The Thin White Duke died a week ago today. Lucy O’Brien pays tribute…
His rule of thumb was, whatever’s been done, do the next thing differently. This was the DIY philosophy of punk, and many punk artists took cues from him. Bowie followed this path religiously throughout the ‘70s, and only started to divert from it when he bowed to commercial pressure in the mid ‘80s and went for mainstream stadium success. Then in the 2000s he returned to his original philosophy, particularly with his devastating swansong album Blackstar.
Bowie has a particular place in my life. First for me as teenage fan idolising his Thin White Duke persona. I liked Ziggy Stardust and played Aladdin Sane incessantly, but it was Station to Station and the Philly soul of Young Americans that gripped me the most.
Bowie set the template for beautiful alienation. His approach was pop art and intellectual – every album should have come with a reading list of cultural references. At the age of 17 I ached to meet him. But when I finally did I was in my early twenties, writing for NME. I was only interested in hip hop and was going through a “kill your idols” phase. So when I found myself in 1987 at a record company meet-n-greet backstage in Rotterdam on his Glass Spider tour, I was blasé. He came barrelling up to me in a sky blue suit and corn yellow hair. What I wasn’t prepared for was his sprite-like alien energy, crackling with a nervous intensity. He wasn’t like anyone else I’ve met before or since.
The second time was in 1996 when I interviewed him on the set of C4 music series The White Room. He had a different energy then – relaxed, wry, easy-going. He dragged on his Marlboro and talked about his appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in the 1970s. “I was totally out of my gourd,” he laughed.
The third time I saw him was a week later at an art gallery off Regent Street, where Pete Townshend had an exhibition of paintings. Bowie came up to me and said hello, as natural as day, and we had a long chat. That night I had the conversation I yearned to have when I was a teenager, thinking he was out of reach.
For him there was no real separation between musician and fan, no hierarchy in creativity. He proved to me that you can meet your idols, and you will have that conversation. That the flow of art and ideas is as natural as life.
RIP DAVID BOWIE: 1947-2016
Words by Lucy O’Brien