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  • Writer's picturePaul Burston

Bowie & me

There’s a scene in Todd Haynes’ glam rock film, ‘Velvet Goldmine’, where Christian Bale’s character is in his parents’ living room, pointing excitedly at the TV screen and saying, ‘That’s me, that is!’ The film takes its title from a song by David Bowie, recorded during the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ sessions. The TV moment Haynes is alluding to is Bowie’s famous appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ in July 1972, singing ‘Starman’.

Bowie had been performing as Ziggy for six months by then, at music venues up and down the country. But for many people, this was the moment when his carrot-topped bisexual alien first entered their lives. And what a moment it must have been. Dressed in a skin-tight multi-coloured jumpsuit, his face plastered with makeup, a cocky smile on his lips and his arm draped suggestively around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder, Bowie’s performance is outrageous even by today’s standards. He’s even wearing white nail polish.

Rumour has it that he nearly didn’t appear at all, that a producer on the show told his manager, ‘We don’t have perverts on Top of the Pops’. Still the broadcast went ahead, catapulting him to stardom and encouraging a generation of gay men and other alienated outsiders to revel in their difference. In his Ziggy persona, Bowie didn’t just say that homosexuality was okay. He said that it was cool. Fifty years ago, that was a powerful statement.

I grew up with Bowie. Though I was far too young to appreciate Ziggy at the time, I knew the songs. My school friend Richard Green had an older brother who worshipped Bowie. After school we’d go back to Richard’s house and sit on his brother’s bed while he played us ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Space Oddity’ or ‘Aladdin Sane’. I still recall the iconic posters on the wall.

Then in 1980, when I was 14 and struggling to come to terms with my sexuality, it was David Bowie I turned to. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ had just been released and my local branch of WH Smith had all the classic ’70s albums for £3.99 each. I became a devoted back fan, working my way from ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, to ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’, right through to ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Scary Monsters’.

But one album made a greater impression on me than all the others, and that album was ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider From Mars’. I played it once, ‘At Maximum Volume’ as instructed on the record sleeve, and that was it. Wham, bam, thank you, glam! I was a Ziggy freak. In 1980, a full seven years after Bowie famously ‘killed off’ his creation at the Hammersmith Odeon, I was running around a small town in South Wales sporting a Ziggy-style orange mullet. I shaved off my eyebrows and wore makeup. I had my ears pierced and delighted in shocking my mother – all the while denying that I was gay.

At 14, I wasn’t ready to come out and embrace my ‘true identity’. But that didn’t matter because Bowie taught me that a person could have many identities. When he told Michael Watts from Melody Maker, “I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones” – was that David Bowie talking or was it Ziggy Stardust? Did it matter if Bowie was really bisexual or if it was all just a pose? He’d always said that he was a faker, an actor, a man playing the part of a rock star, refusing to be pinned down. The last thing we could demand of him was authenticity – especially when the poses he struck were so thrillingly queer.

Many years later, during the Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre, I finally met the man who meant so much to me as a teenager and whose music I still play today. I was at the after party for his closing night show – high on cocaine, drunk on champagne and nervous as hell. The first thing I said to him was, “When I was 14 you saved my life!” He smiled playfully, raised a quizzical eyebrow and said, “Really?”

I don’t know what – or who – I was expecting. Ziggy Stardust? The Thin White Duke? The Man Who Fell To Earth? But given his reputation as a bit of an ice man, I certainly expected him to be colder. Instead he was warm and charming. Some people say that you should never meet your heroes, but I’m glad I met mine.

We Can Be Heroes will be published on June 1 and is available to preorder.

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