His trick is you and me, boy
Every post-Soviet party in the early 90s reminded me of the scene in a Moscow restaurant from Master and Margarita. There is not a lot I can remember as I had to be very small at the time, but sweaty waiters with heavy alcohol-filled trays do spring to mind. What else? Dancing women – so remorselessly unattractive and overweight you wanted to scream. Awful sweaters, awful haircuts. And, of course, the music. Scratchy, low-quality mixtapes full of Patricia Kaas, Boney M, Smokie, Paul McCartney and, once upon a time, a tune that sounded vaguely different to a skinny boy of 5 or 6 whose perception of art was so embryonic you could squash it with a tennis racquet.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to overstate the importance of what happened more than twenty years ago. But there it was. One tune. One song on a chewy, murky cassette from the early 90s. I think I recognised it some ten years later, from a strangely seductive music video. The song was called “Ashes To Ashes”. Again, it sounded like a different world. Different planet, something from outer space. And I had no idea who Thomas Jerome Newton was. Christ, I had never heard of Major Tom.
I don’t mind seeing people overreact. If anything, overreaction shows that a person can react in the first place. Something of a trick in these listless, emotionally vapid times. And on the white morning when I found out about David Bowie’s death, I freaked out. One SMS message left me speechless on the snow-covered street in the centre of the city. It happened the day Heath Ledger died, but that’s because death was so fucking absurd that day. It happened the day Amy Winehouse died, but that’s because of the strange circumstances in which I learned about her death. It certainly happened the day Christopher Hitchens died, but then everyone had seen it coming.
With David Bowie, you could never see it coming. Liver cancer? Fuck off. Bowie changed. That was the point of Bowie. Ziggy, Tom, Duke. Bowie changed all the time. Change equals life: Bowie could not die. Bowie had to go on forever. And so I overreacted. More than that, I wanted the whole world to overreact. Get off their fucking social network. Their Twitter accounts, their Facebook posts with cute pictures and dramatic YouTube videos. Like they cared. Like they needed this public display to show that they cared. (I was oddly pleased to check Luke Haines’s Twitter a day later to find out that he wasn’t there with any tributes, he was with his favourite Bowie records; my love for the man has grown some more.) The idea just sounded so pettily narcissistic and so cheap. It still does.
Favourite Bowie records… They changed as rapidly as Bowie changed. And yet sinking whiskies, playing “Time” for the hundredth time, I realised it must have been that album he did in 1973, in the post Ziggy Stardust craze. Aladdin Sane. The pun in the title was so obvious, so fitting, and the music was quintessential Bowie. Glam-rock Bowie (“Cracked Actor”), theatre Bowie (“Time”), classical avant-garde Bowie (“Aladdin Sane”), generic rock’n’roll Bowie (“The Jean Genie”), unnecessary cover Bowie (“Let’s Spend The Night Together”), even doo-wop Bowie (Drive-in Saturday”). Truly it had everything (well, almost everything). It even had “Lady Grinning Soul”, one of my favourite songs of all time. It wasn’t all right, but then Bowie never had to be. He was the perfect pop outsider, the quintessence of postmodernist expression. His genius was deranged.
Which is the undertone I must have felt at one of those post-Soviet parties that looked more like a Satanic ball than the actual Satanic ball in Bulgakov’s novel. My perception of music and art must have expanded that day. It did so many more times later on, for there were stories and there were albums to look forward to. Good, bad – that was almost secondary. They were new. Then there was his fear of flying. Those misguided 90s. Him playing Tesla. The overlong hiatus… Death. Only this time, it doesn’t add up. Because however insane and imperfect that world was, I now realise – as the cruel and otherworldly Blackstar spins again and again in the background – that it will no longer give me a new Bowie. Good or bad. There won’t be a single new David Bowie record. I don’t understand this. It is preposterous. It is fucking insane.