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I was seriously late to discover David Bowie. When I was a kid, I didn’t like him very much; I was born in 1980, so the Bowie I grew up with was a pretty mainstream pop star, like Elton John or Cher. I remember the Bowie of Live Aid and “Dancing In The Streets”, not Ziggy Stardust or the Berlin years, and I hadn’t been around for the extraterrestrial visitations of the 70s, when he’d blown away a generation of kids desperate to know it was okay to be different.
A post by the writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach reminded me this week that the whole point of mid-Eighties Bowie was to be mainstream that way. He explained that his favourite Bowie track was the middle-of-the-road “Modern Love”:
my favorite bowie song is “modern love”: it proves that bowie’s art sprang from complete mastery of form. it was bowie declaring that just in case anyone thought he hadn’t written a perfect, chart-busting, commercial radio-friendly, movie-soundtrack baiting song that would make elton john blush with envy, it was purely by choice.
Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy quotes Bowie himself on the same era: “‘Let’s Dance’ put me in an extremely different orbit… artistically and aesthetically. It seemed obvious that the way to make money was to give people what they want, so I gave them what they wanted, and it dried me up.”
I guess I just hadn’t realised, as a little kid, that in seeing mainstream Bowie, I was missing the other chapters of his story.*
When I got into young adulthood, I started to ask new questions: who was it okay to kiss, to love; who was allowed to paint their nails, their lips, colour their hair. Now Bowie’s value as a star to navigate by – discussed beautifully by Stella Duffy here – became clear to me.
I was surprised how much I felt his death this week. Not so much because he was currently at a creative peak, but because he was a truly heroic figure for any of us who ever wondered about the ways you could choose to be different.
I heard the news of his death while I was en route from Europe to Australia. After landing, I spent my first couple of days in Australia on a kind of Bowie pilgrimage through the long, arid stretches of rural Queensland and New South Wales. The video for “Let’s Dance”, Bowie’s most successful and mainstream song, was shot in country Australia in 1983.
You can read about what happened on my trip at this week’s Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical. You can also subscribe to the newsletter here for ongoing weekly updates.
*As a child, I probably preferred Midge Ure and Ultravox to Bowie, which doubtless says terrible things about me – except you can read Leigh Alexander writing brilliantly about 80s nostalgia, video games, and Midge Ure’s cover of The Man Who Sold The World here.