How David Bowie spoke for me

David Bennun in More Intelligent Life:


Everybody has a Bowie story. This is mine. I’m a child living in Nairobi, Kenya – a world away, in the days before the Internet, from the pop music that already fascinates me. A visitor from America brings me a C-90 cassette. On one side is “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, which I do not then know to be David Bowie’s 1972 breakthrough record. Ten years after an earlier generation’s collective jaw dropped when he played “Starman” on “Top of the Pops”, this is my own “Starman” moment. To me, this fictive arrival from another planet is to all intents and purposes a real one. From the eerie syncopated pulse of “Five Years”, and that strange, strained vocal with its apocalyptic images of panic and catastrophe, to the sweeping finale of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide”, enveloping me like an exotic comfort blanket with the message that more of my kind are out there (“Just turn on with me and you’re not alone!”), I am transfixed by this alien artefact. It fills my Walkman earphones several times a day. At this point I barely have any idea who Bowie is or what he looks like (“Let’s Dance”, a global hit that reaches even the African equator, is still a year away). I grasp only that, as one outlander, I have somehow connected to another who speaks for and to me.

A quarter of a century later I watch what turns out to be Bowie’s last appearance on a British stage, when he gives a surprise guest performance with David Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2006. Bowie sings Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne”, and suddenly it seems the most natural thing in the world, his unmistakable London drawl lighting up this other-worldly yet utterly English song. My friend and I gawp at each other in our seats. This is the nearest thing to the second coming we are ever likely to encounter. Everybody has a Bowie story, and that’s the point here. The bereavement so many are feeling today may be one of the last shared experiences our increasingly atomised pop culture will know. We no longer undergo “Starman” moments – those pan-generational shocks which galvanise the young and appal their elders – and we are no longer producing musical artists who alter the entire course of their art, let alone the wider world, as Bowie did in his pomp, which lasted even longer than that of the only British pop act as momentous as he is, the Beatles.

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