DAVID BOWIE: IN LOVING MEMORY OF A JONES BOY

David Bowie would have turned seventy-two today. Rather than lament his death again on Thursday, I prefer to give thanks for his life on his birthday. As always, in loving memory of a Jones Boy.

His teeth were tombstones. One eye was luminously blue, the other grey. The right pupil almost eradicated the iris. He was dressed in pink, with a swathe of his hair swept straight back, the other half tousled. He sat surrounded by moody blokes and fat-cheeked girls, most of them strumming chipped guitars.

It was the first time I’d ever set eyes on him in the flesh. My classmate Lisa's mother, Hy Money, had taken us to the Three Tuns pub on Beckenham High Street one Sunday, where local hero Davie Jones was hosting an Arts Lab session. Hy, a fine artist and folk singer who is still my friend today, was also a photographer on the Beckenham Record newspaper, and wanted some pictures of Vytas Serelis, a renowned sitar player who was giving a recital that day. Also present was Marc Bolan, then of Tyrannosuarus Rex. 

Davie had been friends with ‘Face of ‘68’ teen idol Peter Frampton at Bromley Tech, where Peter’s father Owen was Head of Art.  He dropped his surname to avoid confusion with Davy Jones when the Monkees got big, and was making his bid for fame and fortune as a songwriter, singer, guitar player, mime artist … anything, really. By the time I moved to Bromley Grammar, he had changed his name to Bowie and had become a huge star. Natasha Holloway and I resolved to find out where he lived. We discovered that he was renting a flat in Haddon Hall on Southend Road: a huge, red-brick Gothic mansion with mangled balconies, bat-turrets and stained glass. His flatmate was record producer Tony Visconti. Unbeknown to our mothers, we took to hopping the 227 bus to Beckenham after school, on a mission for autographs.

David was never at home when we knocked. His American girlfriend Angela usually was. She gave us signed photos and sent us packing. We kept trying. One day, she was out.
He invited us, bowler-hatted pests from a stiff upper girls' school, in for tea. His vast living room was like Christmas, with bottle-green walls and red velvet furnishings. He was dressed in a grimy lemon silk kimono. He was painting his fingernails black with a cocktail stick. And he was out of milk.

What else would we do but try to impress him? It makes me cringe now to remember how we gushed, about reincarnation and Tibet and all that. We'd read the music rags, we knew the score. We were idiots.

There was no suggestion at the time that Bowie would become one of the most iconic stars in rock history, master of a universe of alter egos, images and recordings unlike anything that had gone before. He was just a boy from Brixton who got lucky. The south London accent and self-conscious hunch never left him. Despite global fame and unthinkable fortune, he was always that David to me. I attended his gig at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, when he retired the Spiders from Mars to the distress of millions. After that, I didn't see him again for eight years.

I never thought of David as a heart throb. He was angular and emaciated. He flaunted androgyny. As college students, we sat around on stale rugs intellectualising (we thought) over his lyrics. After college in London and a year in Paris, I fell into the London music scene. I was an intern at Capital Radio, and went to Montreux with DJ Roger Scott, for an interview with Freddie Mercury. Queen were at Mountain Studios, which they owned, on Lake Geneva. They were recording what would become the Number One ‘Under Pressure’. David was there too. 

Two years later, I saw him backstage at the Birmingham NEC. It was the start of his ‘Serious Moonlight’ European tour, to promote ‘Let’s Dance’. Now a music writer, I was there to interview him. The spangled weirdo who had vanished from the scene five years earlier had metamorphosed into a sex god. He was barely recognisable:  cool, baby-blonde, and dressed in a classy suit. He flashed dazzling white new teeth.
‘I was tired of the idea of being a freakish cult figure,' he shrugged. ‘I wanted to do something more accessible, more soulful, a bit more R & B, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. I didn’t expect this much limelight. I have never performed like this in my life. I feel so much more relaxed, now that I’m not carting some character around. At last, I've learned how to be myself.’ 

His stormy marriage to Angie was history. David was now involved with his personal assistant, Corinne Schwab.  It was obvious that he and ‘Coco’ were lovers, but he didn’t discuss it. Anyway, she was in the room. I stared at the lank-haired woman with the thin smile, trying to fathom the attraction.

A band member read my mind.
‘She does everything for him,' he whispered. ‘I mean everything. Ange never did, and it's a revelation to him. David lets Coco do the lot.’
‘She is my good friend,' said David, later. She became the most important person in my life in the mid-Seventies when I was a lost boy.  My lifestyle at that time made me bonkers. I had a  breakdown.  Coco was the one person who told me what a fool I was becoming. She made me snap out of it.  Sex is not all there is.  There have to be relationships in your life to make it worthwhile.’

I saw him backstage at Wembley for Live Aid two years later, in July 1985. Then at the premiere of ‘Absolute Beginners’ in 1986.  Every time he saw me, it was, ‘You again!’ In 1987 he was planning the Glass Spider world tour, which would kick off in Rotterdam that May. I'd spent weeks negotiating an exclusive interview for the Daily Mail. When the time came, the editor wouldn’t let me go. I was six months pregnant. Determined to have my moment, I insisted. I got there by train, ship and train. Made for the Feyenoord stadium, and knocked on David’s dressing room door.
You again!’ His eyes dropped to my huge bulge. He pinched my cheek. And noticed that I was wearing one green, one brown contact lens.
‘Very funny. Shall we do this?’
The gig was a strange one. I remembered only afterwards that I hadn’t organised my return journey. I wandered outside into a thrash of about of eighty thousand fans, all trying to make their way home. Beyond the stadium lay the sort of wasteland you didn't venture into after dark. I was in no state to make a run for it.
I nipped back inside. Ran smack into David.
'You again. What’s up?’ 
Within minutes he'd despatched a minder, who returned with a couple of Dutch policemen.  Negotiating with them personally, he arranged a police escort back to the hotel. 

The industry was inclined to bitch about Bowie. You had to dismiss most of it. They didn’t get it. The flamboyant rock star was a monstrous invention who conned the world. But he wasn’t really David.

'I'm just an entertainer,' he'd laugh. 'I've been lucky with the songs. I can't play anything well, is the truth. I'll have a go at any instrument and get a screech or an oink out of it. Play it three times and it sounds like a proper arrangement. That's the secret. That, luck, and timing.'

I worked regularly in New York during the Eighties and Nineties. We'd meet for dinner - usually at the French-Vietnamese restaurant Indochine on Lafayette St, NoHo, a favourite haunt of his. He ate like a bird. Drank rarely. Preferred water, and strong coffee. Ordered the occasional pina colada, but drank only half.  He was never less than showered and shaven. He chain-smoked Marlboro, stubbing them out after a couple of drags. He was not boring. He was always spontaneous. Sardonic, mischievous, kind.  At one such supper, we were discussing the book that I was writing when he pushed a scrap of paper across the table.
'Good luck,' he said.
'What?'
'I hope you do better than I do. The house is such a refuge that I have absolutely no inclination to write a word or a note while I'm there.'
He was offering me his home to write in.
'A whim,' was how he described his Caribbean hideaway.
'I love a good cliché. The house, you'll find, is the most delightful cliché. And the light there is terrifying.'
'What made you build a house on Mustique?' I asked.
'I went down to stay with Mick (Jagger) and Jerry in 1986, and I got stranded one day when the boat due to pick me up lost its propeller. I wandered off, poked around, and came across a bit of free land. I talked to the owner, and I thought, why not? Then there was the question of what to do with it. I wanted something as unlike the Caribbean as possible, because it's a fantasy island. It had to be impressive. Because on Mustique, all the rich people get together and see the same people they see all the year round, but in a holiday setting. It's a tropical version of Gatsby's East Egg, where everyone goes to be rich together. How crazy is that!'

He never got there quite as often as he should have. He hated flying. But his ambition was still to 'make music so incredibly uncompromised that I will have absolutely no audience left whatsoever, and I'll be able to live on the island all year round.'

His odd eyes sparkled as he mimicked my expression. He winked. He didn't give a toss about being rich and famous, he said. Easy to say, when one has achieved both. Perhaps you had to get them in order to know how little they matter. To know that the best things in life are free, and that love is the answer to most questions.

Less than a fortnight later, the firstborn and I were on our way to Barbados, where a twin-engine Merlyn Commander six-seater conveyed us to the ultimate destination. Mustique had been put on the map by Princess Margaret and her set. Four years and fourteen cargo containers after he first glimpsed that bit of land, it was Bowie's home too. A personal paradise. An Indonesian pavilion built around a pair of koi carp ponds that appeared to cascade into trompe l'oeil swimming pools. Five-star everything. Cooks, maids, a driver. All ours, for a month.

Time does stand still, occasionally. It did back then. I remember climbing into his bed that first night, shattered from the journey but ecstatic at the thought. What’s a gauche Bromley schoolgirl doing in a place like this? She still thinks about it.





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