In the Night Walk Pavilion

So much will be written over the next days and months about David Bowie (aka David Jones). His life and work touched so many, so profoundly, that the shock of his death feels like the death of a close friend. It needs to be grieved over, talked about and somehow integrated with the rest of our days, which will be so much the poorer. This is my contribution…

* * *

In the early 70s when I was just starting high school and learning there was more to music than the Beatles and the Monkees, the first bands I liked were Slade, Sabbath and The Rolling Stones – strutting, macho rockers who showed us prepubescents The Way.

Yet, even then, it was rumoured that there was another Way. Half-heard whispers, graffiti on lockers, carved into desk tops – there was also David Bowie.

But there was something weirdly wrong with Bowie (and with anyone who confessed to be a fan). Bowie (apparently) claimed to be gay – or at least bi-sexual (whatever that was) – so red-blooded, normal prepubescents who didn’t want to be singled out were careful not to listen to Bowie and made sure they loudly bagged him at least once a day (especially if they did secretly like Space Oddity).

And so the months rolled by – all of us happy and normal – not listening to Bowie and united against The Other Way.

Then everything changed.

Yes, puberty happened in there somewhere, but more importantly, a new boy started at our school (in the wilds of Sydney’s north). Stephen was different to the rest – curly red hair and openly intellectual – he may simply have gravitated to the small group who took their schoolwork seriously, except for one thing. On his very first day, he made the explosive announcement…that he was a David Bowie fan.

He couldn’t have done more to invite scrutiny if he’d turned up naked with a sack of gay porn. The news swept the playground like fire in February and quickly there was a knot of interrogators around Stephen (who also had long fingernails and a suspiciously genteel manner).

Interrogators: ‘You like David Bowie?’

Stephen: ‘Yes.’

(Expressions of shock and outrage.)

Interrogators: ‘So you’re gay.’

Stephen: ‘No.’

Interrogators: ‘But you said you liked David Bowie.’

Stephen: ‘Yes.’

The knot dispersed with knowing glances and dark mutterings of reprisals, but Stephen seemed unaffected by it all and that’s probably how I got sucked into his world. How could someone be so insouciant of the terrible damage he’d just done to his reputation and prospects for acceptance and inclusion? I must have stared longer than most because he quickly identified me as a person prepared to tolerate him.

Of course, I was barely tolerated myself for my own intellectual bent – something I tried to curb, but it would constantly cause me grief by being just a little too clever in class or even (gasp) philosophical. I made up for this by being good at sport and shoplifting, but Stephen was unlikely to recover from his dreadful debut and was therefore dangerous to know. My own suspect nature would never stand the association.

And yet he sought me out – especially in the German language class we shared.

I didn’t want him to. I was already part of a tight little group that didn’t need any new members. If I was prepared to socialise with a Bowie-lover then I was committing social suicide, so I resisted Stephen’s overtures of friendship and even told him bluntly that I couldn’t be friends with him because I hated David Bowie.

This didn’t seem to deter him. He simply treated me as though we were friends and upped the ante by inviting me round to his house. Fortunately he lived a couple of suburbs away, which made it easy to fob him off, but two things were weakening my resistance: one was my natural politeness and sense of justice. I did perceive that Stephen was being treated badly – not least by me – but I was scared of the consequences of being openly his friend as opposed to an occasional furtive interlocutor.

The other was Rebel Rebel.

When I saw the clip for Bowie’s new song one Saturday night, I was transfixed. Bowie looked unbelievably cool and was playing a heavy rock riff – not looking remotely gay – but then I shook my head and ran from the room, desperately ridding myself of the seductive contagion. Bowie was bad! Bowie was bad!! Bowie was bad!!!

Another week or two went by and Stephen cornered me again in German. Would I like to come around to his house on Saturday afternoon? They had a pool table.

I was trapped.

Before I knew it, I’d said: ‘Okay…but are you going to play David Bowie?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m only coming if you don’t play Bowie.’

He agreed, so I really had no choice after that, but I knew I was flirting with disaster if others learned I was going to a Bowie-lover’s house. I kept my No Bowie-date with Stephen secret from all but my mother (who had to drive me over) and Saturday dawned rainy. It poured all morning, inspiring a deep melancholy and eerie premonitions that my life was about to change.

The rain cleared but the clouds were still threatening as I stared at Stephen’s house from the car. The neighbourhood was so different to mine but clearly, anyone who had a pool table in the seventies was rich. The garden seemed like a work of art (his mother was into bonsai) and walking down the path was like entering a different world. There was a huge, subtly lit bonsai in the entry way which was not simply a means of ingress and egress. It was constructed from exotic timbers, lacquered, scented and shaded in a way that seemed to draw me in – already hypnotised by the strange and the new.

Stephen greeted me at the door and the first thing I said was: ‘No Bowie…okay?’

‘No Bowie,’ he agreed, with an odd smile.

After consuming a snack in the kitchen with Stephen’s mother (who seemed comparatively normal) we went downstairs to the pool room, where I was taught a lesson by my reasonably expert host. Three games went by without a single mention of Bowie and finally I couldn’t bear the tension.

‘Aren’t you going to put some Bowie on?’

He just stared at me.

I seemed to be doing the same thing from some weirdly external perspective. What the hell was wrong with me? Was I under some sort of spell?

‘Sure, we can play Bowie,’ said Stephen. ‘Come on.’

I followed him into the deepest, darkest part of the house – from where the strangeness seemed to emanate. Stephen’s bedroom.

I must have entered like a starving cat – wanting dinner, but fearing attack. If the others at school could see me now…

I sat on his bed while he fiddled with his record player (yes, vinyl in those days).

‘This is called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,’ said Stephen, turning off the light, and sitting next to me – causing my anxiety levels to skyrocket. I could actually hear my heart beating!

But no.

It wasn’t a heartbeat, it was a drumbeat, rising in volume, setting up a groove, and then a splash of arpeggiated guitar…

Pushing through the market square, so many mothers crying
News had just come over, we had five years left to sigh in…

It is difficult to convey to a modern audience the zeitgeist of the early seventies. This was the height of the Cold War. Vietnam was still happening. Everything seemed so futile but at the same time there was an aesthetic nihilism that reached even us budding intellectuals at the Arts End of the Earth. I had never heard anything express all of this so perfectly, yet Five Years wrapped it all up in four minutes of glittering imagery against a dark musical mood with a gloriously mesmeric melody. I was hooked.

Soul Love, Moonage Daydream – brilliant. I’d never heard anything like it, but then Starman absolutely knocked me out. ‘What an amazing, awesome, magical masterpiece!’ I found myself saying, while Stephen grinned – enjoying my conversion as much as I did.

By the end of the album I was totally blown away – emotionally exhausted by the ride I’d just taken, but there was more.

‘This is the new album,’ said Stephen, ‘…Diamond Dogs.’

‘Is that the one with Rebel Rebel?’

‘It is.’

If Ziggy had opened me up to the prospect of letting David Bowie into my life, Diamond Dogs confirmed me as a devout fanatic – ready to proselytise to all my Stones and Slade-loving mates who were missing out on something really important. The world may be dark, dysfunctional and doomed but Bowie’s music seemed to twist all that into something which, may not have been the answer, but was at least distracting and invited the listener to rise above it all to a place where art and music were all that mattered.

Obviously, I wanted Stephen to make a copy of those albums for me so we had to play them both again as they recorded onto a C90 cassette. I was in heaven.

Then another mind-shattering thought occurred to me. It was possible to like David Bowie and still be heterosexual! (As I was to discover about two years later while John, I’m Only Dancing played in the background.) This was an important thing to understand as, despite my euphoria at discovering Bowie, I was keenly aware that I would have to go to school on Monday and face a different kind of music, once my status as a Bowie fan was inevitably revealed.

Somehow I got through that ordeal without too much loss of blood, and Stephen became a popular member of my little clique. But around this time I made another important discovery: in fact there was already a secret society of Bowie-lovers. They were all musicians and strangely immune to the mainstream opinions and realities of high school.

As a mediocre singer, I was a fringe-member of the muso’s network and it was through them that I next discovered Hunky Dory – in many Bowie-philes’ opinion, his finest work. It is certainly the most intriguing from a lyrical perspective, including some of his most arcane material. Oh, You Pretty Things, Life on Mars and Quicksand are all opaque but still manage to convey a coherent narrative.

The same cannot be said for the closing track – The Bewlay Brothers.

I have struggled with that song my entire life. The lyrics are so portentous, so redolent of meaning and rippling with texture, but what on earth do they mean? (Full lyrics reproduced below.)

Like listening to an argument in an asylum, there are flashes of coherence which are maddeningly cut short by a fresh stream of consciousness every second line or so. The only line of the song I felt I understood was:

We were so turned on, in the mind warp pavilion

In other words, listening to the song (with its hauntingly wistful melody) was like being in the ‘mind warp pavilion’. Okay, I get that.

Imagine then my annoyance when (only recently) I discovered the line actually refers to ‘the night walk pavilion’.

So now I’m back to square one, trying to make sense of ‘chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature’.

And yet, the night walk pavilion sounds like a peaceful, strange and beautiful place. I hope David Bowie is there right now.

* * *

The years went by and I turned into an adult – going through phases but not as many as Bowie. I was resolutely heterosexual, but not because I had anything against those who were not. I simply found women more attractive than men, and if Bowie might have been disappointed with my blinkered stance, so be it.

(In fact, I’ve never understood homophobia. As a fairly ordinary-looking specimen of homo sapiens, I’ve always encouraged other men to be gay. Where would my sex life have been without all the good-looking blokes fancying each other?)

Bowie continued to provide the soundtrack, along with plenty of others, but as music evolved very few stayed on the playlist for more than a decade. Others have described better than I could the incredible way in which he not only stayed relevant over the swiftly changing epochs of musical style but drove them forward – constantly taking the initiative and staying at the forefront of fashion for far longer than any other artist in the history of popular music. Not only that, he has continually proven himself to be a songwriter and lyricist of the highest order.

I bought all his albums, went to all of his Sydney concerts, read several biographies, attended the exhibition in London, and sang Quicksand while giving the eulogy at my father’s funeral.

* * *

So how do I feel, now that he is gone?

It is impossible to overestimate the impact Bowie has had on my life – helping me make sense of and cope with the world so subtly I didn’t even realise it was happening (while also providing much of the soundtrack).

What makes it especially hard for me is that Bowie was Peter Pan – the quintessence of youth, awakening, discovery and self-confidence. How can such a person be gone? While he was alive (and older than me) I always felt young somehow (despite being in my 50s now). It’s like the passing of an Age of Middle-earth – the magic has diminished.

Of course, he will live on.

Many people achieve fame in their lifetime but then fade over decades and centuries as they lose their relevance.

But some do not fade.

Some like Shakespeare, Mozart, Einstein, Orwell and Freud seem to burn brighter with every generation and I have no doubt that Bowie will prove to be one of these.

For, in my humble opinion, no-one has had more impact on music since Mozart.

* * *

As for Stephen, he teaches German at Cambridge these days…and it serves him right.

 

The Bewlay Brothers (by David Bowie)

And so the story goes they wore the clothes
They said the things to make it seem improbable
Whale of a lie like they hope it was
And the good men tomorrow had their feet in the wallow
And their heads of brawn were nicer shorn
And how they bought their positions with saccharin and trust
And the world was asleep to our latent fuss
Sighings swirl through the streets like the crust of the sun, the Bewlay Brothers
In our wings that bark
Flashing teeth of brass
Standing tall in the dark
Oh, and we were gone
Hanging out with your dwarf men
We were so turned on
By your lack of conclusions

I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax
Unbelievable
And we frightened the small children away
And our talk was old and dust would flow
Through our veins and though it was midnight back at the kitchen door
Like the grim face on the cathedral floor
The solid book we wrote cannot be found today
And it was stalking time for the moon boys, the Bewlay Brothers
With our backs on the arch
And if the Devil may be here
But he can’t sing about that
Oh, and we were gone
Real cool traders
We were so turned on
You thought we were fakers

And now the dress is hung, the ticket pawned
The factor max that proved the fact is melted down
Woven on the edging of my pillow
And my brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you
He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
Shooting up pie in the sky
Bewlay brothers
In the feeble, in the bad
Bewlay brothers
In the blessed and cold
In the crutch-hungry dark
Was where we flayed our mark
Oh, and we were gone
Kings of Oblivion
We were so turned on
In the night walk pavilion

Lay me place and bake me pie I’m starving for me gravy
Leave my shoes, and door unlocked I might just slip away
Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay
Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Please come away, ay
Away
Away

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1 Comment

  1. When I got to the part…

    “I followed him into the deepest, darkest part of the house – from where the strangeness seemed to emanate. Stephen’s bedroom”

    …well, it’s ok Ade, we’re all friends here.


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