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“Me and the Starman”: A People’s History of David Bowie

David Bowie circa 1975 (Public Domain)

“History is written by the victors,” holds the famous quote by Winston Churchill. A new book involving another iconic Englishman with deep ties to America turns that thinking on its head. Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the song Space Oddity’s original release, Me And The Starman is a collection of essays from UK publisher Chinbeard Books offering dozens of personal perspectives on the impact of David Bowie’s work across numerous artistic mediums. Though several pieces are written by people who worked with Bowie in some capacity in the course of his career, such as former tour manager Tony Zanetta, the majority come from individual fans.

Related: “Mick Ronson: More Than Just A Sideman”

Considering the restless creativity that defined David Bowie’s work, it hardly seems surprising that fans from so many backgrounds would want to engage their own creativity to celebrate “the lipstick traces he left behind” (as the book’s editors eloquently put it). That the end product of those collective energies will also help raise money to research a cure for the disease that took Bowie (and so many others) far too soon makes it a doubly fitting tribute. That said, as editors Jon Arnold and James Gent have pointed out, “Me And The Starman is not a memorial but a celebration.”

As much as the individual pieces vary in tone and style, they all come across as thoroughly heartfelt. Like Bowie’s own songs, nearly every one of them offers an indelible passage that makes the feeling of personal connection concrete, especially when paired with a sense of discovery. For many, the connection is beyond words or at least beyond simple logic. Silvia Signori conveys something of this in her piece Blue Jean Can Send Me. “I do not know how it could have been possible but I’ve always felt a consonance with him. As I was an aerial and he was sending those waves I was searching for.”

Another prime example comes in the essay Loving the Alien by Matthew McLeod. McLeod perfectly captures not just the intimate dialogue Bowie fostered between fans and their sense of identity but also the awkward conversations this sparked for some with less understanding family members. “I tried to explain to my dad that I didn’t want to sleep with David Bowie, but more exactly I actually wanted to be David Bowie! There is a huge difference, but I think that scared him just as much, if not more, especially when I elaborated that I planned to shave my eyebrows off!”

In The Best 20p I Ever Spent writer Martin Ruddock recounts the marvel of finding K-Tel’s The Best Of Bowie compilation at a rummage sale. Despite the dodgy packaging, he decided, “This is my first Bowie record. Surely I can’t go wrong for 20p? Even with a Bowie record that looks like it was put out by people that hated him.”

Like Ruddock, many of David Bowie’s most ardent fans didn’t connect to his music via major touchstones like the famous performance of Starman on the BBC program Top of the Pops but rather through chance encounters. Jasmine Storm’s My Date With David Bowie relates a love affair with his music that began with acquiring a secondhand copy of Ziggy Stardust in 1979. Like Italian Changes, Stephen Hatcher’s account of hearing Hunky Dory for the first time while studying abroad several years after the album’s release, it beautifully captures the potential of a single record opens a lifetime of strange and wonderful doors.

Fan ownership of popular culture has become something of a toxic phenomenon the past few years, particularly when it comes to older fans trying to assert some sort of privilege or superiority to those who came to the party later. Stories like the ones mentioned above make it plain that the only valid benchmark for being a fan of Bowie is finding a connection with his work. The sheer variety of those connections is a feature not a flaw here as are the differences of opinion about noteworthy moments. Paul Ebbs’ Just For One Day and Hot Space Oddity by David Geldard discuss Live Aid and the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert respectively. Each writer expresses quite different views of Bowie saying The Lord’s Prayer at the latter event, but that just points to the truth that David Bowie was never just one thing to his fans.

Related: “A Wide, Wild World of David Bowie Counterparts”

This idea – one that the well-meaning but ultimate reductive obituaries from January 2016 missed – shows through in the many celebrations of his less beloved work. While the song “Heroes” gets numerous mentions throughout Me And The Starman, but the unifying principle is more akin to the lyric “Ain’t there one damn song that could make me break down and cry?” The point of this book is not the choice of song – it’s simply that there is a song (or other piece of work). The Laughing Gnome and Tin Machine are as much a part of the larger story as Ziggy Stardust and Scary Monsters. Bowie’s final album Blackstar may have dominated people’s thoughts in January of 2016, but Never Let Me Down also had a part to play.

While the editors clearly made the right call in not dwelling on Bowie’s passing, Me And The Starman nonetheless offers several pieces (including one by this reviewer) that allow readers to reflect on his absence, including two than close the book. The afterword, a wonderful reminiscence of Bowie’s early 70s breakthrough by Tony Zanetta, is preceded by novelist Paul Magrs’ Cut Up. As different as the two pieces are – one freewheeling, the other economical in its use of language – both bring the reader to a similar place.

“Now they are finite as you get older/It’s the only thing he never was before.”

Me And The Starman celebrates the before through the lens of the after in the here and now. One imagines Bowie himself would approve.

-Don Klees

 

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