by Sheldon & Christina
(Written yesterday, on 11/01/2016, after meeting at the Three Tuns pub, now Zizzi’s Beckenham, where Bowie started his musical career)
It was the news, first thing on Monday morning, when the context of Blackstar clicked into place as the 28th and final entry into Bowie’s catalogue. Upon its release, the jarring, stark, melancholy album of seven songs was birthed into the world and instantly won over critics and fans alike. Succinct, sultry, seductive. But it’s subject matter always struck me as odd. Now, with recent news updates, it doesn’t.
Under the stewardship of long time collaborator Tony Visconti, three days ago the video for Lazarus premiered. Following on from the haunting lead single which shares the name of the album, it was the unexpected news of Bowie’s death that clarified the Sound and Vision of what would be his last single.
His bedclothes barely containing him; Bowie, looking gaunt, thin and war-weary (from a battle none of us knew he was facing), he defiantly croons:
‘Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now’
It’s like every Bowie track had come together, merged and reconstructed itself into his last piece of music. One journalist wrote that he was ‘entirely in charge of his own swan song’. Yes. Yes he was. And isn’t it beautiful?
He was a Hero.
Written yesterday: 11/01/2016
We all remember where we were when we heard the news about a celebrity that meant a lot to us dying. It becomes that much of an important moment in our lives that we do not forget where we stood the moment we found out that someone we admire is no longer with us.
When the news broke about Michael Jackson dying, I was in the cinema watching Transformers 2. I found out when I got out and checked Facebook on my smartphone. The public outpouring of grief on people’s statuses was hard to miss. When Princess Diana died…well, we all remember where we were when we found that out. But smartphones and social media didn’t exist in 1997 so we mourned quietly, at home. There wasn’t an immediate outlet for us to write what we thought and felt about it.
This morning, I was in the bathroom, brushing my teeth with the door open. Dan yelled WHAT?! at the TV in the other room and I didn’t immediately go to see what was wrong, because my mouth was full of toothpaste and also Dan talking to BBC News in the morning isn’t entirely out of the common way. But then I did go to look and my jaw hit the floor. The screen was full of the words ‘Breaking News: David Bowie has died’ and the words just didn’t make sense to me. Next to us, on the sitting room wall, the black and white oil painting of David Bowie smoking a cigarette that Dan, the Bowie super-fan, had received for his 30th birthday stared off into the middle distance like always, but perhaps with a slightly more troubled expression than usual.
On the way home from my work appointments later this morning, I started thinking about how public mourning has changed over the years. In the days of Victorian Britain, the streets would be lined with people dressed in black, waiting for the funeral cortège to pass. Something echoed by the funeral of Princess Diana – it felt like the whole world lined the streets of London for her funeral. Nowadays, we just write our sentiments on Facebook. Driving home via Beckenham, I remembered that I live one town over from where Bowie lived, wrote his early music and performed his early concerts. I decided to go and see if physical tributes still exist.
20 minutes later, I am standing in front of a generic looking Italian chain-restaurant in the middle of Beckenham high street. The sky is very, very grey. It is freezing cold. You wouldn’t know this restaurant was anything if you happened to be going by, unless you knew what to look for, or stopped for long enough to look up at the front of the building, where the town forum, some years ago, raised enough money to put a bright red plaque up with the name ‘David Bowie’ in the centre and the names of the venues that this building used to house.
Someone has brought a big photograph in a frame, of Ziggy Stardust, and placed it against the railings in front of the building. People have left cards and tributes written on white paper or photographs, and left them for us all to read. As I stand there, more and more people arrive. They are of all ages. Some of them are laying flowers and some are taking pictures. I stand and watch them and take some photos of my own and people talk to me, we talk to each other. Because we all feel something about this person who has just died, and we need to talk about it.
Amid all the people I talk to over the next 15 minutes, one sticks in my mind. A woman of about my age arrives with a little girl who cannot be more than 3. ‘Mummy, why are people leaving flowers here?’ she asks, and her mother visibly steels herself in the way that you do when a child asks you about death, and then says ‘when someone has died, people leave flowers to say ‘thank you’ because that person meant a lot to them’. As they walk away a few minutes later, I hear the mother say ‘when we get home we’ll put some of his songs on’ and I smile, thinking that David Bowie will live on because we’ll make sure our children know about his music, and in this way, he won’t be forgotten. Because that’s the real memorial isn’t it? It isn’t this place, it’s the memory that people leave behind.
I can’t write anything that hasn’t already been said about David Bowie. I imagine that by now, you’ve read so many eulogies and fact files since the news broke, that you know more about him than he did. But here’s the thing that no-one else can write, not exactly like this anyway:- my parents showed me Labyrinth, taped off the telly, when I was 6 or 7 and it became my favourite film. I watched it until the tape broke. I grew up in a town full of locals who proudly wore the David Bowie connection like a badge. His music has always been in the background of my life, and then, last year, when I met Dan, who worships him, his back catalogue came to the forefront of my world and I fell in love with it all. I feel like I DID know him. And this personal element of mourning is just as important as knowing about the history of somebody’s life. Which is why I’m sharing it with you.
edited to add: we went back later, when it was dark, so Dan could see it too. The memorial had grown into a shrine, and there was a crowd of people, standing quietly and lighting candles. We found Sheldon there, and we all stood respectfully and watched all the people who were touched by this person that once lived here, and by his amazing music. Then, as is the Cemetery Club way, we went to the pub.