Lunch With Bowie

Writers and musicians pay tribute to the divisive, chameleonic rock icon at the Ulster Hall's latest Literary Lunchtime event. 'He was the human equivalent of a Google search'

There is nobody here in Ziggy pomp, which is disappointing. Nobody has collected mysterious goo in the hollow of their collar bones or donned the Goblin King’s eye-catching and eye watering Spandex tights.

Instead, there are the same beards and side-partings you would see at any other gathering of literate young men, plus a smattering of middle-aged chaps in sunglasses and suits, with classic rock on the iPod docks of their beamers.

We’re in the Group Space of the Ulster Hall, Belfast for Lunch with Bowie, the latest in the Literary Lunchtimes series of readings and performances. David’s not here of course – he is probably making a food sculpture at his Swiss Schloss with Iman, with Tony Visconti doing a surprising amount of the actual grunt work. Pin Ups, his 1973 covers album, plays as we assemble; a version of 'Friday on My Mind' is yodelled gently in the background.

'This is an exploration of a man who can be very divisive,' says our host, author and Ulster Hall Education Community Heritage and Outreach Officer, Jan Carson. 'I personally hate him. That’s probably not the best way to open a show!'

Carson immediately clarifies that this is a 'Bowie' to rhyme with 'Zoe' afternoon, not a 'Bowie' to rhyme with 'T.O.W.I.E' one. Already I know she’s a safe pair of hands.

We start with a couple of testimonials, including this from author and critic, Paul Morley: 'He was the human equivalent of a Google search: a portal you could step through into another universe.'

The first of two musical interludes is Rory Nellis’ deftly picked acoustic version of 'Rebel Rebel'. In his hands, it becomes a plaintive ballad of unrequited love; Bowie’s infatuation with an unspeakably exotic Iggy Pop.

Next up is 'The Man Who Sold the World', one of Bowie’s snakiest, most insinuating songs. It’s a brave choice following Nirvana's MTV Unplugged version. Or Lulu’s, for that matter. (I’m not even joking – it’s brilliant!)

Nevertheless, Nellis does a fine job, though he misses out the muezzin wail at the song’s coda, which is my favourite bit.

The show centres upon five years of Bowie’s career, from 1972 to 1977. To illustrate why, Carson quotes the lyrics to 'Five Years', the opening song on the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: 'It was cold and it rained and I felt like an actor.'

This may be the only true thing this slipperiest of singers ever wrote. Bowie was protean, mutable: quicksilver in the palm. He had changed so many times in the late 1960s, desperately clinging to the coat tails of fashion, reimagining what he might be, that by the time his career developed its own momentum, he was unable to stop, re-making and re-modelling endless variants on what a David Bowie might be.

By the time he reached Ziggy Stardust, he said of himself: 'I wanted to de-violence A Clockwork Orange and add the mystery of Kabuki and Noh Theatre.' Showaddywaddy this was not!

There are readings from William Burroughs, from whom Bowie borrowed his 'cut up' technique, and from Orwell’s 1984, which fed into the paranoiac pop of 'Diamond Dogs'. And by the time we reach Bowie’s Berlin period, he has transformed into the toxic Thin White Duke, elegantly skeletal and mired in hard drugs and a fascination with fascism.

This prompts a reading from Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth, featuring Thomas Newton, an alien so closely resembling Bowie that he got to play him in a film. Bowie was type-cast – Newton is on a mission to save his dying planet but he becomes fascinated with the worst excesses of humanity. His planet crumbles to dust while he gets drunk and watches television.

Singer-songwriter John Darcy, dressed as a clever schoolboy, treats us to a 'happening' – he plays us some records at varying tempos, managing our expectations by telling us that they are not all 'first pressings'.

He plays an Alvin and the Chipmunks version of 'Oh, You Pretty Thing', finding a nice dub groove halfway through, that he rides out with a stylophone solo. Bowie’s version of 'Peter and the Wolf' then pokes its head out of the murk of sub-bass.

Darcy sings his own version of 'Heroes' over a distorted, stygian riff – his chutzpah is heroic. It goes on and on, however, and I keep looking around for someone with a Vaudevillian hook to drag him off. It doesn't happen.

There is just enough time for a whistle-stop tour through Bowie fan-fiction ('terrifying'), writers and artists influenced by Bowie, and a live DIY Bowie cut-up, before Nellis is back for some failed audience participation on 'Space Oddity' and, of course, 'Starman'.

Carson may not like Bowie (it’s his teeth, apparently) but she freely admits he is fascinating, something she proves conclusively with these peculiar cultural ripples emanating from the Bowie phenomena – a much better spent lunch-hour than queuing outside Boojum in the spitting rain.

The next Literary Lunchtime event, An Introduction to Memoir, featuring authors Tara West, Patricia Craig and Andrew Eaton, takes place on May 20.