Tuesday, 12 January 2016

'Five Years'

I cried last night watching this BBC Two documentary 'Five Years', which focuses on five key years of David Bowie's work. I loved most of his seventies' stuff, the later music less so. I also loved the clips - 1 hour 9 minutes into the programme - of him playing John Merrick in The Elephant Man, with exquisite vulnerability and beautiful ugliness.

I had not followed Bowie's music for a long time but there was a time when he was all I listened to, in my teens and twenties (alongside Leonard Cohen and Frank Zappa). The outpouring of sadness on social media is, of course, not just the passing of an extraordinary and unique artist - aged only 69 - but the mourning of our own Bowie-wrapped memories (and that wrapping has beautiful, silver bows).

But now a shift has taken place and our memories are, in a way, suddenly hollow. 

I had all of his albums, my cousin and I exchanged 'Heroes' and 'Space Oddity' as Christmas gifts one year, I don't remember who gave what, but he was so physically beautiful on both covers. I remember how the 'Diamond Dogs' cover folded out. It was sumptuous. And how I could never get into  'Lodger', I'd play it over and over, hoping to like it more, but having to admit to myself I didn't...

I remember seeing the German film Christiane F. at a Glasgow cinema (no longer there), mesmerised by the Bowie soundtrack. The boyfriend I went with died many years ago from a brain haemorrhage,  I don't know the circumstances, we had lost touch, but I remember what I wore to the cinema that night, a long red cotton Indian print dress.

(I also remember the pink trousers I wore, dancing to 'John I'm Only Dancing' in the QM Union.)

I don't have a favourite track, it's almost impossible to choose one, but the song that always pierces me is 'Five Years' and it is in my novel. When I was told by a consultant neurologist in 1984 - almost eighteen months after becoming ill with Coxsackie virus - that I had myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and it could last for five years, I was horrified and truly didn't know how I could bear feeling so  ill for another five years. I was twenty years old. My character Helen Fleet says:

On the way home in the car, I hoped we’d crash and that I’d be killed instantly and Rita would walk away without a scratch. I kept thinking of the David Bowie song ‘Five Years’: . . . five years left to cry in . . . steady drums, louder and louder and louder . . . five years, stuck on my eyes, high violiny bit. (The State of Me, Chapter Five)

It's hard, I think,  to describe Bowie without resorting to dreadful clich├ęs - all I can say is I have a lump in my throat and even writing this I have tears. Yesterday, I realised how much of a part he had played in my growing up. When I hear the tinkling at the beginning of 'Ashes to Ashes', I am back in my childhood living room in 1980, aged sixteen, not yet ill, watching Top of the Pops. At New Year, I tweeted this, it feels a bit dislocating now. 

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