The man who fell to earth has taken his place among the stars. Our contributors celebrate a true icon with way over seven picks. What? It seemed fitting to break our own rules. It’s what he would have wanted.
When someone you don’t know dies and yet you feel completely flattened – that’s how David Bowie left us feeling. None of us knew him, I say that with almost blanket confidence, and yet we all somehow also grew up with him and loved him more than we can ever express. The extent to which Bowie was totally unknowable meant I was surprised when his own son spoke about having his email address.
Over the course of a stunningly varied career, he became so many things to so many people that currently every time I see a single image or song in tribute, I feel slightly angry anyone has even tried to sum him up – that single snapshot could never hope to touch on all he was. A man who was probably more culturally loved, historically important and constantly relevant in 2016 than any other artist; his legacy feels almost infinite.
Often when a musician dies you want to revisit their albums. But we were always listening to Bowie and on the day of his death, I couldn’t. So I’ll leave you with lyrics. Just days before he left us, he released his final album, on his final birthday, and he included the song Lazarus.
We didn’t realise the eulogy he was giving us at the time, but now I will never hear the song again without feeling his loss. And marvelling that he got to say goodbye in the most David Bowie way possible.
“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
Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me.”
Thanks to you, David Bowie, I learned early on that there was a beauty in being one of the freaks, the geeks, the strange ones. And no one ever spelled it out with more sublime romance or defiant splendour than you did in Heroes.
The magnificent dream: we can be heroes. Every one of us. It’s for us, the odd ones, the misfits, not the others, not everyone else. It’s a hymn, the staggering, soaring, swaggering truth that we love, harder than ever, when the world comes tumbling down. “And we kissed, as if nothing would fall.”
And the reality: Just for one day. But it’s a day that can define a whole life. Your voice, that cracked reach striving to convey the whole magnificent mix of isolation and love and fuck-off glory in the face of everything dreadful that the world can and will throw at you. We can be heroes. Just for one day. But you David? You’ll be a hero. For ever and ever.
Changes was the first David Bowie song I ever heard and having arrived in my life at exactly the moment I needed it most, it’s still probably the one I’m fondest of. When I heard it, I had no idea who David Bowie was, beyond ‘that guy my dad likes’ and had no idea of his talent for reinvention. So, of course, the song was about me.
I was a funny little oddball of a teenager, trying to reconcile the feeling that I was destined to do something huge with the panic of having no idea who the hell I was and what the hell I was supposed to be doing, all within a body that was becoming more unrecognisable and foreign every day. Belting “Turn and face the strange changes” into my mirror, it felt like this strange alien of a man had reached out and taken my hand. I felt brave. I stayed weird.
Life on Mars
I already loved Life on Mars as a song for many years, and not just because it’s THE soundtrack to Sam Tyler freaking out in the nicotine-stained Manchester of his own creation in one of the best TV shows of the Noughties.
Sweeping, wistful and melancholy, the song’s slow build up to the chorus gets me every time, and when those cellos come in – fucking hell. The song has been known to literally move me to tears. I wrote it as the background music to a bittersweet proposal scene in a very long and sad fanfiction story.
But the main reason I’m choosing Life on Mars as my favourite Bowie song is that it’s the song – and video – that got my now six-year-old son hooked. My son is a massive Bowie fan: he has an A1-sized Aladdin Sane poster on his bedroom door. I once caught myself saying, “I bet David Bowie brushes HIS teeth” at him.
He was about three or four when my husband showed him the Life on Mars video on YouTube. “She’s pretty,” he said. We explained that it was a man in the video. He thought about this. Men could wear makeup, and have long hair and high heels. Men could be pretty. He watched the video over and over again, the striking, simple image of a man with eyeshadow, lipstick and a powder blue suit against a white background. He started listening to other Bowie songs. He pointed out people wearing Bowie T-shirts. One day, he came out of the bath, threw off his towel like a dramatic cape and ran around naked shouting, “I’m David Bowie!” This, I think, is as fitting a tribute as any.
Gabby Hutchinson Crouch
Bowie was an artist, a genius, someone who reinvented himself time and time again. And with all that going on it’s easy to overlook what an incredible vocal talent he was. A stunning voice that lent itself to any style; I could listen to that beautiful vibrato all night.
On the day I moved to university in 2003 I felt scared and lonely. I can remember playing Cat People over and over again in the dark on that first night alone in an unfamiliar house and it’s the perfect showcase of those astonishing vocals as well as everything else that made Bowie so very Bowie. Slick, sexy, weird and wonderful.
“As soon as the opening chords of The Prettiest Star kick in, my heart goes a-flutter, my eyes dampen and, if I’m not in public (and maybe sometimes when I am), I point my toes, prance and spin.”
In 2012 I attended the BFI’s 30th anniversary screening of Bertolt Brecht’s TV film Baal starring David Bowie. Bowie always manages to surprise and reinvent himself. I was speechless, mesmerised as he played various stringed folk instruments and sang in that Brechtian, confrontational, not easy to watch style.
Baal plays out like a live theatre play/80s TV film: the sound is so live, the colour exposing, all of it relying on Bowie to carry the film. The soundtrack is like a haunting, craggy opera. Bowie is menacing, beautiful, tender and cool as the young poet, Baal. He’s so dirty in this. So London. Like a grown-up version of the musical Oliver!.
Bowie’s folky voice conveys so much emotion and range, it brings a lump to your throat. And Baal’s Hymn, military in style, ends with such a fitting line: “So much sky is lurking still behind his eyes; he’ll just have enough sky when he’s dead.”
What do you get when you put two gods of music in one room together for 24 hours? One of the greatest songs of all time.
Bowie, Freddie Mercury and the rest of Queen had gone into the studios to record another song, but set about writing and recording a brand new one in just a day. Fuelled by wine and cocaine, the musical powerhouses came up with this tale of heartbreaking pain (“the terror of knowing what this world is about”), the tormenting crescendo of overthinking (“insanity laughs, under pressure we’re breaking”) and conclusion of love (“can’t we give love one more chance”).
I’ve been listening to Under Pressure on repeat for the past five months as I’ve been writing and researching my new show. I’d known for a long time I wanted this beautiful song as one of the tracks playing before the show. Pre-show tracks set the mood – for performer and audience – and I’ve made it a habit to put a Bowie track in the mix.
Bowie pushed himself to the limits; felt deeply, thought intensely, and at various points seemed to struggle to look after himself. I have identified with him for a long time. When I’m singing along to every lyric in Under Pressure I feel completely understood, released and redeemed. He and Freddie tell me the brave and ultimate answer: “Love’s such an old fashioned word and love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night. And love dares you to change our way of caring for ourselves.”
Quite right Bowie, you wise, beautiful, wonderful fellow human-like alien you.
The Prettiest Star
As soon as the opening chords of this beautiful track kick in, my heart goes a-flutter, my eyes dampen and, if I’m not in public (and maybe sometimes when I am), I point my toes, prance and spin.
From the time of knowing this wonderful man from another world existed, this song has been hugely important in my life. It makes me cry, but they’re tears of happiness as I have always genuinely thought he was talking to me and no matter what shitsticks life threw my way, this gorgeous melodic voice promising me that “Someday, you and I will rise up all the way” meant the world. What a man and what a life. Thank you Mr Bowie for everything, and especially these three minutes of utter wonder.
Just two weeks ago I was having coffee with a friend and Let’s Dance came on. I remarked that it was possibly the best pop song ever written (I say that a lot, to be fair, but I usually mean it). He said, “Really? This? Everyone knows early Bowie is much better.”
I put down my coffee, sighed and explained its perfection; from the Beatles-robbed “Aaah”s at the beginning, through the irresistible Nile Rodgers-produced beat, via some moonlight, some serious moonlight. Yeah it’s upbeat, yeah it’s slick and yeah it’s ostensibly about dancing, but it’s romantic as fuck and sexy as hell and I defy anyone not to immediately want to have jerky, muscular sex after listening to it.
You’re meant to laugh at this song. Because you’re meant to laugh at the film (which, to be fair is so bad it’s good). Granted, like the movie, read out loud, the lyrics POSSIBLY sound like something a lovelorn boarding-school boy might write (“If our love song could fly over mountains, sail over heartaches, just like the films.” Eh?), but in the context of the soaring “Wah-wah-wah-ooom”s and Bowie’s gravelly vocals they are rendered positively John Donne. And when it played in the cafe the morning we heard the news (OK, I made them play it) me and my already-Bowified four-year-old had a little cuddle and a cry (OK, I did).
“My son was about three or four when my husband showed him the Life on Mars video on YouTube. ‘She’s pretty,’ he said. We explained that it was a man in the video. He thought about this. Men could wear makeup, and have long hair and high heels. Men could be pretty.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide and Ashes to Ashes
In my shallow, punky youth I was in a bar with some friends. Someone slightly older came in and said that John Lennon had been shot. I pouted and shrugged and said, “That means nothing to me. If David Bowie died, then I’d care.”
My friends agreed. The older person swore at us and left us to our pints of Snakebite.
I won’t waste time here telling you why The Beatles leave me cold. I want to celebrate the liberating individuality of Bowie. He made sexual fluidity, and a self-defining exploration of your right to be anything into a thing that could happen. Way back when everything was teak veneer and fawn wallpaper.
Bowie came the closest any human being has ever been to making mime cool. (He failed. It is impossible, but he did nearly manage it.)
If I had to choose a song? In my self-dramatising but really pretty depressed early teens I would sit in my bedroom chain-smoking and playing the single Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, over and over again.
I was not alone.
And more importantly this piece of private theatre kept me busy, let out how I felt and very likely stopped me from doing something truly stupid.
Now I’ve grown up to be cynical but very perky, so I’d choose the cynical yet perky Ashes to Ashes.
The lyrics are deftly about how being a junkie and giving up trying is a bad idea. Or you’ll never do bad things. But you’ll never do good things. And life is there to be engaged with, by the likes of us.
To get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom.
Don’t let the fuckwits of the world send you into shutdown and retreat. Get things done. Like David did.
Station to Station
Surely 10 minutes is too long for a track, isn’t it? I genuinely thought this when I first bought the album Station to Station and saw it contained just six tracks and the first one was epically long. But from beginning to end this is perfection. It starts with drums and guitar screeching over another weird noise I don’t know, and slowly it drags you into the song. DRAGS YOU. You don’t even hear him until three minutes in.
Just a few days ago, when I heard his new album Blackstar it reminded me of this 1976 track. Simple vocals, repetitive, drumming into your head. Referencing a thousand things you can’t always grasp. And then it turns, slides, disappears into another song. Showing you what it always was, but what you refused to see. “Oh, what will I be believing and who will connect me with love?”
The original 1969 version of Space Oddity sees astronaut Major Tom being led astray in space by two big-haired foxy ladies. Of course it does – this was our Starman, David Bowie. This version isn’t my favourite, though; that honour goes to one that begins barely audibly, the amplification and complexity building as the story of one astronaut’s adventure in space works to a powerful crescendo. And this is one of my favourite Bowie songs.
The slow quiet start sounds to me like the soft heartbeat of a universe screaming to be explored, bursting into life post-launch in the chorus, coinciding perfectly with the Apollo 11 mission that landed humankind on Earth. “This is Ground Control to Major Tom…” – that chorus makes my heart sing, and my mind wander with Bowie’s. Predicting Earth’s celebritisation of astronauts, it seems fitting that one of the best-known astronauts of our time, Commander Chris Hadfield, performed this song on the International Space Station back in 2013, a revised version of which can be seen here. “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.” That final line of Space Oddity could not be more appropriate right now.
As The World Falls Down
Having seen Labyrinth at the age of four, “a heel-wearing, riding crop-toting, Lycra-clad, very bulging David Bowie” is my answer to the question ‘who was your first crush?’ As such, I have always wanted to be Jennifer Connelly’s character Sarah – the girl that got to dance with David Bowie at the masquerade ball. This was long before I had been exposed to David Bowie The Musician. Bowie’s Goblin King, Jareth, sings As The World Falls Down in this scene.
Regarded as one of Bowie’s weaker songs, even within the film itself, it never gets any attention, but I love it to the point that it is in my top three potential First Dance songs when I get married. “I’ll place the sky within your eyes… I’ll place the moon within your heart… We’re choosing our path between the stars. I’ll lay my love between the stars… I’ll be there for you as the world falls down.” For a romantic space cadet, it is everything I could hope for in a song, but with added Bowie. I won’t have a word said against this oft-ignored gem. I love it. I love him. He’ll always have his power over me.
Sometimes when sad things happen you have to feel sad. Sorrow. Bowie was our hero, our English icon – an artistic force to be reckoned with morphing through the decades, emblazoned with theatrical makeup, costumes and hair-dos to dye for. Bowie’s been around all my lifetime and then some; at differing life points I’ve discovered his records, often decades away from when they were written; that’s his timeless magic. He spoke to me.
Sorrow (1973) is a cover version (first released in 1965 by The McCoys). I sang along as a child, loudly and with gusto. I learned the simple lyrics but more importantly was introduced to the emotional tone of a record. As a teenager it was played often, as were many of his songs; he helped me through those whirlwind years.
Now, as an adult, I harmonise with Bowie and his blonde lass, but yesterday, and now, the sorrow is all mine.
Vicky Lindsay Warburton
My first taste of Bowie was Starman. I was 13 and living in a small town where the cultural hub was a leisure centre where I’d practise smoking and get picked on for not liking Boyzone. I’d tried to fit in. I’d screamed along with the rest of the girls when a row of floppy haired men in open white shirts all got off a bar stool at the same time to a key change, but it was no use. I was different. They could smell it over the chlorine.
Music had become a test to me, something to be revised and remembered so as to not look stupid. (I’d once got Jon from NKOTB’s height wrong but I’d blamed it on his bouffy hair so I think I got away with it.)
Discovering Starman was like finding treasure. From the moment that thrumming guitar crackled from my parents’ record player, I was in. I finally got it, the emotion those girls felt listening to music. There was no key change, but that soaring chorus certainly made me want to get off a bar stool, heck maybe push it over and join the party that’s clearly happening by the end of the song. Because I finally felt invited.
This man wasn’t singing empty platitudes of love to someone who clearly wasn’t me; this was a story about another being who was also different. Bowie made me believe there was something incredible out there, “waiting in the sky”. He helped me see outside my tiny world, to believe that one day, when I was ready, I’d finally find my own passions and that was OK. Yesterday, I cried when I heard David Bowie was now the Starman in the sky. Because he will always, as he did then, blow my mind.
“Bowie became so many things to so many people that currently every time I see a single image or song in tribute, I feel slightly angry anyone has even tried to sum him up – that single snapshot could never hope to touch on all he was.”
I took David Bowie for granted. I was born into a world in which he was always a star; that constant stream of transcendent pop classics felt as if they’d existed since the dawn of time. It wasn’t until my soon-to-be first boyfriend made me a tape, which opened with Five Years that my jaw dropped – everything changed.
This romantic, dystopian epic with those stuttering drums, soaring strings and quirky, powerful vocals straddling the serious and histrionic. It made me feel both inspired and sick. I would listen with friends and we’d howl in unison, “I THOUGHT OF MA AND I WANTED TO GET BACK THERE“. Five years – an unnerving amount of time to know you have left to live. Enough, obviously to frighten and unhinge and yet too much to just abandon normal life. What the world wouldn’t give to have just five more years of Bowie.
Margaret Cabourn Smith
From the squelchy intro and Bowie’s slightly sinister declaration, “I know when to go out, And I know when to stay in, Get things done”, Modern Love never fails to put a massive shit-eating grin on my silly face. Even played six times in a row. Even in the depths of heartache. In fact, my turning to this song signals that I’m coming out of the other side of love pain and maybe, just maybe, starting to believe again. Church on time – terrifies me, sure, but I still want it.
Pfft to all the people who’ve told me earlier Bowie is much better. I love Bowie in all of his guises, but give me post-disco, skittering pop Bowie, all beats and giddiness and guitar slabs, and I’ll twirl, prance and mince around my bedroom like a heartsick teen. Six times in a row. And then again in the morning to be sure.
Here’s to Bowie, the infinite game-changer. Bowie, the pop-culture changeling. Bowie, the ultimate David.
Some of Standard Issue's brilliant women's carefully crafted words for your reading pleasure.