by Tina Brown / The Sunday Times Magazine
David Bowie had just breezed into Hollywood with a sidekick called Geoffrey. Bowie is dressed in brown plus-fours and braces, his short red orange hair tucked into a cloth cap. “This,” he explains in rapid cockney, “is my up-all-night look. Please note pallor of skin and trembling of hands.” He strikes a match on his trousers and lights a cigarette. “All right, darlin’. Where shall I begin?”
Any story about David Bowie must begin with the way he looks. He has sold five million records but the discordant faces on the sleeves have done as much as me falsetto wheeze of his singing voice. As the cosmic yob hair layered into an orange coxcomb over a painted face, Dietrich eyebrows raised in camp derision, he was aped by a generation of teeny-boppers.
They were slow to keep up with him. On his last American tour at the end of 1974 the concert halls were thronged with lookalikes of his last phase. They came expecting a Bowie who strutted and postured like a Moonage Liberace. They found him as cool as a mint julep in a white suit and side parting.
When I met David Bowie he was staying at the home of his lawyer, Mike Lippmann, on Sunset Strip. He was supposed to be on holiday but within 24 hours of arrival he had booked himself into a recording studio and worked around the clock on a new batch of songs. Lippmann, a genial cherubic man, is already showing signs of strain. “It blows me out, having DB to stay,” he says. “I’ve never met a guy so hyped on energy.”
At five in the afternoon. the bed is unmade in Bowie’s room and the contents of a surprisingly small and tatty suitcase have been spilled out on to the floor — a tangle of T-shirts Y-fronts, gem markers and Freak Brothers comics. Balanced on the cover of the Manson Murder Trials is a half-eaten piece of cheese.
In the living room (decor – Hollywood Hispanola) a dozen copies of Bowie’s latest LP, Young Americans, are stacked. The sleeve features him looking as fresh-faced as a West Point cadet, while a cursory glance at the “Gimme Gimme’s” and “Sho’ nuffs” on the lyric sheet reveal that inside, for the first time, Bowie is giving Soul Music a whirl.
“Me and rock-and-roll have parted company,” he declares after a preliminary swivel on his chair. Lippmann, surreptitiously patrolling the passage outside, appears in the doorway, his face creased with anxiety. “Don’t worry,” Bowie reassures, “I’ll still make albums with love and with fun, but my effect is finished. I’m very pleased. I think I’ve caused quite enough rumpus for someone who’s not even convinced he’s a good musician.” He puts on a pair of giant auburn spectacles. “Now I’m going to be a film director.”
Lippmann’s face clears. He disappears into the kitchen to “check out the icebox”. Earlier he had told me that Bowie has completed nine film scripts this year and plans to direct Terence Stamp who, according to Bowie, has been “doing something intellectual with Pasolini”.
“I’ve always been a screen writer,” Bowie says, his pale eyes scanning me for the faintest hint of scepticism. “My songs have just been practice for scripts.”
Bowie dismisses each phase of his life with apparent boredom once he’s decided to move on. For five years he has been the most strenuously elusive poseur, earning the distrust of pp pundits who dismiss him variously as a predator, a plagiarist and a gadfly. “‘Course I nick things,” he tells me cheerfully. “So do all writers.” But Bowie’s best songs emerge from taking away the influence he first thought of and transforming the residue with his own melodic flair.
His repertoire is large, ranging from the vulnerable urban folk songs of Space Oddity to the strident artiness of Ziggy Stardust. On Hunky Dory he is quizzical. On Aladdin Sane, eerie and discordant, the sound of a vindictive ghost let loose in an orchestra pit. In performance, Bowie has given all these moods a personality, striking each pose with such conviction that now he finds himself running from the identities he has created.
In 1973, he stood on stage of the Odeon, in London and told the audience he was going off the road forever — a ploy he now admits, to escape from his most celebrated stage persona, Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy was the culmination of Bowie’s obsession with Outer Space. His first hit record Space Oddity, had been the dramatic duologue between Major Tom, an astronaut in a doomed rocket, and Control.
“This is Major Tom to Ground Control”, droned Bowie with a mixture of levity and menace.
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do”.
Major Tom, a disembodied voice somewhere out there was never a personality. His fans empathised with Bowie, but Ziggy Stardust was recognisably the monstrous alter ego of Bowie himself an extraterrestrial rock and roller with “screwed up eyes and screwed-down hairdo”. He was the “Special man” the “Nazz with god-given ass” perhaps first sighted by Major Tom as he floated “in a most peculiar way” above the earth.
On stage, Bowie personified Ziggy with gleaming bouffant hair, metallic jumpsuits and vinyl clogs. The image did not merely catch on, it threatened to submerge Bowie. “Ziggy became a nightmare,” he recalls. “He tried to take me over.”
Interviewers referred to Bowie as Ziggy. Fans screamed for Ziggy. The Top of the Pops television music show became a harlequinade of sequin-spangled concave chests. The song was turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “He took it all too far/But boy, could he play guitar.”
It all sounds like a clever piece of promotional theatre but even in the Los Angeles sunshine he looks haunted when forced to recall Ziggy. “I am David Bowie,” he intones with a zomboid air. “No, I’m not David Bowie, ex-rock star. I’m just David Bowie, period. Whatever you want me to be I won’t be it.” There’s a petulant note. “I am David Bowie.”
Fifty amps of Nina Simone in the next room signifies that his mate Geoff has returned from lunch. He emerges, rotating with a pair of maracas, Bowie yells. “Turn it down, Geoff, I’m feeling wrecked.”
“I don’t give a monkey’s,” shouts Geoff. “I’m into it.” He bowls back into the other room and slams the door.
“Geoff’s such a nostalgia freak,” comments Bowie tenderly. So is Bowie, as far as Geoff is concerned. They have known each other since the days when David was broke and sleeping in a van outside the Marquee Club. At that time he was, of course, not David Bowie, but David Jones born 1947 in Brixton, UK.
“Our street was mainly Jamaicans, some Irish. Dad owned a sort of club for wrestlers until the booze got to him and he had half his stomach out. After that he joined Dr Barnardo’s Home as PR man. Mum was an usherette in a cinema. I don’t think things were particularly easy.”
Bowie’s father — he died in David’s late teens – scraped up enough money to move them to Bromley, “the crummy bit,” according to Bowie. He went to the technical college at Beckenham “the posh bit. I was a working class laddie going to school with notes. That was a bit tricky. But I could handle it. Mmm Hmmmm.” He rolls his eyes in mock ecstasy.
At 13, Bowie was giving school concerts with his classmate Peter Frampton, later lead singer with The Herd. He was already showing some flair for art (though he failed everything except English at O-level). This got him a job as a junior visualiser with an advertising firm for six months. He moonlighted as a saxophonist for a series of fast formed, fast forgotten rhythm and blues bands. “l bought a saxophone after reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I wanted to be like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty and I succeeded, as much as anyone could in a dump like Bromley.”
According to his PR handouts he then got “heavily into Buddhism” for a time. “Yes, I was going to be a Tibetan Nun or something,” he snickers, sidestepping the need for any off-the-peg profundity. “I was just as much in search of answers as all the other mystic rock and rollers you’ve read about.”
An answer came in a slightly more prosaic form. As David Jones in the Lower Third, he was spotted by Kenneth Pitt at London’s Marquee Club. He was 18. ” It was his artistry and grace that was so striking,” recalls Pitt. “I flipped, as they say in the vernacular.”
Pitt took a selection of his songs to Decca Records. It was a cheeky ploy. Bowie had never had a hit single. Yet Pitt was trying to get him a contract for an album. It had never been done before but it succeeded. Decca signed. The record was launched under the title “David Bowie” after Pitt, on a visit to New York had been impressed by a new group called The Monkees and concluded that there was no room for two David Joneses. It sank without trace.
Bowie today claims not to have been downcast. ” I’ve been a bleedin’ big ‘ead for as long as I can remember. The only person who’s got a bigger ego than me is… ” he wracks his brains. “No. He’s dead.”
Pitt remembers differently. At 18, he told me, Bowie was painfully withdrawn. He tried to persuade him to a more flamboyant stage personality. They would spend hours at Pitt’s flat working over the new routine but when it came to the performance, Bowie lost his nerve. There was one great success – the Major Tom single, Space Oddity (1969) but it was a hit that came too soon, before Bowie had established a distinctive stage personality. Touring the ballrooms he found he was playing his Dylanesque ballads to skinheads. He was demoralised and dropped out of touring for a year, sinking the proceeds of Space Oddity in an Arts Lab in Beckenham, UK.
A number of things helped to relaunch David Bowie. He had picked up a sense of theatre in Lindsay Kemp’s Underground Mime Group and he developed this more individually in the Arts Lab. During this time too he and the guitarist Mick Ronson, formed a backup group called The Spiders from Mars. Next, at 21, he met and later married an American called Angela Barnett who, at 18, was as self-possessed as Bowie was uncertain.
“Angie is the most gracious lady I’ve ever known,” Bowie told me wonderingly. “If she hadn’t married me, she could have been an ambassador’s wife. We met at the Marquee Club when we were both laying the same bloke.” Angie believed in Bowie. She made costumes out of curtains. She hustled stagehands. She browbeat managements. She forced him to be bold. “You couldn’t have your ear bent, night after night by that voice,” commented Kenneth Pitt, “without something rubbing off.”
It was for Pitt a rubbing out. Angela found Bowie another manager, a Svengali called Tony DeFries (known as Tony de Freak to the Bowie entourage. He formed a company called MainMan and set about packaging and pushing Bowie with an audacity that made him enemies. Leee Childers, one-time stage manager for Andy Warhol and later, with ex-groupie Cherry Vanilla a key member of Bowie’s retinue, said: “Man, we had such a good time, for a whole year I just lived on chocolate souffle.” Under DeFries, with his first hit LP Hunky Dory, Bowie was to become a star. But not exactly a rich one by the time they split last year.
Hunky Dory is rock and roll Robert Browning, open letters to Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, musical mimicry that often outshines the original. The LP cover depicts Bowie as a pellucid, blonde, Thirties siren. On stage he had started wearing dresses designed by Mr Fish. They were, he insists “men’s dresses” but his bisexuality to which he craftily confessed in an interview in Melody Maker, was attracting sensational publicity. How much of this was simply a stunt? “Dunno, really,” he says penetratingly. He studies his sandshoe. “I s’pose I do fancy blokes quite a bit but I spend more time with chicks, particularly black chicks.
“The only type of chicks I can’t stand are New York feminists. Get them into bed, and after five minutes they want you to do something funny with a light bulb. It’s all so academic. And anyway, I love my wife.”
His relationship with Angela seems to be more that of a brother these days than a husband. As Jipp Jones she is often to be seen splashed across the fashion pages of magazines modelling suspender belts that froth like milk shakes. In October she makes her screen debut playing the last woman hanged in England, Ruth Ellis, in a film directed by Peter Medak.
She and David live apart most of the time – she in London, he in New York where their four-year-old son Zowie goes to school. They have their separate affairs on the understanding that their first loyalty is to each other. Angela freely admits that she would boot one of her new friends out of bad and get the first plane to Bowie should he need her.
“I’m not worried that Bo will fall in love with someone else while we’re apart,” she told me in London. “He’s incapable of loving anything except his work. I’m his security and anyone else is just a one night stand.”
In Los Angeles Bowie muses: “How was I to know that LA would be so full of black chicks?” He had arrived by train from New York: he never flies anywhere. He even crosses the Atlantic by sea after a premonition some years ago of an early death. “America is a myth land to me now. I hated it when I came.”
His first trip to the US is commemorated on the album Aladdin Sane, the mood of which is summed up by Mike Garson’s mad fractured piano on the title track. The songs feature Bowie as the “cracked actor” recording his own mental disturbance and those of the people he met as he toured America.
He still dislikes California. “San Francisco has more uptight bigots than anywhere else in the world. You’ve only got to say ‘Frisco’ to get a five finger sandwich.”
The song Jean Genie on Aladdin Sane is a portrait satire of Iggy Pop the Detroit rock singer, so “tired” at a recent concert that two heavies had to hurl him on stage. He overshot and landed in the audience, his face connecting with a bag of peanuts.
Bowie, however, rates Iggy Pop’s talents high enough to produce his next album for him, although he despairs: “He’ll never make it to the recording studios in time. He’ll fall asleep or get machine-gunned down in a garage. Iggy’s doomed.”
Bowie’s most fruitful musical association in America so far is with John Lennon who befriended him in New York and helped him write a song called Fame. On it Lennon seems to have lent Bowie a touch of his own sophisticated sense of irony.
“Fame,” cries Bowie, “Bully for you/Chilly for me/Gotta get a raincheck on/Pain.”
He says: “I don’t know why you’re interviewing me when you’ve got someone like Lennon. He’s the last great original.”
Next door in the Lippmanns’ living room highballs are being downed with the arrival of a carload of new acquaintances. They include a Hollywood agent with heavily mangroved chest billowing from his safari suit and an actress who claims to have “dug Bo ever since she was in bobby sox and training bra”.
The night becomes loud with the cries of “Bullshit” and “No way”. Materialising silently in the doorway Bowie takes in the scene with an enigmatic expression on his beaky face. From the amplifiers his own lyrics mock him.
Now your smile is wearing thin
Seems you’re trying not to lose
Since I’m not supposed to grin
All you’ve got to do is win.
He pauses for a moment then returns to the kitchen to help Geoff wash up.