Celebrating an icon: last night's David Bowie vigil was a much-needed reminder of the uniting power of music

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Harriet Hall
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On a cold, miserable January night, just twelve hours before junior doctors commenced a nationwide strike against proposed contract changes, the RMT had announced plans for London Underground staff strikes, and people questioned whether or not jihadis could have infiltrated the Calais jungle, hordes of people gathered in the dark winter streets of Brixton to sing, to dance - to celebrate.

In what felt like the biggest emotional outpouring for a musical icon since the untimely death of John Lennon in December 1980, the sheer level of impact a musician could have upon the social consciousness, was displayed.

Like electricity, Bowie’s presence was felt the moment one emerged from the muggy, frustrated tube, statically cracking across the cold, damp pavements of his South West London birthplace.

The florist outside the underground station was selling out of bouquets but people dug deeper into their purses for more expensive bunches – probably the best day of business had seen in months – and yet he told me, whilst wrapping my carnations, “It’s not a good reason for business to be doing well.”

Flowers and tributes were laid below the colourful, miraculously graffiti-free Stansfield Road mural that depicts the singer’s Aladdin Sane persona - placed upon those left earlier that day, alongside tea lights emblazoned with red and blue lightning bolts. They stood and watched people pay their respects, and shuffled out of the way to allow others to do the same.

A group of nearby men with a guitar started singing Bowie's greatest hits, as crowds gathered to join in, to capture the moment on their phones, or simply to watch.

The Ritzy cinema façade said nothing of film schedules, only the message:

“David Bowie. Our Brixton Boy. RIP”

Thousands flocked to the square in front of the cinema, some having brought speakers that, although relatively quiet, were loud enough for the lyrics to carry through the crowds who belted out the lyrics to Starman, Young American and others whilst, in cold hands, clutching tins of lager that had been purchased in civilised lines from local offies.

There was no police presence, no aggressive unrest, no negativity – instead, just love.

A woman reached for my hand to help me climb upon a concrete perch to get a better view of the revelries, and I reached mine out to another; sharing snippets of when we first felt connected to the late performer.

Although I'd first developed a fondness for Bowie's music after hearing Andy Warhol (a song about a curious man with whose own art and music I had felt connected) it was Changes that really made me take notice of Bowie as a relatable artist. As a young teenager desperately trying to address the conflict between my own interests and those prescribed by the mainstream, Bowie's lyrics were comforting, encouraging. 

It was as if Bowie had reached out of his LPs, CDs and MP3s and touched the souls of every one of us at some point in our lives – the way only a great lyricist can.

Despite the dark news of death, there was a deeply positive mood in London last night. People’s reactions were life-affirming: a sign that music really can transcend all else, and connect people in a way that no other medium could claim to.

Whether Bowie’s 26 albums and 111 singles had brought colour to dark political landscapes, helped people come to terms with their sexuality, or simply made them want to dance, it had reached everyone in some way or another. Constantly reinventing himself, Bowie proved that you never have to conform.

Both young and old gathered in Brixton last night – and elsewhere in London, New York and Berlin. How rare it is, to have a person affect so many in such different ways. Even the 10 O’Clock News spent twenty minutes covering his death. As he himself sung in Quicksand, “Knowledge comes with death’s release.”

Bowie didn’t tell the media of his 18-month battle with cancer, or that he’d suffered six heart attacks in the past year alone. But once the news had broken it was clear that what he was giving in his final album was a farewell gift which, when listened to in retrospect, was a deeply poignant goodbye - opening with the lyric: “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”

The streets of Brixton, already so steeped in cultural history, continue to serve as a reminder of how music can wipe clean the slate and unite us all. 


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Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.