Rebel Rebel: How Mavericks Made the Modern World

By Chris Sullivan

A riotous history of people and things that broke the mould

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

David Bowie (Part II)

CLICK HERE TO READ PART I

In the summer of 1978 Bowie played Earls Court and attracted the full retinue of Bowie freaks, many of whom had switched to full Westwood kit a few years before but now reverted back to Bowie circa 1975-77. After the show we went to Billy’s, a seedy basement club run by a Jamaican pimp. It was underneath The Gargoyle Club in Meard Street, Soho, a hooker-infested back alley in this ganglion of nocturnal naughtiness. Billy’s was where DJ Caroline from the club Louise’s had moved her crowd and did a lesbian night every week.

     Cut to the autumn and I had just returned from a few months in California and was attending Camberwell School of Art.     One night I went back to Billy’s on a Tuesday with my old pal Frank Kelly. The Welsh puppeteer and actor David Claridge (the man behind Roland Rat and the S&M organisation Skin 2) had started up a Bowie night on Tuesdays playing obscure Bowie bootlegs, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk.

     Within weeks the club was so packed that Claridge got my other old friend from Wales, Steve Strange ‒ who worked in his pal Helen’s shop, PX ‒ to do the door picking. Suddenly Claridge was replaced by Rusty Egan who played more or less the same tunes, in addition to that year’s biggest electro releases such as The Human League’s Being Boiled and Kraftwerk’s The Model and Neon Lights. It was a rather obvious playlist but no one else was doing it then and it appealed to a crowd of die-hard Bowie fans for whom punk was entirely over and deemed naff. 

     After just a few months Billy’s Bowie night closed. Vince wanted to put the door price up and as Strange and Egan were on a wage they wouldn’t have benefited, so they decamped their Tuesday nights to The Blitz in Covent Garden ‒ a trendy wine bar decorated in World War II fashion. And it was all pretty much the same apart from the press that the club attracted and the hordes of rubber-neckers who came to see the freaks but couldn’t get past the stringent door policy of Strange and his security.

The club for the most part catered to a motley crew of extroverts and resembled the canteen of MGM studios circa 1953. ‘There were a lot of male twentieth-century archetypes – cowboys, bikers, gauchos, screen idols, commandos, Italian futurists,’ recalls Christos Tolera. ‘It was very stylish and bizarre at the same time.’

     Within the club you could be whoever you wanted to be. You could be a hero, as David Bowie put it, just for one day. And like him, none of us were content with what was mapped out for us. We all clubbed together and looked for something else.

     ‘A lot of the Blitz regulars went on and did really well,’ explained Steve Strange. ‘Spandau Ballet, John Galliano, Stephen Jones, Kim Bowen, Sade, film director John Maybury, the artist Cerith Wynn Evans, broadcaster Robert Elms, artists Grayson Perry,  GQ editor Dylan Jones, and me and you.’

     Indeed I started my own nights in December 1978, putting on parties in Toyah Wilcox’s run-down warehouse space called Mayhem studios in Battersea, in partnership with Bob Elms, Graham Smith and Melissa Kaplan. They were a roaring success with our mob.

     First called a Cult with No Name, then Blitz Kids, all we had in common was an adoration for Bowie who continued to fuel our fires by releasing Beauty and The Beast, Breaking Glass, Boys Keep Swinging and DJ in the space of about 18 months. In truth, so enamoured were my pals and I that we went and stayed in Berlin one summer in search of what had enthused the master.

     But back in London things were changing. Our little gang had been dubbed New Romantics and, as with punk before it, the scene became utterly ridiculous, with gangs of sheep ‒ mainly men ‒ masquerading as individuals, copying last year’s Strange look by dressing in frilly shirts, knee-length pants and ballet shoes, their hair big and vertical, their faces covered with white make-up and lipstick.  It wasn’t good. However we had already moved on and were now looking at silent movies for inspiration. I favoured either a Gaucho look, influenced by Rudolph Valentino, or an Eric Von Stroheim ensemble replete with jodhpurs, riding boots and monocle. Others chose to emulate Theda Bara, Douglas Fairbanks, Louise Brooks or Harold Lloyd. For the inner core, futurism, electro and big hair were yesterday’s news, while the Blitz’s appeal was waning.

     Our answer was to open a night at St. Moritz and go back to playing Marlene Dietrich, tunes from the film Cabaret, Peggy Lee, Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe, Art Blakey and Tom Waits. It was without doubt a radical departure, but not for Bowie who in March, three months after we opened, released The Alabama Song, written by Kurt Weil in 1929.

     Yet we still went to the Blitz as we weren’t allowed in most venues. Then, just as it was truly on the way out and Hell was running two nights a week, Bowie turned up; and it was like the Pope dropping by to attend mass at a church in some remote village in the Philippines. Folk went nuts. Some were almost feinting and hyperventilating in the corner. 

     ‘I first clapped eyes on him in person at the Blitz when he came down in search of people for the video for Ashes to Ashes,’ recalls the artist Tracey Emin. ‘Steve Strange ushered me upstairs where Bowie was sitting on the long table and people were fighting to get upstairs just to take a look at him.’

     It really was hilarious. Naturally, I didn’t make a twit of myself by trying to get upstairs. I just stood by the bar chuckling with Christos.

     Bowie was not only there to check out what was happening but, as Emin said, to find a few characters for his forthcoming video shoot. Steve asked me to go along but as we were to meet at the Hilton at 4am a few days later and it wasn’t paid, I wasn’t at all keen. Eventually he settled on Darlajane Gillroy, Judith Franklyn and a girl I didn’t know who looked entirely out of place.

     ‘The four of us were told to meet outside the Hilton Hotel in London and we were all thinking, oh my god, we’ve got to be going somewhere fabulous like Barbados, somewhere hot and tropical,’ recalled Strange. ‘So we get to the hotel about 5am, then we get on this coach thinking, it’s taking us to the airport. Then we’re told we’re going to Southend! The one glamorous thing about it was that David did close off the whole beach, but to be honest there weren’t that many people around as it was absolutely freezing.’

     I was hugely relieved when Steve told me this and even more so when I heard the song and saw the video as I thought both were utter shite and that Bowie dressing like a Pierrot was so New Romantic and old hat. Still, he clearly knew what he was doing as the song reached number one. The track was from the album Scary Monsters, released in September 1980, which was by my estimation really out-dated and for the most part instantly forgettable, while he looked like a bit of a chump on the cover image in his make-up and frills. At the time, after breaking it out in Hell, I was pioneering a return to the funk, while in the North of England and in New York groups like A Certain Ratio and James White and The Blacks were on the same wavelength.

     Thus, finally, my love affair with Bowie had ended. I still played and adored all the old stuff but the new recordings left me underwhelmed.

     Later that year we opened another one-nighter at Le Kilt.  By now the Blitz was over and New Romanticism was something that people from Birmingham loved. Down in the smoke our menu du jour was funk, funk and more funk, while the mufti I pioneered was decidedly manly and the polar opposite of the fey New Romantic look. 

     At the time, for my considerable sins, I was studying fashion at St Martins and started designing over-sized zoot suits that I got made by a tailor. I grew a goatee beard, dragged out my 1940s hand-painted kipper ties, correspondent shoes and a beret, and listened to Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente and James Brown. 

      

  By 1981 I had signed my band Blue Rondo a la Turk to Virgin and our record Me and Mr Sanchez – a storming Brazilian batucada ‒ was racing up the charts, while the only other tune that was played on Radio One more than us was the absolutely dire Under Pressure by Bowie and the loathsome Freddie Mercury. He followed this up with the over-produced Cat People.

     Oddly, I became acquainted with Bowie around the same time that I found myself becoming less enamoured of his music. On October 14, 1982, I opened the Wag Club on Wardour Street, Soho, first as a one-nighter and then, in April, for seven nights a week.  We played funk, jazz and Latin along with a smattering of hip-hop. In March Bowie had released Lets Dance, his most commercially successful tune to date which, albeit a pop song, certainly mirrored what we were doing (even though we’d never play it). He would pop into the Wag on a Saturday from time to time ‒ mostly on his own — and we’d chat about art and music.

     He never had a minder or entourage and I never called the paparazzi when he turned up. I was hardly going to shout it from the rooftops anyway as I knew that he’d leave and never return. No one ever bothered him as he always seemed to blend in. I remember on one occasion a girl I knew said, ‘That bloke you were talking to looked like David Bowie.’ ‘He was,’ I replied. She never forgave me for not telling her. But then what was I supposed to do? Run around telling everyone? The only time he was noticed was when he turned up with Mick Jagger, but even then no one really bothered them. I took them in and offered them a drink. David asked for a pint of bitter, which we didn’t sell behind the bar as in 1983 no one except your dad drank the stuff. So he asked for a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale instead. I liked that.

     Looking back, I should have been more fazed by his attentions. This was David freaking BOWIE for Christ’s sake! But because I considered Let’s Dance too pop and Chain Girl a complete waste of plastic I think it moderated any fanboy tendencies in me. Had it happened around the time of Young Americans it would have been a different story for sure.

     This was the most commercial phase of Bowie’s career and I confess that I was disappointed that the great man had succumbed to the lure of the filthy lucre and the desire for a ‘pop’ hit.

     In 1983 I received an invite for his Serious Moonlight gig in Milton Keynes (the poster for which was remarkably like one of my illustrations on the Blue Rondo cover) and ended up watching it from the wings. Bowie was so friendly to me that I actually felt guilty about disliking his recent work.

     He may have been approachable and affable but that still didn’t make me feel any less embarrassed the next time I met him. I’d turned up at 5am in Maida Vale in the summer of 1984 thinking I was to be an extra on Julien Temple’s elongated pop promo for the single Jazzin’ For Blue Jean (David loved the jazz night at the Wag), only to be introduced to a smart young actress named Louise. To my horror I promptly discovered that I was expected to not just walk with her down the street but to speak lines of actual dialogue.

     What exacerbated my unease was that during the same scene Bowie was to be standing above us on a ladder pasting a poster of his alter ego in the film, Screaming Lord Byron, to a billboard. Worse still, it was drizzling ‒ that horrible cold rain that’s blighted many a UK holiday.

     A dozen takes later, I whimpered to Julien, ‘David Bowie’s up a ladder waiting for me to get this right. I can’t do this!’ So David came down the ladder, wiped the rain off his face and assured me that all was well and that he understood my predicament as he’d had exactly the same problem on The Man Who Fell to Earth. Of course this was of absolutely no bleeding use to me whatsoever and it wasn’t until take 54 that I sort of got it right.

     Later in the day, maybe in an effort to help me salvage whatever self-respect I had left, David asked me to find him a backing band for the mimed performance of the song, soon to be filmed at the Rainbow Room above the old site of Biba on Kensington High Street. I was then asked to recruit an audience of London’s finest for his performance and was backstage with him as he donned his extravagant, almost Glam Rock make-up and turban.

     A few days later Julien Temple called me and asked if he could use the Wag to shoot a special version of the song for MTV because David liked the venue and its view over Chinatown. He then reiterated David’s request that I find the audience and whether David could use my office as his dressing room, if it didn’t put me out, of course. No prizes for guessing my answer, but on the day David’s main concern was that he was an inconvenience and that I should carry on as if he wasn’t there, which was of course impossible. But still he persisted, was constantly self-deprecating and insisted on making me a cup of tea!

     The following year I worked with Julien again on the film Absolute Beginners and was fortunate to spend even more time with David. He’d turn up on set dressed in his windcheater and Converse and seemed totally unaware of the effect he had on the extras I’d gathered together, who were to the last huge Bowie fans. He also brought his 14-year-old son Duncan along and introduced him to the whole crew.

     After that I didn’t really listen to his music. I’d rather not think about Dancing In the Street, liked This is Not America, but the Tin Machine-era left me (and most others) thoroughly unimpressed. As a result I didn’t even listen to Black Tie, White Noise at the time. Although listening to it now, it’s safe to say it’s a tad lacking, even if his voice is in fine fettle and the title track, along with Jump They Say and Looking For Lester, stand up nicely (perhaps because of Lester Bowie’s trumpet). His next effort, Outside, I liked as it’s a barking-mad mix of ambience, poetry and song and features Alomar and Garson and personnel with Eno producing. Earthling was rather average, I thought, but it did see Bowie return to his old uncompromising self.

     One night in April 1995 I bumped into him at the Atlantic Bar and we had a little chat whereupon he invited me to the private view of his first solo art exhibition in Cork Street, Mayfair. I showed up and such was the scrum on the door that I turned away, ready to give up and go home, only for his PA Coco Schwab, on David’s instructions, to call after me and usher me past the hordes of fans and paparazzi. Inside we had a little chat, exchanged phone numbers and then he was whisked off to ‘say hello to everyone’, which he did with unparalleled diligence.

     ‘In 1996 I was in a restaurant and someone came up to me and said, “I really like what you do.” And I looked up and it was David Bowie,’ recalls Tracey Emin. ‘And we became friends. I went to Ireland then with him and Iman and then the last time I saw him he came round my house. He’s a very funny person and extremely self-effacing. The type of man who has to be learning something all the time. He’s a bit like his character in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth who constantly watches stacks of TVs on different channels all at the same time to absorb as much knowledge as possible. He was the first person I knew who was totally into the Internet and all it could give to you.’

     In 1997, I began working at GQ as the style editor and recall how impressed my colleagues were when David, who was at the office for a photo shoot I believe, strolled up to my desk for a chat. Again, he was David Jones the bloke next-door, seemingly impressed that I had reinvented myself as a journalist. He invited me to the Hanover Grand where he was performing the next night. Backstage he got me a beer and treated me like an old friend. ‘I’m knackered,’ he confided. ‘The problem is that I think I’m still 20 years of age.’

     The last time we spoke was at some mad art happening in the meat packing district in New York in the spring of 1999. He was his usual, self-deprecating funny self and seemed really happy to see me. I was enormously flattered. It still amazes me how much time he had for me. I was just this kid from Wales.

     Unfortunately, I missed his legendary performance at Meltdown in 2002 and was really sad when his bass player Gail Ann Dorsey said that after his heart operation in 2004 he had decided not to play live again.

     A couple of years ago I heard whispers that David was ill and assumed it was his heart, but it was all very hush-hush and unspecific. It seems he didn’t want anyone to know, didn’t want sympathy, just wanted to get on with his life. All those around him respected his wishes and I inquired no further as such news was too much to take, but nevertheless the news of his death, when it came, unsettled me more than I thought it ever would. Accordingly, it has taken me a year to listen to his last two albums and while I find much of The Next Day not my cup of tea, Where Are We Now is a quiet, amazing song that haunts me constantly. As for Black Star, the fact that he used his own death as the premise for a work of art is a remarkable achievement, while the track Lazarus brings a lump to my throat.

     But as his last work underlines, David Bowie didn’t just entertain, he intrigued and provoked, cross-pollinating his music with painting, literature, film, fashion and stage. From the outset he maintained that he was an artist who just happened to be working in pop.

     If anyone was a maverick it was David Bowie. Throughout his entire career he did things his way, refusing to be anyone but himself, and he bestowed on millions of others, myself included, the unshakeable belief that they could do the same.

 

RIP David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016)

 

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