Grant Smithies pays tribute to David Bowie
Yes, I wept. Why wouldn't I? David Bowie had watched over me as I slept, for years on end.
I had a poster of him pinned up at the foot of my bed in Whanganui: the Thin White Duke looking camp as Christmas, straddling a motorbike wearing huge orange shades, his bleached-blonde hair tossled, wrists hanging limply over the handlebars. He looked more beautiful than any man had a right to be, and I suspect I was more than a little in love.
That poster was the first thing I saw each morning when I woke up, and the last thing I looked at as I fell asleep each night. David Bowie was a guardian angel of sorts during my teenage years, and an inspiration throughout my adult life.
His death yesterday felt truly tragic: the most influential solo rock icon of our times, gone at 69, less than a week after releasing one of his most challenging and adventurous records.
I grew up thrashing his early albums on a little car cassette deck I had soldered together in high school electronics class and bolted onto the headboard of my bed. It was a fine arrangement. I could reach over behind my head and slide in a tape, and the speakers would belt into action on a little bookshelf above me on the wall.
But it chewed tapes. One day it ate my much-thrashed copy of Bowie's Hunky Dory, right near the start of my favourite song, Life On Mars. I can still hear the moment of destruction. "It's a godawful small affair, for the girl with the mousy hair…", sang David, no doubt with me singing along, then the next line became a painful low groan as the tape wound itself around the capstan wheel.
Hunky Dory came out in 1971, but I didn't stumble across it until three years later, when I was 13. There I was at the thin end of the seventies, a man-child with a squeaky voice, a sparsely hairy upper lip, a new-found attraction to both girls and pop music, and the means to buy the latter, due to an early morning paper run delivering the Wanganui Chronicle.
My bedroom playlist rapidly narrowed down to two main sounds: Bowie, and funk music. In 1975, my obsession with Bowie deepened when he made an R'n'B record of his own: Young Americans - an aloof, cocaine-addled "plastic soul" offering that never gets a mention when critics rush to exalt 1972's Ziggy Stardust, 1973's Aladdin Sane or the late-70's Low/ Lodger/Heroes trilogy, but an album that I disappeared into every day for an entire year until it, too, ended up tangled like a tapeworm in the tape deck's innards.
On Bowie's first New Zealand tour in December, 1978, I was there in the audience at Western Springs. It was my first ever trip to Auckland - a long trip north by train to see my bedroom poster made flesh.
I remember bad fried food, warm beer, the dank reek of pot smoke, heavily oversubscribed men's dunnies where three strangers would gather around each toilet bowl to pee at once.
And I remember the show, kicking off with the endless choo-choo intro of Station To Station warping from speaker to speaker, a grid of vertical florescent lights strobing behind the stage. Bowie eventually sauntered out, only about 20 metres away, wearing unreasonable leather jodphurs. I fell even more deeply in love.
Near the end of the show, with a brilliant pink sunset blazing behind him, Bowie came back out onto the stage with a camera and took my picture, albeit in the company of 41,000 other punters.
Over the years that followed, I continued to take a deep interest in what my teenage idol was up to, following him through musical flirtaitions with folk, glam, soul, funk, krautrock, disco and techno. Ch- Ch- Ch- Ch- Changes. I went through so many of them and he provided the ever-evolving soundtrack.
I admired his courage as he moved further and further away from traditional rock and roll.
Recorded with his close friend Brian Eno in Berlin while Bowie was recovering from severe cocaine addiction, 1977's largely instrumental Low was one of his greatest works, despite the fact that he was too depressed to sing. Instead, Bowie expressed his pain and alienation via strangled sax notes, limping basslines, cello solos as black as the grave and cold, fizzing synths.
Grim and ponderous yet surprisingly moving, it sounded like the score to a particularly bleak German art-house flick.
Later the same year came Heroes, and I spent the next six months obsessed with Sense Of Doubt, perhaps the most ominous, darkly majestic instrumental track I've ever heard.
I listened to it again this morning and it still makes me feel like I'm at sea as a storm gathers on the horizen, my flimsy raft bobbing helplessly as something dark and huge circles beneath the surface. A whale of a good time? No, but Bowie's willingness to explore such inky, unfathomable depths certainly helps me appreciate my raft.
It takes a special sort of sensibility to make music like this, and so year in, year out, I listened to Bowie, read about him, watched his patchy movies. When I moved to Edinburgh in the early 80s, I made a pilgrimage down to the London borough of Brixton and wandered down Stansfield Road past the little terraced house where he was born.
We parted company after 1983's Let's Dance album. Between the mid 80s and the mid 2000s came two decades of crap records, both solo and with his band, Tin Machine. I was deeply disappointed.
Bowie had once set the sonic agenda, rampaging through folk and glam, soul and disco, Krautrock and techno and punk, discarding styles like yesterday's underwear. But here he was, a follower, dabbling in jungle and hip hop and grunge in what seemed like a desperate attempt to remain 'relevant'.
I listened and cringed, embarrassed that a hero had lost his way. And then, he found it again. In the early 2000s, Bowie stopped worrying about what a younger audience might want and instead began to write strange, anxious, occassionally downright lovely songs about war, aging, his own mortality.
Each new album was once again worth close attention, with even the weaker songs now prepared to crash and burn spectacularly rather than merely smoulder.
2013's The Next Day arrived ripe with the pretentiousness, paranoia and existential dread of old, and scattered with references to his own storied past in Brixton, Berlin and Outer Space. A couple of clunkers aside, it was his best album since 1980's Scary Monsters.
Last week's jazz-damaged Blackstar was even more ominous and odd, restless, bold. With so many aging rock stars content to endlessly rehash their earlier sound or dish up limp jazz covers from the Great American Songbook, it was thrilling to hear a reinvigorated Bowie making challenging, sonically adventurous records again. It felt good to have him back.
And now he's gone, and fans everywhere are telling their stories. Journalists, too. Everywhere you look, there's a fresh obit. We can expect overuse of terms such as "chameleon", and lengthy dissections of his influence on music, film, fashion, popular culture and gender politics. This is as it should be.
But for me, the loss feels more personal. David Bowie was always there, in the background, somewhere, at every stage of my life- a secular saint I had worshipped for four decades using whatever technology was available at the time: cassette deck, turntable, TV screen, CD player, Walkman, web.
His abiding presence in my life was such that he felt strangely immortal, and it was a profound shock to learn of his death yesterday, just a couple of days after his 69th birthday.
Tears dripped down onto my keyboard when someone emailed me the news. It felt as if a hole had opened in the world that no one else would be able to fill. Even during the wilderness years when he forgot how to make decent records, I always liked the idea that David Bowie and I shared the same planet, and that he had made several visits down here to my own backyard.
Indeed, you may be surprised to learn that David Bowie once pretended to be a New Zealander.
He was here for a month in 1982, playing a defiant prisoner of war in Japanese director Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. Dressed in army fatigues, smoking a fag in the old Auckland Railway Station with streaks of grimy makeup on his face, there's a classic Radio With Pictures interview here where he talks to future MTV boss Brent Hansen mere minutes after the filming of a fake execution scene.
You may be less surprised to learn that a New Zealander once pretended to be David Bowie. At a fancy dress party in Dublin in the late 80s, I went along with the classic Aladdin Sane album cover lightning bolt drawn in lipstick down my face.
I'm ashamed to admit that there was also a snug, glittery top and a borrowed pair of tights involved. A chubby drunk Antipodean in women's clothing, I made a poor imitation of the great man. I looked like a spangly sausage with a split at one end, but the thought was there. We can be heroes, just for one day.