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David Bowie one of those Heroes whose art will live on forever

By Gail Walker

Fair enough, the course of our lives may not, as the ancients thought, be ruled by celestial stars. But it is true to say they are milestoned by our all too earthly and mortal ones.

The function of great cultural or historical figures in the everyday lives of the rest of us - the roles they play, what they represent, how they initiate, shape or change opinion - is a genuine social phenomenon. We may get sniffy at that, wish they didn't wear tattoos or advocate violence or promote anaemic, tepid philosophies of vague goodwill; but their influence, be they movie stars, sports players, pop stars, glamour pusses or grotesques, occurs in spite of the opprobrium of the elders among us.

Such figures exist in a way that is different from how friends, family and romantic partners do. Those people think they know us, yet they can not look into our very being - the people we dream of being, the shiny people we really are. But certain figures understand, and one of those was David Bowie, in a thousand different ways. Some trivial because he was the gawky boy made good. Some because they wanted to be a proper artist like him. And some because they too wanted to muck around with make-up, smashing taboos and outraging our elders and so-called betters.

Let's Dance. What an album to cascade into your life on the cusp of your teenage years in a small Northern Ireland town! But there are many Bowies. Or there were many Bowies. Mine, primarily, was the Comeback Bowie, the Business Suit Bowie, the Dancefloor Bowie - that bassline, that song... the man video was invented for. Let's Dance indeed. As he said in Modern Love: "I know when to go out/And when to stay in/Get things done)". And indeed he did.

All stars face one dreadful question: how do you want to be remembered? And apart from one or two drug-addled blips, Bowie always seemed to know the answer. A man of substance, style and dignity, his life and work always bore testimony to this. And now his death does too - private, reserved, dignified. If it is hard to live in the public eye, it is harder still to die in it. Perhaps that is why Bowie choreographed such an elegant and graceful exit. Not for him the hours of confessional interviews, that one last hurrah of publicity. No, he probably knew that there was only really one way to go out - in character with his life. The Thin White Duke - the emphasis was always on the duke.

These desperately sad losses are like a kind of cultural erosion on the soul - chunks of your youth just collapsing into the sea. Even as I write, the memories are playing strange tricks. Bowie in Ashes To Ashes, dressed up like a clown, a bulldozer, that weird sea and that weird beach.

David on all fours on - I can't quite remember - Blue Jean, was it? The images were as powerful as the music. And then, for me, what you might call retrieved memories: as an intrigued teenager ransacking his back catalogue, glued to old archive footage of Ziggy and his Spiders From Mars - hotpants and mascara, platforms and shockingly dyed hair. If this was the revolution, it looked like fun. What was there for any teen not to like, let alone one in rural Ulster in the Eighties, more often than not confined to living in a few streets due to the disintegration of society all around?

Now, replicate that across the globe and down the decades. Bowie joins that very select band of artists whose impact will only broaden and deepen as his influence on fashion, sexuality, lifestyles, image-making and creativity, let alone music, is more understood.

As the years slip by, the sounds of our youth can become not less important but more. More vital because Bowie never became nostalgia. And because he was always reinventing himself we thought the process would go on forever. That he was quaffing from the fountain of youth. And we thought that even when his lyrics had become infused with shades of melancholia and darkness. I suppose you could say we were so caught up in the excitement of his latest album we didn't pause to notice that sometimes the flame burns brightest before it flutters out. But that is to confuse the artist with the art. The songs will go on. And more importantly our relationship with 'David Bowie' will go on. We have the memories and those memories will come back, obviously at this time of sadness, but in the years to come as well.

More strangely, though - for all his extravagant myth-making, his many exuberant selves, his outrageous takes on being a human in space - Bowie was also oddly traditional. A very British eccentric in the best sense, one of the odd gifts the wayward English psyche presents to the world, insisting somehow that even impossible odds can be overcome...

I can remember

Standing by the wall

And the guns shot above our heads

And we kissed,

As though nothing could fall

And the shame was on the other side.

Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever.

Then we could be heroes,

Just for one day.

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