It seems I've reached that age where I have to watch my cultural heroes line up to remind me of how badly mortality sucks. Every generation since the advent of popular music must have gone through this and now it's the turn of mine. Even so, I wasn't prepared for Monday's sad news of the death of David Bowie.
I must admit there have been times since when I've wondered if this was just a shift to yet another persona for the chameleon of rock. It's probably just my brain struggling to cope, but I wouldn't have been entirely surprised to see a follow up announcement of the Ghost of David Tour, complete with hooded dancers wielding glittery scythes, a stage set depicting heaven and hell, and the man himself smiling wryly amid a phalanx of spirit guides and microphones. Sadly though, I think this time it's for real.
I know Bowie was originally from Brixton, but I've always seen him as the boy from Bromley in Kent, where he lived for a number of years during his very early career and where I grew up in the 70s.
My earliest memory of him was when I was illicitly made up to look like his Aladdin Sane album cover picture during preparations for a school play. I wasn't really much of a fan at the time but the girls doing the make up were and couldn't resist having a bit of fun with this skinny, slightly gauche, ginger-haired kid they were practising their skills on. I had no part in it other than as the human canvas, but I still copped for a telling off from the teacher. Looking back it seems like something of a rite of passage. Shame I don't have a picture.
It's odd how so many musical movements have developed in single locales. The Mersey beat, the Madchester sound, the Canterbury scene and others. South London and East Kent had something about it in the 70s. A wannabe middle-class toytown land of bay windows, low rise housing and leafy, winding roads. Nestling so close to London, It could never decide if it wanted to be the countryside or the city. It seemed to settle for something in between.
Boasting three semi-professional theatres, all of which I and my friends belonged to, the area had a strong vein of posturing exhibitionism running through it. They were just beginning to teach drama at my rather rough and ready secondary school in Welling when I started there in 1971. It's now an Academy specialising in the performing arts.
Many of our most iconic pop and rock musicians were born, or at one time lived, in the general area, including Mick Jagger, Kate Bush and Boy George. Hanif Kureishi even wrote a TV series about it - The Buddha of Suburbia - with a theme song appropriately sung by Bowie himself.
I've always had a bit of an on/off affair with Bowie's music, so looking around the V&A exhibition a couple of years ago, I was less impressed by the costumes and pomp, and more fascinated by how he'd become such a legend when we'd shared such mundane roots. He, of course, had that something special that transcended such parochial influences. Something that consistently set him above us mere earth-bound space cadets, but it was still a strange feeling.
Bowie was the pop/rock/soul/art-house musician who defined the genre, if the term 'genre' is even relevant when describing him. He seemingly moved effortlessly through musical forms and personas, although I suspect there was actually much more effort involved than we knew.
Even after his often forgotten wilderness years in the late 70s, he still managed comeback after comeback, mainly because he never really went away. His re-emergence into the 80s world of New Romanticism saw him embraced as the godfather of the concept, and as a musician myself by then, he was thrust back into my semi-consciousness.
With a few notable blips (don't mention Tin Machine) no one has stayed at the forefront of contemporary music as long as Bowie, and suspect no one ever will again. He was from a different era, one where musicians were treated as light entertainment, co-opted into 'showbiz' along with TV stars, end-of-the-pier performers and variety artists.
No self publishing internet wizardry was available to bypass the taste filters of cloth-eared A&R men. No social media and free downloads to get your work out to millions of potential fans. You had to pay your dues, and luck played as much a part in that as talent.
His first heyday was of course during the time of glam, sparkle and platform shoes, by which time he'd already re-invented himself twice from a mod and an Anthony Newley/Bob Dylan chimera. Lest we forget the novelty single that was The Laughing Gnome. On second thoughts, maybe we should forget that.
It was a time when image counted nearly as much as the music, and Bowie navigated imagery better than anyone. I've lost count of the number of times he's morphed into new styles, fusing one musical genus with another. He once said everything he did was stolen, neatly pilfering Picasso's own quote that "all art is theft" without a trace of irony.
Along the way he introduced us hapless Brits to a coterie of stylish and outlandish performers. Lou Reed and Iggy Pop to name but two. Not to mention his influence on new musical movements that would become punk, new wave and the aforementioned floppy-cuffed fops of the early 80s. To guess where he would go next would be folly.
His final incarnation was that of a musical icon who produced interesting music right up to a death that was as much of a surprise to his fans and collaborators as most of his life was.
He's earned his place not only in the annals of musical history, but in the ranks of artistic veneration where he'll probably stay forever. That's a kind of immortality that many of us will never have, yet befits a man whose odd, space-face eyes were always on the artistic horizon.
I've struggled not to settle on single songs that sum up his career and lyrics. But it's difficult. They all seem so poignant now, wringing out new meanings now he's gone. The truth is that so many of his titles, lyrics and themes seemed so prescient.
His last album - Blackstar - and the single 'Lazarus' of course now resonates very differently than it would have done had he still been with us. And as a situational showman to the last, he would have known that when he recorded it and the accompanying video. As long term collaborator and producer Tony Visconti has confirmed, this last album, released only two days before his death, was his farewell gift to us all. Giving us something to pore over for nuances and meaning while we mourn his passing.
Amid tributes from friends, fellow musicians, artists, the media, NASA, and even The Pope, I've actually found it hard to listen to any of his music since the news came over, so much of it is full of the life and swagger we'll never see again.
But if I were pushed to name a favourite track it would be 'Cygnet Committee' from his second album and his more folky era. In the circumstances I hope Mr Jones would forgive me for taking a slight liberty with the last line :
We had a friend, a talking man
Who spoke of many powers that he had
Not of the best of men but ours
We used him, we let him use his powers
We let him fill our needs... now he is gone
At the end of that song Bowie screams "I want to LIVE!" and he always will, through his music, through the memories of those of us who have grown up with and been influenced by his many ch-ch-changes, and through those generations to come who'll discover his work, not just in itself, but through the influence he'll continue to exert on music for many golden years to come.
He'll remain a hero, for ever and ever. And that's not a bad epitaph for a boy from Bromley.Suggest a correction