17 Jan 2016

David Bowie and my Unisex lilac velvet jacket, R.I.P.

The date is 10th June, 1973. I am an art student in Liverpool. I have long since owned a worn-out ex-juke box copy of “Space Oddity”, and the hit single “Starman” saw me purchase the Ziggy Stardust album. We all like “Walk on the Wildside”, but neither myself nor anyone I know of in this city, or my hometown of Nottingham, is listening to the Velvet Underground, let alone aware of what an Iggy Pop might be. I know a little about German Expressionist cinema, but never even heard of Japanese Kabuki, Bertol Brecht, or William Burroughs’s cut-ups.

Within 24 hours all this and more will change. Forever.

Our curiosity peeked by a couple of hit singles, and the stories in the media, my flat mates and I are deciding what to wear for tonight’s David Bowie gig at the Liverpool Empire. Tickets were quite easy to obtain. “I’m going to wear all brown”, I joke with a camp wave of the hand, “I don’t want to appear to be competing with David!” And brown it was, although my platform boots were already about two building bricks high by that stage. We assumed that the night’s concert would be more of an entertaining spectacle for the teens, rather than second year art college students like us. How wrong we were.

As we approach the theatre we are swept aside by a youthful crowd emerging from Lime Street railway station, their eyelids painted like rainbows, silver tinsel circles glued to their cheeks. Stopping for no-one they charge through the theatre doors with scant regard for ticket collectors, rush to the front of the stage, and go into their chant: “David! David!” I am twenty-two years old, and the only teen adoration I’ve witnessed prior to this is my younger sister crying over The Osmonds. I clearly have no idea what is about to happen.

Let’s be honest, detailed accounts of most concerts one sees fade from the mind over time. They become a tick-box list of those bands one has seen and those still on the bucket list. But I can still replay that night’s performance in my mind: The swirling Japanese cape as the curtains opened on Jean Genie (complete with Love Me Do harmonica riff); the single spotlight on a solitary mirror ball which turned the theatre into a Space Oddity galaxy; Bowie shouting at the audience for screaming and not listening; the slick on-stage costume changes, the occasional instrumental-break mime, and hearing Lou Reed’s song “Waiting for the Man” for the very first time. Most of all the moment Bowie went “down” on Mick Ronson, seemingly biting at his guitarist’s strings, Ronson’s thigh mere inches away. I can tell you that three very straight art students emerged from the theatre that night wanting to be Mick Ronson.

After witnessing this Aladdin Sane stage show a lot of things I’d previously encountered became joined-up in my mind: “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, “Metropolis”, Scott Walker’s take on Jacques Brel, “Clockwork Orange”, Andy Warhol, “1984”, and more. The undoubted genius of The Beatles had tapped into largely British roots, marrying American pop with Music Hall, Irish limerick, the surreal humour of the Goon Show, the fantasy of Lewis Carrol. That well had been bled dry three years previous. Bowie was embarking on a whole new direction, merging European and Eastern art forms with the sound of Jeff Beck’s Yardbirds and the glitzy attitude of Andy Warhol’s factory. Put simply, it was the second coming of Elvis. Everything began anew, and he’d only just begun.

 Everybody uses that tired old cliché about “it changed my life”. But in some small measure, for me, that night did. Being a stranger in a strange land at that time became an easier mind-set to accept. It still is, when “everybody’s going out and having fun”, and I want to stay home and paint. In fact, so empowered did this fresh out of the countryside young man begin to feel, that a lilac velvet jacket and mullet hairdo seemed to be in order. Of course nobody told me the jacket, which buttoned to the left, was obviously intended for a girl. Never mind. I couldn’t get into it these days anyway. But I am still listening to David Bowie. I never stopped.

Above: Posing for a fellow student c.1973.