David Robert Jones, alias David Bowie, is now in his 40th year. His creepy, chilling phrases pop out of pub jukeboxes, and extracts from his movies catch the eye on pub videos, whether he is embracing a Chinese girl or being executed by Japanese soldiers; his image appears in the Sunday-paper magazines, artistically displayed in sundry poses. As actor, mime, musician and crowd-poet, he has chanted his eerie music and frightening stories in thronged arenas; he has strutted in high boots, wearing strange masks. This is what I call ‘crowd-poetry’, not mere words. He can make up catchy tunes to go with his half-heard words and he can blow them or sing them while he shows off his costumed body. He is more like the old Athenian crowd-poets whom Aristotle praised for their command of spectacle and song, pity and terror. ‘Aeschylus tragical on stilts,’ sighed Aldous Huxley. ‘Bawling sublimities through a tortured mouth-hole!’
It is not for his ‘artistic merit’ that I would compare him with those old Greeks, only for his choice of medium. The crowd-poetry of Aeschylus did not persist: only the script remains, as an ‘after-life’. Poets lost their skill with musical tunes and instruments: they became reserved and bookish. Such book-poets as Eliot, Graves or Larkin would not dare to sing their words or act out their stories: if persuaded to read their work in public, they were shy and halting. David Bowie is not shy in that way: in the crowded arenas he physically enacted his own creation, Ziggy Stardust, ‘the leper messiah’, in song and spectacle, and he evoked a certain pity and terror from audiences, if only because they feared he might never escape from that clinging costume and make-up. Bowie himself had expressed that very fear in 1968, with a highbrow mime called The Mask, about an actor who strangled himself trying to remove his magic mask: it was performed with a small company called Feathers, securing three bookings, netting only £56. The next year, though, Bowie made the Big Time. His haunting little song, ‘Space Oddity’, was officially chosen to represent the nation’s strange mood as we watched a real space odyssey on our screens. While American astronauts danced on the Moon, the BBC played ‘Ground control to Major Tom ...’
Jerry Hopkins, an American rock critic, thinks this was an odd song to choose for the occasion. ‘In a way, it didn’t make any sense. “Space Oddity” was about a loser, who drifted off into space, rather than complete his mission. It was as if the BBC hadn’t listened to the words.’ Very true, but Bowie’s song – the tune with the words – evoked the pity and fear which British viewers felt during the Moon landing, quite as strong as our sense of jubilation, of ‘a giant step for mankind’. Further, as Peter and Leni Gillman suggest (prosaically or poetically), ‘Space Oddity’ sounds like an experience of shooting heroin, and they sternly quote another Bowie lyric:
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky,
We know Major Tom’s a junkie.
Anyway, Major Tom helped to make Bowie into a rock idol and, therefore, a valuable commercial property.
Peter and Leni Gillman want to discuss the monetary aspects of his career, the complicated contracts and managements. (Peter Gillman was a member of the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team and is an experienced investigative reporter.) They also want to reveal the true facts about his South London background and boyhood, which have been concealed under a smudge of showbiz hype: they are particularly interested in his half-brother, Terry Burns, who was sent to Cane Hill, a Surrey asylum for the insane, and committed suicide. (Charles Chaplin’s mother also ended up in Cane Hill.) Thirdly, the Gillmans want to interpret Bowie’s lyrics. These three interests make for a long, probing book. The American rock expert, Jerry Hopkins, has written a shorter, neater book, not much interested in exposing the hype about Bowie’s early London years: he is an editor of Rolling Stone magazine and he writes the sort of book that rock-stars’ managers read.
Young actors, making a name, often romance about their background and are lumbered, in middle age, with a false biography. David Robert Jones was born in Brixton and thought he could make something out of that. The Gillmans report that he used to claim that he was born in ‘a houseful of blacks’, that Brixton was a very rough area, ‘like Harlem’, that he was a very butch boy, an habitué of ska and bluebeat clubs, involved in street brawls, brooding over the prisoners in Brixton jail. He told Playboy that he was sexually active at the age of 14 and took home some ‘very pretty boy from school to be neatly fucked on his bed upstairs’. He told the New Musical Express that he moved from Brixton to an ancient farmhouse in Yorkshire, with a 17th-century priest’s hole. The Gillmans coldly expose this hype. They say that the boy Bowie moved from quiet inner-city Brixton to quieter outer-suburb Bromley in his seventh year. As a Bromley schoolboy he was reasonably straight and square, a keen Cub Scout, attracted by Tommy Steele and by The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His father, Haywood Stenton Jones, was a Yorkshireman and that is where his NME Yorkshire fantasy derives from. Bowie may have felt torn between his father and his half-brother, Terry Burns, whom Mr Jones did not much like: he made up another romantic story, alleging that poor Terry was a merchant seaman who had twice sailed round the world.
A man’s life is conveniently seen in seven-year periods. David Robert Jones was 14 in 1961 and 21 in 1968. Between those years he was trying to make his name as an artist and entertainer: like so many other boys, he found rock groups offered the most promising medium and market. His father bought him a saxophone, he also drew, went to mime classes, acted in a film and wrote a play for the BBC. He called himself ‘Bowie’ after the American knife but, since he pronounced it ‘Bo-ie’, I guess he was half-thinking of the Fifties abbreviation of ‘bohemian’. The boys he played with followed a tradition of jazz-oriented rhythm-and-blues, but Bowie often produced songs which had nothing at all to do with rock music. His pleasingly silly record, ‘The Laughing Gnome’, is designed for small children, though it may give adults the creeps: it is reminiscent of De La Mare’s ‘The Mocking Fairy’, but Bowie was not trying to be sinister. Another song is called ‘There is a happy land ...’ It is about small children playing, like Keith Waterhouse’s novel of the same name, and again it is accidentally eerie, almost like J.M. Barrie. The Gillmans have found the poems of Bowie’s grandmother and they are very similar: ‘In the land of make-believe, Children love to play ...’ Bowie sang his grandmotherly songs in a special voice, imitating Anthony Newley, an actor who used to sing posh and Yankee songs in a determined London accent: rather like Bowie, he later presented his personality in a desperately ambitious show called Stop the World – I want to get off. ‘Here’s a Cockney singer who reminds me of Anthony Newley and Tommy Steele, which can’t be bad,’ said the New Musical Express of the young Bowie. ‘Yes, we have another Tony Newley. A very promising talent.’ The style of the NME in 1967 was different from what it is today.
During Bowie’s adolescence homosexual behaviour ceased to be a crime: moral principles changed, as if by magic. Three years before this emancipation, Bowie had appeared on BBC television to publicise one of his groups by posing as President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. When it was all ‘made legal’, he could go further in his posing. His manager, Ken Pitt, wanted him to become a representative of honest, legal and decent gays. Jerry Hopkins tells of Bowie’s meeting with Pitt, who was living ‘the refined gentleman’s life in a Georgian townhouse, with one of London’s most impressive collections of Victoriana. David was drawn to the glass case full of rare books by Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. “Oh!” he cried. “You’ve got this one!” ’ Bowie did not want to pose as a respectable gay: under the new legislation it would be better to pose as a shocking and daring gay.
He was not conspicuously gay in his adolescence. The Gillmans quote a smart girl called Dana Gillespie, the daughter of a prosperous Wimpole Street radiologist: she was ‘a sensuous 14-year-old’ when she picked up Bowie at the Marquee club and was taken to his parents’ home. ‘I’d never been in a working-man’s home before,’ she says. ‘I had a really strong culture-shock. He came from a family where they spoke with an accent whereas I speak the Queen’s English.’ Bowie’s work, like Chaplin’s, seems to have been affected by this sort of girlish class-consciousness. He was drawn away from the old-fashioned Gay Scene into the novel world of the Arts Labs, where a youth could be easily bisexual. He was influenced by an American record producer, Tony Visconti, a man, say the Gillmans, of ‘discernibly Mediterranean good looks’. Ken Pitt, a Conservative Party supporter, did not like Visconti and called him a draft-dodging anarchist, but Visconti, they say, ‘denies that he was either a draft-dodger or an anarchist. “I was,” he says, “a Flower Child.” He also denies that it was ever his intention to come between David and Pitt.’ Escaping from this charged atmosphere, with Visconti conspicuously ignoring Pitt, Bowie made for an Arts Lab in Beckenham, with a girl called Mary Finnigan.
This made a change from a girl called ‘Hermione Farthingale’ (a stage name): she seems to have been rather like Dana Gillespie. She was of ‘archetypal middle-class family in the Home Counties’, say the Gillmans, and she had a strong influence on Bowie’s lyrics because her snobbish parents broke up their affair. Jerry Hopkins calls her ‘Hermoine’ and describes her as a ‘freckled, red-haired daughter of a suburban lawyer’. None of the authors breaks her cover, but all seem agreed that Bowie was better-off with Mary Finnigan, ‘a friendly 28-year-old former Fleet Street journalist and single mother of two’. She was very fond of cannabis. It was with Mary, they think, that Bowie heard ‘Space Oddity’ played during the American moon-dance in 1969. His future wife, Angela Barnett (from America), was certainly present – ‘laughing, crying and screaming,’ says Mary Finnigan: she does not think Bowie himself was there, ‘but it may be the dope,’ say the Gillmans, explaining her uncertainty.
Now Bowie entered his 21-28 period. He was no longer a South London bohemian, vaguely connected with the world of sex-’n’-drugs-’n’-rock-’n’-roll. He was a Rock Star. His life, apart from his work and productivity, disappears beneath American-style hype and all his deeds, thoughts and ‘romances’ seem to be part of his publicity. Most of the Bowie albums my children have collected come from this period, 1968 to 1975, and with them is a rock-orientated book called Bowie by Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray (Eel Pie, 1980), which is really a more useful guide to Bowie’s products than the books under review. It discusses all his records with musical details and sharp comments. It is also good visually and Bowie’s success is largely visual. It shows the cover of The man who sold the world with Bowie in a girl’s frock, looking feminine: the Gillmans discuss this cover and the embarrassment it caused the businessmen, noting that Bowie explained it as a parody of D.G. Rossetti, but they don’t reproduce it, preferring the alternative cover which Bowie disliked – a cartoon drawing by the Penge Artists’ Collective, showing Cane Hill, the hospital where his brother was incarcerated.
These eerie, decadent, style-setting songs are what Bowie may be remembered by. They are like the observations of a Martian at a village dance, quoting older songs – ‘Look at that caveman go!’ – in a funny voice, giving ‘Jean Genie’ a smell of Jean Genet, chanting to a jolly tune: ‘All your nightmares came today, and it looks as if they’re here to stay!’ His movies, photographs and record covers are as decadent, ghostly and menacing as his tunes, but no one can argue in words about the decadence of a tune: conversely, one knows that Sullivan’s tunes are smug, but can’t prove it. Bowie was posing busily in this period: he told the Melody Maker that he was gay in 1971 and his mother said: ‘I feel dreadful.’ Bowie was just off to the States and Jerry Hopkins asks: ‘Was America ready for serious androgyny?’ The Gillmans note that Gay News began publicising Bowie and that Ken Pitt was stodgily disappointed in Bowie’s way of coming out: it was vulgar, said Pitt, ‘not what I had in mind at all’.
When he was 28, Bowie became noted for his swift and stylish changes of pose and Alan Yentob made a BBC television film about him, Cracked Actor, presenting him as a man in search of his identity. Yentob told Hopkins that Bowie ‘absolutely and emphatically did not come out of the mainstream of rock and roll. He was part of the art school movement.’ That sounds as if he was talking about Bowie’s poses, but the Gillmans believe that Yentob’s film was about his soul, or his psyche: ‘it showed, all too accurately, a wan and emaciated David barely clinging to his sanity.’ As a result, the cracked actor secured a good part in a cinema film and the Gillmans, though determined to be rational, tell weird and eerie tales about the making of it. He gave himself a new image, as the ‘thin white duke’, and he began talking of Nazism, with a sort of enthusiasm, like an aesthete appreciating a crowd-poet: ‘Hitler was the first rock star.’ We cannot tell how much of this was hype, winning attention for being shocking and daring. Much the same applies to the stories of his love-affairs and the squabbling women.
The plays, films and videos in which Bowie has performed, since his 35th year, contribute to his carapace of unreality. He was not liked as Brecht’s wanton Baal, more admired as the Elephant Man. His war-film, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, was not like any other war-film: the scenes shown on pub videos presented Bowie, the prisoner-of-war, communicating with his Japanese captors in elegant mime and surrendering to an elaborate execution ritual before sending the whole thing up with a Cockney expostulation. Absolute Beginners began as a poetic fantasy about the Fifties, which the ingenious author, Colin MacInnes, had carefully disguised as a documentary about teenagers (few of whom appear in the book): when this rave-from-the-grave was exhumed as a Bowie movie of the Eighties, all the faked-up realism had disappeared. It was total fantasy, but not MacInnes’s fantasy. It was like a ballet version of a historical drama.
Jerry Hopkins quotes an appreciation of Bowie from Vanity Fair that Bowie both enjoyed and hated. A friend of his said:
It was well-written and David always admired that, you know. The writer said some nice things about David as an artist. But he also said David was some sort of cold, eerie outsider, like. Now he wanted to be Warm Willie, everybody’s teddy bear.
It rather looks as if he is stuck with his magic mask, redolent of ghost stories, vampires and diamond dogs, Martians, scary monsters and Beardsleyesque decadence. It is too late for him to become a cuddly family entertainer: for all his changes of pose, he is as type-cast as Orson Welles. The generally interesting thing about his style-setting is the influence he has had on the rock-music industry. Jerry Hopkins, an insider, takes this modern institution for granted, but the Gillmans, on the outside, have thought of some of the right questions to be asked about the divisive subject, this new culture which now has as strong an effect on our social lives as tobacco or alcohol.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.