Tuesday, 12 February 2019
David Bowie (Part I)
When it comes to music and style, contemporary or otherwise, only one person has dominated both categories during their own lifetime and that is David Bowie.
Frank Sinatra was a contender, but then he didn’t write his own songs. Others, such as Miles Davis or James Brown, certainly had the music, but they lacked Bowie’s diversity ‒ and lost the style plot for decades.
Bowie was style personified and wrote not just the lyrics and the music but sang, played various instruments, and arranged and produced much of his own product. Apart from about 17 albums (nine albums reached number one in the UK) that don’t include a single bad track, just listen to the brilliance of singles such as Kooks, Aladdin Sane, Life on Mars, and Heroes. Consider, also, some of the albums he produced for other artists: The Stooges’ Raw Power, Mott The Hoople’s All The Young Dudes, Lou Reed’s Transformer, Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life ‒ each one a truly seminal album that sounds as good today as it did back then.
I first met Bowie properly in May 1980 when he popped into Hell, a Covent Garden nightclub that I DJ’d at and ran with Steve Strange and Rusty Egan, both of whom had recently appeared in his Ashes to Ashes video. Accompanied by the model Vivienne Lynn, he came in and humbly introduced himself as ‘David’. It was only when I looked into his different-coloured eyes that I realized who it was. We had only just opened the doors and, of the 15 people there, only my LSD-enhanced pal Christos Tolera approached him, thinking he was an old soul boy he knew from Ilford. Christos launched into conversation while the obviously puzzled Bowie merely smiled and nodded.
Still, looking back, we could have been forgiven for not recognising our idol. He’d turned up in a long tweed raglan-sleeved 1950s-style trench coat and blue peg trousers, his natural brown hair parted to the side, while his demeanour was down to earth. He must have popped into see Steve as the release of Ashes to Ashes was imminent. But neither he nor Rusty were there and I’d put Beethoven’s ninth choral version on, which lasted the whole side of an LP, allowing me to play host for a while.
He seemed really interested in our little gang of extroverts and even complimented me on my suit. But for the first time in my life I was literally dumbstruck, perhaps because David Bowie in person was not this extraordinary, larger-than-life creature from another planet. He was like your older, funny mate from round the corner, the only difference being those mismatched eyes, which in person was strangely disconcerting.
The next morning I phoned my mum and said, ‘David Bowie likes my suit!’ I was a 20-year-old whose whole adolescence was influenced by the great man and whose first suit ‒ bought when I was 14 years old ‒ was a copy of the one he wore on the cover of the David Live album that I had begged, borrowed and saved for. The suit was my pride and joy and I wore it into the ground.
Indisputably David Bowie had a massive effect on my generation and me. He was this omnipresent force ‒ always there at the back of one’s mind, being reassuringly re- inventive and cleverly chameleon ‒ whose discography charts our journeys from children to adults and beyond.
I acquired my first Bowie recording for Christmas when I was 11 years old. At the same time my mother bought our first record player ‒ a Fidelity Music Maker ‒ from Kay’s catalogue. To accompany the item she let me pick a bunch of LPs from the catalogue, one of which was Hunky Dory.
I think I picked it because I loved the movie The Iron Mistress, a 1952 drama about 19th century pioneer Jim Bowie. Whatever the reason, I played the record and was duly unimpressed with its rather folksy acoustic tone which I acquainted with the smelly hippies who sat cross-legged in the park, smoked funny-smelling roll-ups and giggled constantly.
As a result, I didn’t really play the album again for a while, preferring the likes of Slade, Dave and Ansel Collins and Desmond Dekker.
It wasn’t until June 1972 when I saw Bowie perform Starman on the kids’ TV show Lift Off that I gave him any more thought. He was as thin as a broom, wore a horrible multi-coloured jumpsuit and high-heeled boots, and sported a brightly dyed ginger spiky haircut that looked a little like a grown-out girl’s skinhead.
‘A lot of rough working-class kids really adored Bowie,’ said Paul Weller. ‘But even though he was androgynous and camp, he was held in such high esteem. Round my way there were a few blokes who were brave enough to wear a bit of make-up of a Saturday night, which is chancing your fucking arm in Woking. But Bowie had something. Usually a lot of those tough kids would never have listened to someone like him.’
He was born plain old David Robert Jones in a simple working-class street in Brixton in South London on January 8, 1947, just 18 months after the end of World War II. His waitress mum Peggy Burns was born in Kent of Irish parents and his dad Haywood Stenton ‘John’ Jones was from Yorkshire and worked for the charity Barnado’s.
The family moved to leafy Bromley in Kent when he was six where by all accounts the young boy, though described as ‘vividly artistic,’ wouldn’t shy away from a scrap. As a youth he became infatuated with rock n’ roll – Little Richard, Elvis and Fats Domino –and began learning the ukulele and piano.
Having failed his Eleven-plus he entered Bromley Tech aged 11 in 1958 and focused on art, music and design under the tutelage of Owen Frampton, son of Peter, the soon-to-be famous recording artist, He wasn’t interested in academia. His passion was music, an endeavour he financed by working part-time as a butcher‘s delivery boy and in a record shop on Saturdays.
After an introduction to jazz from his older half-brother Terry, he saved up and (with a little help from his mum) bought a Selmer Bakelite acrylic alto saxophone (the type Charlie Parker played). He took sax lessons from esteemed jazz man Ronnie Ross, who toured with the Modern Jazz Quartet and later played on Lou Reed’s seminal Walk on The Wild Side (which Bowie produced). He began listening to John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus.
Whilst still at school he formed his first band, The Konrads, with his pal George Underwood who that year brawled with David for the affections of a girl called Carol Goldsmith. During the scrap Underwood punched him in the eye, which resulted in two operations for the victim, months off school and a permanently dilated pupil that gave him the unnerving appearance of having two different colour eyes. The following year he left school with an O-level in art and announced to his mother that he would become a pop star. Her response was to get him a job as an electrician’s mate.
Undeterred, the 16-year-old South Londoner cut his first single, Liza Jane/Louie Louie Go Home, as David Jones and The King Bees and contacted washing machine magnate John Bloom, asking him to become the next Brian Epstein and finance ‘the new Beatles’. Bloom passed the letter onto Leslie Conn who booked the band to play a Soho wedding anniversary party. They were so bad that he pulled the plug after ten minutes. David Jones was understandably distraught.
Conn then arranged for David to join his other act, The Manish Boys, and appear on a BBC talk show, Tonight with Cliff Mitchelmore, to discuss long hair as the President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. This slot was followed by appearances on TV shows such as Juke Box Jury, Gadzooks and The Beat Room, which was pretty impressive for a 17 year old.
Undeniably 1965 was a big year for the man. He turned 18 on January 8 and released a single with his new band Davy Jones and The Lower Third on August 20. Realising that there was already a Davy Jones in the pop business, he changed his name to David Bowie after the great Kentuckian American hero Jim Bowie, who gave his name to the lethal ‘Bowie’ knife and died at The Alamo.
By the following year London was swinging like a pendulum resulting in Time magazine declaring it the ‘global hub of youthful creativity, hedonism and excitement.’
David Bowie found a new manager, Ken Pitt, a flamboyant homosexual and old-school music biz type who had worked with Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Manfred Mann.
‘I wasn’t sure what he wanted to do,’ recalled Pitt. ‘He certainly didn’t imply he wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star. I was looking for someone who could be an all-round entertainer… and I thought in David we found someone who could be.’
Back then not even the man himself knew exactly what he had created. He released the utterly dire Anthony Newley piss-take, The Laughing Gnome, which failed to entertain anyone who wasn’t either under ten or off their face on LSD, then released his debut solo LP, David Bowie, a dire affair that sank without trace.
You’d think that Pitt would have had a strong word to get his star back on track, but he was evidently obsessed. In his book about Bowie, The Pitt Report, he talks of David’s ‘big dick swaying from side to side’ and how David’s body was almost completely hairless ‘apart from a smudging of pubic hair’. Thus it’s probably safe to say that Pitt, then aged 40, had a thing for the androgynous would-be pop star. He allowed him to stay rent-free for a year in his flat full of books and gave him an acetate of the first Velvet Underground album that Lou Reed had given him when he was in New York.
Bowie, a 20-year-old ingénue from the suburbs, was thrown into Pitt’s omi-polone arena that comprised secret bars in Soho where fantabulosa fruits plucked their eyebrows, flashed their baskets and spoke Polari (an underground cant similar to rhyming slang which was spoken by various sub-cultures and gays). For this boy from Beckenham such a cavalcade of camp was another world that he must have realised was eminently marketable.
Accordingly it was under Pitt that Bowie took to studying mime under one of the UK’s great stately homos – Lindsay Kemp.
‘It was love at first sight for me, but I found out he was seeing a dear friend of mine, Natasha Korniloff, the show's costume designer, at the same time as having an affair with me,’ Kemp told the Guardian years later. ‘Of course I wasn't the only love in his life. There were scores, even then…. I drank a bottle of whiskey and cut my wrist. They found me slumped on the floor…I'd been desperately in love.’
Nevertheless Ken Scott, who was the engineer and producer on several Bowie glam-era albums says, ‘I don’t remember him being camp at all at any time.’
Bowie, as was his wont, soaked up all he could from Kemp. He then toured last on the bill with Marc Bolan and Tyrannosaurus Rex and at one point was booed off stage. Nothing seemed to be working for him.
Financially strapped, he got a job working a photocopier, while Decca and Apple rejected his songs. After failing the initial audition he also managed to land a part as an extra on the movie Virgin Soldiers and appeared in a Lyons Maid Ice Cream ad directed by Ridley Scott.
Still unable to make ends meet he moved in with divorcee Mary Finnigan and her two kids in 24 Foxgrove Road, Beckenham, staying there rent free until she one day returned home to find she’d been replaced in her own house by the rampantly bisexual Mary Angela Barnett, or ‘Angie’ as she liked to be called.
And then, as if to erase the memory of his debut long player, he released another LP also called David Bowie ‒ a negligible rock-folk mish-mash.
One track stands out however ‒ Space Oddity, an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic picture 2001: A Space Odyssey and the impending space program. ‘I was always looking to see what I was supposed to do or be until the end of the Sixties, then it all came together in 1969 with Space Oddity,’ explained Bowie in a 1983 TV appearance. ‘I’m quite a shy person and even more so on stage, so I created these characters and acted them out. A brilliant theatrical concept, I thought. But the character of Major Tom means a lot to me as he is the first credible character I created. For any writer that’s a high point. But I had no ambition about going into space. I’m scared going down the end of the garden!’
Shortly after the record became a hit his dad, who had bought David the early rock n roll records and supported his every move, died of lobar pneumonia on August 5, 1969. David was devastated.
Over the next year David Bowie built up his team. On March 20, 1970, he married Angie, dropped Pitt as manager and moved to a production company, Gem, whose employee, the slightly suspect Tony de Fries, took over the management reins.
David then formed the band Hype with Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti. ‘This was my first costume band,’ said Bowie. ‘Where the trousers were as important as the music. We were one of the first glam rock acts for sure.’
By now he was well on the way down his own individual path. In April 1970 he recorded the mighty long player/concept album, The Man Who Sold The World, with Visconti producing, Ronson on guitar, Woodmansey on drums and Ralph Mace on Moog synthesizer.
More than a little camp and certainly androgynous, the cover photograph, taken by Keith MacMillan, hints at future controversy. It features Bowie with breast-length, flowing locks and wearing a long dress designed by Michael Fish. Resplendent on a chaise longue draped in an opulent turquoise fabric, he strikes a somewhat Pre-Raphaelite pose. It was an interesting concept in 1971 to say the least.
Hunky Dory, released just eight months later, features a cover designed by George Underwood that was influenced by a photo of Marlene Dietrich. A quite brilliant album, it features some of Bowie’s greatest songs such as Life on Mars, a parody of Sinatra's My Way, Kooks, a beautiful work written for his newborn son Duncan, and Oh You Pretty Things, which alludes to Nietzsche, as does the dark and most metaphysical, Quicksand.
The album was also the first that Bowie co-produced in cahoots with the person he called his George Martin – Ken Stott – who produced all of his work up until Diamond Dogs, which Bowie produced himself. And even though the themes and future infatuations were there with songs such as Changes (a manifesto for his chameleonic personality), Andy Warhol (high camp), and Queen Bitch (about and dedicated to Lou Reed) the signature Ziggy look was yet to come.
‘I was stage-managing Andy Warhol’s play Pork starring the Warhol superstar drag queen Jayne County and Cherry Vanilla at the Roundhouse in August 1971,’ said the late great New York photographer and band manager Leee Black Childers. ‘Then we went to see David play at this little venue because on his record cover he had long hair like a girl and wore a dress.
‘David then was in his Hunky Dory phase,’ explained Jayne County. ‘It was really lame folk music and he sat down most of the time playing an acoustic guitar, had really long hair and was wearing a big hat and a kaftan.
‘David was thrilled because he loved Warhol and The Velvet Underground. We met Angie and she came to the show every single night. We loved her as she was outrageous, trashy, used to grab our crotches, talked dirty and would dance with a fish. He just sat there. But they loved these crazy drag queens with the glitter on their faces and the platforms and sequinned hot pants cos they didn’t look like women and didn’t want to. Oh no! They were just these fabulous creatures of their own invention tottering around bitching at each other.
‘Then the following year someone gave me the Ziggy Stardust album so I started looking at his press cuts and photos and saw that he had changed his look entirely and looked like one of us,’ continues County. ‘My hair was cut in this spiky almost Mohawk style and dyed this disgusting shade of purple red so I’m convinced he copied my hairstyle as it was so odd and accidental.
‘He had hoisted his whole look from us individually. I remember watching his first American tour with Cyrinda Foxe (who is in the Jean Genie video and starred in Warhol’s Bad) and she said, ‘Oh, David’s wearing clothes just like…. David’s wearing my clothes !’ And she was right. He was wearing the skin-tight black pants with the rhinestones, the woman’s blouse tied in a little knot underneath his ribs and the large hooped earrings.
‘If you ever wondered how David changed so abruptly from a hippy into this other-worldy camp androgynous entity called Ziggy Stardust,’ adds County, ‘well, darling, now you know.’
‘I’m not an original thinker,’ admitted Bowie. ‘I’m a synthesizer of these things and ideas on society, refracting things that are in the air and producing some kind of glob of how we live at this particular time.’
But it wasn’t just the clothes that Bowie absorbed from the excruciatingly hip Warhol cast.
‘David and Angie had Tony Zanetta (who played Warhol) for dinner and a special dessert!’ said Childers. ‘He had sex with them both together. After that we thought we’d never see the Bowies again.’
‘Sex wasn’t any big deal for him and Angie,’ said Tony Zanetta in the Daily Mail. ‘It was like shaking hands at the end of the evening. David was a real seducer. He made you feel that you were the only person who exists. But after that, he would move on to the next.’
‘I was hitting on everybody,’ Bowie admitted in a 1997 BBC radio interview. ‘I had a wonderfully irresponsible, promiscuous time.’
In September Bowie went to New York to sign to RCA USA and met Lou Reed, Warhol and Iggy. Seen scribbling on Holiday Inn stationery, he explained to DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, ‘I am writing about an imaginary character called Ziggy Stardust.’ Simply, he’d bastardized Iggy’s name and Childers’ word for glitter.
Subsequently, when Bowie hit the big time he gave Zanetta, Foxe, Vanilla and Childers rather wonderful well-paid jobs for which they were underqualified, and signed both Iggy and County to Mainman for hefty advances.
That November he started recording The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, and in the first month of 1972 had his hair styled in his famous Ziggy haircut by hairdresser Susie Fussey. He dyed it Red Hot Red and kitted himself out in his soon-to-be trademark futuristic/glam kit. He also watched Kubrick’s newly released A Clockwork Orange. Ziggy was born.
He then really set the tiger amongst the canaries by declaring in an interview with Michael Watts of the UK’s best selling music magazine The Melody Maker, ‘I'm gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones.’
Unsurprisingly this afforded him column inches galore, and while he vehemently denied it to his mum he camped it up all over the shop elsewhere.
‘I think I was always a closet heterosexual,’ clarified Bowie in 1993. ‘I didn't ever feel that I was a real bisexual. I was making all the moves, actually trying it out with some guys. But for me, I was more magnetized by the whole gay scene, which was underground. I like this twilight world. I like the idea of these clubs and these people and everything about it being something that nobody knew anything about. So I made efforts to go and get into it.
‘That phase only lasted up to about 1974. It more or less died with Ziggy. It was imperative that I find Ziggy and be him. The irony of it was that I was not gay. I was physical about it, but frankly it wasn't enjoyable. It was almost like I was testing myself. It wasn't something I was comfortable with at all. But it had to be done.’
In June 1972 David Bowie made the cover of the music papers with Mick Rock’s shot of him picking the low-slung guitar of Mick Ronson a la faux fellatio in the Oxford Town Hall.
‘I was all over poof rock,’ recalled Mick Rock. ‘That shot looking like David is blowing off Mick was the one, as there was all this talk of bisexuality and people were smashing their fucking closets down left and right. So this was the personal symbol of that moment.’
But none of the above was of any use to me back in 1972 as liking a singer who appeared on children’s telly dressed in women’s clothes, and who wore make-up and dyed his hair red, was positively incendiary. There was simply no way you could be seen buying a Bowie album as that would incite bullying for the foreseeable future.
In 1972 I was what one might have called a junior suedehead. I had the Cherry Red Doctor Martens, the Levi sta-prest, the Brutus shirt and the centre-parted, collar-length hair, just like the kids on the cover of Richard Allen’s novel Suedehead. In those days you either dressed like this and listened to reggae such as Dandy Livingstone and Johnny Nash or you wore flares, leather bikers’ jackets or army great coats with greasy long hair and a penchant for substandard rock acts such as Status Quo.
It was a time of gang warfare and if you were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in either kit your opposites would beat the shit out of you. Likewise, if you were partial to Glam Rock by the likes of The Sweet or T-Rex – who were mainly liked by girls – you were labeled a ‘poofter’ and given a dig. Therefore by liking Bowie you were skating on paper-thin ice in hobnail boots. Accordingly I kept my penchant a secret.
But then came summer and I, like most kids, hung out in the local park playing football with some older boys three or four years my senior ‒ Nigel Thomas, Raymond O’Neil, Roger Williams and Paul Sullivan ‒ who’d dropped the suedehead look entirely and favoured long feather-cut hair, cheese-cloth shirts, and baggy Brutus fader jeans. They always had a little gang of pretty girls wrapped around them who put the rather ugly skinhead gals I knew in the shade.
Soon I was dropping by Roger’s house and listening to his new acquisition, Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie, savouring the funky Soul Love and the rambunctious Suffragette City while imbibing flagons of Brains Bitter.
Admittedly I was an impressionable young kid and I was in awe. I started growing my hair and saving up for a pair of bags, a Brutus spoon-collared shirt and a pair of wedges from Freeman Hardy and Willis a la Bowie.
Then came John, I’m Only Dancing, released in September, which was a gentle but totally rocking R n’ B groove. Its video, directed by photographer Mick Rock and featuring the outrageously camp Lindsay Kemp and a team of androgynous dancers, was banned by the BBC.
‘In 1972 along came Doris, Mr. Bowie,’ remembers Mick Rock. ‘I got wind of him as he was shouting, “Loook at me I’m a screaming poof!” and I thought, well that’s interesting, that’s a little strange, a little poncey. I think I’ll have a little basin of that. But in those days that kind of thing wasn’t everyone’s cup of rosy.’
And I for one will second that. Round my way, liking Bowie meant that at some point you would almost certainly be physically attacked by thugs who took great delight in stamping all over their prey.
Regardless of this threat, there was no stopping me; my hair was growing, I’d bought the shirt and almost had enough savings for the trousers, too.
And then The Man Who Sold The World was re-released and more flagons appeared. Now we had mesmerising melodies and a faultless album from this bloke who could do no wrong. Next came Jean Genie, which reached number two in the charts and was all over the radio stations like a rash. Bowie was an overnight success after ten years of diligent effort with a song whose title was a word play on the gay icon, Jean Genet, while for the lyrics he used the cut-up technique pioneered by another gay icon, the novelist William Burroughs. Needless to say, if you were a kid you needed cojones as big as footballs to admit a partiality for David Bowie.
By January I had my kit and the spiky-on-top-long-in-the-back, semi-mullet haircut, rendering me an alien in a sea of Doc Martens and Levis. At school my gang of tearaways ‒ siding with their older skinhead thug pals ‒ ganged up on me, calling me ‘Nancy boy’ and ‘poofter’. I took it on the chin, retreated, and no longer hit the town with the hard boys of a Saturday afternoon.
This lasted until the album Aladdin Sane was released in April and I loved it. Of course, my father was positively outraged when he saw the cover and even more enraged when he heard the song Time and its legendary line, ‘…falls wanking to the floor!’ But still, I think it was this album that confirmed my need to be me and fuck the rest of them. So over the course of one sunny day, just before Easter, I physically attacked every last one of the so-called tough guys who had so enthusiastically berated me. They all bottled it and some even ran away. I was never the object of their ridicule again.
In a way David Bowie and my penchant for his music gave me both the bottle and the single-mindedness to do this. Afterwards I was never quite the same.
As for Aladdin Sane, Mike Garson’s incredible jazz-tinged piano, Linda Lewis’s soul backing vocal and David Sanborn’s sax hit my nail on its proverbial as I was just getting into soul music at that time, particularly anything on Philadelphia records, along with Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye et al.
Bowie described Aladdin Sane as simply ‘Ziggy goes to America’. Most of the tracks were observations he composed on the road during his 1972 US tour and the album undoubtedly deemed Bowie a musical icon. It famously featured him with the now trademark red and blue lightning bolt on his face that he said represented the duality of mind, while inside the gatefold he was naked and bereft of genitalia. Although as photographer Brain Duffy told me, ‘He was naked because the costumes didn’t show up and the flash on the face was copied from the logo of a Panasonic kettle in the kitchen.’
‘The make-up artist Pierre started to apply this tiny little flash on his face,’ Duffy's studio manager Francis Newman recalled. ‘And when Duffy saw it he said, “No, not fucking like that, like this.” He literally drew it right across his face and said to Pierre, “Now fill that in.” It was actually Duffy who did the initial shape – I’m not saying he did the actual make-up. It then took Pierre about an hour to apply properly. The red flash is so shiny because it was actually lipstick.’
One thing I realised early on was that almost all the people I knew who liked David Bowie were intelligent. They read books, studied his lyrics and were confident about being themselves, even if that meant taking the odd beating. On the other hand, those who didn’t were so square they weren’t worth acknowledging. Or they were morons. I realised that Bowie was a kind of litmus test. In short, if you liked him there was a good chance you were ever so slightly non-conformist and thus I could have a conversation with you.
While all this was happening, David Bowie decided to kill off Ziggy at his famous Last Stand concert at the Hammersmith Odeon ‒ which almost didn’t happen after Steven Jones and Paul Cook of The Sex Pistols stole the band’s back line for their own use, thus in a way Bowie helped create UK punk.
‘David had to ditch Ziggy,’ said Mick Rock. ‘He was losing himself in the character and Ziggy was taking over. I saw it.’
Not that it mattered to me as by now it was summer 1973 and I’d added to my wardrobe the leather round-collared Budgie bomber jacket, another shirt and a pair of platforms and was jolly well up and running.
In November Bowie released Pinups, an album of covers that included the rather marvellous Sorrow. Like his previous three singles it reached number three in the charts, while Jean Genie had got to number two. He now had had three number one albums and another two in the top five. Bowie-mania had well and truly arrived.
His next album Diamond Dogs (featuring Lee Childers’ artwork on the inside gatefold) is in many ways a swansong to Bowie’s glam rock phase, while tunes such as the funky Big Brother and the Shaft-like 1984 ‒ is a precursor to his ‘plastic soul’ era.’ Bowie was jumping the glam-rock ship just before it became a joke and again hit number one in the UK charts.
By now it was 1974 and Fifties-attired Soul boys were walking the streets of London dressed in peg trousers and Hawaiian shirts replete with wedge haircuts. They were frequenting clubs such as Le Sombrero and Crackers which pumped out soul and funk. Back in Wales we were following suit, but we weren’t expecting the cover image or the music of David Bowie’s magisterial David Live album. Gone was the spiky red hair and the outlandish costumes and in its place was a pure soul boy haircut and a bum freezer pegged trousered suit, while the album featured utterly brilliant renditions of all his greatest tunes, rendered by a first rate funk soul jazz band. Our gobs were well and truly smacked.
Bowie moved to New York in the spring of 1974 searching for anonymity in its avenues and streets. There he met virtuoso guitarist Carlos Alomar, a Puerto Rican New Yorker who’d toured with James Brown when he was just 17 and later with Roy Ayers.
‘He was the whitest guy I had ever seen, his skin was translucent and his hair was bright orange, but he was interested in everything to do with the New York experience,’ Alomar told writer David Buckley. ‘He came across as extremely humble, just a very nice person. I told him, “What you need is to come to my house and my wife can make you some nice chicken, rice and beans and put some meat on those bones.” And surprisingly he said, “Sure.” So he got a limousine parked right in front of my apartment house in Queens and we got together and hung out.’
Bowie swallowed up all New York had to offer and vice versa. At the time the city was awash with cocaine and Bowie developed an insatiable appetite for the stuff, until his entire diet consisted of cocaine, peppers and milk, his weight eventually plummeting to a mere 80 pounds in weight, which considering he claimed to be 5 foot 10 inches in height (I think he was probably a couple of inches shorter) is frightening.
Bowie, who claimed that apart from a bit of speed this was his first major drug affair, would often stay awake for seven or eight days on end at his lavish suite in Manhattan’s Sherry Netherland hotel. At one point he was ‘taking so much it would have killed a horse,’ according to record producer Tony Visconti, who accompanied Bowie on the town alongside John Lennon. ‘We did mountains of cocaine, it looked like the Matterhorn, obscenely big.’
Of course with excessive cocaine use comes excessive paranoia, which wasn’t helped when Bowie discovered that manager De Fries had contractually stitched him up. ‘This is what ended their working relationship,’ explained Visconti. ‘De Fries charged all of the company’s wages and expenses solely to Bowie.’
De Fries later went on to lose $22 million in an offshore tax evasion scheme and then lost $9 million after he was sued by Capitol Records in 2011.
Bowie was destroyed by this revelation and plunged deeper into the abyss. Aided by truckloads of Bolivian marching powder he sank into despair, isolation and a lack of confidence, believing that he could no longer make a record without imbibing huge amounts of chang. The BBC documentary Cracked Actor sees him freaked out in the back of a limo, while his appearance on the Dick Cavett show, filmed at ABC Studios, New York, on November 2, 1974, saw the man coked off his perch, looking awkward and gurning. Still, no one batted an eyelid as at the time everyone in the music biz was at it. It was the Dom Perignon of drugs, expensive and glamorous. Bowie was the King of Snort.
Incredibly, during all this he still managed to write and co-produce Young Americans (with Visconti), which does not sound anything like the work of a paranoid, agitated, delusional coked-out nutbag ‒ quite the opposite. It is a relaxed, sophisticated and enormously assured funky affair that many regard as his finest work.
Even more surprising is that according to Visconti Young Americans was 85 per cent live and most of the vocals were captured in one or two takes. Subsequently, Fame, featuring John Lennon and based on an Alomar riff, hit number one in the US billboard charts in July 1975, while the album achieved number two in the UK charts in March that year. ‘There was no point in doing a straight take of black music so I put my own spin on it,’ he explained.
‘I went to the local disco in Woking and would see all my mates from when we were skinheads or suedeheads in the early 1970s wearing the plastic sandals, the peg trousers and the Hawaiian and bowling shirts with the wedge haircuts,’ said Paul Weller. ‘They danced to Philly stuff but you’d also hear TVC 15 and Young Americans amongst it all. He nailed the link between British working class youth who always follow Black American soul music and the style and fashions. He always had his finger on the pulse and was a cut above everyone else.’
Indubitably, the release of Young Americans was spot-on for us and coincided with what was the summer of soul in the UK; Hamilton Bohannon, Sister Sledge, Jackie Wilson and the Blackbyrds all hit the British top ten, while Van McCoy’s The Hustle reached number three. As for our gang, by September we’d started going to London’s Kings Road in my pal Nigel Thomas’s yellow Hillman Avenger to buy 1950s peg trousers before dancing to funk at Crackers in Wardour Street.
In October 1975, as many were getting hip to Major Tom, Bowie achieved his first number one in the UK with a re- release of A Space Oddity ‒ his hair on the cover was decidedly punk rock.
Back in the real world, even though the predominantly Young Americans look was rather banal compared to previous Bowie attire, it still caused umbrage. At one point in early 1976 a gang of about 20 local thugs shouting, ‘Kill the Bowie freaks!’ assaulted us as we exited Scamps and I ended up with a stitched upper lip, a night in the cells and a six-month suspended sentence for GBH when I was the one who was attacked. It seems that not even the judge liked Bowie fans.
Bowie himself was also subject to more attention than he was comfortable with. He now crossed all boards ‒ he was adored by die-hard fans and the gay crowd, attracted black music-loving soul boys and black people themselves, along with your more intelligent record-buying punter. Bowie became the biggest star on the planet, albeit reluctantly, but the resultant attention was nigh on impossible for him to handle.
‘To become famous was purely a means to acquire the resources to do what he wanted to do,’ testifies Visconti. ‘He wasn’t at all interested in fame per se.’ Or as the man himself said as far back as 1974, ‘I‘m not content with being just a rock ‘n’ roll star. I need it at the moment so I can go off and do other things.’
But fame came to him, and by the plane-full. It got so bad that he couldn’t leave his house, walk down the street or think without being accosted.
‘Success was like going from zero to a hundred miles an hour in a few seconds for me,’ explained Bowie. ‘I was very frightened at first… it became like living in a very luxurious mental hospital where you are put in a padded room and meals are brought to you and every now and again you are let out to make money for everyone but yourself. Its good for getting concert tickets, backstage passes and tables at posh restaurants but apart from that it’s a complete pain in the ass.’
Bowie’s answer was to retreat further into himself and take more Charlie. Midway through 1975 he moved to LA and rented a small house on Doheney Drive with two huge sphinxes (Egyptian symbols of bisexuality and the occult) in the garden.
He contented himself with drawing huge pentagrams on his wall and became interested in Aleister Crowley and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He began storing his urine in the fridge so no other wizard could filch and use it to enchant him. His long-time aide Coco Schwab would often find him slumped around the house and used to use the little mirror he chopped his coke out on to check he was still breathing.
Yet somehow he managed to prepare himself for his first starring role in a major motion picture as alien visitor Thomas Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. The director had spotted Bowie on the Cracked Actor BBC documentary. Bowie’s huge cocaine problem had placed him way outside of society and its norms and into this detached twilight world that allowed him this real-life weirdness that was perfect for the role.
On set however he was the consummate professional. Roeg allowed him to pick his own wardrobe while the singer was observant, punctual, knew his lines, and managed to maintain an entirely detached air that was perfect, while still doing mounds of coke. ‘I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was,’ he said in 1983. ‘It was a pretty natural performance. ... a good exhibition of somebody literally falling apart in front of you. I was totally insecure with about 10 grams [of cocaine] a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end. I'm so pleased I made that [film]. But I didn't really know what was being made at all.’
On its release The Man Who Fell To Earth fuelled a massive wave of Bowie look-a-likes. I knew fans that watched the movie every night for two weeks, studiously memorizing and noting down Bowie’s every style nuance, then either getting his mufti copied or searching down similar kit. Some even copied his table tennis outfit replete with visor.
After filming Bowie hung onto the character’s uncommonly stylish look, along with his alien demeanour. As a result the Thin White Duke was born, a character that, according to Bowie, was a European ensconced in the USA and who, rather like Newton, was desperate to get home.
Once the shoot ended he wasted no time in escalating his drug habit. ‘I’d stay up for seven or eight days on the trot,’ he admitted in the 1990s. ‘The impending tiredness and fatigue produces that hallucinogenic state quite naturally ‒ well, half naturally. By the end of the week my whole life would be transformed into this bizarre, nihilistic fantasy world of on-coming doom, mythological characters and imminent totalitarianism.’
By now he was more or less anorexic and at one point phoned Angie claiming he‘d been kidnapped by someone who wanted his semen so that they might impregnate themselves during a witches’ sabbath. He also developed a worrying fascination with the Nazis and their alleged search for the Holy Grail. The plot was indeed lost, but it was only after he had his house exorcised that friends realised that he’d had a nervous breakdown.
Yet again he managed to pull himself together and in October 1975 started working on the Station to Station LP. ‘We were in the studio and it was nuts,’ testified guitarist Earl Slick. ‘We often didn’t start till 1 or 2am. I don’t remember a lot about it.’ Bowie said he couldn’t remember recording it at all but, as the title track’s lyrics suggest, seems cognisant of his addiction. ‘It's not the side-effects of the cocaine, I'm thinking that it must be love, It's too late to be grateful, It's too late to be late again.’
Many consider Station to Station his finest 38 minutes.
The album itself was released in January 1976 but the single Golden Years appeared two months before and stands as an anthem of a generation. I cannot listen to the song without being whisked back to those halcyon days when we were all oh so naïve and optimistic and no one could touch us. The album was experimental, fusing the two musical obsessions of the day ‒ black music and electronica (Kraftwerk’s Autobahn reached number four in the UK album charts in 1974, while George McRae’s electro-backed Rock Your Baby topped the singles charts). Bowie was now King.
And then in May he played Wembley. Of course I couldn’t afford the £2.75 ticket but at the last minute my great friend Roger Williams was struck down with pleurisy and gave the ticket to me, so around fifty of us Bowie fans, dressed to the nines, boarded our hired coach for the trip. A landmark concert, it wasn’t only a shockingly brilliant performance (journalist Paul Gambaccini called it ‘the finest performance by a white artist that I have ever seen.’) but it was where I saw the future.
The crowd was mainly soul boys and girls in pink peg trousers and wedge haircuts, but amongst them was a darker element ‒ people in leather trousers with cropped hair and multiple earrings, Westwood cowboy T-shirts and bondage trousers, hacked hair with drainpipes and winkle pickers. Amongst these were the Bromley Contingent (including Siouxsie Sioux), the Sex Pistols, and my future pal, Pistols co-manager Nils Stevenson.
The punk ethic was already in the air but it didn’t have a name. My pals and I had already worshiped the Velvet Underground’s Banana album, loved Horses by Patti Smith and Here Come The Warm Jets by Eno, and we played The Stooges to death (all of which we accessed after Bowie had referenced them). But the Bowie concert cemented our ardour. Consequently, my lovely mum knitted me a huge mohair jumper, made me a vinyl T-shirt with a zip across the front and pierced both my ears a few times. And so off I went into the fledgling punk scene while still attending funk clubs.
Bowie of course did not miss a trick. While punk reared its self-consciously recalcitrant head, he carried on regardless and moved from LA.
‘I started getting really worried for my life,’ stated Bowie in 1993. ‘I came close to OD’ing several times. It was like being in a car and losing control of the steering. I resigned myself to going over the edge.’
He decamped to Europe ‒ namely the Château d'Hérouville near Paris ‒ and wrote and recorded not one but two works of genius, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and the mighty Low, for which he pulled in former Roxy synth maestro Brian Eno, brought Alomar and his guys over, and put Visconti in the co-production chair.
‘I had to develop a new language so I discarded my characters and decided to work with Eno and found a soul mate,’ said Bowie. ‘I wanted to do something I wanted to do rather than what was expected of me.’
Later that year he moved to Berlin in search of anonymity.
‘I went naked and stripped everything down to the barest essentials so I could build back up again,’ he said. ‘I gave away all my clothes, wore just jeans and check shirts and rode a bicycle. No one cared about a rock star in Berlin. It was my first taste of freedom from the trappings of fame in a good while.’
But Germany was a controversial choice of location. On his return to Britain from the US in May 1976 the NME had published a photo of him standing in a Mercedes convertible at Victoria station. It was accompanied by the headline, ‘Heil and Farewell’, claiming he’d given a fascist salute. Given that Bowie had a mainly black rhythm section and had dated Ava Cherry, that was highly unlikely. Yet folk weren’t happy, especially as he’d told a Stockholm journalist that he was the ‘only alternative for the premier in England, Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader… Fascism really is Nationalism. I believe very strongly in fascism.’
A few weeks previously he had been detained at Russian customs when a cache of Nazi memorabilia was found in his suitcase. Oh dear! It was obvious that he had lost the plot, but detractors still claimed he’d long courted such absolutist philosophies. On Hunky Dory he referenced Friedrich Nietzsche’s ubermensch – ‘Gotta make way for the Homo Superior’ ‒ while some equated the Aladdin Sane logo with that of the SS.
Still, claiming an interest in German electronic music, he went to Berlin and lived in a flat above an auto parts shop in Schöneberg. Initially he planned to get healthy but was soon at it again, snorting, drinking and driving around the city with his new flatmate Iggy Pop. They hung out in gay and trannie bars and got mashed at clubs like the Dschungel and the Unlimited.
Both men had moved to escape class A drugs, but unfortunately for Iggy Berlin was the heroin capital of Germany and coke was also ubiquitous. Whatever the case may be, Bowie certainly showed his resolve and delivered the goods with an album that was brave to say the least. Low was deeply un-commercial and mainly electronic, comprising 50 per cent instrumental tracks, yet it still reached number two and 10 in the UK and US charts respectively, while the first single from the album Sound and Vision rose to number three in the UK charts.
‘The most exciting thing about this was that I found I could still write without drugs,’ proclaimed Bowie. ‘It was an extremely rewarding time for me.’
As for yours truly, the album washed over punk rock like a huge tidal wave and
reinforced my high opinion of the man. Meanwhile lacklustre music critics such as Charles Shaar Murray of the NME neither liked nor understood the release. But that was what we loved about Bowie – the idiots didn’t get him.
Meanwhile Bowie toured with Iggy as a keyboard player. Between April and June 1977 he co-wrote and produced Iggy’s Lust For Life album and straight afterwards wrote and co-produced his own monumental Heroes album.
For this he used the same line up as Low but added King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp whose virtuoso performance gave the album a fresh and decidedly uncommon edge. Released on October 14, 1971, it was devoid of all the peripheral style content and was again deftly unconventional, from the raucous opening track, Beauty and The Beast, through to its conclusion, The Secret Life of Arabia. Between these tracks ambient, almost classical compositions such as the mighty Sense of Doubt and the Japanese-tinged Moss Garden amazed and astounded.
Lest we forget there is also the totally iconic title track Heroes which has since become an anthem for all manner of causes. The German government, after Bowie’s death, thanked him for helping to ‘bring down the Wall’ with this song. Disgracefully, Heroes only reached number 24 in the UK charts while Abba was number one.