By Simon Gipson, Chief Executive Officer, The Song Room
As a child, I travelled the world as a consequence of my father’s work. This meant that I went to six high schools on three continents; unsurprisingly, it was a challenge to build consistent friendships. It also made it hard to connect with teachers and develop those valuable relationships that could make a positive difference to my learning.
In the early 1970s, we moved to Perth in Western Australia, and though I had a passion for the arts, music particularly, there wasn’t much formally taught at Hampton Senior High School. Instead, I was left on my own – and perhaps with the help of some influential peers – to discover a rich range of contemporary music, from be-bop jazz to Dylan. I also learnt the guitar.
At 15, I first heard the album that catapulted David Bowie to global fame: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. ‘Starman’ was the single from that album, and it received high rotation on all the commercial AM stations in Perth. I couldn’t listen to it enough.
Bowie caused quite a stir back in 1972, not just because of his music and the subject matter of the lyrics, but also because he introduced a gender-bending theatricality to his live shows, and an intriguingly science fictionalised warp to the concepts behind the character of Ziggy Stardust. Plus, despite the make-up and absence of eyebrows, Bowie challenged the drab fashions of the time – though, looking back, not always with the greatest of outcomes!
Weathering an adolescence in suburban Perth in the 1970s – which was then little more than a very isolated country town, clinging to the western edge of the continent – Bowie brought an incandescent difference that shifted my perspective on music and on art. His work was filled with allusions to an eclectic range of aesthetic traditions and artists, and he consistently referenced his contemporaries in the lyrics of his songs, from Jagger to The Beatles.
It was through Bowie that I discovered Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Andy Warhol, Japanese Noh theatre, and the prose fiction of William Burroughs. Bowie introduced me to an aesthetic and intellectual world that primed me for my university studies in literature and gave me a world view beyond the Swan River and the beaches on the Indian Ocean.
I followed Bowie through the 70s, as he moved from a period of experimentation with plastic soul to a new persona as the Thin White Duke and an electronic sound, esoteric but compelling. I saw him live for the first time in 1978 – and to my great regret, just missed out on meeting him in person; but, that is another story.
When Bowie went Top 40 again in the 1980s with China Girl and Modern Love, I maintained my allegiance and saw him again on stage in 1983. I even had my haircut and wedding suit emulate Bowie’s fashion at the time!
But after the mid-1980s, Bowie seemed to slip slowly from my view. No doubt due to my shift in focus with a new family, a demanding job, and part-time study for a Master’s degree.
Nonetheless Bowie was a hero of my early adulthood. He opened a window into different ways of thinking and thoughts I would never have considered. And these challenged me, engaged me and shaped me.
Bowie has continued to influence my imagination; and from time to time, I have dragged out the old 33 1/3 LP records and recaptured the adolescent memories that exist amongst the surface crackle of buckled vinyl.
Two and half years ago now, driving back home to Melbourne from holidaying in New South Wales and 10 kilometres out of Sale, I heard the newsflash announcing Bowie’s death.
It was an incisive shock; the last 30 years of my life wrenched aside, I was back in my 20s reflecting on the impact that Bowie the artist had had on me.
Bowie figures large in my life because his thinking influenced mine. And we all need in our lives signatory figures who defamiliarise the world around us and cause us to view things from new directions. This is the stuff of great art, music and literature; the ability to shift our perspectives, to make us see things differently and with fresh eyes, to cause us to become new observers of the commonplace around us.
And for many of us, these signatory figures are the teachers with whom we connect most closely at school. More often than not, they are those teachers with a particular passion for their subject; frequently, they are those who teach the arts.
These teachers challenge us to think beyond our present, stretch us creatively and cause us to critically consider the world as it is constructed for us by the media, by politicians, by our leaders.
This is why artists and teachers of the arts are so important to us; it is fundamentally why the world needs art.
We must always be prepared to question the world around us.
We need art, artists and teachers of the arts to help us do so.