Watching D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust in Missoula, Montana,
January 11, 2015
I entered the Roxy on Higgins expecting to see people I knew. The only person there I recognised was Mike S who runs the cinema. I queued up, bought a Moose Drool and took my seat. The auditorium, which seats a hundred and nineteen, was packed and there was a buzz in the air. I had been emailing friends in London that day and exchanging emotional messages about the death of David Bowie, which had come at me like an unexpected missile.
The first exchange in Pennebaker’s 1973 film of the last live Ziggy Stardust outing takes place as Bowie is being made up in his dressing room just before the show. He is handed a long official-looking printout, which he dramatically unrolls.
“It’s written in code!” he exclaims. “I didn’t know people did business in code!”
Angie walks in: all blue eye shadow and poufy blonde hair. She speaks to him in her best Barbara Windsor accent, which feels absurd and yet absolutely right. She tries to give him some advice about his eye shadow and he retorts, “What would you know about make-up, you’re only a girl.” Genius. His ability to turn every gender stereotype on its head was so important to me as a girl growing up in the Canadian suburbs. Bowie’s humour set him apart from so much of the glam rock posturing of the 70s. Can you imagine the New York Dolls laughing at themselves the way Bowie did? No, me neither. Much as I love the Dolls, the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, they weren’t funny. They were brilliant, but you didn’t go to them for lightness, humour or ease. At least, I didn’t.
And then there’s Bowie’s smile. His cheeky, naughty grin, which is so utterly mesmerising. As he trounces around the stage as Ziggy Stardust in a black feather boa and silver gogo shorts, he morphs into a Max Beckman or George Grosz character from 1920s Berlin. His playfulness opened so many doors to so many of us when we were working out where we could slot ourselves on just about any spectrum, whether it be our sexual orientation, talent, taste, political leanings, madness or sanity. He gave us permission to try stuff out, even if it was for only five minutes.
After the third costume change in the film, several people left the cinema. I was wondering if they had come to see who this David Bowie was and what the fuss over his death was all about and left thinking, “God, he’s just plain weird”. Or had they heard of him and thought he sounded like a nice Englishman who sang pretty songs? I have no idea. But I don’t think I have ever met anyone who didn’t like David Bowie. Or at least some David Bowie.
The audience got more raucous. It was as if we felt collective relief that the riff-raff had left the building and we could get down to the business of expressing our adoration and our sadness. When Bowie sang the Jacques Brel song, “My Death,” the tears that had been wanting out all day, finally came. I had a good cry. As did the woman next to me. And probably half the audience. One guy got up and danced up and down the aisle. Another yelped at every flash of Bowie’s inner thigh.
Although Bowie had a transient quality to him, a fluidity to his personae, I never really considered how I would feel when he was gone. I have asked myself this many times with regards to Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. But Bowie is different. I hadn’t realised my debt, my love for his music and just how much I owe him. I feel I have taken him for granted all my life—that he would always be there somewhere doing his thing, quietly egging the misfits on. When I think back on my life, on previous relationships, there are so many moments during which Bowie featured in the background, whether it involved eating oysters in bed, arguing, not arguing, making soup, watching the snow fall—there are too many moments to recall at once, but they are all distinct and crisp in my mind. The music of the sixties, much as I loved it and listened to it, wasn’t mine. Bowie was.
New Year’s Eve this year staying in a friend’s cabin on Flathead Lake in Montana, we put on “Oh You Pretty Things” at midnight. Two years ago, friends from Paris dropped in on December 31st while we were still living in London. They put on “Starman” on the dot of midnight. I have seen in more new years to Bowie than to any other artist. Art school was one long period of listening to stuff between Bowie albums.
And then there was my big move to London in 1990. By that point, Bowie had been living in the US for fifteen years. But London and its vibe contained Bowie in its very fabric. Leigh Bowery and the Fate Worse than Death parties, Madame Jojo’s, Duckie at the Vauxhall Tavern and the seemingly endless rooftop gatherings from which I watched many sunrises. Every time Grayson Perry would come on Newsnight, wearing his Little Bo Peep costume dressed as his alter ego Claire, while discussing politics with foreign ministers, I would wonder, “Would this cross-dressing man be taken seriously on national television if it hadn’t been for David Bowie?” Grayson Perry recently wrote that Bowie gave him the “keys to the dressing-up box”.
Watching Pennebaker’s film, it really struck me just how progressive and transgressive Bowie was. He wasn’t a rock star that all men wanted to be and all women wanted to have sex with à la Mick Jagger. He was a rock star that men also desired and women wanted to be. His playfulness with gender was challenging and beautiful and showed me a way of looking at what it is to be human. He could play a killer riff wearing a spangly dress. He was his own person whether we liked it or not, and from “Let’s Dance” onward I often wasn’t crazy about what he was doing. The mime stuff embarrassed me.
Last night as I tried to understand my tears and my sadness over the death of David Bowie, I realised that I was not simply mourning him, I was mourning a city and a way of being. When I moved to London a quarter of a century ago, the city was so full of life and art and crazily inventive people doing wonderful things. I paid 20 pounds a week for a room, which would now get you three lattes on Broadway Market in East London. There is still energy there and a host of amazing people still doing their thing, but the city has changed. London has become about money and property. The London I will be moving back to after I leave Missoula will not be the London I fell in love with. It took David Bowie, in his usual incandescent way, to show me a kind of truth.