When I was 16, a friend died in a water skiing accident. He hit a submerged tree. It shocked me – I mean, who dies, having fun like that? I felt it hard, harder, it seemed, than an adult ever would. I sat in my bedroom alone, sobbing in a way that was both affected and heartfelt, like teenagers do. I played one song over and over – David Bowie’s Sorrow.
Today, David Bowie died and a million teenage memories came seeping back, his songs the unlikely accompaniment to teenage years in country NSW.
Arms slung around the shoulders of my friends at a blue light disco, the boys we wanted to pash watching on as we screamed ‘Ch…ch…ch…ch…Changes’ at top note and marvelled at the lava lamp light show at the back of the Memorial Hall.
On a bad pubescent day, Heroes was a pleading anthem that spoke a truth no parent could imagine – we really could be heroes, just for one day. In spite of everything.
Waving my arms out the window of a hotted-up Holden, Young Americans pumping on the cassette deck. “It took him minutes, it took her no where …” I’d never even experienced what he was singing about, but plenty of girls had in the 70s. He was a man who knew his subject.
David Bowie performs Changes, live:
In 1983, David Bowie went to Coonabarabran, our ‘shopping town’, half an hour up the road from Binnaway, where mum got her hair blowdried every Friday. He shot his video for ‘Let’s Dance’ in the pub at Carinda, a bit of a drive away.
The whole of Australia – and especially north west NSW – loved him after that. Pictures taken on location showed him white as a Pom would be, in an Akubra and high-waisted shorts. The beautiful Warrumbungles are behind him – the formation dubbed the Breadknife, which we’d always point out from the car on the way to Coona, the scrub, short shadows cast by the hard, white sun.
‘Let’s Dance’-Shot in the pub at Carinda:
Later stories talked about the song being a comment on racism, but then we just saw a familiar looking pub and one of the biggest names in music in our little neck of the woods. I brought it up in every conversation I could. We felt like we were a big deal at last. Heroes, just for one day.
Bowie looks out of place in Let’s Dance. But then, David Bowie looked out of place everywhere. He was confusing. Pop? Funk? Glam rock? Straight? Gay? Bi? Even his eyes were different colours. He was my first brush with androgyny – slight, angled, makeup and spiked hair. But sexy, so sexy, sexier than a slender man in a lycra jumpsuit should ever be. I had a fight with someone who said he was a poof, as small town boys would back then. I had my evidence – Bowie was married to Angie, and Mick Jagger was in love with her. Just listen to the song, you idiots.
But Bowie was slippery, hard to pin down. One minute he was Ziggy Stardust, rock star and extra terrestrial messenger. The next, Aladdin Sane. That’s Aladdin, with the lightening bolt makeup. I did it once on my sister, part tribute, part means of killing boredom on a long, hot summer school holiday.
The next he’d be the embodiment of the Thin White Duke. Then a dad to a kid with the improbable name ‘Zowie’ (celebrities today should thank him for blazing the trail that gave us Peaches and Apple and North). Then a formal English gent, arm in arm with his stunning second wife, supermodel Iman.
I still wonder how Bowie got away with it. But he showed me you could live a life that was big and unconventional. That talent could take the strangest form. That different was often brilliant.
I left behind a lot of the music I grew up with. Sherbet, David Essex, Skyhooks raise a smile when they come on, but not much else. Bowie coasted through the decades, making hits in the 60s, 70s and 80s. He’s a rare survivor from that era on my playlist – Young Americans, Space Oddity, Heroes, Rebel Rebel, Sorrow, Starman sound as good today as they ever did.
His latest album, released just a few days ago, is now headed for Number 1 as well.
Bowie was with me through moments that were tragic and moments that were teen-dramatic and times that were carefree and pretty bloody good fun.
And memories like those never die. Thankyou Starman – may your legacy shine.