Peterborough, England, 1993
It was my last year of high school and my stutter was as bad as it had ever been. The next year I would graduate and move from the flat fenlands of England to the mountains of Canada where I would find love and friends and fluency, pierce my ears and grow my hair, and abandon my blue suit (yes, suit) for jeans and leather jacket. But that year I was full of anger and isolation, enduring secret and unreciprocated romantic feelings for my best friend, and hacking my way through my VCE equivalents at a violent rural school. It was my friend who introduced me to David Bowie. A mix tape at first, then via the film The Man Who Fell To Earth to the album Low.
Low is the first of the strange Berlin trilogy that Bowie made with Brian Eno, the entire B-side of which is instrumental. A New Career In A New Town – a track that encompasses that mixture of anxiety and excitement at starting again – would have been a more optimistic favourite. But – as you have probably guessed – I was not an optimistic young man. The last song was my favourite: Subterraneans, a sparse composition of seminal electronica, where high strings play over the lowest bass, linked by reversed beeps. There are voices, too, what sounds like a male choir, offset by Bowie’s saxophone, then a few lines of lyrics, senseless, like something you would write in the middle of the night after a dream and look at in confusion the next day. It fit my mood exactly.
On Thursdays I was allowed to take the family car into town to watch art films at the city library. Wearing my blue suit, I would take the aisle seat and even though the theatre would fill no one would have the courage to squeeze past me, so intense was I at that time in my insecurity and arrogance, loneliness and self-loathing. As soon as the credits rose I would stalk back to the car and play Low on my way home, through the city and immigrant ghettoes, past still clattering factories and silent housing estates, then back onto the dark of the fen to park at a small humpback bridge just outside my village. Delaying my return home, I’d let Subterraneans play as I looked out over the ploughed fields at the lights of distant villages and cars.
Some time later I found out that Bowie wrote the song about those trapped on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, and a few months ago I visited the city with my love, and glimpsed the sheer violence of its division and the brutality of the regime that sustained it. But in 1993 I knew nothing of this and probably wouldn’t have had the capacity to understand if I had. I thought only of school tomorrow, another day of entrapment in my strange shell. It is a time I find both sympathetic and shameful in retrospect; that universal teenage suffering, ridiculous in the belief that it is the most awful and belongs to them alone.
© Christopher Hawkes