When David Bowie breezed into Boscombe in the 1970s, nobody had seen anything like him. Least of all local lad Waldemar Januszczak
Try to imagine the beginning of Saturday Night Fever, with me in the Travolta role. If you remember, Travolta begins his big night with a slow, reverse striptease in which every item of clothing is carefully positioned on his body and then lovingly smoothed down. With me it was more a question of finding something that fitted and squeezing myself past its zip line. There were other differences. Travolta was going out to dance; I was going out to confront a dream. He didn’t wear National Health specs; I did. Most important of all, he was preparing for a night at the disco, while I was preparing to see David Bowie, live, at Starkers in Boscombe.
This being a Bowie article, you’ll be eager to know what I was wearing. Well, on my feet were a pair of platform-soled booties, brown and square-toed, zipped to the ankles. I remember them clearly because I only gave them to Oxfam a few years ago. For four decades they sat in my cupboard reminding me of the early 1970s. If you turn to page 25 of Speed of Life, the deluxe new collection of Bowie photographs we are here to admire, you will see Bowie wearing a similar pair, except his are red. That photograph was taken in the month I went to see him: August, 1972. His booties have 3in soles. Mine were substantially higher. He could stand up. I couldn’t.
Above his platforms, David sports a full-length zip-up catsuit with flared trousers and a floppy collar, coloured hippy-ishly in Indian paisleys. Funnily enough, I chose an Indian look myself that night, and went for a long-sleeved embroidered shirt from Afghanistan and an exceptionally skinny green boilersuit with sail-sized flarings.
Despite months of student starvation, I could only just get into the bottom half of that boilersuit. To this day I remember the harshness with which it lifted and separated my testicles. David’s Indian catsuit, I see, caused similar squashing in the basement.
The things we Major Toms did to save the world in 1972: the ch-ch-ch-changes we went through.
Speed of Life is about the size and weight of a medieval bible.
Tracking the transformations in Bowie from 1972 to 2009, it celebrates the work of the Japanese photographer Masayoshi Sukita, who first encountered Bowie-san about the same time I did.
Turning up in London in the summer of 1972, Sukita was a fashion photographer with a glam-rock fixation. “I had heard about T Rex and they appealed to me very much, even though I hadn’t heard any of their music. I had seen a photo of Marc Bolan in a Japanese magazine and noticed he was clearly wearing make-up, which I thought was pretty amazing.”
In London, Sukita found a Bowie poster in the street and begged his stylist to get him tickets for the Royal Festival Hall where the Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane tour was about to chug off around the world; a few weeks later, this same tour would take Bowie to Starkers in Boscombe. Overwhelmed by what he saw at the Royal Festival Hall, Sukita went out the next morning and bought every Bowie record in the shop, and then wangled a meeting with Bowie’s manager. A few days later he was photographing the newest redhead in town. Forty years on, he’s still doing it.
Speed of Life is one of the new breed of limited-edition designer books which, like Bowie himself, straddle many genres. Part work of art, part bible, part memento mori, it comes with a beautiful insert of Bowie vinyl and a signed showpiece photo of Bowie in a hitherto- unseen role as a human clock. Edged with silver, patterned with silky blues and pinks, it’s an exquisite example of goody-bag publishing. You’ll need to rob a bank to secure it, but the photographs will make the stretch worthwhile.
In his introduction, Sukita remembers being struck by the sight of all the men in the audience at the Royal Festival Hall wearing make-up. “It really was a very exciting discovery for me, like an astronomer finding a new planet.” They were “like performers”, he sighs. Now that he mentions it, I do remember feeling pretty cocky as I hobbled down Christchurch Road in my 5in platforms into Boscombe Arcade where Starkers was located. In earlier times it had been a music hall. Max Bygraves had played there. I have no idea how it managed to ch-ch-change itself into a must-see music venue, but for a few months that summer, Starkers was the pl-pl-place to go.
In case you don’t know, Boscombe is a suburb of Bournemouth. Technically I suppose we should think of it as a seaside town, but that suggests an element of gusty marine sunniness that Boscombe never possessed. There was one cinema on Christchurch Road that showed soft porn for the old-timers in macs who made up much of the population. Their wives, meanwhile, would hobble to the cliff walk where you could spend the final moments before you died staring at the sea from a welcoming cluster of benches.