So, today is our Bow Bow’s birthday. Bowie (a fellow Capricorn — yes, I’ll take that) is one of my favourite artists. I love him so much that, as cliché as it is, I have a Bowie lightning bolt tattoo on my upper back that I got after my first solo visit to Berlin — which yes, has been mistaken for a Flash Gordon tattoo and no, I don’t mind all that much.
I first “met” David Bowie watching Labyrinth (1986) and like many other young girls I imagine, I had a major crush. To this day I’ll never understand why Sarah turned him down. “Just love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”, Jareth says, to which the appropriate response is YES.
My Mother was/is also very into Bowie so I’m lucky that I got to grow up with his music around the house. I remember watching him on TV and my Mum saying, “no one can sing like Bowie. He just has a way. No one”.
David has been in the public eye since Space Oddity caught our collective attention in 1969. In 1971 he released one of my favourite tracks, Oh! You Pretty Things from the album Hunky Dory and then he re-emerged in 1972 fronting as arguably one of the most iconic musical characters/alter-egos of our time, Ziggy Stardust. But like most of the iconic artists from the glam rock era, he didn’t fade into history. He ch-ch-ch-changed (so sorry) his musical sound and appearance with the times. And that I think is what makes him the most interesting of all popular artists of our time.
He’s challenged gender perceptions, made men question their sexuality, worn quite frankly amazing new forward-thinking clothing ensembles which have arguably influenced and can be seen throughout high-fashion today and recent decades, appeared in films in characterized roles as well as cameos and left us with some awesome, emotive, energetic, feel-good and astoundingly creative tunes to boot.
Something else that I find very interesting about Bowie is his exposure and relationship to depression. David’s brother Terry, who exposed him to rock music in his early years and was a great influence on his musical interests, suffered terribly with mental illness and this led him to be committed to an institution and later commit suicide in 1985. His brother’s mental illness haunted David for a good deal of his life and his suicide became a focal point for the song “Jump they Say”. David’s Aunt Una underwent electric shock treatment for clinical depression and schizophrenia, and died in her late 30s. His Aunt Vivienne suffered a schizophrenic attack and his other Aunt Nora suffered a lobotomy to try and cure what her mother called “bad nerves”.
It’s fair to say mental health issues were greatly prevalent in David’s family and understandable that he may have suffered himself, although all that’s really discussed are his anxieties and self-induced demons from his cocaine abuse before moving to Berlin for a fresh start. While David never truly crossed the border into mental illness, it’s fair to say that he displays some quirks of his maternal family. David talks about “madness” in interviews during the Berlin years (which I can’t seem to find — though you can see them in the Bowie in Berlin documentary and at the Bowie Is exhibition which I caught at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin (the V&A is also releasing a film showing at many theatres). A very interesting chap indeed.
I’m sure you think so too. Here are my favourite Bowie moments and songs.
1 Bowie sings Station to Station in Christiane F: We the Children of the Bahnhof Zoo (1981)
I remember the tingles this scene gave me. The excitement of the crowd, the camera moving round his lovely face as he comes into view on the stage with his perfect 80s-Bowie blonde hair, the beat at the start of Station to Station in the background… just awesome. The song itself is one of my favourites — I love the way it changes into an almost different song, going from sultry guitar strumming and a slow, strong beat to an up-tempo pop song. This song actually randomly came on my shuffle when I had just moved to Berlin and the U-bahn was setting off from the station at Kottbusser Tor, an area which Bowie and Iggy Pop frequented in his Berlin years. The song begins with the sound of trains on railway tracks, and I had the biggest smile on my face sat there listening to it.
2 As the World Falls Down — Labyrinth (1989)
The aforementioned fuzzy feelings feature strongly when this is playing. The accompanying scene in the film is magical. Despite it representing Sarah’s downfall into confusion and isolation and she in fact breaks free from this obsessive display of love from our Bow Bow, it’s still beautiful.
3 I’m Afraid of Americans — NIN & David Bowie (1997)
I love this tune for several reasons. NIN are one of my favourite bands but I also love that the collaboration with Bowie allowed him to show us not only how diverse he is but how he can still create (fairly) mainstream hits in the late 90s. Not many classic artists/bands are still doing that. I saw NIN in Berlin a few years ago on their supposed “last” tour (it wasn’t) and I was praying Bowie was going to come out during this tune but alas, he did not. Still cuts me up. Not sure why he would pop out for that one song but we can dream, right?!
4 Dancing in the Street — David Bowie and Mick Jagger (1985)
What can be said about this? It’s pure GENIUS is what. Best music video I’ve ever seen. Bowie’s shaking hips, the over-the-stairs slo-mo jump at the beginning, the rogue dancing leg, homoerotic dancing, ever so subtle diet coke product placement… best watched when tipsy and dance moves can be emulated with friends. Apparently if you watch it without music it’s pretty funny, too.
5 Ashes to Ashes (1980)
Simply because it’s one of my favourites and I love the video. Bonus point: my Mum went to her school “prom” solo, dressed as the David Bowie clown and danced on her own in the spotlight in true 80s-movie style. She rocks.
6 Look Back in Anger (1979)
While it’s hard to limit favourites to a top 10 list, this is definitely up there. It’s such an underrated pop song. I love to try and sing along to the “loook back in aaahhanngerr” chorus. Key word: try.
7 “Tissues for my eyes” — Cracked Actor Documentary
Never officially released but well worth a watch: the Bowie Cracked Actor Documentary. Including a scene where Bowie gets his face molded, and subsequently asks for “tissues for my eyes please”. I was at Adam Buxton’s BUG show at the National Media Museum a few years ago when Buxton, also Bowie mega-fan, played the “tissues for my eyes” clip over and over to display Bowie’s upset at various scenarios until it actually hurt to laugh. I think you had to be there. Regardless, here it is.
8 Absolute Beginners (1986)
Another favourite. Absolute Beginners was released as a soundtrack to the film with the same name in 1986. It’s also an absolutely gorgeous love song. So much so, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be mine and my fiance’s first dance song at our wedding next year. The line “I absolutely love you” is just lovely, and the whole song itself is just a beautiful and honest reflection of any relationship. Check out the chorus lyrics:
If our love song could fly over mountains, could laugh at the ocean, just like the films. There’s no reason to feel all the hard times, to lay down the hard lines, it’s absolutely true.
9 Boys Keep Swinging (1979)
Never has a juxtaposed depiction of male privilege and homoeroticism sounded so catchy. In the video, Bowie features in a more typically masculine dress shaking his hips and swinging his knees with his slick hair with the accompanying Bowie-in-drag backing singers.
10 Heroes (1977)
No song will ever make me feel like Heroes does. Not only is it an absolute undisputed classic, but its connotations with the Berlin Wall makes it one of the most moving popular songs in pop history. Yeah — I said it.
In 1987 Bowie played a concert right outside the Reichstag building in West Berlin, next to the Wall. Bowie-fans in East Berlin gathered on the other side to listen to the concert. Before he sang Heroes, Bowie said in German, “We send our wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the wall,”. The story goes that while the song was playing, those in the East started chanting “The Wall must go!”, and “Gorbachev! Gorbachev!”, powered by the song to stand up to authorities. Spine-tingling.