music Writings

Memories of Bowie

(I wrote this post to support a crowd-funded collection of writings on Bowie. Sadly the book never happened, but the feelings remain.)

I learned about pop music in a place called the Gloryhole. It was a room in our boarding house where we stored our tuckboxes, little wooden trunks with sharp metal clasps where you kept all that was precious to you. We hung around there whenever we had free time, twisting at Rubik’s Cubes and steering ball bearings around miniature plastic mazes. Someone had a mono record player. Music-wise, all I had brought with me from primary school was an encyclopaedic knowledge of the works of Abba. For the first time I heard early Genesis (to become a life-long love), Supertramp (not so much) and the smart punk of The Stranglers. I often wonder what it is about the irritable hunger of adolescence that makes music stick like gum to a young soul. We carry the marks for decades, predilections we give up even trying to justify, an embarrassing, magnetic sensitivity to certain riffs, grooves and vocal lines, as thrilling and irrational as love.

It was in the common room of my next boarding house, a year later, that I heard Scary Monsters. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Fashion’ were on the radio. Bowie was no longer the dippy strummer from the video of ‘Space Oddity’. They were singing in Japanese, ferchrissakes. I had never heard phrasing on a musical instrument like I heard on Robert Fripp’s guitar solo to ‘Fashion’ (I still haven’t). Everything was angular, stark and half-a-twist out of tune. The boy who unveiled the record one day was in the year ahead of me, inserted that much further into a world of heady ideas. He had written ‘I DO NOT EXIST’ on his tuckbox in black marker pen, which I thought was deeply cool. I wondered what it meant: ‘I DO NOT EXIST’. I was twelve years old, living away from home. My life was the routine of industrial breakfasts, classroom cricket and magical Asian foodstuffs that could be brought to life with hot water. I needed some ideas to shape a personality around. Until then, just some feelings would do.

My story in Fill Your Heart is not about that time. But it is about a teacher and some schoolboys, and the power of Bowie’s music to join the dots on a tattered life. It’s about a particular song, ‘Teenage Wildlife’, which still almost makes me crash the car. I’m dizzy to think what great writing will be collected in this book. Please help us to make it happen.

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