Of course, this is a song, but it is also a story, and a room that allowed me to glimpse a different kind of world to the one I grew up in. I first encountered Bowie at 13, when I heard ‘Life on Mars’ on a television advert for home insurance. I had never encountered anything like his voice, or his lyrics, or those unsettling minor chord changes. When I saw a picture of Ziggy Stardust in his skin-tight spangled jumpsuit I downloaded his entire back catalogue and listened to it on the bus to school, watching the terraced houses and kebab shops blur into grey through the window, dreaming of a glamorous, dazzling life. My father wasn’t around much when I was growing up, but my mother told me that he also loved Bowie and I felt that the music connected us, pulling us closer together.
The day Bowie died, I went to Brixton. Hundreds of people thronged the streets, wielding guitars and cans of beer. The Ritzy cinema wrote, ‘David Bowie: Our Brixton Boy’ across their letterboard and people painted murals on the streets. Bowie had always felt like my secret, despite his fame, and it was humbling to see the effect he had on so many others. A man climbed on top of a van with a guitar, lit by an orange streetlight. He played ‘Life on Mars’ and the whole crowd sang along with him. The song was my story, but it was also the story of so many other people too, which is one of the best things that literature can do.
Released on Hunky Dory, RCA Records, 1971. You can listen to it here