Bowie: Loving the Alien

Bowie: Loving the Alien

by Christopher Sandford

Based on interviews with family members, colleagues, lovers, and the previously silent William Burroughs, this unsparing yet evenhanded biography guides the reader through the many personas, crises, and musical metamorphoses of David Bowie—also known as Davy Jones, the Laughing Gnome, Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, a drug-addled


Based on interviews with family members, colleagues, lovers, and the previously silent William Burroughs, this unsparing yet evenhanded biography guides the reader through the many personas, crises, and musical metamorphoses of David Bowie—also known as Davy Jones, the Laughing Gnome, Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, a drug-addled grandfather of punk, actor, art aficionado, political activist, one of rock's most resonant icons, and a totem of modern pop culture. Nowhere else is the man and musician so convincingly deconstructed and so compellingly humanized.

Editorial Reviews
It can't be an easy task to write an account of David Bowie's life; after all, his stock-in-trade has been his chameleonlike transformations from one identity to another. Imagine tackling a biography that includes Davy Jones, the Laughing Gnome, Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke. Christopher Sandford, who has previously authored biographies of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, and Kurt Cobain, knows the rock-'n'-roll terrain, and in researching Bowie's life and career, he turned to family members, colleagues, lovers, and even the previously taciturn (on the subject of Bowie, anyway) William Burroughs.
Sunday Times of London
the best [Bowie biography] so far.

Product Details

Da Capo Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.38(w) x 7.82(h) x 1.13(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Summer 1973

David Bowie was missing. Forty minutes away from his swansong as Ziggy Stardust, and he slipped through the mob into Hammersmith Broadway. He was wearing a check shirt and jeans and with his waxy, pale skin he looked like one of the teenage Bowie Boys posing hopefully at the stage door. Had anyone noticed him, they would have remembered only a bone-gaunt figure with dowdy clothes and elaborate hair, talking to a thirteen-year-old girl. No one noticed him.

    Julie Anne Paull, a fan from the East End of London, knew that Bowie was growing tired of the Ziggy character and bored with the rock scene. Yet even that paled compared to what she heard in the deserted alley behind the Broadway. Bowie was in a state of collapse, induced, in part, by his fear of `going mad'. He was bitter with anger at his manager. His marriage had gone wrong. He spoke of his homosexual affairs. According to a member of Bowie's group at the time:

I think it was coke. Cocaine and demons. I think there was definitely demon power involved. He took all that dope that would give him a low in the morning and a high at night. That's when the paranoia came out.

Whatever the cause, it would be hard to argue with Paull's verdict that `he was a man on a razor's edge', or that his reluctance to play that night would strike another fan as `the mother of a Stephen Fry-like breakdown'. It was only after a tearful, self-lacerating scene that he finally agreed to recross the road to the Odeon, where a steward could be seen rolling around in the gutter with Bowie's bodyguard, discussing his whereabouts. The second girl remembers that `David, who'd been so low, seemed to brighten' at the sight. Bowie walked straight to the back of the theatre, past a startled guard and into the building, up the backstage stairs to the loft, then out on to the balcony that looks over the street. He stood gazing silently at his fans for at least five minutes. A musician who passed by claims he saw tears in his eyes. As Bowie turned to go downstairs, he suddenly stopped short, struck by a hoarse shout from his manager of `Where's David?' According to Bowie's guitarist, his exact response to the question was to mutter, 'You tell me', before surrendering to the frantic cries from the dressing room.

    The show that followed was vintage Bowie. Rock production values, in 1973, may have been horizontal — the light show seemed to have been borrowed from some school disco, and the sound engineer achieved an authentically dreadful, Beetles-era drone — but Bowie's winning mix of kabuki and Clockwork Orange, welded to catchy suburban riffs, struck even The Times as an `orgiastic triumph'. As `Watch That Man' was followed by `All the Young Dudes', which gave way to `Oh! You Pretty Things', fans were reminded of why they liked this music in the first place: Bowie, it seemed, was incapable of writing a tune that didn't stick. It didn't hurt that his band — three pub rockers from Hull squeezed into ship's cabin boys' breeches and tunics with bellbottom sleeves — backed him beautifully. Mick Ronson made a particularly happy match, his Jeff Beck-style leads meshing with Bowie's dramatic blurting. The long, power-chord solo in `Moonage Daydream' came across not as swaggering but as genuine give-and-take. It was striking, as Bowie returned from the dressing room in a red-and-green jumpsuit and red platform boots, that, in a colleague's words, `he was having as much fun as Bette Midler'. He didn't know that, an hour earlier, Bowie had been crying on a teenage girl's shoulder and refusing to sing.

    `Space Oddity' followed, a canny mix of semi-acoustic folk and futuristic kitsch. Bowie's finest moment, it blueprinted his whole later image, even while he fretted in and out of Ziggy Stardust. After a merely melodramatic `My Death', Bowie was back in an off-the-shoulder wool catsuit for `Cracked Actor', swooning to the floor under the nasally electric guitar and indulging in the same kind of theatrical, rock-star vanity the song was making fun of. The man of paradox had been obvious since his first tentative efforts at writing ten years before. But fame enormously magnified and engrained the oddities that were evident in Bowie's character from the earliest professional days. There was the folk singer and Bob Dylan manque with a love for abrasively noisy, guitar-heavy rock. There was the androgynous beauty with, as his ex-wife writes, `the morals of a bisexual alley-cat', who was strangely passive in bed. He had the ambition to shock and outrage as when he knelt before Ronson, seized his thighs and sucked at the strings of his guitar — but could still insist in 1995, `I was a very shy boy.'

    All of these paradoxes were there when Bowie, now wearing a sheer black vest, black satin trousers and a diamond earring the size of a chandelier, tore through an anthemic version of `White Light, White Heat'. At that point the band left the stage. After passing around a cigarette in the gloom behind the drum kit, Bowie turned to his old friend John Hutchinson, added to the group on twelve-string guitar.

    `Don't start the encore yet,' he told him. `I've got something to say.'

    A white spot played on Bowie as he walked to the microphone. He stood gaping into the damp, upturned faces in front of him, knowing, he later said, that he had to make contact `soul to soul'.

    `Yeah!' he shouted into the mike.

    `Bowie ... Bowie,' chanted the fans.

    `Everyone,' he panted, `this has been ... the greatest tour of our lives ... Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain the longest, because not only is it ... not only is it the last show of the tour ... it's the last show we'll ever do.'

    Then Bowie nodded to Hutchinson, publicly sacked in front of an audience of thousands, to start the last number.

There were different views and different explanations of Bowie's retirement. To some, it was a strategy of Byzantine cunning. Bowie's manager, it later emerged, had his own reasons for withdrawing his star product. There were complicated discussions with a record label and a publishing company. Advance negotiations for an American arena tour had broken down acrimoniously. There were others who saw it as a general disintegration of Bowie's personality. To Roy Carr in New Musical Express he was `copping out ... trotting out his ego ... an actor playing at being a star'. Bowie, according to this reading, had increasingly become a caricature of himself. The tricks and stagecraft that once helped him stand out from the herd of singers equally talented but far less colourful had become a curse. David Bowie the icon had overtaken David Bowie the musician. To Julie Anne Paull, who talked her way backstage after the show, Bowie complained about his audience — `stupid little kids' — and being ill-treated by what he later described as his `staff'. This rankled and dramatized his already strong tendency to see himself beset by enemies.

    What followed — furious, pent-up and at times psychotic — revealed in five minutes why Bowie in the past had been so intent on never losing his temper: he had a deadly fear of what might happen if he did. When Paull left the dressing room he slumped forward on to his vanity table and cried. Then Bowie went on the rampage. The table with its wine bottle and flowers, the walls, chairs, lamp and windows were all kicked and spat on. But it was against himself, finally, rather than his fans or staff, that Bowie turned. When he emerged it was noticed that, as well as his bloodshot eyes, he was scratched about his neck and face and sported a red bruise the size of an apple on his cheek. The violence showed again the volatile, nervy personality, but this time it was followed by a reversal that shocked everyone who did not know how habitually with Bowie fire gave way to ice.

    While not only the musical and heavyweight press but his own colleagues began to ponder the mystery of Bowie's retirement, a celebratory party took place at the Cafe Royal. At some stage in the evening John Hutchinson found himself dancing with Nina Van Pallandt. As they passed by a buffet table groaning with luxury, Hutchinson became aware of a satin-suited figure gliding towards them. `David looked over,' he remembers, `said, "All right?", nodded, and then waltzed off.

    `That nod was when I knew it was all over.'

Winter 1995

Twenty-two years ago, David Bowie had said he would never do another tour. This is it.

    Bowie and his opening act, Nine Inch Nails, settle for the fate of co-headliners. The strategy may make more sense to them than to their audiences: some in suits and ties, others who chart NIN's progress via a parade of torn T-shirts. The two camps mingle uneasily in the frigid vat of the Tacoma Dome. The older crowd, men and women in their forties, sit, belted and shivering, clutching their opera glasses. In the mid-distance a mob dances itself dizzy and rushes the stage. After their idols leave, a few thousand NIN fans also make their way out. Respectful applause greets the slender pale figure who lopes unannounced on stage.

    At first glance he looks miraculously unchanged. Bowie's weight, as he approaches fifty, has been gradually falling until, reed-thin, gaunt about the cheeks, with a shock of spiked hair, and clad in baggy, tie-dyed work clothes, he seems ghostly and lost and forbidding. He wears a slender silver crucifix and a wedding ring. The middle two fingernails of his left hand are painted black. The stage decor is kept to a minimum — a barefloored room hung with mannequins and torn window blinds, lit by klieg lights, like a Hollywood idea of an artist's garret. An illuminated sign reads STRANGE HAND NOISE. Later in the set Bowie will sing sitting slumped at a kitchen table while smoke jets pour on him from above.

    The first number, played at ear-ringing volume, is `Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)'. Raucous in the best sense of the word, the song ends with Bowie's cryptic announcement, `Never, never tell the truth,' and the dreaded words, `Here's one off the new album.' The next hour is a virtual recital of Outside. Somewhere in the jumble of pneumatic guitars, pounding drums and lyrics about an `art-ritual' fin de siecle murder, pop songs signal wildly to be let out. When Bowie covers his twenty-five-year-old `Andy Warhol', a sense of relief from the furiously dispatched salvo of tales of slaughter and dismemberment fills the upper tiers: here is a tune you can hum. As though embarrassed, Bowie sings in a gruff cockney accent and skewers the fans' ovation with a wry `Ta.'

    Can this really be the man who once performed in a dress? One of Bowie's achievements has been the distance his music goes both forward and back, linking folk with grunge, the fifties and the nineties. Now that connection seems to have been broken. `Warhol' aside, Bowie's repertoire is relentlessly modern. Dim frowns greet the stripped-down sound and unheard cuts from Outside. Even Bowie has to use a lyric sheet for the words to one song. On `The Man Who Sold the World' he stoops to imitating his imitators, revamping the tune which Nirvana brought to its own fans on Unplugged. `Thru' These Architects Eyes' follows — another slab of brooding melodrama, the band creating a downbeat mood not even a storming `Night Flights' can lift. This is Bowie pleasing himself, not the audience. The mute applause, typically, emboldens him. Pressure brings out his intransigence. As another barrage starts up, Bowie seems not so much to be ignoring his past as wilfully killing it. Somewhere in the solid wall of art-noise, a single brick survives from the forgotten night in Hammersmith: Bowie's old pianist Mike Garson, looking vaguely bemused in his bulging shirt and black hat, still sounding exactly as he did on Aladdin Sane.

    The next three numbers need no introduction. Bowie sings a gut-wrenching `Under Pressure', stalking the stage like a caged animal, then `Jump They Say' and `Look back in Anger'. The final half-hour is a hoarse medley of mid-career classics. Bowie may have disowned the user-friendly Let's Dance-era hits, but these are songs that share that album's virtues: the fat, rocking guitar and breakneck riffs, the noise, energy and quirky, free-form verses wrapped around danceable choruses. In the last number Bowie rocks to and fro, a curious way of swaying on the balls of his feet. On the final bar he flings out his arms and drops into a Ziggy-like pose. He gives an extravagant bow. Rock may have produced its share of ironies, but none as curious as this — a forty-eight-year-old millionaire from the London suburbs, dressed like a mechanic, suspended under a huge green-and-yellow scroll, being wildly applauded for singing songs about mutilation.

    Bowie, swaddled like a boxer, disappears down a flight of steps to his trailer, An assistant of gigantic proportion, whose jacket bulges significantly by one armpit, hands him a lit cigarette and a glass of wine. It was one of the legends of his Ziggy persona that Bowie enjoyed total privacy when relaxing backstage, and many were the rumours swirling around his dressing room door. Now a few nervous, Nosferatu-pale VIPs are nudged into a holding area inside the compound gate. `Who's Kingsley Amis?' asks one epicene man, scanning a rain-soaked newspaper. `Whoever he is, he's dead.' After twenty minutes of monumental patience, looking nonchalant as they remove the Outside posters nailed to the walls, the VIPs are rewarded by a stir at the trailer door. Two assistants walk down the steps. Behind them comes Bowie. Up close you notice, again, the wolfs teeth and the matter of his left eye. With his heavy mascara and his milk-pale skin he almost exactly resembles an animal, a favourite of his family's which they could never see without recalling the likeness — a panda. Bowie is wearing a pair of jeans that sag away from his nonexistent waist and a black leather jacket that seems to swamp him. He talks in a voice quite unlike that he uses on stage.

    `Excuse me,' he says as he coughs behind a hand.

    `David ... That was great, really ... wonderful.'

    `Thank you.'

    `Loved it.'


    `You know, Dave, there's this bookish strain in some of your songs.'

    `Oh yes, there is. I'm glad you realized it. There is.'

    `Sort of like William Burroughs.'

    `More like that other writer,' someone says. `You know. Amis.'

    A pause; of definite awkwardness.

    `Amis, eh?'

    `You know — Lord Jim.'

    `It's sweet of you,' says Bowie, `to come see an old hack like me on a wet Tuesday night. Good God,' he lowers his voice to mutter, `Lord Jim.' On cue, the black-rimmed eyes of one of the handlers turn towards a row of lights in the rain. `If you'll brook me now, a car should be waiting.'

    An accurate prognosis. With a flip of his hand, Bowie drops into a white boatlike limousine which coasts off on a sea of spray and dust. Its licence plate reads simply: CHOICE ONE.

Meet the Author

Christopher Sandford, the biographer of Mick Jagger, Kurt Cobain, and Sting, is also the author of Bowie: Loving the Alien and Clapton: Edge of Darkness. He has reviewed and written about rock music for more than twenty years, for theTimes of London and other publications, and his books have been published in more than a dozen countries.

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