Although privately battling cancer for the past 18 months, the sudden announcement of David Bowie’s death, just three days after the release of his latest album, Blackstar, has left his fans reeling.
Column inches will be devoted to the impact that Bowie had upon the world of music and pop culture over the coming days, but the impact that he had upon the lives of many LGBT people deserves particular acknowledgement.
David Bowie had his first hit record in the UK the year that I was born; ‘Space Oddity’ rode to success on the back of the Apollo Moon landing in 1969.
Perhaps part of the reason I found myself in unexpected tears at breakfast this morning was his omnipresence throughout my life over the last five decades. For me, my generation, and anyone born later, Bowie was a star that had always been there, an iconographic constant that one took often for granted.
However, his impact, and the reason so many of my Facebook friends today were unable to find the words for the devastation they felt, went far beyond his simple longevity.
Bowie, in sound and vision, was the consummate outsider; a rock star who redefined what a rock star could be.
Bowie demonstrated that a man could grow his hair, wear a dress and face full of make-up, and still be regarded as the coolest pop star on the planet.
Bowie talked about being bisexual and his career didn’t bomb. Bowie not only demonstrated that it was OK to be different, he was living proof that it was positively advisable.
It’s difficult today to grasp quite how powerful a message that was when he first rose to prominence in the 1970s, or the life-affirming influence it had on generations of LGBTI youth: Keep changing and pushing at boundaries; experiment and dress up; ignore those who tell you how you should live; don’t be afraid to re-invent yourself.
In his excellent 2012 book, When Ziggy Played Guitar – David Bowie and Four Minutes That Shook The World, the writer Dylan Jones explores the impact Bowie’s performance of ‘Starman’ on the BBC show Top of the Pops in 1972 had upon British youth.
For those who’ve not seen it, Bowie – looking like he truly had beamed in from another planet – nonchalantly draped his arm around the shoulder of his guitar player, Mick Ronson. At the time, it was a shocking display of male-on-male affection that caused outrage to some – but also delight to others.
It’s hard to believe now, but Bowie, at the start of that year was on the verge of disappearing into obscurity.
He’d spent the latter half of the 60s desperately seeking musical success, ricocheting from one band to another in an attempt to crack the charts, before finally scoring a top ten hit with ‘Space Oddity’.
However, he initially failed to follow it up with another hit single, and although albums The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory met with critical acclaim, neither sold in significant numbers. When The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was released in April 1972, Bowie was sometimes playing to crowds of just 50-60 people on tour.
He, more than anyone, was aware of how crucial it was for his Ziggy Stardust project to succeed, which is why that particular Top Of The Pops appearance (his first since ‘Space Oddity’) was of such importance to his career.
That performance – and the song it promoted – bought him household fame in the UK, which acted as a springboard to success around the world.
At the time, in one his most infamous interviews, he said, ‘I’m gay — and always have been’.
He later revoked the statement, and instead said he was bisexual (‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ is about flirting with a woman, to the annoyance of a boyfriend). In later years, he would even distance himself from that label.
Although some complained about him betraying gay culture, his actual sexuality didn’t really matter. He’d put the message out there; it’s OK to be gay.
The dancer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp, with whom Bowie trained in the late 60s, says that they were briefly lovers. Kemp certainly took Bowie to some of London’s gay clubs and exposed him to queer culture. With regards to his sexuality, it’s almost certain Bowie dabbled and experimented, as he constantly did with his music and image.
But he made it cool to experiment with sexuality and to question the norm – something that millions of young people, wherever they lay on that spectrum, welcomed.
And this is before any discussion of his music; Sometimes accessible, sometimes challenging, but never predictable. ‘Diamond Dogs, ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Young Americans’, ‘Fame, ‘Sound and Vision’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Let’s Dance’… the list goes on and on and on.
Bowie provided an enigma to unravel, a soundtrack to life and an attitude to mimic. He influenced thousands of subsequent artists, and his impact upon our culture can never truly be measured.
When I was 12 and knew that I was somehow different there were few places that I could turn for support. Not to my parents or my peers. Instead, I turned to pop; I turned to Bowie and those who followed in his wake.
You never appreciate what you’ve lost until it’s gone, and it was only as the tears rolled down my cheeks this morning that I realized what a sacred place Bowie had in my heart.
Like so many others, I feel saddened and numb. For his family and loved ones, the loss is all the more acute.
But I also feel unbelievable gratitude: Thank you for the music, David. And thank you for changing my world.