David Bowie - Blackstar

Like many people, I was having breakfast this morning when the news that David Bowie had died flashed up as breaking news on the different digital devices dotted around the flat. I couldn't believe it. How could it happen now? It was only last Tuesday that I'd heard John Wilson talking about the new Bowie album Blackstar on BBC Radio's Front Row. At the time I'd made a mental note to listen to the album when it was released on Friday 8th January to coincide with the singer's 69th birthday. Then, after I'd listened to it, I remember thinking that it needed a closer listen. So early on Saturday morning I lay in bed with headphones on, listening to the whole album. And for the rest of the weekend I had the songs spinning round in my head, especially Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can't Give Everything Away. And now I'm being told that he's dead? It sounds like a hoax. But then the one line news alerts start to get longer and more detailed and it becomes clear that it isn't a hoax - it's real.

I wrote to my friend John Howlett and said how Bowie had always had impeccable timing - leaving an album for his fans and then dying a couple of days later. In one statement I read, Brian Eno, who had worked with Bowie many times over the years, said: "David's death came as a complete surprise, as did nearly everything else about him." How true.

My friend John replied to my message saying 'You’re the first person who came into my mind when I heard about Bowie.' It's hard to say just how much influence Bowie had on me over the years. I remember being told to listen to Hunky Dory when it first came out in 1971 and loving it. And I can still remember seeing the cover of the Ziggy Stardust album in the shop window of an Edinburgh record shop and thinking this was something totally new and different. I went to the Ziggy Stardust concert in Edinburgh and immediately started writing songs that sounded a bit too much like wannabe Bowie songs.

Another friend asked me today if I'd ever met him. I wish I had. I went to mime classes with Lindsay Kemp and sold tickets for his Turquoise Pantomime on the High Street in Edinburgh. Bowie had studied mime with him. I was introduced to the songs of Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill and fell in love with them as Bowie had done. I read William S. Burroughs and loved the idea of cutting up and re-assembling song lyrics as Bowie often did. And I loved songs that were theatrical. I'm sure we would've found something to talk about.

Bowie also appeared on the pages of iT's for Teachers magazine in various classroom activities and on the cover of one of the final issues coinciding with the 2013 exhibition David Bowie Is at the V&A in London.

Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer wrote today: "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."

When a singer dies we usually have old songs going round in our heads. There aren't many artists who can fill your head with new songs just hours before they pass away. 

First night reviews

Each morning, after a first look at the Spanish newspaper, I download my daily UK newspaper and look at the First Night Reviews section. I think I do it partly to keep in touch with what's going on in the theatre in the UK and also out of habit.

Back when I was trying to make a living writing music for plays in London, opening nights were special. They always started earlier than other performances so that the critics could get their reviews written before the next day's edition closed. This was in pre-internet, pre-computer days so we're talking typewriters and telephones.

Then there'd be the long wait for the papers to appear on the newsstands. I'd buy all the papers and go through them, checking to see if there was a review and then checking to see if there was any mention of the music. I think the best review I ever got was from Jim Hiley writing about The Children´s Crusade in Time Out who wrote: 'And the music by singer/songwriter-to-watch Robert Campbell, is bloody marvellous'. And the worst review? Maybe Frank Marcus writing about Dean in The Sunday Telegraph: 'Robert Campbell will not cause sleepless nights to Stephen Sondheim'. Actually, there are other review for that show that hurt even more!

The thing is, when you read theatre, film and TV reviews in newspapers, there are always positive and negative reviews. You expect it. You can agree or disagree with reviews but you know that the reviewer is giving their opinion.

As an aside, you never know when theatre reviews are going to appear in Spanish newspapers. There doesn't seem to be a tradition of first night reviews and when reviews do finally appear, it's usually after the show's closed. Could there be a connection?

Anyway, when I edited and published iT's for Teachers magazine, we had a regular book review section called First Impressions. The idea of the section was for a team of magazine contributors to give their first impressions of new ELT titles. I naively thought that this meant we could give positive and negative opinions, always stressing that they were first impressions and not in-depth critical reviews. Unfortunately, it was not to be. After we printed one particular negative review, it was implied that we were going to lose an important advertiser. For a small independent magazine, losing a major advertiser can be a major blow. So from then on, we decided that we'd only review titles we felt positive about. If we didn't like a book, we'd simply ignore it. 

I got to thinking about reviews this week because the first two reviews of Beyond have just appeared in the EL Gazette and Business Spotlight. It would be good to read some more in-depth reviews that aren't afraid of being critical (or saying how amazing the course is!). But for the moment, these are welcome...

EL Gazette review of Beyond

EL Gazette review of Beyond

Business Spotlight review

Business Spotlight review

Ghosts of London

Derek Jacobi enters the Trafalgar Studio auditorium and takes his place in one of the house seats. I assume they're the house seats. Back in the days when I worked in the box office at the Shaw Theatre and Sadlers Wells, we always kept a group of seats for VIPs, friends of cast members, or customers who needed to be re-seated at the last moment. These were called 'house seats' and they were the best seats in the house.

We're at the theatre now to see Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts which was first performed back in 1882. It's still a powerful play today and I'd read in one review that the final five minutes of Richard Eyre's production were hard to watch. When I told this to my mother, she told me that she'd first been to see the play many years ago. She went with the musician Ivor Keys who she was going out with at the time. According to my mother, he'd fainted at the end of the play during those final minutes.

Curiously, we almost didn't get to see the play because we both hadn't been feeling well beforehand. Maybe it was just the nerves, wondering how we'd react to those final few minutes. Inevitably the end couldn't live up to such expectations. It was odd to watch the actors taking their curtain call, unable to smile after performing such a bleak play (for the second time that day).

There were more ghosts back at the hotel. I'd booked a room at the Pullman Hotel on Euston Road. This was long before I met up with the old friend I used to work with there when it was still the Shaw Theatre and St Pancras library (see An adventure in space and time below). When I checked in, the concierge asked me if I'd stayed there before, I wanted to say 'Well, yes, actually. I worked right where you're standing now long before you were born'. I spent many happy days there learning how to 'build a house' by placing audience members in the right seats on large seating plans. And never selling the house seats, of course.

The Shaw Theatre seating plan as it is today.

An Adventure in Space and Time

Time travel continues to be the theme this week. The day after Kennedy was shot (see last post), a new science fiction series started on BBC called Doctor Who. I remember watching the first episode twice. They repeated it the following week because (I mistakenly thought at the time) it had been so successful. It turns out that the repeat was due to Kennedy's death dominating the news. I leant this from An Adventure in Space and Time, a TV drama that told the story of how the series started. It was part of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary celebrations. I didn't watch the special anniversary episode. Although I was a huge fan of Doctor Who and still possess some daleks (hiding somewhere in the same chest as the Kennedy file), I'm not one of those people who follows the new generation (or regeneration) of Doctors. For me, the series belongs in the past and should stay there.

This week I had my own adventure in space and time. A friend I used to work with in the 1970s, and who I haven't seen since then, came to Barcelona for a few days. By coincidence, I'd revisited the place where we used to work this summer when I attended a breakfast meeting at the Pullman Hotel on Euston Road. The building used to be St Pancras library and included the Shaw Theatre. We both worked in the theatre's box office which is now the hotel reception (see photo). It was a happy reunion so I guess not everything from the past should stay there.

The hotel reception on the left where the Shaw Theatre box office used to be.

The hotel reception on the left where the Shaw Theatre box office used to be.