I was fifteen when I first discovered I was a David Bowie fan. I’d had urges before, of course, but I’d always assumed it was just a normal part of growing up; a phase everyone went through. This was not the case, however, and before I knew it I was having yearnings to listen to the Ziggy Stardust album on an almost constant basis. I’d never actually heard the album before, nor did I really know who David Bowie was, but the craving was still there; ever-present, uncontrollable and shameful. I could never tell my parents. Musically, we were worlds apart. My father listened exclusively to the Beatles and my mother to old LP’s of the soundtrack to Doris Day musicals co-starring Rock Hudson. The fact that no such musical existed only added to my feeling that she would never understand my secret desires; and I swore never to tell her, or indeed, anyone else. I would take my embarrassing, shameful secret to the grave.
As chance would have it, though, an old friend of mine from primary school began getting into Queen at this point, and would often invite me around for a listen. My father frowned on this, but in a tolerant way; boys will be boys after all. I personally held no truck with Queen, suspicious, as I was, of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality; a suspicion finally vindicated when he died of AIDS. No, my reasons for going round to Jack’s house every weekend, for sitting through endless drivel such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Fat Bottomed Girls, lay in one single track on an almost discarded LP with a handsome black sleeve and stenciled white lettering. Occasionally, maybe twice a month, Jack would elect to play this record, and these were the moments I longed for. Jack knew, of course, that this was what I was waiting for, and many-a time made as if to play the single, only to hilariously switch it for another record entirely at the last moment. It was on these occasions that I would kick the living shit out of him, something his mother disapproved of, but never vocally, as this would often earn her a beating from Jack’s drunken, violent step-father, who enjoyed nothing more than a chance to see his unwanted step-son pummeled.
When Jack did play the record, though; they may have been the greatest moments of my life, at that time. Sitting back, eyes closed, feeling the understated start of the track wash over me, and then an explosion behind the eyelids almost akin to an orgasm as, hidden around Mercury’s camp screech, the goosebump-inducing tones of Bowie became finally, blissfully audible. Yes, Under Pressure, regulated only to disc two on both Bowie and Queen’s greatest hits these days, may be what stopped me from killing myself stone dead in those lonely times, a thought I often contemplated doing by slicing myself into small pieces and leaping into a bowl of hot custard. There, away from my fanatical father and my delusional mother, in the company of a friend I didn’t really like, I found solace, of a kind, even if it were only for three minutes and forty five seconds a time, give or take.
It couldn’t last though; these few, snatched moments with Jack, the fumbling for the record needle, the breathless anticipation, these were not enough. I needed more. And I needed it now. But how? As far as I could tell I was at Jack’s mercy. I pleaded with him to buy some Bowie LP’s, even threatened to beat both him and his mother up, to the edification of his step-father, if he didn’t, but he refused. Just sat there with a small, cheeky smile on his face and licked me if I got too close. There was nothing I could do. And for a long time my purgatory continued.
After some months of this, a new year at school started and I turned sixteen. This is significant for a number of reasons, one being that I was now at the age of consent whereby I could buy records from the ‘classic rock’ section of HMV and Woolworths without my parent’s permission, but, more significantly, it meant a change of teaching staff as we all moved up one year further into our GCSE’s. This is how I met Mr Chuzzlewit, who was brought in to replace our last arts teacher, Rabbi Herschelwitz Rosenberg, who was fired after unfounded allegations of practicing religion in a state school. Mr Chuzzlewit took an immediate liking to me, always holding my artwork aloft as an example to the whole class, even when I’d spent the whole lesson doodling an illustrated history of The Clash, which won me few friends in the art room. Not that I cared; they were all horrible excuses for human beings who used to bully me something terrible for having, in their words, ‘a nose like Al Pacino’.
Then one day, after maybe a month of making his acquaintance, Mr Chuzzlewit asked me to stay behind after class for a special ‘one on one’ session. I duly lingered and, the moment the last pupil was out the door, Mr Chuzzlewit whipped out his record player, amplifier and speakers and, before I knew what was happening, invaded my ears with the startling, terrifying sounds of Scary Monsters (and super creeps). Caught unawares, I cried out, then fell over, banging my head on a table corner as I went sharp enough to draw blood and leave me with the distinct impression that I was Ireland’s first independently elected Ulster candidate. When I came to, Mr Chuzzlewit helped me too my feet, apologizing profusely. He knew what I was, had always known, he explained breathlessly, and he couldn’t help himself. He’d tried to hold it in, to stop himself from doing it, but it was no good; he’d needed to know he wasn’t alone. I was stunned. We embraced, and I told him everything; of my fears, my uncomprehending parents, of Jack and Under Pressure, everything. He apologized for first exposing me to something as inaccessible as the Scary Monsters album, which requires repeated listening and re-listening to truly understand its undoubted genius, and said, had he known how limited my Bowie experience had been, he would have begun with something easier, such as Hunky Dory or maybe one of the ‘plastic soul’ albums. It hardly mattered; I had found an ally. Someone I could talk to, could be with. From that day forth we began a secret tryst, meeting after school in darkened rooms the CCTV cameras had no access to, listening to Changes and Life on Mars? at half volume, always in stark terror of being caught, but always in a state of lustful excitement of knowing what we were doing was wrong, and liking it.
Under his tutelage, I gradually grasped the brilliance of Hunky Dory, and from there progressed to the infinitely more liberating The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. The songs, the music, infected me, and many a time I’d catch myself just in time, trying to whistle or sing a portion at the dinner table, or otherwise in the company of my parents, who put it all down to drug abuse and subsequently ignored me, except for at weddings and funerals where it was inevitable we would run into one another. None of this bothered me though; I was finally living my dream, my dream I had thought could never be expressed so long as I lived. I began spending more and more time with Mr Chuzzlewit, who eased me into the more challenging Aladdin Sane, and gave me my love for the dark moody atmosphere of Diamond Dogs; the sort of thing you are surprised to find out other people are also into, and the sheer number of them that are out there. Soon, via under the counter magazines and mail-order groups, I was even discussing my ‘Diamond Dogs experiences’ with people as far away as Essex. I was just reaching what felt to be a peak of happiness I’d always been denied when a former pupil of Mr Chuzzlewit’s, from his previous school, accused him of lending him a Lou Reed album and he had to flee the country, winding up working on a Dude Ranch in America until his untimely death by massive rectal bleeding due to an unfortunate encounter with a frisky bull.
Still, I had the connections now, and, as I neared my seventeenth birthday, my love of Bowie continued to grow unabated. I had my own flat by this point, away from my family, on skidrow, where I could play my records as loud as I liked, whenever I liked, so long as I didn’t wake up the hairy guy next door. The neighbors sometimes complained on the grounds of moral decency, and on the few occasions I had urges to give Scary Monsters another try, I always relocated myself to the Bovey toilets, where ill-spelt graffiti on the toilet walls would inform me of when to turn up, and whether headphones were a necessity. Illegal, obviously, but such deranged fun. Oh, wondrous night! Oh, sad, crazy, fulfilling night that has such people in’t! I’ve never felt more alive, nor will I ever again. It was madness, a time of freedom, of openness, of rash decisions suddenly made on the spur of the moment. One night, out of the blue, invited to stay in Berlin for three years with a couple of Aladdin Sane fans met just outside the toilets. Two crazy years I spent there, completing my understanding of Low and Heroes (although I could never grasp my head around Lodger. What can I say? Some things are just a little too far). Returning with the feeling of having been gone only twenty seconds. The underground Bowie scene that emerged in London in the early nineties. What a time to be alive!
It all had to end though, as everything does. We’d all heard about it, of course. The Bowie cancer they called it; Gods divine retribution on bisexual Glam rock lovers everywhere. Yet you never thought it would happen to you. How wrong we were! Now I sit here, at my computer screen, a shriveled wreck of man, ravaged by the illness; offset by pills for now, but ever present. Slowly my prescription increases. Another pill here, another pill there. ‘For the pain’ they say. ‘To give you energy’ maybe. They don’t really care. To them I’m just another washed up Bowie fanatic, too hedonistic by half, who let the good times run away with him. They’re right, of course, even now I know, even then I knew, that I should never have listened to Tin Machine. But I’m glad I did it. My life may be over soon, but I can go saying I lived more in my shortened lifespan than most people do with an extra fifty years on me. Maybe I disgust you. Maybe you despise me for what I was, what I am; but at least I did what I wanted, at least I went for what made me happy, no matter what society thought. I’m glad I did that. That I’m glad I did.
And now, as I slip away, a new part of my body failing on a daily basis, I at least know that, come my funeral, they will all be there, all the survivors, listening to Starman one last time as I’m lowered into the earth, leaving only the epitath “I’m glad I did it.”
And I really am.