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One of the first, and most important pieces of advice David Bowie ever gave me - and this was in the early 1990s - was to make sure I noted down the names of secretaries and assistants I came into contact with. This would help me later, he explained, when I needed to get through to the important people.
Charm, as Albert Camus put it in The Fall, is a way of getting people to say yes before you’ve told them what you want. And Major Tom, or Captain Tom, as Frank Zappa insisted on calling him when Bowie tried to poach his guitarist, had already used his ample portion to get through to the important people. And to the assistants, secretaries and thousands of other women he slept with, sometimes in threesomes and at orgies in Oakley Street in Chelsea, where he lived with Angie Barnett in what was then cutely called ‘an open relationship’.
Bowie’s father, who knew a lot about music and was an early encourager - perhaps Bowie's first fan - was head PR at Dr Barnado’s Home For Children. In a sense, Bowie himself always worked in PR, realising early that the image was everything. Even as a teenager had Bowie learned to make both men and women adore him. By his early twenties, he had turned to men, sleeping with mime artist Lindsay Kemp and composer of musicals Lionel Bart, among others. A vivacious Kemp, interviewed by GQ editor Dylan Jones in David Bowie: A Life, says that Bowie ‘went out with most people,” including Kemp’s costume designer, much to Kemp’s chagrin, causing poor Kemp to attempt suicide by bicycling into the sea at Whitehaven in an effort to re-recreate scenes from both the 400 Blows and Bicycle Thieves simultaneously.
According to Mary Finnegan, his former Beckenham landlady, and herself another forever disappointed suitor - Finnegan wrote Psychedelic Suburbia, a delightful account of her relationship with Bowie in Beckenham, just after he’d left home and had broken up with the splendidly named Hermione Farthingale - Bart swung down to the South London suburbs in his Roller and disappeared with Bowie onto the back seat for the afternoon.
Bowie was an admirer of Joe Orton's cheeky subversion. They both had something of the Artful Dodger about them; Bowie certainly wasn’t averse to putting it about when it came to getting ahead. He had much to put about. Feminine and extraordinary looking, with different coloured eyes, a swan neck, porcelain skin, good hips and a delicious penis, he had it all. I believe his penis was first detailed in print by his first manager Ken Pitt, who Bowie left after Space Oddity became a hit, poetically describing ‘his big penis hanging from side to side like a pendulum of a grandfather clock.’ Fans will be pleased that his member is often commented on in this book and might want to think of Bowie as something from a drawing by Aubrey Beardsley, a thin man with a transcendental phallus.
Bowie attended the same school as me, Bromley Technical High School in Keston, but ten years earlier. It is important to note what a shithole it was: bullying, violent, with incompetent if not sick teachers. Education, in those days, for working class and lower middle class children, was hardly considered essential or even necessary. We were being trained to be clerks for the civil service, like the dour eponymous hero of H. G Well’s Kipps, a rags-to-riches tale of self-improvement which we studied at school, since Wells was the only famous local artist apart from Richmal Crompton, author of the Just William books. The more imaginative boys, or the ones who could draw, went into advertising, which Bowie did after school, working on a campaign for a slimming biscuit called Ayds. The only decent adult at Bromley Tech was guitarist Peter Frampton’s dad, Owen, who let us use the art room at lunchtime to mess around in with guitars, while complaining how much he hated Steve Marriot’s voice. His son had just joined Humble Pie.
It is instructive to recall how little was expected of us kids and how we were patronised. I remember a nouveau riche friend from ‘up London’ walking into our house in Bromley and saying, to mum’s horror, “What a lovely little house you have!” British pop has always been lower-middle-class and came out of the art schools rather than universities, which was where, until recently, all the other British culture - theatre, movies, the novel - came from. Pop was always more lively: the music-mad kids were rebellious, angry and ornery. They always had a chip on their shoulders when it came to class and education. Social disadvantage has always been essential to pop: the hilarious incongruity of kids brought up in small houses without central heating and eating Spam for tea suddenly finding themselves living in mansions after writing a song.
Despite Lindsey Kemp’s efforts, Bowie was a terrible mime. But he was a great mimic and loved to do the voices of his contemporaries - Jagger, Bryan Ferry - while pissing himself laughing. This matter of the voice is interesting: as with with a lot of us, Bowie’s accent wobbled and never really settled. The accent known sneeringly as ‘mockney’, used by South Londoners like Bowie and Jagger before they went American, would have been necessary as well as natural at the time for boys brought up among cockneys who’d moved to the suburbs after the East End had been bombed during the war. That accent, which I still do when I’m bad-tempered, would have helped you fit in, saving you from being beaten up at school or on the street, since the locals weren’t keen on anyone who didn’t speak like them, or, God forbid, showed an interest in anything artistic. The commmunity was always aspirational, but determinedly downwardly mobile when it came to culture. You wouldn’t have wanted the lads to see you in a dress.
Fortunately, Bowie’s schooling didn’t interfere with his education. Almost everyone remarks on Bowie’s everlasting curiosity, ‘self-improvement’ and wide-ranging intelligence. After reading Robert Heinlan’s sci-fi epic Starman Jones , as well as collecting from movies, poetry and the numerous artists he admired, he constructed himself and his numerous aliases from a range of sources. As obvious precedent Oscar Wilde writes in Dorian Gray, “Man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature...”
Bowie was more Don Juan than Dorian Gray, a woman’s fantasy rather than a narcissist. It is well known that he made himself up but much in him remained constant. Unlike Iggy Pop or Lou Reed or even his schizophrenic older brother Terry, he was born cheerful and was never truly nihilistic or even depressed. Like most of us, he worried he might go mad, but he clearly never did, despite his best efforts. He was unembarrassable and could be blokey and laddish in the English manner, adoring jokes, TV shows: Larry Grayson, Peter Sellers, Pete and Dud and The Office.
Bowie wasn’t one to waste anything. Even his period of self-destructiveness yielded some of his finest work, which, like the Beatles’, was that incredibly difficult thing - both experimental and popular. He told me that cocaine almost killed him several times, his friends putting him in a warm bath just to keep his circulation moving. However, he was always concentrated and was never not serious about his career. Both otherworldly and extremely practical, when he had a new album, he’d make the terrifying move of playing it to you, sitting opposite in a kimono with a pad and paper, ready to make notes, seeming to believe believing he could learn from you.
I met Bowie through a mutual friend and asked if we could use his songs on the sound track of the BBC adaptation of my first novel the Buddha of Suburbia. He agreed, and said he also had some ideas for some original music. When he was composing this, and I expressed fear that some of the music was either too fast or slow, I can’t remember which, he hurried back to his pad near Montroux in Switzerland, spending the night re-doing everything. He'd never composed for film before: he had wanted to make the score for The Man Who Fell to Earth but was too knackered after filming to get down to it.
In his Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones uses a collage or dialogical method, collecting the voices of those who knew or worked with Bowie and running them together chronologically. It is a pleasure to hear from everyone: lovers, managers, musicians, journalists, Croydon girl Kate Moss, musicial figures such Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Mike Garson, and Tony Visconti. And we hear all the Spinal Tappish gossip. The time Jimmy Page spilled beer on Bowie’s silk cushion and blamed Ava Cherry; when a clearly envious Paul McCartney invited him over and then couldn’t bear to talk to him, but got Linda to instead. The time Bowie and John Lennon went on holiday to Hong Kong and were determined to try monkey brains. And, when Bowie’s shows had intervals he’d sit in the dressing room watching Coronation Street on VHS.
More importantly, as a more-or-less single parent, Bowie brought up his son, the film-maker Duncan Jones, impeccably, and it is amusing to think of he and Lennon talking together about being good fathers. Bowie always said that Keith Richard was less out of it than he liked others to believe, being an ace at Trivial Pursuit for instance, but the same was true of Bowie himself.
Many Bowie stories are as familiar as tales from the life of Jesus, but what is impressive about the useful biographical method which Jones uses, are the accounts by then youngsters like Nick Rhodes, Neil Tennant, Siouxie Soux and Dave Stewart suddenly seeing Bowie as Ziggy on Top of the Pops and understanding something about their lives and what they would go on to do in music. Bowie appealed to those who wanted to get out of Bromley or anywhere that resembled it - most of Britain in the 70s. His kids’ song Kooks really is wonderful; he was liberating, and did want to ‘let the children boogie’.
Bowie and Iman came to visit Sachin and Carlo, our twin sons, when they were born, bringing gifts. That night Paul McKenna, who was a pal, tried to hypnotise Bowie into quitting smoking, but he clearly didn’t want to be hypnotised and didn’t want to quit, but he pretended for Paul. After, I remember him standing on the steps of my house, begging me to get him some fags. “Can’t we go together,” I suggested. “But I can’t go anywhere,” he said, gesturing at Shepherd's Bush.
Being flattered and fawned over your whole life isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be, and, in his last years in New York, he gave up pleasure for happiness. It seemed he returned to the blessedly ordinary satisfactions of being a good parent and husband. Not that someone like him could give up being an artist; unlike most pop stars, his last albums were a development. If, inevitably, this story is sad at the end - Bowie never seemed the sort of person to die on you - it is inspiring to hear what he meant to so many people.
He always sent a birthday card, which, characteristically, he made himself. He was our starman and he knew it. He did it for us, always prepared to be the hero we wanted, a real star, not a musician in jeans and a T-shirt with dirty hair, but a glorious glowing beauty like Jean Harlow, Marlon Brando or Joan Crawford, someone who lived it all the time, and who was never bored or ordinary for one moment. Anyone, anywhere, who has ever listened to pop and danced in their bedroom, will have listened to him and always will.
I remember mr lane and his production of Billy Budd!-
Interesting- thanks john