How David Bowie used the power of death to create a masterpiece
The death of David Bowie at the start of the year sent a seismic shock through the music world. But his chameleon career colours a legacy that endures beyond his passing
I spent one extraordinary day with David Bowie in London. The year was 1993, about halfway between Ziggy Stardust and Blackstar. He was 46, a slightly built, lightly tanned, fabulously good-looking man who chain-smoked with the decadent nonchalance of a bygone era. Our mission was to spend a day visiting his old London haunts of the 1960s and 70s on a trawl for memories and meanings. We went to the premises that once housed Trident Studios in Soho where he recorded the albums Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972) and most of Aladdin Sane (1973). We went out to the East End where he played his first gigs at pubs such as the Bricklayers Arms, the Green Man and the Thomas A Becket. We went to Heddon Street in the West End where he was photographed with his foot up on a rubbish bin underneath a sign that read ‘K. West’ – the iconic image on the inside cover of the Ziggy Stardust album. We went to the Marquee in Wardour Street and to Hammersmith Odeon (since renamed Apollo) where we sat together on the stage, in the freezing cold of a winter afternoon, and Bowie recited verbatim the words that he spoke from the same stage in July 1973 on the last night of the Ziggy Stardust tour: “This show will stay the longest in our memories, not just because it is the end of the tour but because it is the last show we’ll ever do.”
He meant, of course, that it was the last show he and his band would ever do as Ziggy and The Spiders. But now Bowie really has done the last show he’ll ever do, made the last record he will ever make, and spoken the last words he will ever speak.
In the aftermath of his sudden and unexpected death on January 10, I have thought long and hard about that magical day we spent together. It was one of the most untypical celebrity encounters I can recall. There was no PR minder or other intermediaries. Bowie had not merely agreed to be interviewed. He picked me up in a car with his own driver which ferried us around an itinerary which he had planned and mapped out. He had dug out old diaries and notebooks from the period, which we pored over afterwards in a nearby hotel over peacock soup and a cheese sandwich. And, while I wrote the resulting story (for Rolling Stone magazine), there was a sense in which he had helped to sculpt it on my behalf.
Bowie was a very emotional man. It was one of the reasons he adopted so many fabulous and remote personas – Ziggy, Aladdin, the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Fell To Earth, the singer in Tin Machine. Along with the drink and drugs, these roles were a way of camouflaging his feelings and distancing his true self from his art. “I felt I had to escape myself and the responsibility of my own feelings of inadequacy. I didn’t love myself, not at all,” he told me.
As our tour down memory lane unfolded, and he was confronted with the physical remains of his past, it turned into a very emotional day. Almost everywhere we went, the landmarks we sought had either been removed, replaced or, in the case of the Marquee and several of the other pubs, reduced literally to piles of rubble. Everywhere we went he was confronted with personal goodwill from the people who recognised him, tinged with a sense of sadness at the inexorable, careless march of time.
It was also a period of personal sadness. Guitarist Mick Ronson, the erstwhile chief Spider From Mars, was desperately ill, and would die within a couple of weeks of our meeting. Bowie and he had kept in contact. Indeed Ronson had played on one of the tracks on Bowie’s latest album, Black Tie White Noise. As we talked about his ailing comrade, Bowie struggled to keep from crying. “I’ve never bought in to any organised religion,” he said. “But now I have an unshakeable belief in God. I pray every morning.”