7th June 1975
I clambered over unopened packing cases, up three flights of uncarpeted stairs, feeling a bit like I was on my way to see the dentist. Only instead I was to meet David Bowie, face-to-face touch-close and at his very private and very new New York home.
As I reached the bottom of the final staircase, Bowie stood at the top – apricot-haired, his lean face serious and clutching a handyman power drill. Zoom… zoom! One second an unsmiling David was playing cowboy with the drill as a gun and me as the target… the next he was smiling, giving me a kiss on the cheek and apologising for the mess. “Sit down,” he said, giving me a gentle nudge towards a cosy bed of giant cushions in the middle of the floor. “Don’t mind if I wander around a bit and carry on working, do ya?” I didn’t – it was fascinating to watch such a genius-mind concentrating so hard on a job like picture hanging. And while he worked I sat cross-legged in front of the crackling log fire, glad of a chance to slide off new shoes that were as painful as they were pretty. And glad too, of a little time to gaze around.
At the far end of the room a bright patch of light shone from the attic windows in the high ceiling down to the wooden floor. Rays of New York light which managed to peep through David’s jungle of creeping, crawling potted plants hanging like a greenhouse of greenery suspended from the sky. And I thought back to a conversation I had heard just minutes before when someone was on the phone arranging an appointment for the “plant doctor” to visit. Now I knew why the greenery looked so healthy…
So did David, come to that. Eyes clear (even though he had been up for two days and nights working), skinny but fit, alert and so interested in knowing all about the things he had been missing during the year he had been away from England. “Only don’t talk about the films you’ve been to see,” he smiled. “Or we’ll never get to talk about anything else.” So I asked what David had been up to since he left England – apart from the amazing Diamond Dogs tour which wowed American for seven months.
“Well, I’ve written some films,” he smiled, obviously pleased to back on his favourite subject so quickly. “I’ve written nine films,” he added just as a matter-of-fact after-thought. “Nine?” I asked. He looked surprised. “Yes,” then with a mischievous laugh, “if nothing else happens, at least I’ll have all these portfolios of art work to show.” He picked up a big black zip-around case, the kind models carry their photographs in, and handed it to me.
Inside was a picture story so fascinating that David had drilled another dozen holes before I surfaced. They were David’s visual ideas of what his films would look like on screen – more than that, he had gone back to the very early days of filming when each camera shot was planned and drawn as art work before the actors and crew were even hired. So that was exactly how David had gone about his first film. He had scripted it and then drawn his impression of each and every camera shot.
Now he was busy deciding the answer to an important problem – who he would like to play which part. But he did make one definite decision – he had no plans to be in the film himself. “I don’t think I want to be a film star,” he smiled, a dazzling film-star smile. “I really want to concentrate on directing.” He also wants to shoot his film in England. “I’d really love that, to come home and do the film there. But I musn’t talk about it, I get really homesick if I do, ya know.” He laughed, but his eyes said that it really did upset him to think too much about England and the fans he had left behind. So instead we talked about New York, which out a big grin on his scrubbed, sculptured face.
When David does venture outside his front door – which isn’t often when he has a project to finish – he heads for the junk shops where he can rummage around for hours without being spotted. He covers the give-away hair the a large, gangster-style fedora and goes bargain hunting. And on the day I called, a bright sunshine day in March, he had come back loaded with finds.
“Look at this comb I found in the ten cents box,” he beamed, holding up a beautifully vulgar black and white plastic tail comb. “It’s a genuine 1950s and it was only ten cents. I could have bought huge boxes of stuff for just a few dollars. It was just amazing.” He sat down at last and stretched a lean arm towards some magazines. “And these are actual 1930s magazines. Just look at this…” he pointed to some black and white photos of a streamlined thirties lounge. “It’s exactly the room we have downstairs, the same windows, everything.” In my mind I cleared away the furniture from the picture and cleared away the collection of Zowie toys I’d been careful not to step on when I arrived and realised that David was right. The rooms were forty years apart, but identical. “It isn’t easy finding good things like these magazines in all that junk,” said David. “I guess I’m, just a good shopper,” he laughed.
Just then the clomp of someone coming up the stairs caused a few silent seconds as well waited to see who it was. Pat Gibbons, one of David’s management team, greeted everyone with a smile on his face and an advanced copy of David’s new album under his arm. Everyone gathered round to see. David looked pleased, he liked it. And so did everyone else. “The only thing is why does it open like this – this is bad,” he showed Pat the wavy edges of the cover where the sides gaped open instead of fitting snugly together to give the album some protection. Pat assured him that it was only because this copy had been rushed through for David to see and it would not be like that for the actual album. David nodded and was happy. He looked back at me and asked if I’d heard the tracks for Young Americans… this was some weeks before the album was released and until that moment only David and the people closest to him had heard his final choice of tracks. So I knew how special that offer was. As I said I really would love to hear it, he jumped up, found the one-and-only-copy and turned the volume full on. Then, as I sat and listened, he started wandering again, giving me the occasional glance to see if my expression reflected any thoughts on what I was hearing. I was beaming…
When the album was finished David strolled back and sat down. I told him I had never heard an album with so many potential singles on it. He looked really pleased… not like a superstar used to compliments and expecting praise for his work, but like the sensitive artist David is, doing everything possible to create something special, something he hopes people will enjoy.
As David stretched out, relaxing for the first time since I had arrived, his secretary Corinne, came to remind him that he had a fitting with his tailor. He was having something beautifully Bowie-made for his appearance at the once-a-year Grammy awards the next weekend when he to be one of the award presenters. He had just fifteen minutes to change before his driver arrived. So I packed up my things, handed over a pile of English magazines I thought he might like to read and squeezed my feet into the offending shoes.
“When can you come back?” – How about Wednesday afternoon? Three o’clock all right? Downstairs the doorbell rang and a minute later someone buzzed through to say David’s car was waiting. So off he scooted, up more stairs to his bedroom to shower and get ready. “See ya Wednesday,” he smiled. “Ooh and thanks for the Easter egg, couldn’t wait till then to open it.
As I made my way downstairs, I passed what remained of the giant chocolate egg which had travelled with me from England. I had heard that David liked chocolate – and by the little that was left of the egg I could see that he did.
At five-to-three on Wednesday a cab dropped me on the corner of David’s street. I walked the rest of the way. Taking the responsibility of being one of only half-a-dozen people in New York who knew his address a bit far, I made sire I wasn’t being followed.
I found David still putting up pictures. One whole wall was complete – photographs, sketches, sheets of stamps under plastic.
Just then tickets arrived for a Rod Stewart concert that night and David asked Corinne to remind him to ring John Lennon to see if he would like to go along too. Then it was back to the serious business of picture hanging, stopping only to light a cigarette, autograph some photographs for me to take back to England or to show me some more “finds” – like the old Christmas snow scene inside a glass dome and the dozens of plastic circles moulded to look like bronze plaques. “I can do so many things with those,” David said, enthusiasm bubbling in his voice. “And then I’ve found this shop that sells plastics, every shape and colour you could possibly think of. I just couldn’t buy anything when I was there, there was just too much. I had to come home and think about it all first.” And even though “home” at that time was mostly packed away in wooden chests, David already had a picture in his mind of how things would eventually look.
But before he could make his plans come true for the rest of the house, David had to put the finishing touches to his studio.
…As I left he gave me a kiss on my cheek, a quick hug and then that familiar sound… zoom… zoom. Which is where I’d come in…