Memory Songs

By James Cook

A personal journey into the music that shaped the 90s

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Do You Remember the First Time? #6. David Bowie

Fast forward. A long way forward. David Bowie Is at the V & A, the first survey of a pop star’s work ever held at the museum. On display were guitars, posters, set-models, costumes, album sleeves, handwritten lyrics – all manner of curios and relics from the great man’s personal archive. In among the tat and ephemera there was even Bowie’s coke spoon.

Attendance was healthy. In fact, it was so busy, some exhibits were frustratingly obscured by backs and heads that seemed in no hurry to move. Who were these people? Who were we, moving through each room as slowly as folk in a post office queue? Some were tourists, wearing confounded or pleasantly surprised expressions; some bored, indifferent kids with an excited dad, showing off his knowledge of a pop icon that must have seemed as distant to them as Queen Victoria. These men were like me, and we exchanged knowing glances. We knew every word of every song piping through speakers into the hot, stuffy rooms.

And despite the air-con, it was hot. This, and the solemn tempo imposed by a crowded exhibition, slowed the heart rate. Just when I thought I was flagging – Bowie-d out – I turned a corner into an enormous high-ceilinged space. (Ian Rankin, interviewed on The Review Show, called it ‘a cathedral’.) It was dark, and people lolled on sofas as if in anticipation of something. Suddenly a huge video screen crackled into life. Bowie’s face, nine metres high – higher even, it seemed – flashed up. He was singing ‘The Jean Genie’. A surge of excitement like a drug rush hit me. That dirty, bluesy riff, the E-major chord that goes straight to the balls, was thundering out at top volume. My heart seemed to start beating to its rhythm, quickening, sliding easily into its groove just as it had done every time I’d heard it in the last 30 years. What was this? I’d never seen this clip. Or had I? The unexpected excitement had precipitated a second of confusion, a senior moment. I had seen it only once before, on YouTube. It was recently unearthed BBC footage from 1973, long thought to have been wiped. The cameraman had kept the only copy because it showcased a fish-eye lens technique he imagined might find him work. He’d recently found the tape in his garage.

The fish-eye frames flashed up now: the band squeezed into a silver globe like a gigantic bauble on a Christmas tree. A stick-Mick Ronson and stick-Trevor Boulder, improbably stretched and distorted. Then a wide shot, with ‘pushed’ LSD colours – effervescent greens, vivacious reds. These effects are now so over-familiar one barely notices them anymore, but I was seeing them for the first time. The camera zoomed in to reveal a copper-haired Bowie, shirtless under a striped, wide-lapelled bum-freezer jacket. Below this: loose blue-peg slacks, and platforms. He was moving effortlessly to the music, diamante earrings brushing his neck. In one hand he held a pair of maracas, in the other a harmonica. His eyes fixed you. Every head in the cathedral had turned and was now concentrating avidly on the performance, even the jaded teenagers. This is a proper pop star, kids! I felt like shouting, but suppressed this Dad-like thought and was pulled back to Bowie’s eyes. They were cold, and the lack of eyebrows made his black, unreadable stare even colder . . .


Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and THANK YOU to everyone who has pledged for, tweeted about or shared posts on Memory Songs in 2016. Let's get it fully-funded in 2017!

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