What happened? I was driving home Monday evening around 6.00 pm, January 11, when my former boss, the publisher of Neos Kosmos, Chris Gogos, sent a text message: “Bowie died! Fuck.” I sent back, “Fuck no”. I lost my mother five months ago and am full to the brim with death – a new prompt to emptiness.
The sky was murky and drizzle peppered the car’s shield as the heat of this January day broke and clammy humidity took over. Losing Bowie is a cursory reminder of my age and another succession in the lamentation song.
By the time I landed home my head was ambushed by the past. My life, my mother and father shepherded by Bowie’s fresh ghost. Joe the Lion was grinding loud out of my car speakers. My wife and son came out to greet me; they knew how I would be – Bowie’s death was a trigger in the grieving.
“It’s alright dad,” my 13-year-old son said. He knew Bowie. So many times in the car he’d ask “who’s this?” and the perfunctory answer would come back “Bowie”.
I remembered my introduction to Bowie in 1974 at my son’s age. I was transfixed by the cover of Pin Ups at my older cousin Dianne’s place. I was shocked and titillated, “a man in makeup who looks great and a woman in make up who looks the same” – who was I getting wood for, Twiggy or Bowie? I was freaked out. My aunty wasn’t happy with the Pin Ups cover either. My mother, always mesmerised by beauty, was intrigued by the strange ‘sexiness’ of it, “poli paraxenos” she said, (very strange), para, ‘beyond’ and xenos, ‘foreign’. She knew Bowie was beyond foreign, paraxenos.
For me, the dense, inflexible, yet groove-laden renditions of his favourite ’60s British blues and acid rock kicked my head in and I never recovered. Then came Ziggy, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, and by Young Americans the disco heads fell in love with Bowie.
Station to Station, Low and Heroes was when the serious heads took note, and for me, these albums culminated in the second great watershed in my cultural life. The neurotic elegance and darkness of those albums freed me. I knew who I was, and what to wear.
It was a strange thing to be a Bowie fan as a Greek boy and in Adelaide in the ’70s, at least in the early stages of Bowie’s personas. My Greek and Italian peers in skin-tight-black-jeans, into AC/DC and Black Sabbath, threatened me with death. Those into disco, with high-waisted, ball-squeezing satin pants and platforms also wanted to kill me. (Luckily the second could not run as fast in those platforms.)
Why? Anyone that liked the androgynous Bowie was a “poof”. The slower, ultra-stoned Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Santana and Led Zep guys looked down on Bowie. You just weren’t that ‘heavy’. Regardless that The Man Who Sold the World was one of the heaviest albums of the early ’70s. For many of the Aussies it was even simpler; a gay-looking wog needs a serious beating.
On the other hand we, the few wog Bowie fans, knew how special we were. We were vague, experimental with drugs, some to their demise, and with sex, some never deciding. We were readers and talkers, lovers of theatre, cinema and weird funk, classical music and even obscure folk.
I wore eyeliner, sharp suits, and silk ties. I smoked Gitanes while others smoked Escort. As a hetro male my effete elegance also meant more girls, and cool ones. I grew a fringe and dyed it blond. Bowie was the world outside my flat, boring, suburban Adelaide. He was elegant, so much so that my mother and father even liked his sartorial European style. “That’s how men should dress,” my father said, looking at the cover of Station to Station.
Finally, in 1978 Bowie came to Australia. He began his tour in Perth and his second concert was in Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval as part of the Low/Heroes tour. I went with a few mates and my younger cousin who I had to “take care” of according to my aunt.
I was wired with excitement and a joint I shared with the friends. I threatened my cousin if ever he talked about the joint I would “never take him out again”. He never said a word to this day and he’s now 50 years old.
The Angels as the support band were a testament to the bogan base of Australia. After they ended their one endless, stupid four-chord song, silence blanketed the oval and Warszawa, the other-worldly instrumental from Low began and Bowie appeared like the apparition.
The Thin White Duke was here. The computerised wall of fluorescent light created shadows and sharp reliefs of Bowie as he danced across them. The stark Germanic expressionism of that performance collided with many of the older Aladdin Sane fans. I remember thinking “he is the New Wave, no one else”, and with my peroxide-blond fringe, my younger 13-year-old cousin in tow and a few buddies, we were thus the New Wave, the wogs that don’t fit.
I remember on the way home that night, in the back of my uncle’s Ford Fairlane, longing to escape the grey flatness of Adelaide. My cousin was stunned; his young mind was unable to process it, all he could say was “that was incredible…”
Back at my uncle’s place, we lay back on the huge couch of my uncle’s ’70s entertainment lounge and listened to the whole of Low on his massive
Marantz speakers. It was our Dark Side of The Moon.
My uncle and father came in, said nothing, listened and after some time, instead of telling us to take that “crap off”, looked at each other and my old man said to my uncle, “not bad”. That was ultimate confirmation for me from a man who thought anything that wasn’t Theodorakis, Dalaras, Piaf or Mozart was not serious.
I saw Bowie again in 1983. I was 21 years old with a girlfriend and muscles. It was the Let’s Dance tour, and I realised that a new and annoying fan base was there. The darkness had lifted. The cold fluorescent white lights, the Germanic experimentalism, the industrial jumpsuit and bomber jacket were replaced with a tan, gelato-coloured suits and ’80s dance funk.
I saw him again in Melbourne in the mid ’00s as the natural man, the middle-aged and middle-class man – a great performer, a great musician but not the Thin White Duke. I loved Bowie, but few works after ‘Heroes’ would seduce me as much, even though I did wait for his work and looked forward to one or two good pieces.
Until Blackstar, his death mask, became a new watershed for me. A few days before his death I saw the clip to Blackstar and thought, “this is dark, he’s lamenting his youth, but he’s not dead”. I wasn’t sure if it was gratuitous narcissism. Now I know and when I look at the clip and hear Lazarus, I see my father wasting away from cancer in ’92 and my mother gasping for air last year.
Lazarus does not rise, but the Blackstar is the final destination for all heroes.