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How London Celebrated David Bowie's Life Last Night

Photographed by Christopher Bethell
There are certain moments in history that people say will stick with you forever. I wasn’t around for the assassination of JFK, but I’ll never forget turning on the radio to hear that Michael Jackson had passed away.

When we woke up to the news that David Bowie had died of cancer yesterday, the country seemed to pause. We stopped in our tracks, shocked. The surprise of his death, a man whose music means so much to so many, felt so unexpected; a sudden loss.

As the tributes and news stories piled up, just wallowing in deep sadness wasn’t enough for some, and plans quickly formed for a gathering to remember Bowie and what he’d done. It only seemed right that the party be held in Brixton.
Photographed by Christopher Bethell
Bowie was born in Brixton, back in January 1947, and his connection with the people of this electric south London district continues; there's a mural of the legend painted lovingly on a wall here, and his face is emblazoned on the local currency, the Brixton Pound. Bowie represents what Brixton is so famous for, a dizzying hub of cultures and creativity, even with gentrification in full swing now, the place continues to have that festival buzz.

Walking up the steps of Brixton tube at half past seven, the roads were already heaving. Across the street, opposite a Subway down a quiet pedestrianised street, stood a throng of hundreds, squeezed around a mural of Bowie’s face, ever immortalised on this brickwork from the 1973 album Aladdin Sane.

One by one, the crowd came forward with cards and flowers, placing them in front of the painting, some pausing to say their own private goodbyes. A young guy clutching a guitar, clearly thrilled for once to not be wrecking the vibe of the party, played the intro to “Life on Mars”.

“But a friend is nowhere to be seen, now she walks through her sunken dream,” he sang, somewhat slower than in the original ballad. Around him a crowd, from teens to pensioners, stood singing, some holding lighters thrust high into the air.
People were in mourning. “Bowie told us we could be whoever we wanted to be”, Becky Bassett told me, as a woman next to me wiped away a tear. “He taught all of us that we could be accepted, that we had a home in a world of outsiders”.

Back across the street, outside Brixton’s Ritzy cinema, thousands were looking up at the listings board, usually an advert for the blockbusters showing, but last night adorned with three simple lines. “David Bowie, Our Brixton Boy, RIP.”

Small circles began forming all around me, as guitarists or portable speaker sets started playing out tunes. "Space Oddity", a personal favourite, sang out next to me, and I too felt moved.

“It’s not just about him, the man, David Bowie,” a grey-haired woman whispered, briefly touching my arm. “What he did, the barriers he pushed down, his legacy will touch us all.”
Maybe she was right. Bowie didn’t subscribe to fitting in, and the crowds who showed up last night seemed truly grateful. He dressed however he wanted, and he never constrained himself with traditional notions of gender and sexuality.

Last night boys dressed in pink satin, girls donned fluorescent power suits with their hair tied in bows, and everyone happily danced. One guy even showed up with a lamp on his head, although to be fair I’m still not entirely clear as to why. Maybe that was the point.

Bowie, through the years, managed to queer the mainstream, making life that little bit more comfortable to those of us who don't quite fit in with the norm.

The fluid crowd, drawn like moths to wherever music poured from, had found a speaker system that looked like it might, finally, work outdoors. The sombre silence, candles held, cans of Stella raised, was suddenly broken.

That infectious crescendo, and quadruple key change came pumping out. The crowds turned, the mood quickly changing, as the funky electro of “Let’s Dance” echoed all around. Maybe it was the change in tempo, or it might have just been the beers, but it seemed that the time for lamenting was over. Brixton was heaving, alcohol flowing. There was music, a shared love of Bowie, and it was time for the party to get started.
Gyrating next to me was Grammy award-winning Elly Jackson, otherwise known as La Roux. “His music has had a huge impact on me”, she told me, as around the party jumped joyously up and down. “His musical parts, his arrangements, they are intelligent. He was never afraid to challenge the norms.”

We chatted too about the intensely moving atmosphere, at odds with the crowds attracted by street parties like Brixton Splash. For much of the evening, the music was quiet, as sound systems and acoustic sets ebbed and flowed around the square. And yet there was a quiet, respectful atmosphere, voices kept hushed so all could hear.

At 10.30pm, the numbers were continuing to swell, the Facebook invite for once underestimating the numbers on the night. The power of the internet to pull people together is often mocked with our criticism of clicktivism, as we spill our hearts out to Facebook “friends”. But last night, the internet transcended the virtual.
By this point the revelry was in full swing, and, fittingly, the Bowie and Mick Jagger classic "Dancing in the Street" was playing out of a window. Brixton’s busy crossroads ground to a halt, as the Met were forced to shut the roads, as dancing spilled over from the pavements.

The Bowie street party was exactly what it should have been. There were middle-aged men for whom Bowie was a catalyst of sexual liberation, millennial women with childhood memories of “Heroes” playing loudly from the speakers in their parent’s car. Some revellers just showed up for the party, a sentiment you can’t help but assume the guy would have been pleased about.

It’s sometimes all too easy to romanticise the life of an artist. For those that gathered in Brixton last night, and based on the reaction of social media to his death, millions of others around the world, David Bowie was something different. His music and persona provided a sense of belonging, which for an international star, before the onset of social media, is a remarkable feat that we mustn’t neglect.

There are plenty of quotes, and beautiful lyrics, that can be attributed to this musical legend, that would reflect what he did in his life. But as I sat, on the tube home just after midnight, sipping my beer as the carriage continued to dance, only one stuck out and feels right.

“I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring”, he once said. We’ll probably never know about that, really, but if what happened in Brixton last night is anything to go by, Bowie has left our lives a little less boring. A splash of colour that we won’t quickly forget.

Photographed by Christopher Bethell