All the songs of my life

All the songs of my life, #6: “Life on Mars” by David Bowie

In August 1989, the girl with the mousy hair sat down to watch an evening of David Bowie videos, and discovered her favourite song of all time.

In August 1989 I had not even been a Bowie fan for a year. I had devoured the entirety of his back catalogue that was available to me: all the 80s albums including the new Tin Machine, collections of his pre-“Space Oddity” songs like “The Laughing Gnome”, and anything I could record from the radio. But, apart from a copy of “Diamond Dogs” which a friend of my mum’s had recorded for me, I had no access to the majority of his legendary output of the 70s.

All that would change for me once the 90s began and a programme of re-releases commenced, but I had an early preview one night in August 1989. One of the greatest things about being a music fan in Australia in the 80s and 90s was the show Rage. Every Friday and Saturday night, the main public TV channel the ABC would be taken over completely by music videos for the whole night. On Fridays, there would be new releases followed by a chart countdown, and on Saturday nights, either a celebrity would come on to choose a playlist of their favourite videos, or there would be a retrospective special on one particular artist.

And it just so happened that in August 1989, they featured David Bowie, and it was one of the most exciting things that had happened since I had become a fan the previous December. I have such a clear memory of myself that night, sitting in front of the TV after the rest of the family had gone to bed, headphones plugged in, pressing ‘record’ on the VCR and watching the full magic of David Bowie being unleashed before me as they went through his music videos from “Space Oddity” to the recent Tin Machine output.

I’m not sure how many songs into the playlist “Life On Mars” came. There would have been “Space Oddity” first I imagine, and probably “John I’m Only Dancing” and “Sorrow”. All great stuff, of course, but as soon as “Life On Mars” started, I knew this was something different, something even more astounding that even I, in the thick of my all-encompassing teenaged obsession for Bowie, could have imagined. I remember so clearly how I felt hearing it for the first time: that lone piano note, and then the shocking spike of red panning down to the brightest blue around his eyes. Those eyes staring at me in their unsettlingly beautiful asymmetry, while I heard this untouchable song for the first time, 14 years old, in the middle of the night. That melody, gently building to its crescendo through a series of oddly unexpected yet entirely perfect chord changes. The story of the girl, wandering alone to the cinema, bored by the uniformity of the stories around her. I was completely mesmerised.

Staring at this video of Bowie recorded 16 years previously, and 2 years before I was born, it seemed to come from some other world. I already knew that David Bowie was wonderful, beautiful, amazing, all the adjectives an obsessed 14 year old could come up with, and yet “Life On Mars” somehow took everything up a notch. 1973 must have been such a different place to 1989, I thought, so full of colour and mystery. I wonder now if the 14-year-olds of today feel that way about 2005, or has the immediacy of the internet squeezed the decades closer together?

And so, instantly, I had found my favourite song in the world. “Life On Mars” would in fact be my favourite song right up until 1993, when it would be unceremoniously overtaken by “Motorcycle Emptiness” by the Manic Street Preachers when I was 18. A decade or two later, as I meandered through my 30s and into my 40s, I no longer really knew what my favourite song was. Until, that is, the 11th of January 2016, when the awful news broke about Bowie’s death. Suddenly, the full force of my 14 year old self’s obsession was back upon me. In the hours and days and weeks of grief that followed, it was as though I snapped back into the mind of my younger self, when “Life On Mars” was my favourite song of them all. And so it became my favourite song again, and can’t see it ever being toppled. Because somewhere deep inside me, I will always be that 14 year old girl, mesmerised in front of the TV set at midnight.

Click here for links to all my writing about David Bowie!

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