One of the first, and most important pieces of advice David Bowie ever gave me – 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 of PR at Dr Barnardo’s. In a sense, Bowie himself always worked in PR, realising early that the image was everything. Even as a teenager he learned to make both men and women adore him. By his early 20s, he had turned to men, sleeping with dancer and choreographer Lindsay Kemp and composer 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 recreate scenes from both The 400 Blows and Bicycle Thieves simultaneously.
According to Mary Finnigan, another forever disappointed suitor – she wrote a delightful book, Psychedelic Suburbia, about 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 on 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, whom Bowie left after “Space Oddity” became a hit, poetically describing “his long, weighty penis swaying from side to side like the pendulum of a grandfather clock”. Fans will be pleased that his member is often commented on in David Bowie and might want to think of Bowie as something from a drawing by Aubrey Beardsley, a thin man with a transcendental phallus.
It had been quite a ride. Bowie attended the same school as me, Bromley technical high school in Keston, but 10 years earlier. It is important to note what a shithole it was: bullying, violent, with incompetent teachers. Education, in those days, for working- 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 HG Wells’s Kipps, a rags-to-riches tale of self-improvement that we studied at school, since Wells was the one famous local artist apart from Richmal Crompton. (Crompton, like Siouxsie Sioux, lived in Chislehurst.) 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 about how much he hated Steve Marriott’s voice. His son had just joined Marriott’s band, 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 had always been lower middle class and came out of the art schools rather than universities, which is where 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 Kemp’s efforts, Bowie was a terrible mime. But he was a great mimic and loved to do the voices of his contemporaries – Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry – while pissing himself laughing. This matter of the voice is interesting: as with a lot of us, Bowie’s accent wobbled and never really settled. The accent known sneeringly as “mockney”, used by south Londoners such as 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 community 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 Heinlein’s sci-fi epic Starman Jones(1953), and collecting from movies, poetry and the numerous artists he admired, he constructed himself and his many aliases from a range of sources, many of which are explored in Jones’s book. As his obvious precursor Oscar Wilde writes in The Picture of 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 older half-brother Terry, he was born cheerful and was never truly nihilistic or even depressed. Like most of us, he worried that 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 and TV: Larry Grayson, Peter Sellers, Pete and Dud, 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 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 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 Montreux in Switzerland, spending the night redoing everything. He’d never composed for film before: he wanted to make the score for The Man Who Fell to Earth but was too knackered after filming to get down to it.
The collage or dialogical method chosen for this book by Jones, collecting the voices of those who knew or worked with Bowie and running them together chronologically, works very well. Most notably used by Jean Stein and George Plimpton in Edie, their 1982 biography of Edie Sedgwick, it ensures the reader is not pinned down by the biographer’s point of view or prejudices. It is a pleasure to hear from everyone: lovers, managers, journalists, Croydon girl Kate Moss,musical figures such as Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Mike Garson and Tony Visconti.
A treat for enthusiasts, whose number seems to be increasing, Bowie bulges with essential and telling 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, he brought up his son, the film-maker Duncan Jones, impeccably, and it is amusing to think of him and Lennon talking together about being good fathers. Bowie always said that Keith Richardswas 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.
Some of these stories are as familiar as tales from the life of Jesus, but what is impressive about this biographical method are the accounts by then youngsters such as Nick Rhodes, Neil Tennant, Siouxsie Sioux 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. He clearly didn’t want to be hypnotised and didn’t want to quit, but he pretended for Paul. Afterwards, 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 to 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 of 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.
There will, of course, be many Bowie books in the future. But, for the time being, it’s all here. And anyone, anywhere, who has ever listened to pop and danced in their bedroom, will have listened to him and always will.
•David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones is published by Preface.