Illustrations by Eric Hanson
The following article is an extract from the book Bowie, a collection of essays by British philosopher Simon Critchley. The book—published by OR books and available here—starts with Critchley's first encounter with the Thin White Duke and charts the lifelong love affair that followed.
Let me begin with a rather embarrassing confession: no person has given me greater pleasure throughout my life than David Bowie. Of course, maybe this says a lot about the quality of my life. Don’t get me wrong. There have been nice moments, some even involving other people. But in terms of constant, sustained joy over the decades, nothing comes close to the pleasure Bowie has given me.
It all began, as it did for many other ordinary English boys and girls, with Bowie’s performance of “Starman” on BBC’s iconic Top of the Pops on the July 6, 1972, which was viewed by more than a quarter of the British population. My jaw dropped as I watched this orange-haired creature in a catsuit limp-wristedly put his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder. It wasn’t so much the quality of the song that struck me; it was the shock of Bowie’s look. It was overwhelming. He seemed so sexual, so knowing, so sly and so strange. At once cocky and vulnerable. His face seemed full of sly understanding—a door to a world of unknown pleasures.
Some days later, my mother Sheila bought a copy of “Starman," just because she liked the song and Bowie’s hair (she’d been a hairdresser in Liverpool before coming south, and used to insist dogmatically that Bowie was wearing a wig from the late 1980s onward). I remember the slightly menacing black-and-white portrait photo of Bowie on the cover, shot from below, and the orange RCA Victor label on the seven-inch single.
For some reason, when I was alone with our tiny mono record player in what we called the dining room (though we didn’t eat there—why would we? There was no TV), I immediately flipped the single over to listen to the B-side. I remember very clearly the physical reaction I felt listening to “Suffragette City." The sheer bodily excitement of that noise was almost too much to bear. I guess it sounded like... sex. Not that I knew what sex was. I was a virgin. I’d never even kissed anyone and had never wanted to. As Mick Ronson’s guitar collided with my internal organs, I felt something strong and strange in my body that I’d never experienced before. Where was suffragette city? How did I get there?
I was twelve years old. My life had begun.
There is a view that some people call “narrative identity." This is the idea that one’s life is a kind of story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Usually there is some early defining traumatic experience and a crisis or crises in the middle (sex, drugs, any form of addiction will serve) from which one miraculously recovers. Such life stories usually culminate in redemption before ending with peace on Earth and goodwill to all men. The unity of one’s life consists in the coherence of the story one can tell about oneself. People do this all the time. It’s the lie that stands behind the idea of the memoir. Such is the raison d’être of a big chunk of what remains of the publishing industry, which is fed by the ghastly gutter world of creative writing courses. Against this and with Simone Weil, I believe in decreative writing that moves through spirals of ever-ascending negations before reaching... nothing.
I also think that identity is a very fragile affair. It is at best a sequence of episodic blips rather than some grand narrative unity. As David Hume established long ago, our inner life is made up of disconnected bundles of perceptions that lie around like so much dirty laundry in the rooms of our memory. This is perhaps the reason why Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique, where text is seemingly randomly spliced with scissors—and which Bowie famously borrowed from William Burroughs—gets so much closer to reality than any version of naturalism.
The episodes that give my life some structure are surprisingly often provided by David Bowie’s words and music. He ties my life together like no one else I know. Sure, there are other memories and other stories that one might tell, and in my case this is complicated by the amnesia that followed a serious industrial accident when I was 18 years old. I forgot a lot after my hand got stuck in a machine. But Bowie has been my sound track. My constant, clandestine companion. In good times and bad. Mine and his.
What’s striking is that I don’t think I am alone in this view. There is a world of people for whom Bowie was the being who permitted a powerful emotional connection and freed them to become some other kind of self, something freer, more queer, more honest, more open and more exciting. Looking back, Bowie has become a kind of touchstone for that past, its glories and its glorious failures, but also for some kind of constancy in the present and for the possibility of a future, even the demand for a better future.
I don’t mean this to sound hubristic. Look, I’ve never met the guy—Bowie, I mean—and I doubt I ever will (and, to be honest, I don’t really want to. I’d be terrified. What would I say? Thank you for the music? That’s so ABBA). But I feel an extraordinary intimacy with Bowie, although I know this is a total fantasy. I also know that this is a shared fantasy, common to huge numbers of loyal fans for whom Bowie is not some rock star or a series of flat media clichés about bisexuality and bars in Berlin. He is someone who has made life a little less ordinary for an awfully long time.
Simon Critchley's book Bowie is available now from OR Books.