Saturday, 7 January 2012

REMEMBERING BOWIE: ON HIS 65TH BIRTHDAY, JANUARY 8TH 2012

Gold sunlight splashed our faces as Tashi and I got off the 227 bus and walked down Beckenham High Street, towards our first encounter with The Man Who Fell To Earth.


In Friday dregs of uniform, with tennis rackets and straw boaters wedged under our arms, we squinted in silence along Southend Road until we reached the scariest house on the street. A sign proclaimed ‘Haddon Hall’, number 42. It was a red-brick cross between a Gothic church and the Addams Family mansion, with stained-glass windows, mangled balconies and spooky turrets. I remember straining my eyes to look for bats.


It was the summer of ’69, our last summer as children: the year of Woodstock and Monty Python, of men on the moon. Bryan Adams would one day immortalise the season in a song. Natasha Holloway and I, classmates from Bromley Grammar, had for some time been secretly aware of David Bowie, known around our way as Davie Jones. He’d been friends with ‘Face of ‘68’ teen idol Peter Frampton at Bromley Tech, where Peter’s father was Head of Art. Davie had dropped the Jones to avoid confusion when Davy Jones and the Monkees emerged, and had been quietly building a new name for himself as a songwriter, singer, sax & guitar player and mime artist with his own Arts Lab studio in the back room of a pub, the Three Tuns, on Beckenham High Street.


Tashi and I had been taken to the Arts Lab by an exotically glamorous Indian photographer, Hy Money, whose daughter Lisa had been in my class at Oak Lodge. Hy was also a fine artist and folk-singer, who held regular soirees at her home. She danced like Isadora Duncan, and had a friend at the Arts Lab who played sitar - and who was teaching Bowie. 


It was there that we first saw him. We couldn’t take our eyes off his. His right pupil was so massive that it almost obliterated the iris. One eye was luminously blue, the other dull and tawny grey. He wore a washed-out pink tee shirt over a big girl's blouse with a wallpaper pattern.  One half of his hair was ruffled, almost curled, the other side swept straight back. He had bits and pieces of teeth. We had never seen anything like him, and it was probably love at first sight. He was surrounded by gerbil-cheeked girls with curtain hair-dos, and moody guys with moustaches and guitars. Giggling behind Hy, who clicked away endlessly with her camera, we made a pact to find out where he lived.


Little could I have known, as a schoolgirl, the extent to which David Bowie would influence my life. Nor that, a quarter of a century later, I’d find myself a guest at his home on exotic Mustique, actually sleeping in his bed.  The ageing rock chick in me sometimes has to admit, if only he'd been there too...


The autograph we were on the hunt for took several attempts - Bowie was never at home when we called round. Three or four times his American girlfriend Angela, later briefly his wife, stood chatting to us on the doorstep. She was bleached-looking, sexy and beautiful - despite the oddest nose, and huge hands. She gave us signed photos. Tash and I were still on a mission to get the real thing.


Luck looked in that summer Friday afternoon. David himself answered the door, in some old dressing gown, an open bottle of nail polish in his hand. ‘Come in, scruffs’, he grinned, showing us into a huge Christmas-coloured room, with bottle green walls, a red velvet sofa and battered chairs. Angie wasn’t at home. David excused himself, and returned from the bathroom after a couple of minutes.  He lay down on the floor on some stale pillows and resumed decorating his nails, applying the varnish with a cocktail stick for want of a proper brush. His pale face seemed to hang out of place, as if attached to the wrong neck - much as it does now.  At 65, although I really don't want to type that number, he continues to defy time. Perhaps he always will.


He could not have been more friendly. We could not have been more thrilled - particularly as we were there behind our parents’ backs. We sat gushing about astrology, reincarnation, karma, Tibet - all the mystic stuff we'd read that he was into. We were trying too hard to be cool. If he noticed, he didn’t let on. He asked if we believed in UFOs, and what we thought of Marc Bolan. Tashi the joker began to warble ‘Ride A White Swan’. He told us about his many failed auditions for ‘Hair’, the risque stage musical of the day. Tash asked about ‘Space Oddity’, his new single. Bowie said he was ‘out of his gourd’ and ‘totally flipped’.  The song was later chosen as the theme track for Apollo 11’s televised moon landings. Tashi then said, incredibly, ‘How does it feel to share a birthday with Elvis?’ - David had been born 12 years to the day after The King.

No idea, kid’, David drawled, ‘ask him’.


Bowie was already well on his way to becoming the most iconic and enduring rock star in history, with a string of alter egos, images and sounds unlike anything which had gone before. He would achieve massive success as an actor, with movies like Nicolas Roeg’s ‘The Man Who fell To Earth’ and stage roles such as ‘The Elephant Man’ on Broadway. Tashi and I, die-hard Bowie fans, did the rest of school with a few modest alter egos of our own. I was ‘Ground Control’ to her ‘Major Tom’. We’d write each other coded ‘Space Oddity’ messages in our rough books during class: ‘take your protein pills, put your helmet on’. ‘Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing we can do’...


Against the odds and far too young to be out, in July 1973,  we obtained tickets for his legendary gig at Hammersmith Odeon. That night, an already burnt-out, drug-abused Bowie, backed by guitarists Jeff Beck and Mick Ronson, retired Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders, to the distress of millions of fans. Before he went, he treated us to incendiary favourites - Changes, Life On Mars, Ziggy Stardust, John, I’m Only Dancing, All The Young Dudes, Suffragette City, and Space Oddity - re-released as a single that year. Tashi and I attended the gig wearing our weight in glitter, David’s initials etched in brass studs into the navy leather of our matching platform boots.


Eight years passed before I saw him again. By then, I’d spent three years at college in London, a year in Paris, 6 months in New York. Determined to make my name as a rock writer, I had immersed myself in the London music scene, and was freelancing in the press office at London’s Capital Radio. In 1981 I flew to Switzerland with Capital Radio's Roger Scott (RIP) to assist at a recorded interview with Freddie Mercury – whose definitive biography I would go on to write. Queen were in Mountain Studios on the shores of Lake Geneva at Montreux. When we arrived, David Bowie, their neighbour, happened to be hanging out with them, recording well into the night a track which would become the Number One hit ‘Under Pressure’ - and which Bowie later pretended to have loathed.

He failed to recognise me, of course. Egged on by the others, I told him that I had stood on his doorstep as a schoolgirl, begging for autographs.

Blimey’, he said, ‘Did I give you one?’ Queen drummer Roger Taylor tittered. Bowie lunged with a swipe.

Bloody hell’, Bowie said. He didn’t say bloody.

Show some respect. We’re not all sewer-rats like you, Taylor!’

No’, responded Roger, ‘and we’re not all bi-sexual poofs like you, either!’

Freddie Mercury was the first in the room to laugh.


Two years later, I found myself backstage at the Birmingham NEC for the start of Bowie’s ‘Serious Moonlight’ European tour, to promote his massive hit album ‘Let’s Dance’. By now the rock writer I had set out to be, I was there to interview my childhood idol. The spangled, half-strangled, androgynous weirdo who had vanished from the scene five years earlier, had metamorphosed into an athlete filming a TV ad for breakfast cereal. He was barely recognisable: cool, elegant, clean-cut, his hair baby-blonde to offset a classy light suit. Instead of the tombstones, he now flashed perfect white teeth.


I was tired of the idea of being a freakish cult figure’, he told me. ‘I wanted to do something more accessible, more soulful, a bit more R & B, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. I certainly didn’t expect this much limelight. It’s a joy to me. I have never performed like this before in my life. I feel so much more relaxed, now that I’m not carting some character around with me any longer. At long last, I think I have learned how to be myself.’


By this time, his stormy marriage to wannabe actress Angie having snuffed it, Bowie was weirdly involved with his personal assistant Corinne Schwab. It was obvious to all that he and ‘Coco’ were lovers, but he didn’t want to talk about it. Anyway, she was in the room. I found myself staring at a spectacularly unravishing woman with pale lank hair and a wrinkled smile, trying my damnedest to fathom the attraction.

A band member read my mind.

She does everything for him’, he explained. ‘I mean everything. Ange never did, and it was a revelation to him. David just sits back and lets her do it.’

The way David himself put it to me later, ‘She is a very good friend, she became the most important person in my life in the mid-70s. My whole lifestyle at that time made me quite bonkers, and I had a complete breakdown. Coco was the one person who told me what a fool I was becoming, and she made me snap out of it, I’m glad to say. Sex is not all there is. There really have to be relationships in your life to make it worthwhile.’


He talked about his 12 year old son Duncan, once Zowie, of whom he had won custody and with whom he shared his life in an unostentatious New York apartment and in a house in Lausanne. They ski'd together there, he told me. Skiing was Bowie’s only sport.


I saw him backstage at ‘Live Aid’ two years later, then again at the premier of the flop movie ‘Absolute Beginners’ in 1986. Each time, we exchanged a brief kiss, and he came out with his catchphrase for me: ‘You again!’



In 1987 he was planning the Glass Spider World Tour, which would kick off in Rotterdam on May 30th. I spent a couple of months negotiating an exclusive interview for the Daily Mail, where I was now resident rock and pop writer. But when the time came, the Editor, the late Sir David English, had a problem with letting me go.

How the hell are you going to make it to Rotterdam in your condition?’ Sir David quizzed me. ‘You can’t even fly, for a start.’


At the time I was 6 months pregnant with my first child:  a minor detail. Determined to have my major exclusive with the rock star I’d worshipped since childhood, I said I’d get there by train, boat and train. After an epic journey riddled with sickness, I found myself knocking on David’s dressing room door backstage at the Feyenoord football stadium, outside Rotterdam.


You again!’ His eyes fell to my unmissable bulge.

What happened to you!’ He pinched my cheek with a laugh. I had inserted one green, one brown contact lens, in homage.

Very bloody funny. Can we get on with it?’


What thrilled me at the time, and has enchanted me ever since, was that my baby girl attended her first-ever Bowie gig before she was even born.


The show was heart-stopping, the ultimate stadium rock spectacle. It was choreographed by Toni Basil of ‘Oh-Mickey-You’re-So-Fine’ fame, and was a culmination of all the performing skills Bowie had honed down the years. Even Peter Frampton, Bowie's school chum from Bromley Tech, had joined him to play lead guitar. Caught up in the excitement, I remembered afterwards that I hadn’t made arrangements to get myself back. The journey from hotel to stadium had caused no problems, but for the return, no ride was to be had. I stepped outside into a milling throng of some 80,000 fans, all trying to make their way home. Beyond the stadium lay the kind of estates a girl didn’t want to venture into after dark - let alone an achingly pregnant one.


I wandered back inside and lurked a bit, wondering what to do next. Suddenly, David poked his head round the door of his dressing room.

You again! Haven’t you had enough?! Whassup?’

I explained.

Within minutes David had despatched a minder, who returned with a couple of Dutch policemen. Negotiating with them personally, he arranged a police escort to deliver me back to our hotel.


It is those qualities of Bowie's - spontaneity, kindness, sardonic humour - which I’ll always cherish, along with the great legacy of his songs. That, and the magical month I spent with my daughter at his exquisite Balinese home on Mustique, to which I escaped in November 1995, to begin work on my definitive biography of Freddie Mercury.


Mercury had died of Aids-related illness, in 1991. The following year, Bowie performed outstandingly at Freddie's Wembley Tribute concert. That same year, in Florence, he married Somalian supermodel Iman Abdulmajid (with whom he now has a daughter, Alexandria Zahra.) The Mustique home, which Bowie had lovingly put together with Coco Schwab, had at last lost its charm. Before he sold it - to eccentric Time Out publisher and poet Felix Denis - David wanted as many friends and acquaintances as possible to experience the place.


Built of original Balinese and Indonesian teak, on a peak above Brittania Bay looking out towards St. Vincent, the house, with its infinity pools and exotic pavilions, was a fantasy tropical paradise, where the clock took its time. I remember climbing into Bowie’s own bed that first night, shattered from the long journey from London but ecstatic at the thought of where I was. The gauche Bromley schoolgirl who had idolised a rock star since childhood, was now partaking of the fruits of his labour in the Caribbean home he had built for himself. I pinched myself blue.


The next day, the house chef took us to visit Mick Jagger at his place on the beach, then later let us in to Princess Margaret’s old house, les Jolies Eaux (he had the keys), where we read her letters, jumped on her beds, played hide-and-seek in her wardrobes. At Basil’s Bar on the beach that night,we toasted Bowie with the cocktail he referred to as a ‘Penis Coladis’, and drank to his long, against-odds health.

Wow, Mummy’, said Mia,it doesn’t get better than this'.

It never has.









1 comment:

  1. Fabulous blog entry Lesley. Makes me want to know more about David just reading it. I'd like to think he and Freddie would be bussom buddies to this day if dear Freddie were still alive. 65, crazy age and you are right, all photos I see of him, he just doesn't age! Mind you until Brian May's hair went grey he was like age stood still! I reckon it must be a Rock and Roll thing, you don't age!!
    Keep up the great blogs! xx

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