Tuesday, 12 January 2016

David Bowie, My Hero.

There will be thousands of tributes to Mr Bowie. I want to add my voice because he was such a source of inspiration and support when I was growing up.

Growing up in care in the 1970s, was no mean feat. As well as what goes on in a children's home, the weird relationships with staff and social workers, and the other children - all vying for the 'favourite' spot, there was also the outside world.

In 1934, when Friern Barnet Urban District Council, wanted to turn a corner house in Sutton Road, Muswell Hill, into a children's home, there was a major outcry. Residents of the neighbourhood, petitioned the council urging them to 'take immediate steps to oppose the acquisition of these premises for such a purpose'. Even the local council estate residents got involved, pleased that they could join the affluents for a change, instead of fingers being pointed at them. The Minister of Health inspected the house and approved its use as a children's home and that was the end of the protestations.

So you can probably understand that I most definitely felt like a freak, when I was younger. Not only felt it all around me, but I had mad bushy hair and definitely stood out in a crowd. Kids at school called me 'birds nest'.

When I glimpsed a tweet yesterday, from Paris Lees*, which read: 'I don't usually cry when someone famous dies but misfits everywhere should weep out on the streets today. RIP Bowie.' I did indeed empathise with those words, having been crying most of the day myself. The only difference being that now my misfittingness is a blessing. Normality, and all that goes with it, is an anathema to me.

Growing up in 1970s Muswell Hill with its own peculiar brand of North Londonish, was an amazing experience, though I didn't know it at the time. Hearing Space Oddity, when I was eleven, was like nothing I'd heard before. My musical knowledge at the time consisted of hits on the radio or musicals. We'd go to the local cinema or West End theatre and see the latest film or play being shown, like Oliver, or the Sound of Music. Somebody would buy the LP, and that would be that. I'd play the songs over and over until I knew all the words. People talk about the first record that they ever bought, but I really can't remember, because music was very much a part of being in the children's home. Trips out for the day or holidays, always involved singing songs, Oh, you'll never to get heaven or Michael rowed his boat ashore. I even pestered my local priest for hymns at the morning service like they had at the nearby Methodist church. We had a music room with a piano, a record player, and any other instrument that staff happened to play. Plus, I had piano and ballet lessons as well as being in the operatic society at school.

A poster from the 70s, still on my wall.
Soon after Hang on to Yourself, hit the charts, I became friends with a couple of boys in East Finchley, one of whom would go on to become writer. J.J. Donnelly, of Layer Cake, fame, and my first claim to fame. Though I just knew him as John, and that we were both crazy about Bowie.

My second claim to fame, would come fifteen years later when I was pregnant with my third child. The brother, of one of the staff in the children's home, who I was still in touch with, was involved with the video, Absolute Beginners, and they wanted a pregnant woman as an extra. I was so excited, I nearly gave birth on the spot. In the end I wasn't needed as they used a model. But hey, that was another nearly moment...

While Ray Davies was releasing Muswell Hillbillies in 1971, I was thirteen, and buying the Hunky Dory LP at Les Aldrich's record shop in Fortis Green Road. In 72, Changes, was released. The lyrics were perfect for young people who were going through turmoil and the changes in society. There was a huge shift from uniformity to an explosion of colour, music, clothes, and art.

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what they're going through
[Changes, 1972]

As well as the music which had a deep rhythmic resonance for me, it was also the lyrics that made sense in a sort of nonsensical way. A kind of poetry in song:

He's so simple minded 
he can't drive his module
He bites on the neon and sleeps in the capsule
Loves to be loved, loves to be loved 
[The Jean Genie, 1972]

Meanwhile in real life, my mother had killed herself and I officially became an orphan. I was going to youth clubs, discos and learning to dance. In the rest of the UK, there were strikes and protests. Everyone was frightened to travel on public transport because the IRA were bombing us. The government raised the school leaving age to 16 which upset many of us. We even bunked off school and went into central London to protest.

In 1973, Life on Mars? was released as a single and like Bowie, I was experimenting with drugs and drink. A year to the day my mother died, I ended up in hospital with alcohol poisoning. 

At 15, the same age as Bowie's daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones, is now, came Sorrow. I've thought a lot about David's family in the last 24 hours and their request for privacy at this very sad time. I hope they get their privacy. I also hope that eventually, they will at least get some relief, knowing over the last fifty years, he was such an amazing influence on millions of people all over the world. Not just that he was an influence, but that he helped weirdos, freaks and outsiders everywhere cope with their trauma, sadness and misfittingness.

I don't usually get upset when somebody famous dies so I was quite shocked at my reaction to the news of David Bowie's death. I quite literally sobbed. I can only guess that his voice; his words; his artistry; and his music became part of me, part of my growing up and when I heard the news, it was as if I had lost a part of myself.

In 1974, Rebel Rebel, was released. In effect it was Bowie's farewell to the glam rock movement that he had helped pioneer. Age sixteen, holding hands with my first boyfriend, I said my farewells to the children's home. I knew that even though I would never go back there, my relationship with David Bowie, would last a lifetime.

When I Live My Dream, 1966

*Paris Lees is a British journalist, presenter and transgender rights activist. 


D.I. Atita said...

It was really a traumatic experience while growing up: almost leaving a carefree life by attending clubs and all,but finding David Bowie as her mentor in music was a plus in her career.

Anonymous said...

Such a moving tribute, thank you sharing it, just love that last line.