Memories of a Bowie Conference: 1. Watch That Man


In the fall of 2012, a group of international researchers gathered to discuss the cultural significance of David Bowie but both the papers, and the long social intervals, were filled with personal connections and fan recollections. I remember, for example, hearing Space Oddity, rushing out to buy it from Woolworth’s and coming home with a budget Decca LP of Mantovani’s Everyone’s Gone to the Moon. I was eleven, had no idea about music, and this was my first encounter with the strange and slippery identification that would bless my life.

Sharing Bowie with other fans isn’t always easy. I was on my way to work when I heard the news Monday; unable to cry in front of strangers I locked myself into my work treated the routine like cotton wadding. I got home late and balled and balled and balled. And when my eyes were clear enough to notice I wasn’t the only one, that the world was grieving, I wasn’t sure, if I am honest, how I felt about that. At the conference in 2012, there was a similar sensation. The gig drew a strange bunch of foreign bodies, as much from the academic world as from the culture industries, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the University of Arts London and the University of Maine. A full score of papers were presented. As befits their subject, the topics were diverse, ranging from questions of identity to questions of authorship. And I was here too, feeling a bit like that eleven-year-old, a bit dazed and unwashed, feeling a bit like I would on that awful Monday in January, 2016, too wrapped up in my own grief to recognise others’. Bowie had touched my life … mine.

If Bowie’s presence in our lives was something we had in common, it was Bowie’s absence from public life – it soon became apparent at the conference – that filled us with fear for his, and our own, future. What could the future hold without Bowie? It became the understated theme of the symposium, so I wrote at the time:  ‘Just chatting with the delegates, one got the feeling that the symposium was a proxy live event, substituting for some kind of return to music, film or what-you-will, in any figuration whatsoever. Where are you David Bowie?’

A few months later, Bowie was asking the same question in a surprise birthday gift to the world, and those anxieties, if not entirely quelled (his fragile vocal was achingly beautiful, but troubling) were replaced by tears of joy … and relief.

From the corners of the world, conference delegates shared hugs via tweets and emails … we’d all sensed it. We shared something special in those few days at Limerick. It will always be special and I will always have those delegates in my heart. But it’s heads I turn to now for, although many of the papers have been disseminated in book form, it seemed right to me to share those conference proceedings over the next few weeks, starting tomorrow.

You will read them as the musings of academics, who sometimes use big words because small words seem impossibly insufficient, but who bear gifts, freely sharing the words and ideas of others through citation. But hopefully you will also read them as fans, using big words out of embarrassment of taking staff leave and funds to research and write about the joy in their lives, being in the privileged position to share this with others … even if sharing doesn’t always come easy.


NEXT UP: 2. I Can’t Read. Kathryn Johnson

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