It’s been a weekend. Growing old disgracefully doesn’t come easy as you’d think. Happily, Monday’s my day off. I haul my aching body out of almost ten hours’ sleep, roll over and check my phone. The internet’s alive, but someone I once thought would live for ever no longer is. So many legends lost to the world in the past few months, but this one’s different. This one’s the author of my song. This one’s part of my personal soundtrack. This one’s David Bowie.
One day, though it might as well be someday … Not twenty-four hours back from here, I’m eating well-buttered toast in unaccustomed company and talking about Blackstar. I haven’t heard it yet. Sometimes I don’t keep up so well these days.
It’s dark. Very dark.
I guess I might make dark music if I knew how close the end was, and listening thirty-two hours later I can hear that he knew. But wasn’t Bowie always dark? That’s why I loved him. The glitz all on the surface. But camp always bears the miasma of darkness in the end.
I’m in my grandmother’s room, stealing precious time on her walnut-veneer radiogram. My parents don’t do music and I’ve fought hard for the concession. I can play my records quietly. With permission. When Nanna’s not there. I take the single out of its paper sleeve, check the surface for scratches and wipe the duster over it. I set the switch to 45 rpm, blow the near-invisible debris of my last visit off the needle and lower the stylus tenderly onto the very edge of the black disc. No matter how careful, my fingers always shake. The ritual. A crackle or two. Twenty seconds of near-silence. Ground control to Major Tom … Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you … Here am I, sitting in a tin can … I already know there’s no happy ending. The late 1960s was the best time to discover music. Everything was new. The stranglehold of commercialism wasn’t total then, and Bowie rode the wave into the 70s and beyond like no-one else. Friends of every age are posting on Facebook today. Most know far more about him than I ever will, and that’s all as it should be.
I was a good Methodist Sunday School kid from the age of three. I grew up on hymns. I still remember most of them now. Change and decay in all around I see … See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down … I lay in dust life’s glory dead … dark stuff for a childhood. I’ve never understood how it didn’t make the same ache for music in the people who put me in its way. When I decided the god of my childhood might not exist after all, the hymns were what I missed most. Never mind just love, music’s fed my soul through light and darkness. Each and every song has a tale to tell, often more than one. It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m walking through the tunnel of ever-changing street art between home and my allotment in unaccustomed company. In the entrance, a man’s making music. The acoustics of the tunnel are breathtaking. One day I’m going to sing my heart out in here, but the song he’s playing now I sang at my daughter’s funeral. I can’t even speak.
My parents chose my name without sentiment. It may not have been beautiful, but at least it couldn’t be shortened. I’m not sure they gave a thought to its rhyming with ‘bean’. This dismal lack of romance means my appearances in song have been rare indeed. Cheer up sleepy Jean … I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair … although strictly speaking ‘Jeanie’ doesn’t count. The Jean Genie burst on the scene late in 1972, brimful of attitude. I was at Essex University, hub of student revolt back then. I fell head over heels. Bowie’s androgyny tuned with my nascent feminism. His strut and rebellion played counterpoint to my reticence. Friends coined the nickname for a time. Jean Genie, let yourself go … and for a brief moment, I did just that.
And yes, my memories are old, personal and of their time. Space Oddity. Jean Genie. The Prettiest Star. Ziggy Stardust. This is ‘my’ Bowie and will remain so. Music’s made in the heart, not the intellect. She’ll come, she’ll go, she’ll lay belief on you … Bowie’s music whispers of places long forgotten. Some perhaps best forgotten, but no less a part of who I am. The whispers are sometimes of sadness. More often now they make me dance and laugh for the sheer joy of living. That’s when the Jean Genie lets go once again. So the last word belongs to the man himself: I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.