David Bowie provided the soundtrack to many an undergraduate's social life at Oxford in the 1970s
By Rehana Aziz
(St Hilda's, 1972)
Oxford in the 1970s pulsed to the sound of David Bowie: in our rooms, across corridors and up and down staircases, from one steeple of the dreaming spires to the other. The only remotely close competitors were Roxy Music. Come Friday or Saturday, Bowie's weekend anthem The Jean Genie could be heard across Magdalen Bridge emanating from the Oscar Wilde Rooms in Magdalen, as Roxy Music's Virginia Plain reverberated around St Giles from Balliol. I can hear both now, and the excitement and joie de vivre that they inspired as they defeated the worst of essay crises and tutorial traumas.
It is often said that everyone can remember what they were doing when the news of John Lennon's assassination broke. With Bowie, each major melody brings back associations of where and when one heard it, thus becoming a choral background to those years of one's life.
An exhibition in Berlin of Bowie's show-stopping outfits
My first individual exposure to Bowie was in my friend Robert's stately rooms in St. Swithun's quad in Magdalen. Sitting on the floor (where else?), Fill Your Heart did exactly that, becoming my instant and lasting favourite amidst many well-loved songs. The medley of his voice, the piano, and the sweetly soaring music did the trick, and does anew every time I hear it. 'Forget your mind, and you'll be free..' What more enjoyable, easier way to relax could there be?
That other iconic track from Hunky Dory, namely Changes, takes me back to Michaelmas term as I sat contemplating the week's work in my stylish little room in Garden Building in St Hilda's. The autumn leaves were swirling outside as if in time to the music, and the rhythms proved equally addictive whether played on my own music machine or coming from my friend Diana's room directly above.
Young Americans was the backdrop to much that was happening on the world stage in the 1970s. I associate my holidays in Germany, where my parents were then posted, and which - both West and East - he had also taken by storm, with the rolling rhythm and vocals of that 'sock in the jaw' title track as much as with that favourite of the Oxford Summer Ball scene, Waterloo.
The chameleon-like Bowie again changed track dramatically with Station to Station. Its stark black and white album cover reflected the mesmerising music inside, most notably the arresting Be My Wife. The atmosphere conjured up whilst listening to all this at full blast chez my friend Helen, who knew Bowie personally, at the American Embassy in Moscow was electric. A real regret will remain missing experiencing him in concert.
Taphouse's record shop on Magdalen Street in the late 1960s
Come the 1980s and the era of song videos, Bowie was again front and centre with the surreal Ashes to Ashes, now watched as well as heard on television. I had now come down from Oxford, and moved to Holland, where (as in the rest of Europe and in the US) it was recognised that 'there is old wave, there is new wave, and there is Bowie'.
He went on reinventing himself, his music, and his styles across the 1990s and over into the new millennium; ever adventurous, never stepping back from his love affair with 'sound and vision'. His current album has been widely hailed as a fusion of rock with jazz, and it is amazing that he devoted such time and trouble to its production - from the overall theme to the minutest details - while in the throes of so serious an illness.
And so to the Man with One Dilated Pupil, the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, this idol of millions, this most extraordinary of entertainers who fired with enthusiasm 'My (entire) Generation', thank you for the music.
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