Friday, 22 June 2012

Watch that man

So it’s ‘Bowie Night’ on BBC4 this evening.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t like at least some Bowie.  My first proper awareness of him was when my sister bought ‘Aladdin Sane’ in 1973.  She played it a lot and even my mum liked it.  I was only ten and soon became familiar with every song, every note and vocal inflection, in that way that you do as a child without even realising it.  It’s quite possible I may have been heard singing ‘Cracked Actor’, for instance, on the way to the sweet shop to buy my sherbet pips.  It was no doubt also the first time I heard (but didn’t understand) the words wanking, quaaludes and incestuous, when Bowie crossed more boundaries in the unsettling theatrical darkness of ‘Time’.   (It would be a few years before I assaulted my family’s eardrums with ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ and the explicit lyrics of ‘Bodies’ – but, of course, by then they were unshockable.)

I studied that iconic album cover so many times, wondering about the unreal paleness of his skin and the pool of mercurial-looking substance in the cavity behind his left clavicle.  It was only later that I explored his full back-catalogue and added several Bowie albums to my own collection, but 'Aladdin Sane' has always felt like my personal introduction to the man.

In my mid-teens my parents were splitting up and my mum went through another one of her deep bouts of clinical depression.  There are, naturally, many memories associated with all of that which I won’t go into here but, weirdly, one of them is 'Aladdin Sane'.  My mum started to listen to music a lot during that phase and for some reason she favoured that album.  I often heard her playing it late at night, and I admit it was a little disturbing. But there must have been something about it, something that touched her within its varying moods or the way that Bowie expresses his lyrics with a strange mixture of menace and relish – I think it’s both upbeat and downbeat in equal measure.  It was quite an insane time and the irony of that album title is not lost on me, but it’s still a record I love – along with a good deal of his other output. 

I’m looking forward to tonight’s programmes.


  1. I absolutely idolized Bowie as a teenager! He just seemed the coolest thing on the planet and I retrospectively bought everything up to Scary Monsters as soon as I had my own record player... before that my only access to his music was a tiny transistor radio. Other than that, any music at all in our house came from my Mum's huge old Hi-Fi in the living room, with my Mum sat right next to it permanently! The only music she would allow was Abba, the Bee Gees and worst of all (to my ears anyway) Johnny Mathis!!! There was no point in buying records as she would not allow them to be played (she also suffered from depression and rarely went out, never in the evenings).

    My parents were pretty strict and so I wasn't allowed to have a record player of my own until '79 and then my Bowie mania began, well behind everybody else, but it was just as powerful for me, maybe more so, because it had been off limits for so long.

    I'm sorry about your mother, I hope she recovered, and I wonder if she didn't listen to Aladdin Sane because it took her back to that happier time when she would hear it drifting down from your sisters bedroom and all was right with the world?

  2. Yve beat me to the punch with her musings on what your Mum was getting from Aladdin Sane - it's a thought though isn't it? The emotional power of music, sometimes at the most unexpected times (and of the most unexpected kinds) never ceases to amaze me.

    You're right about memorizing every note and breath on the first few records you get to spend time with. I still know all my earliest records word for word, even if they've long since been discarded and yet I struggle to remember the track titles of the new stuff that I listen to every day.

    It's a sobering thought that Ziggy Stardust is one of a handful of albums I've had in my collection, in one format or another, for 40 years....40 years!

  3. He's always been there for all of us! My youngest big sister left home to get married when I was eleven, and left me three of her LPs, Pin Ups, Hunky Dory (and, er, Silverbird by Leo Sayer but let's not dwell on that.). I listened to the two Bowie Albums incessantly on our huge walnut radiogram, and got to know every crackle and chord, every intake of breath. I adored him.

    I came to Aladdin Sane and all the others shortly afterwards (pocket money permitting), and my adoration continued unabated until Let's Dance, which seems to have been the end of the affair for many of us. Aladdin Sane always seemed a very 'roomy' album to my ears; several of the songs had the melancholic atmosphere of a deserted dancehall, particularly the title track and Time. Maybe that was what your mother tuned into, who knows. But it's certainly a collection of songs that are richly evocative, as much now as ever. God bless 'im.

  4. I think the two people that don't like Prince are the same two that don't like David Bowie.

    I can hear Golden Years on my coworkers radio across the hall as I type. He's one of the few people me and my sister actually agree on.

    He and Iggy Pop are the only tow "old-timers" (I was 17 and 18 at the time) I went out of my way to see when I was younger.

    I'll just add my well wishes for your Mother to those already offered.

  5. I'm looking forward to it too

    (Incidentally there was a great prog on Radio 2 a few weeks back about the creation of Ziggy...maybe still on iPlayer ???)

    Ziggy S and Aladdin S were out just as I became 16 and I, and everyone I knew, adored those LPs. I saw Bowie at Romford Odeon in ' many little kids with the flash on their faces :)

  6. Early stuff was brilliant - I bought Laughing Gnome!

    Like Let's Dance time... Diamond Dogs fantastic...

    Brilliant musician and writer

  7. Thanks all for comments - it's so nice to read everybody's brilliant reminiscences and thoughts on the man (and I thought it was a great night's TV viewing too).
    Great that you've seen him live, e.f. and Cusp (loved your mention of the little kids with the flash on their faces) and Yve, The Swede, Kolley and Furtheron you have the same feelings as me about playing his albums. He's such a one-off, isn't he?
    (Thanks for the kind words about my mum's depression too - it was something she lived with on/off for most of her adult life -my thoughts go out to you too, Yve, and anyone else who's touched by depression in any way. Just one of those things, sometimes it meant hospitalisation sometimes not, if nothing else it taught me a lot about mental health and understanding human vulnerability. I hope I may somehow be a slightly better person for that!)


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