DAVID BOWIE IN BLACKWELL'S BOOKSHOP
Years ago, I ran a research project on the 1970s. It was very successful, but it left me with a sense of unfinished business. I was particularly interested in David Bowie - his gender fluidity, his musical variability, his admirable penchant for being one thing and seeming another. A Bowie biography had recently been reprinted and I thought well, I’ll stage a little celebratory event. Accordingly, I reserved Blackwell’s, Jo ordered the books, the cakes were bought.
So far so good. I had intended to give a little talk and chair a discussion, perhaps play some of the music. The event might attract maybe 30 people. But either by my unconscious desire for mischief, or just by accident, the wording of the invitation was ambiguous: “Is Davie Bowie really dead? Can he be revived?” This went round the Internet like wildfire, and I was appalled to realise that the fans were expecting a psychic manifestation. I had always thought of Pompey as a sticky place, full of spittle and semen: but it turned out that people thought it was full of ectoplasm as well.
The day dawned. Thousands and thousands of people streamed out of the station, many of them dressed as Ziggy Stardust. Others were dressed as the Thin White Duke, although they were none of those things. It was the biggest crush Portsmouth had ever seen. The police were out in force, and even brought out horses to control the crowd. Since Blackwell’s was on a roundabout abutting onto five major roads, the city was in total lockdown. An important official was stuck in his limousine, and shook his fist at the crowds. Several University high-ups were caught in the traffic-jam too. They were riding bikes so as to curry favour with the Greens, and had their vehicles crushed by a fire-engine. The organisers of the event (we were now seen as “ringleaders”) were corralled inside the bookshop. Brian had a nose-bleed all over his shirt, and looked like Banquo’s ghost. Jules had the beginnings of an asthma attack. Amanda fiddled nervously with her new beads. I simply experienced that wan sensation of being virtuous, but nonetheless to blame.
Eventually the traffic cleared (it took hours) and ten of us were left in the shop. We sat round finishing the wine. Blackwell’s had large windows and was surrounded by high buildings, and I thought how we must look like Nighthawks, that sad painting by Hopper. “OK folks” I said, “before we go, let’s raise a glass to Bowie. This is all for him anyway. David, where are you?”
There was a tall black cupboard in the corner of the shop. Suddenly the door creaked and began to swing open. One of the girls started to whimper. Two more drops of blood trickled onto Banquo’s shirt. My bladder, (ever my weakest organ), went into overdrive. And then out of the cupboard stepped Bowie himself. Not as Ziggy, not as the Duke. But it was him, although his eyes looked as though they were made of glass.
He began to sing. But no living throat ever made music like this. He sang five or six songs, which although they were old, sounded new. The last one was All the Young Dudes. This was the song he had given free to a young group, to make their fortunes. He gestured to us to sing the chorus: “all the young dudes...carry the news ...carry the news”. We made a keening, unearthly sound, and as it died away, he walked backwards into the cupboard, in a re-enactment of the end of Darkstar.
They closed Blackwell’s soon after that. Perhaps it had become tainted with sedition. More likely was that it fell victim to the forces of greed, philistinism and cultural myopia. I wondered what the ghostly Bowie had meant by “carry the news”. Surely it must have been this: that all people must die, but art does not. It is all that remains of us. It keeps youth blooming after its prime, it keeps the leaves on the tree after the autumn, it keeps hope alive. Bowie knew that piece of wisdom, and now we knew it too, even though it was ignored by the Suits and by the Dementors.