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The thin white prophet
David Bowie was why I wanted to dye my hair at age 15. Those, as Lou Reed sang, were different times and Bob Dylan and Makandal Daaga would have been frustrated at how slowly they were-a-changin’ in Trinidad.
In 1973, despite the 1970 Riots/Revolution/Pick Your Prejudice, a black person boldfaced enough to sport an afro could be gleefully mocked in public. In Form Four, in January, almost three full years after Black “Power,” I saw a large group of black people follow a young black couple dressed in dashiki and kinte cloth from St Mary’s College to Woodford Square, taunting and jeering at the couple all the way.
“Go back to Africa!” a man shouted. “Them from America!” shouted another. “No African would dress so!”
A fortnight earlier, my cousin Joe D’Olivieria, in Trinidad from Toronto for a green Christmas, lent me a pair of platform boots Kiss might have coveted: blue-and-silver—blue velvet and silver leather—with six-inch stacks and eight-inch heels.
It was the tallest I’d ever been; I even loved the blisters I got clomping from my father’s office on South Quay to do my Christmas shopping at Stephen’s on Frederick Street. Like David Bowie, I was on show.
Bowie’s first hit, 1969’s “Space Oddity,” could chart today, Sixties production values notwithstanding. (Steal a copy free on the Net: Bowie foresaw the death of music copyright and sold his own publishing 17 years before U2 were forced to give away Songs of Innocence.)
A pop song containing more music in its five minutes than most bands’ LPs, “Space Oddity” changed how I saw the world: from my Trinidad tin can, far, far away, planet Earth was blue and there was nothing I could do.
My pardner Harry, who came from Southern California to St Ann’s in 1972 to genuinely rock my world, played (The Rise & Fall of) Ziggy Stardust (& the Spiders from Mars) for me and the album that had given a million other misfits from Bangalore to Boston a sense of belonging converted me: I, too, was a rock-and-roll suicide; even if I had already started the journey away from any possible “Starman”, Ziggy or anybody: I had begun what remains, 40 years on, my free-fall from faith; and am all the better, though, of course, far more bluer, for it.
Bowie’s (yet another) seminal album Aladdin Sane—A Lad Insane—came out in April ’73 and Harry’s father bought it back for him from Stateside—you couldn’t buy music like that in Trinidad—and Harry and I took one look at the cover and vowed to dye our hair.
At the time, my brother, our pardner Hannibal and the Ferreira boys were the only males in Trinidad who parted their hair in the middle—and were called sissies at house parties
My mother threw a fit when I asked for the $10 the hairdresser wanted. (A Trini barber would quicker kill than dye anyone’s hair.) For two days, any time I caught her eye, she went off. “I tell you that boy ain’t no good in he head! Ten dollars! To dye hair! Man hair! At age 15!” After a week, she settled down enough to ask, “What colour you wanted to dye it? Blonde, I suppose.” I answered, “No. Silver.” (It was all Bowie’s fault; Harry was going to do his purple.) My mother tripped for another three days.
(Rock-and-roll coda to that story: old people say, “Be careful of what you want, for you might get it: after I turned 40, such hair as I had remaining turned… wait for it… silver!)
David Bowie sold 140 million records between 1969 and his death this week at age 69. It is as if the entire population of T&T bought everything he released 140 times. Each. Or as if all of Russia bought an album.
Bowie was a genuine artist. He expressed himself most purely in music and—critically—on stage, perhaps, but his very life was a work of art. Buy his CD, “Outside” and you’ll see it is itself a work of art stretching and exploring the limits of art itself; it’s like Peter Doig recorded an album. (Don’t download it: you need the liner notes.)
Around the same time that David Bowie—and the Mighty Shadow and Andre Tanker and Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd and Weather Report and Johnny Winter—were rescuing me from the bleak world without God and delivering me into the only possible Heaven our species could attain—Art—another musician who had meant a lot to me in my youth was going through ch-ch-changes of his own in adulthood.
Cat Stevens, whose songs (like, “Wild World,” “Father & Son,” “Peace Train,” “Moonshadow” and the definitive cover of the Church of England hymn, “Morning Has Broken”) touched the world, became a Muslim, morphed into Yusuf Islam, and, for decades, denied music and the greatest work he’d done for/gift he made to the world.
He’s singing again, praise Jah, and hopefully praying less—because our search for truth is to be found in Art, not in religion; in museums, not in churches; in libraries, not in so-called holy books; on our own, not at the feet of men in dresses.
And here is the thought that all this leads to, the first thing that struck me the moment I heard that the bisexual, thoughtful, caring and erudite David Bowie had died: the world would be a far better place, today, if young Muslim men listened to Ziggy Stardust—or Pinups, or Earthling, or, particularly delightfully, Heathen—instead of reading the Koran.
BC Pires is not afraid of Americans but does look over his shoulders for
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