Today in the moments after waking I discovered two things: 1) that David Bowie wasn’t an immortal being, and 2) that all this time I had actually believed that he was. But Bowie had died. Cancer. One he had never announced. Lying in the dark, at 6am on a Monday morning, pitch black and rain beating against the window, this was a huge realisation to digest. I moved through the day rather stunned. I know a lot of fans want to take rightful ownership of this grief; those who have lived longer, loved him longer, met him, known him more intimately, followed him more dedicatedly. But all my life, for more than three decades, I had inhabited a world with David Bowie in it – and suddenly, the world was different. Anyone who had a bit of Bowie in their life feels that loss one way or another: my flatmate locked in her bedroom all day blasting the Berlin Trilogy; my colleague sharing a sudden urge to carpe the hell out of this diem; or my own desire to curl up in a cave somewhere and listen to Underground from the Labyrinth soundtrack on repeat, and sulk like the little girl I was when I first fell in love with him. We all want to share our stories, thoughts and favourite music – in that way Bowie really is immortal.
THE DAY BOWIE AND I SHARED A STORM
The superstars never came to Wellington. When big artists stretched their tour as far as New Zealand, they went to Auckland, the big smoke. Our miniscule capital didn’t hold much sway with tour schedules. So when it was announced that, in February 2004, David Bowie would be gracing our shores and playing little old Wellington – and only Wellington – there was audible rejoicing. Even for me, having gone and moved to Auckland a couple of years before, this was good news. Nothing a plane ticket couldn’t fix. It would take more than a hiked up airfare to get between me and the man whose music had way-marked the various stages of my life, in the way that it has for most of us.
Of course, being Wellington, the place where New Zealand keeps all of its weather, on the day of the show it absolutely, utterly, bollocksed it down. Torrential, pouring rain, with some gale winds thrown in for good measure. It was enough to cause my return flight that night to abort mission shortly after take-off and return to dry land (I got a free night in an Ibis). But it didn’t stop David Bowie.
That evening a couple of old friends and I raced towards the stadium, negotiating the sodden Wellington streets and running late – late for Bowie! I was beside myself! – and high-stepped into the stadium just as the opening bars of Fame burst forth from the stage. I’ll never forget that moment: the lights, the reverberations, the bass, the damp… It was like walking into a steamy disco spaceship. One, it should be noted, that did not have a roof. I negotiated my footing down slippery steps, past rows of seated fans wrapped in raincoats, steadfastly ignoring the buckets of rain coming down on them, and joined the standing throng at the front. There I spent the rest of the evening ankle-deep in water and soaked to the bone and not giving a damn, not caring if the rain slowly filled up the cake tin of a stadium and drowned us all. Because Bowie was on.
All The Young Dudes. China Girl. A Pixies cover. He was nailing it. But after a couple of songs, the man decided he couldn’t take it anymore. If we were going to get wet, he declared, then he would get wet too. He came down to the front of the stage where he was exposed to the elements and performed there for the rest of the night. “Are you alright out there?” Bowie called out, grinning, “Because if you are, we are!” The regular torrents of water cascading over the roof of the stage merely seemed to spur him on. David Bowie was singing in the rain. Space Oddity. Starman. The stage manager threw the singer a towel to mop his head, while he flicked his sopping hair and flashed those pointed teeth. He was boyish, cheeky, having fun, and he played his towel like an instrument: “Towel guitar!” he joked. Everyone laughed; it was soggy and joyous.
Under Pressure. Ashes to Ashes. The great man turned back to face his band, who were safely tucked away under the eaves. “Come on in, guys, the water’s fine!” he laughed, beckoning with a big wet sweep of his arm, then throwing his head back in a laugh, knowing they would be staying put. Nothing could dampen the spirits that night, neither Bowie’s, nor ours. Not even the foulest of Wellington weather. And to finish an incredible set, he dedicated Heroes to us, his committed, partly-drowned audience, who risked trenchfoot and pneumonia to sing along with him. And nobody minded that it was raining, because it felt like Baptism by Bowie, and he had selected us, the wettest bloody little city in the southern hemisphere, and we loved him for it.
BLAME IT ON THE BLACK STAR
I had a bit of a moment when Bowie released his last album. Because when I was 17 I was going to be a rock star. And so, like, obviously, I got a tattoo. I had decided on a black star: at the time, symbolic of my big dreams and probably my ego. And, being an aural glutton of a teen, it was a tribute to the artists that inspired me. I realise it’s hardly an intricate design (some fat bloke in a side street in Auckland city wielded the gun); the star itself was traced right off the cover of the Velvet Goldmine CD soundtrack. I loved the film for its glittered homage to London, glam rock, David Bowie, Lou Reed and T Rex. And I had the tattoo coloured black, because Black Star was a Radiohead song. Let’s face it, it’s a silly teenage fancy of a tattoo. It certainly wouldn’t stand up in a bar fight. But it represents me at age 17, my utterly incomprehensible dreams and the musical heroes that encouraged them. So when I heard Bowie’s final album was called Blackstar, I smiled. My teenage self would be totally freaking out.