Thursday 22 March 2018

Bowie: How the man who fell to Earth liberated a generation

David Bowie. Photo: V&A/PA Wire
David Bowie. Photo: V&A/PA Wire

Frank Coughlan

When Morning Ireland announced the passing of David Bowie on Monday morning it described him, in solemn tones, as a singer-songwriter. Accurate, of course, but a bit like noting that Beethoven was a dab hand at tinkling the ivories in his spare time. Bowie was indeed a great vocalist and he had, like the devil before him, most of the best tunes, but to a young teenager in the early 1970s he was way more than that.

And not just to me, obviously, but all the young dudes lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time and had the smarts to recognise it.

That's why his death is destined to become one of those once-in-a-generation 'Where Was I' moments. Just like the departure of other cultural megawatts like Elvis and John Winston Lennon before him. They're those rare events when you feel a cultural jolt and then shift. After that things are never the same again.

I was in First Year in the Presentation Brothers when Space Oddity came out in 1970 and I was impressed though not smitten. This was in or around the time of the acrimonious break up of The Beatles and though I was in short trousers when they were strutting across Abbey Road, I felt their departure keenly. I was searching for a band or artist that might fill some of the void and one I could make my own (the Fab Four, as my older brother often reminded me, were his and I could only occasionally foster them). 

But it was a year later when, leafing through secondhand records in Uneeda's, on Cork's Oliver Plunkett Street, that I came across his third album, The Man Who Sold The World, and the axis of my world tilted. Maybe it was the cover image - a high kicking Bowie in pre-Ziggy pose - or just some inner voice telling me, 'this is going to be special'.

I bought it; the sleeve dog-eared, the vinyl scratchy, the impact overwhelming

It's an album that has plenty going on but it's the title track - Mick Ronson's hypnotic opening guitar salvo can still send a tingle down my spine - that did it. Even now it's a song that captures the essence (a mercurial substance at the best of times) of what Bowie was about. Mostly anyway.

By the time he turned up on Top of the Pops in 1972, having morphed into the androgynous Ziggy, backed by the Spiders From Mars, I was something of a Bowie swot and know-all. Around this time I was listening to the gender and genre warping Ziggy Stardust album, as well as Hunky Dory (still my favourite), on something of a loop. On the back sleeve of Ziggy, Bowie boldly proclaimed that it was to be played at maximum volume, but as my old fella innocently imagined I was studying for my Inter Cert (the Junior Cert at a time when it actually mattered), I had to be more circumspect.

I had to be cautious too around some of my friends, many of whom had reservations about this London geezer who looked a bit like a fine young one and an alien at the same time. They didn't have a problem with the other worldly aspect of his stage persona, but scuffed their shoes and words a lot when it came to his ambiguous sexuality. I think they were worried for me.

These lads were more far likely to head-bang to Deep Purple and their clones. They wouldn't have had a problem with televisions being thrown out of hotel windows, a classic rock rite of passage, but liked their scruffy icons to wear nothing more outrageous than bell bottoms.

But this was over 40 years ago: homosexuality was not only illegal but something of a taboo. Even in Britain, where gay sex had been decriminalised five years earlier, 'a queer' was likely to get a hiding at closing time on both the right and wrong side of town.

Not that I cared what people thought about Ziggy, or my strident devotion. I knew what Bowie was really on about: not just pushing boundaries but stomping them into dust, be they cultural, social or political. I might not have articulated my thesis in such modulated terms during those endless, intense teenage barnies, but I was right. I am still quietly chuffed that I grasped that concept at a tender age when I understood so little else, least of all Pythagoras's theorem.

The Ireland of the 1970s was a place that needed boundaries to be charged, breached and dismantled. The gloomy legacy of Archbishop McQuaid and Dev, though both in their dotage and out of harm's way, still threw a long shadow. Condoms were illegal and would be for another decade and more. As for divorce? Dream on.

Our national radio station shunted pop into obscure sidings (Disc A Gogan, The Balfe Beat), while showbands, togged out in shiny suits, still toured the country butchering pop standards by the likes of The Tremeloes. They sent them home sweatin' though.

It was no country for young men.

And it would get worse before it got better. Pope John Paul II rolled into town to headline his own holy Oxegen at Phoenix Park in 1979 and his blessing cast a spell that lasted deep into a bleak 1980s of moving statues and pro-life fatwas. It would be a while yet before we emerged from what Professor Tom Inglis, of UCD's School of Sociology, would later describe as Ireland's "long nineteenth century".

But I had already been liberated by the man who fell to earth and my education continued. I didn't simply listen to every album from Space Oddity to his West Berlin tryptch, I inhaled them.

I saw Bowie live, of course, but that meant sharing with a crowd, so that's not how I'll remember him.

Selfishly, I preferred him to myself. The thin white duke was my soulmate.

Singer songwriter? Can you hear that Major Tom?

Frank Coughlan is editor of Review

Irish Independent

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