect of somebody coming along with a hammer and chisel and hacking them off. It really is quite perverse that this is now completely acceptable. The cover now, in my mind, is absolutely obscene."
A bit like a world without David Bowie.