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Sunday, 31 January 2016

A love letter to David Bowie, his music and The Man who Fell to Earth

A couple of weeks ago one of my genuine heroes died. It was a death that affected me far more than I ever anticipated would do, not that one spends ones time wandering around mindfully anticipating the deaths of all those that I admire of course, but the depth of loss I felt for someone whom I had never met was surprising indeed. It seems too that I wasn't alone in my experience, for if the level of coverage in all forms of media is anything to go by, then the loss of this particular icon appears to have resonated far deeper than any other public figure of recent times. It is abundantly clear that he meant so much to so many, and on so many different levels. However, as always these are my own self indulgent ramblings, while I may well not come anywhere close to matching some of the truly beautiful words that have been written about the man since his death earlier this month, this will be at least my own heartfelt tribute to David Bowie.

If truth be told, whilst I would have always regarded myself as something of a fan of his work, there was a time when I probably wouldn't have thought I was any more than just that. Being a child of the 1970's, Bowie had always been part of the cultural landscape in terms of his music for many people so  I suppose I quite simply simply took him for granted. This view of myself as little more than 'something of a fan' changed in 1981 when two things happened simultaneously to make me completely reevaluate my feelings towards the man and his work, thus regarding him in far more grander terms. You may not believe that it all happened this way, but they did.

The first of these simultaneous occurrences was the visit in one Saturday in January of 1981 by my Auntie Jane. She was the younger sister, the cool younger sister, of my mum and had always seemed to me as about as deliciously rebellious and uncaring as one could get away with in Yorkshire back in those days. Jane wore the coolest clothes, she went to the coolest gigs and had just about the coolest taste in music. Yes, there was certainly a good deal of hero worship towards her from myself back then.

The visits to her house unfortunately were rare as she lived away in the next town and back then we didn't have a car, but when did manage to visit I would always go straight for her collection of T-Rex records and play them until even she would get fed up of hearing 'Cosmic Dancer' for the 10th time in a row.

So when she visited our home in that particular January of 1981 with the promise of a very special musical birthday present for me it was with barely concealed anticipation of what I thought would be her collection of T-Rex records. However, I was very much mistaken because while it certainly was a musical present, it turned out to be her own personal collection of each and every album that a certain David Bowie had made up to that point. It even included his very latest release, a brand spanking new as yet unplayed copy of his album, Scary Monsters. For a brief moment I was a little disappointed (yes you're correct.....ungrateful little shit), after all Marc Bolan at that point was still my musical bliss and as I've said earlier, Bowie was fine but all I really knew of him was his radio play list singles. However, for once in my life I managed to hide my immature disappointment and gave her my best "oh my god!!" response as I took the record collection upstairs.

I'm a firm believer that every single one of us has certain moments in our life when things inexorably change beyond all measure. Sometimes we are aware of these moments, sometimes we're completely unaware and it's only with the benefit of hindsight that we recognise them for the pivotal moments in our existence that they are. Let me me make it clear, within a few moments of listen to his exquisite Hunky Dory album I was completely aware that in musical terms, life wouldn't ever be quite the same again. Beautiful, beautiful music in album after album. I couldn't believe what I had been missing all those years as the day quickly passed by in a haze of Ziggy, Aladdin et al.

That very same evening the second happening occurred when, taking advantage of a birthday treat in being able to stay up late on that weekend night, I chanced upon a movie featuring none other than the redoubtable Mr Bowie. Now you you must remember that by this point in my life (having justice turned 14) that I was now firmly ensconced in my private but satisfying world of Scifi & horror geekdom. I say ' private' because the world of 1980 was a very different world for the geek than it is now, there was no Internet (god help us), little in the way of super-hero movies and certainly no celebration of all things geeky that there are today. Whereas today being a nerd or a geek is tantamount to being a badge of honour, back in the day one could be in serious danger of being clipped around the head at school by ones peers for such outlandish behaviour as carrying a copy of a Phillip K. Dick novel. 

However, thanks to the ever increasing behemoth that was Star Wars and the likes of Star Trek etc, the tide was beginning to change and this here blogger was in his element - Scifi was my world. So when I noticed that not only was there a relatively rare Science Fiction offering on mainstream TV (we only had 3 channels here in the UK at that time for crying out loud - it was like living in the dark ages!) but also it starred the man whose music I had been binging and gorging myself upon all day, well I was there ready and waiting. In all truth I don't really remember what I was expecting, maybe a blaster and space fight or two, but what I found in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) took me completely by surprise - and some thirty odd years later, it still does.

Spoilers ahead me hearties!!

The premise of the film is relatively simple. An alien (played by Bowie) from a planet dying from the effects of drought has travelled to our little world in search of the water that will save his home. This Alien has a particular set of technological knowledge and skills as his electronic inventions quickly begin to bestow upon him a great deal of wealth as part of his ultimate plan to build a spaceship that will transport water to his drought-ridden planet.

However, things soon begin to unravel for the Alien as his incredible wealth, a Howard Hughes type existence, a series of destructive relationships  and a developing addiction to alcohol soon attract the attention of the dastardly CIA (the CIA is always dastardly in these movies). This eventually results in his capture and eventual emotional and psychological destruction as his plans are thwarted at the last minute. The film ends with him a lonely broken individual, haunted by the knowledge that his family and world are beyond help.

There are a number of age-old questions that people never tire of debating; Would Mohammad Ali have beaten Rocky Graziano? Was Lee Harvey Oswald the lone gunman? Was David Bowie any good as an actor?

Well let me tell you that the answer to all three is a resounding yes. Bowie's performance in The Man Who Fell To Earth is truly mesmerising (even more so on repeated viewing) in evoking the frail (both physically and emotionally) Alien trapped in a world that he barely understands.

David Bowie's performance was exactly what this type of film demanded  - because lets be clear that this is no blasters in space Star Wars type of Scifi. In truth it is a film that arguably would struggle to be made today with its emphasis on complex exploration of both character and philosophical ideas. There is little time or consideration for special effects of even a completely coherent plot here as it ponders along on it's existential abstract way. The tone is at times almost poetic in nature and if you haven't seen it think Solaris, think Sunshine........ then you may be halfway to understanding just what an experience this film is.

Bowie was quite perfect for the part as he portrays a figure of pitfall dreamlike loneliness, both in the flashbacks to when he left his family and the empty relationships with the people on Earth. The final scenes when he is left a broken lonely alcoholic made me cry back in 1981, and still does. It is possible that his lifestyle, fuelled with copious amounts of cocaine contributed to his dreamlike performance - perhaps. One cannot avoid the fact that his personal demons of the time certainly played a part in all that he did. Nonetheless, he is masterful here.

The Man Who Fell To Earth may well be a child of its time with its 1970's undertones of Watergate infused paranoia but it still holds up astonishingly well as a great film featuring a great central performance.

I was driving to work just a couple of weeks ago when, after a few minutes of half-listening to the radio, it suddenly occurred to me that four David Bowie tracks had been played in a row. At first I thought it was the local radio displaying a rare sense of consistent musical taste. When I then heard the news I pulled the car over and cried.

However the music still remains in all its glory - for me 'Life on Mars' is a song nearing musical perfection as much as any in the 20th Century. As for his films, well the jury may forever be out in regard to his acting career - but for me we are more the richer for movies such as The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Hunger and Labyrinth. As well we should be.

Cheers David.

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