❚ HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR BOWIE. And thanks for the boggling, inspirational, poptastic ride so far —140 million albums sold and the rules of rock rewritten. You will be the genie waiting at the end of time. Boy George has this to say in his foreword to Graham Smith’s new book on 80s clubland, named after David Bowie’s song We Can Be Heroes: “Of the New Romantic moment I have always said, It was all Bowie’s fault.” What he refers to is the Bowie bequest to the teen generations he entertains. As a cultural lightning rod he has bequeathed insights into the realm of the imagination. As a performer he has delivered a repertoire of life-skills through a cast of mythical personalities invented for himself as a popstar, from the self-destructive Ziggy Stardust and the amoral Thin White Duke, to his romanticised “Heroes” (his own quote marks added to emphasise self-awareness). Through their formative years, Bowie invited his acolytes:
✰ to explore identity, androgyny, the primacy of the visual.
✰ to adopt stances: individualism, alienation, decadence, transgression.
✰ to follow his principles for living amusing lives: disposable identities, portable events, looks not uniforms, tastelessness “on purpose”.
His signature tune, “Heroes”, still echoes today as a heart-stirring anthem because he was passionate and optimistic and musically this number is brimming with awe. He sang about intimacy and love triumphing over the horrors of the outside world. Finding joy in simple pleasures could make heroes of us all, “just for one day”. As a creed to live by, it has underpinned his own life. “I’m an instant star,” he said. “Just add water and stir.”
Were he still living in the UK, today’s birthday would designate him, in the idiom, “an old-age pensioner”, and the state would pay him slightly more than the five shillings a week handed over when the scheme began 100 years ago. He can’t be 65, you’re saying as you inspect the picture of him and his wife Iman [above] at a leukemia charity gala in New York last year. He looks too good for 65. “Waddayamean?” he’d be bound to snap, flinging back the old feminist line, “This is how 65 looks in the 21st century.”
True, if you start young, break the rules and push yourself to the max, as all geniuses do. While in short trousers, the little suburban Londoner David Jones was nothing if not prolific. At 11 he was playing a skiffle bass, buying and collecting the NME for future reference, learning the sax at 13 and soon moving up through a succession of bands: Konrads, Hookers, King Bees, Manish Boys, Lower Third, Buzz, and Riot Squad.
At school he fell under the spell of an art teacher, Owen Frampton, whose own son Peter went on to musical fame. Bowie has said: “I went to one of the first art-oriented high schools in England, where one could take an art course from the age of 12. Three-fourths of our class actually did go on to art school.”
Everybody knows how this liberal education shaped his outsider stance, how he redefined glam-rock, and how his incarnation as Ziggy Stardust made him an international star and one of the most iconoclastic forces in 70s music. How much more fun though to celebrate a grand milestone by looking back to the earliest expressions of that genius and to wonder aloud how else might the talents of the young David Jones have developed? Today, we find whole chapters of his formative experiments on video online, from mime artist and music-hall hoofer, to actor and fin-de-siècle soothsayer. In all the springboard moments pictured in the slideshow above, Bowie is no older than 24. At any moment the fickle finger of fate could as easily have pointed in any number of directions…
INSTEAD, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED
In 1969 Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt proposed to showcase his talents by producing a half-hour film called Love You Till Tuesday. The compilation showcased tracks from his 1967 debut album, plus a spanking new song, Space Oddity, which introduced Major Tom and became his first hit. Cleverly anticipating the first Nasa Moonwalk in 1969, the filming for this number pastiches Stanley Kubrick’s cine-epic premiered the previous year. It effectively proposed what today we call the promo video which, as Kevin Cann reveals in his exhaustive 2010 Bowie biography Any Day Now, remained substantially unseen by the public until its release as a clip in 1984. The whole half-hour showreel went online for the first time only yesterday…
THEN HE MET WILLIAM BURROUGHS
THEN HE MET LIZ TAYLOR
THEN HE WROTE A SONG WITH JOHN LENNON
AND THE REST IS, WELL, BOWIE…
➢ Radio 2’s clips from Inspirational Bowie at iPlayer — Marc Almond: “I climbed over the orchestra pit and David Bowie took my hand. He sang Give me your hand in Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide and it was an epiphany”