The phone rang at 7.15 this morning, unusually early. I was just about to feed the dog. It was Paul, a local friend and writer of historical romances, telling me that BBC Radio Surrey had been on to him to ask if he knew how to get in touch with me. “Why?” I asked. “David Bowie is dead,” he replied.
It took a moment to sink in and, truth be told, I thought he was saying something about his new record Blackstar, which I’d bought the previous day.
“I know,” I said. Then I checked myself. “Dead? That can’t be.”
“It is, and they want you to call them.”
I’d met James fairly recently. He and Suzanne Bamborough present the 6am to 9am show on BBC Radio Surrey & Hampshire. I’d talked to him on air about John Lennon a few weeks ago.
So I called James, and began to talk. I fact, I didn’t stop talking about David Bowie until 4 pm in the afternoon about eight hours later, aside from the time spent on the train to London when I tried to gather my thoughts, listening to a playlist of Bowie music that took me no time at all to compile as the train left Guildford station. By then my voice had been heard on BBC Breakfast TV over a series of still photographs. This was at 8.20 and I was still in a state of shock, trying hard to be articulate and not clichéd. Then, in London, I spoke to a score or more of BBC regional radio stations, firstly from my office and later from New Broadcasting House. I also did a few newspaper interviews and sent them the photo of David and I with Ava Cherry that can be found elsewhere on Just Backdated.
“David Bowie was the most charismatic rock performer of his generation, a cultural polymath in every sense of the word,” I told everyone who was listening, or words to that effect. “Although best known for his music, he was a talented actor of both stage and screen, a mime, a writer, a painter and a fashion icon. He managed to bring together all these talents into a whole, creating ‘David Bowie’ as an artwork in itself, so that almost everything he did, consciously or not, became part of his work and his life as an artist. He was also beautiful to look at, so his greatest creation was actually ‘David Bowie’, an adjunct to his real self, to David Jones, born in Brixton 69 years ago. You have to separate the two, and although I knew only the David Bowie that he presented to me, that man was personally magnetic, charming, well-mannered, well-spoken, polite, very well read and, as an interviewee, simply terrific because he knew better than anyone how to manipulate the media to his advantage. Look at how, when he released The Next Dayin 2013, there was no publicity whatsoever – until it arrived. That was a superb piece of media manipulation, as great as any in the history of rock, and a news story in itself. In an era of mass communication and ever expanding hype, he got more publicity by doing nothing than all the advance promotion that someone like, say, Adele got with her recent album. He was a genius in this regard. The release of this new album just two days before he left us was his final, ultimate ‘David Bowie’ gesture. He kept us guessing right to the very end.
“Presentation was his strongest point, crucial to his craft,” I continued, without being prompted, “and I believe that the reason why we have seen so little of him in recent years is because he realised that he could no longer present himself on stage in the manner he would choose. He didn’t want to appear as a shadow of his former self so rather than appear as someone who no longer resembled the David Bowie that was adored, he chose not to appear at all. I applaud him for this and it is a lesson that other rock stars would do well to heed.
“He was the Hollywood rock star, as untouchable as the great movie stars of the thirties and forties, magnificent, superhuman. That is how he will be remembered.”
This was the line I reiterated all day, over the phone to presenters up and down the country. After about five or six interviews it became strangely pat, like a mantra, and although I veered off line a bit with some personal reminiscences from my years on Melody Maker and working at RCA in the late seventies, it seemed to satisfy everyone.
This hectic activity lasted from the moment I got up until 4 pm. I didn’t hesitate to consider whether talking about David was good thing to do or consider the integrity of what I was doing. I was a professional journalist, after all, and the media was my chosen path. It was my job, like it or not. I didn’t have a chance to think really, to sit back and let the news soak in. David Bowie was dead.
There was another, slightly surreal element to all this. Yesterday afternoon I bought Blackstar at Sainsbury’s, along with the week’s shopping. I played it in the car as I drove home, on the CD player in our living room as I read the paper and, having downloaded it on to my iPod, on the docking speaker as Lisa and I had our evening meal. We talked about it too, atmospheric I thought, not particular commercial, some lovely melodic moments, a bit jazzy if you consider a honking saxophone ‘jazz’, definitely the kind of album that will grow on me. It was my intention to listen to it more closely, on earphones so I could hear the lyrics, and do a review on this blog in a day or two’s time. I did catch something in the title track about a single candle, a bit elegiac I thought, but I hadn’t heard enough of the lyrics, some of which I’ve now read more closely, to deduce that it was a farewell letter.
After we’d listened to it a couple of time I decided to stick with Bowie for the time being and played his achingly lovely version of Paul Simon’s ‘America’ from the Concert For New York City in 2001. He followed this with ‘Heroes’, of course, my favourite Bowie song, though ‘Starman’ runs it a close second. We listened to that too, enjoying it as ever. And then we did the washing up and watched War And Peace on TV. Apart from a bit of Talking Heads in the morning over breakfast I had listened to David Bowie all day. I didn’t know that David Bowie was dead.
As related elsewhere on Just Backdated I made the acquaintance of Bowie during my time on Melody Maker and, later, as PR for RCA Records in 1979 and ’80, during which period he released Lodger and Scary Monsters. I was at the 1973 concert at Hammersmith Odeon where he disbanded the Spiders – another flamboyant PR stunt – and also in Detroit with him during the Thin White Duke tour in March 1976 when I may have been sitting close to Madonna who has spoken about this as the first rock show she ever attended. She’d have been 17 at the time and probably took notes. In the interview I did with David on the afternoon of the show he told me he was broke, another great PR move, as I relate here: http://justbackdated.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/david-bowie-detroit-march-1975.html
I wrote about my experiences as his PR mixed up with a bit of Detroit and his stage role as The Elephant Man here:http://justbackdated.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/bowie-media-part-1.html
I was lucky enough to see his Diamond Dogs Review on Toronto in 1974, and my report for Melody Maker can be found here:http://justbackdated.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/david-bowie-birth-of-rock-theatre.html
Tomorrow's papers will be full of tributes, musical analysis and detailed obituaries, so there's little point me adding to them here. Sufficient to say that my daughter, who will turn 24 in a week’s time, called home during the day and told Lisa that she considers herself lucky to have been alive at the same time as David Bowie. Me too. Indeed, I consider myself immensely lucky to have had this brief acquaintanceship with David Bowie during the seventies. RIP David.