David Bowie: Starman

David Bowie: Starman

by Paul Trynka


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"Ziggy Stardust," "Changes," Under Pressure," "Let's Dance," "Fame," "Heroes," and of course, "Starman." These are the classic songs of David Bowie, the artist whose personas are indelibly etched in our pop consciousness alongside his music. He wrote and recorded with everyone from Iggy Pop to Freddie Mercury to John Lennon, sold 136 million albums, has one of the truly great voices, and influenced bands as wide-ranging as Nirvana and Franz Ferdinand.

Paul Trynka illuminates Bowie's seemingly contradictory life and his many reinventions as an artist, offering over 300 new interviews with everyone from classmates to managers to lovers. He reveals Bowie's broad influence on the entertainment world, from movie star to modern-day icon, trend-setter to musical innovator. This book will define Bowie for years to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316032254
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 07/18/2011
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 328,090
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Paul Trynka was formerly the editor of Mojo magazine (1996-2003). He has also been the editorial director of  Q magazine, launch editor of  The Guitar Magazine, and editor-in-chief of New Projects at Emap. He is the author of  Iggy Pop (Broadway 2007),  Portrait of the Blues, and  Denim, a history of the fabric. He lives in Greenwich, London.

Read an Excerpt

David Bowie: Starman

By Trynka, Paul

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2011 Trynka, Paul
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316032254


Genius Steals

Thursday evening, seven o’clock; decadence is about to arrive in five million living rooms. Neatly suited dads are leaning back in the comfiest chairs, mums in their aprons are clearing away the dishes, and the kids, still in school shirts and trousers, are clustered around TVs for their most sacred weekly ritual.

The members of the tiny studio audience, milling around in tank tops and dresses, clap politely as he strums out two minor chords on his blue twelve-string guitar. The camera cuts from his hands to his face, catching the barest hint of a smirk, like a child hoping to get away with something naughty. But then as his friends Trevor, Woody, and Mick Ronson clatter into action with a rollicking drumroll and throaty guitar, the camera pulls back and David Bowie meets its gaze unflinchingly. His look is lascivious, amused; as an audience of excited teens and outraged parents struggle to take in the quilted multicolored jumpsuit, the luxuriant carrottop hairdo, the spiky teeth, and those sparkling, mascaraed come-to-bed eyes, he sings us through an arresting succession of images: radios, aliens, “get-it-on rock ’n’ roll.” The audience is still grappling with this bizarre spectacle as a staccato guitar rings out a Morse code warning and then, all too suddenly, we’re into the chorus.

From the disturbingly new, we shift to the reassuringly familiar; as he croons out “There’s a starman,” his voice leaps up an octave. It’s an ancient Tin Pan Alley songwriter’s trick, signaling a release, a climax, and as we hear of the friendly alien waiting in the sky, the audience suddenly recognizes a tune, and a message, lifted openly, outrageously, from “Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland’s escapist, Technicolor wartime anthem. It’s simple, sing-along, comforting territory and lasts just four bars before David Bowie makes his bid for immortality, less than sixty seconds after his face appeared on Top of the Pops, the BBC’s family-friendly music program. He lifts his slim, elegant hand to the side of his face as the platinum-haired Mick Ronson joins him at the microphone—then casually, elegantly, he places his arm around the guitarist’s neck and pulls him lovingly toward him. There’s the same octave leap as he sings “starman” again—this time, it doesn’t suggest escaping the bounds of Earth; it symbolizes escaping the bounds of sexuality.

The fifteen-million-strong audience struggles to absorb this exotic, pansexual creature; in countless households, the kids are entranced in their thousands as parents sneer, shout, or walk out of the room. But even as the kids wonder how to react, there’s another stylistic swerve; with the words “let the children boogie,” David Bowie and the Spiders break into an unashamed T. Rex boogie rhythm. For thousands of teenagers, there was no hesitation; those ninety seconds on a sunny early evening in September 1972 would change the course of their lives. Up to this point, pop music had been mainly about belonging, about identification with their peers. This music, carefully choreographed in a dank basement under a South London escort agency, was a spectacle of not-belonging. For scattered isolated kids around the UK, and soon on the American East Coast, and then on the West Coast, this was their day. The day of the outsider.

IN the weeks that followed, it became obvious that these three minutes had put a rocket under the career of a man all too recently tagged as a one-hit wonder. Most people who knew him were delighted, but there were hints of suspicion. “Hip Vera Lynn,” one cynical friend called it in a pointed reference to “The White Cliffs of Dover,” the huge wartime hit that had also ripped off Judy Garland’s best-known song; this was too knowing. A few weeks later, to emphasize the point, David started singing “somewhere over the rainbow” over the “Starman” chorus—as if to prove Pablo Picasso’s maxim that “talent borrows, genius steals.”

And steal he had—with a clear-eyed effrontery as shocking as the lifted melodies. The way he collaged several old tunes into a new song was a musical tradition as old as the hills, one still maintained by David’s old-school showbiz friends, like Lionel Bart, the Oliver! writer and musical kleptomaniac. Yet showing the joins brazenly, like the elevator shafts of the Pompidou Centre or the stock photos appropriated by Andy Warhol, was a new trick, a postmodernism that was just as unsettling as the postsexualism Bowie had shown off with that arm lovingly curled over Mick Ronson’s shoulder. Rock and roll was a visceral medium, born out of the joy and anguish sculpted into the first electric blues in the turmoil of postwar America. Was it now just an art game? Was the carrot-haired Ziggy, potent symbol of otherness, just an intellectual pose?

When David Bowie made his mark so elegantly, so extravagantly, that night on Top of the Pops in a thrilling performance that set the seventies as a decade distinct from the sixties, every one of those contradictions was obvious—in fact, they added a delicious tension. In the following months and years—as he dumped the band that had shaped his music; when his much-touted influence Iggy Pop, the man who’d inspired Ziggy, dismissed him as a “fuckin’ carrot-top” who had exploited and then sabotaged him; when David himself publicly moaned that his gay persona had damaged his career in the United States—those contradictions became more obvious still.

So was David Bowie truly an outsider, or was he a showbiz pro exploiting outsiders, like a psychic vampire? Was he really a starman, or was it all cheap music-hall tinsel and glitter? Was he gay, or was it all a mask? There was evidence aplenty for both. And that evidence accumulated as his career continued, as fans witnessed, wide-mouthed, momentous shows like his wired, fractured appearance on Dick Cavett and his twitchy but charming camaraderie on Soul Train. How much of this bizarre behavior was a performance, a carefully choreographed sequence?

In the subsequent years, David Bowie, and those around him, would struggle to answer this question. He’d emerged from a showbiz tradition propelled by youthful ambition, his main talent that of “repositioning the brand,” as one friend put it; that calculation, that “executive ability,” as Iggy Pop described it, marked him as the very antithesis of instinctive rock-and-roll heroes like Elvis Presley. Yet the actions that signaled the death of rock and roll announced a rebirth too. Maybe this wasn’t rock and roll like Elvis had made rock and roll, but it led the way to where rock and roll would go. Successors like Prince and Madonna, Bono and Lady Gaga—each seized on “repositioning the brand” as a set-piece example of how to avoid artistic culs-de-sac like the one that had imprisoned Elvis. For Bowie himself, though, each brand renewal, each metamorphosis, would come at a cost.

Inevitably, as David Bowie’s career moved ever onward, generations of fans wondered what lay behind those masks. Over the years, some accounts have represented him as a flint-hearted rip-off merchant; others have portrayed him as a natural-born genius with some minor character flaws. Yet as the hundreds of friends, lovers, and fellow musicians who speak within the following pages attest, the truth is far more intriguing.

The truth is, David Bowie, behind the glitter and showmanship, didn’t just change himself on the outside; he changed himself on the inside as well. Since Dr. Faustus sold his soul, since Robert Johnson found himself at the crossroads, artists and musicians have struggled to transcend the talents they were born with. David Bowie, a youth with ambition and more charm than talent, seemed to achieve that magical alchemy: he transformed himself, and his destiny.


I Hope I Make It on My Own


When I’m Five

Everything seemed gray. We wore short gray flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, gray socks, and gray shirts. The roads were gray, the prefabs were gray, and there were still quite a few bomb sites around in 1956—these also seemed to be made of gray rubble.

—Peter Prickett

IT WAS A COLD, wet November in 1991, like the cold, wet Novembers of his childhood, when David Bowie asked his driver to take the scenic route to the Brixton Academy. The smoke-filled tour bus pulled slowly through Stansfield Road, just a few hundred yards from the venue, paused briefly outside a large, anonymous three-story Victorian house, and then moved on.

Bowie had been chatty, open, almost surprisingly vulnerable in the past twelve weeks, but he remained silent for a few minutes as he gazed out the window. Then he turned around, and guitarist Eric Schermerhorn, sitting next to him, could see tears trickling down his employer’s cheeks. “It’s a miracle,” David Bowie murmured. He was unashamed of his vulnerability. “I probably should have been an accountant. I don’t know how this all happened.”

For Schermerhorn, who’d witnessed Bowie’s showmanship and poise close up, the mental image of David Robert Jones inspecting a company spreadsheet was ludicrous. And the doubt David had expressed to Schermerhorn a few days before—that he didn’t even know if he could sing—was even more bizarre; Schermerhorn had seen the man’s almost mystical ability to hold a show together and dominate a crowd. Over the forthcoming months, Schermerhorn would learn from Bowie’s friends and from his own observations about the man’s organization, his “executive abilities,” his talent for working the system. Yet here he was, surveying the scene of his childhood, convinced this was some kind of accident. The idea was ridiculous. Hadn’t someone so eminently glamorous always been fated to be a star?

DAVID Bowie has described himself as a “Brixton boy” more than once. Although his stay there was brief, it’s an apt term. Brixton in January of 1947 was a unique location, the cultural focus of South London, blessed with its own racy glamour, battered but unbowed by the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s terror weapons, whose destruction was visible wherever you walked.

It was natural that David’s father, Haywood Stenton Jones, should gravitate toward Brixton, for its vaudeville traditions matched his own fantasies. Born in Doncaster on November 21, 1912, and brought up in the picturesque Yorkshire brewery town of Tadcaster, he had a tough childhood: His own father had died in the First World War, and his mother soon afterward. Raised by the local council and by an aunt, Haywood Jones came into an inheritance from the family footwear business when he was eighteen. “So he bought a theatre troupe. What a wise idea!” David recounted years later. The enterprise lost Haywood much of his fortune, and he invested what was left in a London West End nightclub that catered to boxers and other exotic characters; during this short-lived venture, he also acquired a wife, pianist Hilda Sullivan. When the nightclub burned up most of his remaining cash, Haywood developed a stomach ulcer. The idea of working for a children’s charity came to him in a dream; it was both an escape route from his own troubles and a way of helping kids who’d suffered fractured childhoods like his own. In September of 1935 he started work at Dr. Barnardo’s at Stepney Causeway, an imposing, Gothic-style complex of buildings in the heart of London’s East End that had provided a refuge for homeless children since the 1870s.

When the Second World War broke out, Haywood was among the first to enlist; he served with the Royal Fusiliers, who fought in France, North Africa, and Europe. When he returned to a battered but victorious London in October of 1945, Haywood rejoined Barnardo’s as general superintendent to the chief of staff. Like many marriages during the war, Haywood’s didn’t last; it was doubtless damaged by his affair with a nurse, which produced a child, Annette, born in 1941.

Haywood met Peggy Burns, a waitress at the Ritz Cinema, on a visit to a Barnardo’s children’s home at Tunbridge Wells soon after he returned, and he married Peggy when his divorce from Hilda came through, eight months after the birth of his second child. David Robert Jones was born at the family’s new home at 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, on January 8, 1947.

In that immediate postwar period, Brixton was cold, damp, soot blackened, scarred by bomb damage, but still bustling. Its prewar raciness and music-hall glamour were only enhanced by its recent history, and in 1947, Brixton looked especially—to use one of David’s favorite words—dystopian. This part of South London had been judged expendable in the Second World War: Churchill’s spymasters had manipulated press reports of where Hitler’s futuristic V-1 flying bombs were landing, ensuring that the vengeance weapons fell short and hit South London rather than the wealthy West End. More than forty of the pioneering cruise missiles smashed into Brixton and Lambeth—entire streets both behind and in front of the Joneses’ house were flattened. Most of the rubble had been cleared away by 1947, but the area retained its foreboding gap-toothed look for decades.

David’s first winter was grim. Britain in late 1947 was grim. The Second World War had invigorated American capitalism but had left Britain tired—and near broke. There were no streetlights; there was no coal; gas supplies were low, and ration cards were still needed to buy linen, fuel, “economy” suits, eggs, and the scraggy bits of Argentinean beef that were available only intermittently. Christopher Isherwood, the writer who would one day advise David to move to Berlin, visited London that year and was shocked by its shabbiness. “London is a dying city,” one Londoner said, counseling him not to return.

For parents, life was hard. Yet for the children who scampered around this urban wilderness, it was a wonderland: the empty, bomb-damaged houses were playgrounds and museums, full of intriguing treasures abandoned by long-vanished tenants.

In later years, many of Peggy Burns’s friends would notice her contempt for the left-wing Labour Party, yet given what life was like that winter, her attitude was understandable. The British had been exhausted by the war, but peace had brought no improvement in living standards. In Brixton it was impossible to find soap; the local Woolworth’s was lit by candles; constant scouring of the local shops was required to find terry toweling for nappies; and at the end of February the Labour government introduced power rationing, with homes limited to five hours of electricity a day. During that same time, Haywood Jones and all of the Barnardo’s organization wrestled with the problem of thousands of children displaced by the war.

David loved his father—to this day he wears a gold cross Haywood gave him when he was in his teens—but in 2002, when asked about his relationship with his mother, he quoted Philip Larkin’s famously bleak “This Be the Verse,” the poem that starts “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” The occasion was an informal live chat with interviewer Michael Parkinson; the line drew laughter, as had many of David’s quips, but as David went on to quote the remaining lines about misery deepening like a coastal shelf, the titters gave way to uncomfortable silence.

The madness of Peggy Burns’s family would one day become part of the Bowie legend, but as far as the young David Jones was concerned, it was coldness, a simple lack of emotion, that characterized his relationship with his mum. Peggy’s sister Pat said of their mother, Margaret Mary Burns, née Heaton, that “she was a cold woman. There was not a lot of love around,” and Peggy seems to have inherited that coldness. Yet according to family lore, in her youth Peggy was good with children, working as a nanny before falling in love with the handsome Jack Isaac Rosenberg, son of a wealthy Jewish furrier. Rosenberg promised to marry Peggy but disappeared before the birth of their son, David’s half brother, Terence Guy Adair Burns, on November 5, 1937.

There were darker shadows in Peggy’s past too. In 1986 David’s aunt Pat—“the frightful aunt,” as he later termed her—detailed the troubled history of the Burns family. Peggy’s siblings included three sisters—Nora, Una, and Vivienne—who, according to Pat, suffered from varying degrees of mental instability, what one writer termed the Burns “family affliction.” This history later inspired the theory that David Jones was forced to construct alter egos to distance himself from the madness within. Ken Pitt, David’s manager, knew David, Peggy, and Pat as well as anyone and describes this theory as “unconvincing.” Although David would later gleefully celebrate his family, announcing “most of them are nutty—in, just out of, or going into an institution,” most people considered Haywood friendly and sincere and found Peggy talkative with many traces of her former vivaciousness once you got to know her.

Peggy’s second child, Myra Ann, the result of another wartime romance, was born in August of 1941. The child was given up for adoption, but by the time Peggy met Haywood, she was ready to settle down to a conventional life, agreeing to marry the Yorkshireman on the condition he’d accept Terence as his son. Hence, for the first nine years of his life, David had an elder brother to snuggle up to, and when Terry left home in 1956 to join the air force, he remained the object of David’s hero worship. The messy, confused nature of the Jones household was hardly unusual—illegitimate births had soared in wartime Britain (some historians blame a shortage of rubber and a subsequent fall in condom production). David’s troubled relationship with his mother echoed those of contemporaries such as John Lennon and Eric Clapton, both of whom were raised in households that today would have a social worker knocking on the door.

As David grew into a toddler, austerity kept its tight grip, but glimmers of hope started to appear in 1953, a year treasured by many kids because it marked an end to sweets rationing as well as the advent of television. Haywood Jones was one of thousands who bought new sets so their families could watch the coronation of the glamorous young Queen Elizabeth. Just a few weeks later, the six-year-old David sneaked downstairs for another TV landmark: The Quatermass Experiment, the pioneering BBC science fiction series that had all of Britain glued to the screen. This “tremendous series” would leave its mark on David, who remembers how he’d watch each Saturday night “from behind the sofa when my parents had thought I had gone to bed. After each episode I would tip-toe back to my bedroom rigid with fear, so powerful did the action seem.” The program sparked a lifelong fascination with science fiction and—by way of its theme tune, the dark, sinister “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets—the emotional effects of music.

Brixton was the perfect breeding ground for a future Ziggy Stardust: Waterloo, the mecca of music-hall artists for a century or more, was just down the road, while Brixton’s own Empress Theatre hosted Tony Hancock, Laurel and Hardy, and countless other variety stars. “Show-business people were scattered all the way from Kennington to Streatham,” says David’s near neighbor photographer Val Wilmer; many locals still talked of Charlie Chaplin, who had grown up just north of Brixton. Sharon Osbourne, five years younger than David, lived on the other side of Brixton Road with her father, Don Arden, a failed nightclub singer and comedian, and she remembers being surrounded by “all the vaudeville artists.” Kids could look out and see comedians chatting in the corner shop or a racy character in a cheap suit and hat on his way to or from a show carrying a case that might contain a ventriloquist’s dummy, a banjo, or a set of knives for his knife-throwing act.

David’s home at 40 Stansfield Road was a typical roomy, three-story Victorian house shared, during most of their eight years in Brixton, with two other families. In later years, with conventional rock-star spin, David Bowie described his Brixton youth as if it were a walk on the wild side, with gangs roaming the streets. The local kids did indeed wander around the area freely, but their prey was butterflies, tadpoles, and other urban wildlife. “It was unbelievable,” says David’s neighbor and schoolmate Sue Larner, “there were these huge spaces from the bomb sites, and ruined houses, which seemed like mountains to us, covered in buddleia: they were our playgrounds.” Derelict buildings at the bottom of Stansfield Road were sinister, yet fragrant—kids scampered around the sweet-smelling blooms with butterfly nets, for there were more butterflies around then than before or since, while the many pools and ponds in South London’s abandoned bomb sites were packed with tadpoles and newts. Rats also meandered casually through the abandoned buildings, and local kids still remember the sound of mice scurrying around the drafty, uncarpeted Victorian houses; at night, the children clutched hot water bottles for warmth and comfort.

In those early years, the tiny Jones family kept themselves to themselves. Most local kids played out on the street, but David generally remained with his mum, and Haywood spent his days at Stepney. In 1951, David started at the Stockwell Infants School, three minutes’ walk away on Stockwell Road, one of Brixton’s main streets. He remembers wetting his pants on the first day; happily, friendly milk lady Bertha Douglas kept a supply of clean knickers for such common emergencies. The school’s lofty Victorian building looked severe and had a characteristic aroma of disinfectant and rubber shoes, but the staff was mostly loving and kind: “It was a sweet, friendly school, small and cozy,” remembers schoolmate Suzanne Liritis. “The teachers used to tell us things like ‘You’re special, Jesus loves you,’ ” says her friend Susan Larner.

Behind the Victorian primness, things were racier than they seemed. The headmistress, Miss Douglas, was tall and thin with severe scraped-back gray hair. This formidable woman lived with Miss Justin, who taught in the junior school. Only later did Sue and her friends conclude “they were obviously a sweet lesbian couple.” If any parents suspected a relationship, they were unconcerned, for as Larner points out, “Lots of women had lost their beaus in the war.” They took the conventional British attitude: exotic sexuality was fine, as long as it was kept behind closed doors. Just don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses, as the saying went.

Most of the families around Stansfield Road were large, and kids in the neighborhood were almost invariably accompanied by their brothers and sisters. Maybe that’s the reason that few of them remember David. Appropriately enough, one of the only children who did notice him, Sue Larner, now a sculptor, happened to register the nice-looking, well-scrubbed boy’s skill at art: “None of us had much to do with boys, but I do remember showing him a few tricks on the drawing board—and he showed me even more. He showed me how to draw a woman’s bonnet, with the neck, without having to draw a face first. He was good.”

On weekends, or after school, the five-year-old David’s universe was bounded by the bomb sites on Chantrey Road and the far side of Stockwell Road, where all kids played; turning left on Stockwell Road, he’d immediately reach the school playground; turning right, he’d reach two sweetshops, the nearest overseen by a kindly gay gentleman. Farther down Stockwell Road was the Astoria; later a famed rock venue—the Academy—whose attractions would include David Bowie, in the fifties it was still a thriving local cinema, with morning matinees featuring cowboy movies, Zorro, and Laurel and Hardy. On the way to the cinema there was a bookshop that spilled out onto the pavement, filled with comics and kids’ books. There was a large dairy, with horse-drawn carts, but the main feature that dominated Stockwell Road was Pride and Clarke’s, a celebrated motorbike and car showroom that sprawled across a row of maroon-painted buildings, later immortalized in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. This was where David, the future car geek, could ogle BSAs, Rileys, and other legendary British bikes and cars.

There was another intrinsic part of Brixton’s appeal: the sound of calypso and the smell of curried goat, brought by the new generations of Caribbean immigrants arriving in the area. But these were things David would have gotten only a whiff of, for in 1954, Haywood Jones and family packed up and moved to suburbia.

The beloved poet laureate John Betjeman described the suburbs as the home of “a new kind of citizen,” and as proof of its futurism, David’s new hometown, Bromley, was the birthplace of H. G. Wells. From the fifties onward, the suburbs were an object of both horror and aspiration—the upper classes despised the neat, mock-Tudor houses, while the middle classes flocked to the neatly manicured streets. Today, like many English market towns, Bromley is bland and overrun by chain stores—Wells’s birthplace is now a Primark clothing outlet. But in the fifties it was a place in flux, a short train ride from London but friendly and small scale: “It was actually quite charming,” says David’s boyhood friend Geoff MacCormack, “even soulful.”

The move to Bromley marked Haywood’s promotion from board secretary to public relations officer. Haywood’s colleagues regarded him as “unassuming but cheerful—good company.” His new home was a small but neat Edwardian terraced house in Plaistow Grove, a cul-de-sac near the railway line; although unthinkably cramped by American standards, it was all their own, perfectly in keeping with the family’s modestly respectable status.

Parts of Bromley were middle-class enclaves, 1930s fake-Tudor houses with leaded windows to proclaim their superior status, but poverty was never far away. Children and their parents were encouraged to save six cents a week in the Burnt Ash Boot Club to help them buy adequate footwear, and there were plenty of Dickensian sights. A rag-and-bone man walked the streets uttering the “Any old iron” cry familiar from Victorian times. Several roads still had gas lighting, and in most parts of Bromley there was hardly a car to be seen parked at the curb. United Dairies, which had a yard behind the Burnt Ash School, still used horses to deliver milk, left on everybody’s doorstep each morning. Even in the 1950s, electricity supplies were erratic; radios and record players were usually plugged into the light sockets in the ceilings, while electric clocks often slowed down in the afternoon, the time of heavy demand, then sped up again at night. Few people owned phones—the Joneses were an exception.

David joined Burnt Ash School a couple of years after most of the other kids and didn’t particularly stand out during the first few terms. But with his fine, perhaps slightly feminine features, he was a good-looking boy—a fact his female classmates noticed later. Within a year or so David was part of a small gang of schoolmates. This included Dudley Chapman and John Barrance, boys who lived nearby and were invited to David’s eighth birthday party. Even at this age, many kids noted the cramped interior of the Joneses’ modest two-up, two-down house. Eight-year-old John Barrance thought the family seemed restrained, quiet—“They were perfectly pleasant, but I think they had a ‘don’t touch this, don’t touch that’ attitude.” David’s friend Max Batten shared more easygoing good times with him, enjoying lollipops and chatting with Mrs. Jones; one memorable afternoon, he and David sneaked upstairs at Plaistow Grove, unwrapped Haywood’s service revolver, and played with it furtively before carefully replacing it in the drawer where it had been concealed.

Though few of his contemporaries considered David’s childhood anything out of the ordinary, in later years, it would be portrayed as dysfunctional—mostly by David himself, who, in the mid-1970s, when he was in his most flamboyantly deranged phase, loved to proclaim “everyone finds empathy in a nutty family.” Peggy in particular was singled out as the perfect example of repression and eccentricity, but the most damning recollection of others is that she was a snob; in general, only the middle-class kids were treated to cups of tea at Plaistow Grove, and David seemed to learn which of his friends could be ushered in the front door and which ones should wait at the garden gate. In fairness, it’s possible Peggy simply preferred boys who, like David, were trained to say “please” and “thank you.” Well-brought-up Yorkshire lad John Hutchinson, who enjoyed sitting in the back room with its cozy fireplace and photos on the mantelpiece, maintains that “she was nice,” remembering how in future years she would knit outfits for his young son, Christian. Some of the tensions between Peggy and David were simply due, says Hutchinson, to the generational shift that would soon grip the country, the advent of the teenager, and the fact that, as he puts it, “It became cool to put down your parents.” In future years, Peggy’s sister Pat bore witness to other tensions within the family. When the family first moved to Bromley, Terry apparently stayed behind in Brixton, which was thought to be more convenient for his job as a clerk in Southwark. Later he joined David, Peggy, and Haywood at Plaistow Grove, but his stay there was brief, and he left for National Service in 1955. Not one of David’s friends remember seeing Terry at the Joneses’ house. If parents “fuck you up,” as Philip Larkin put it, Terry undoubtedly suffered more than his brother.

Peggy’s friend Aubrey Goodchild maintains that David’s mum was “good company. Forthright, though. And conservative in her politics.” And many kids shared the same frustrations as David. Compared to America, with its comics and consumer booms, Britain was staid, and its kids felt suffocated. “We were shabby,” says Bromley schoolgirl Dorothy Bass. “Everything seemed gray,” remembers another contemporary, Peter Prickett. “We wore short gray flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, gray socks, and gray shirts. The roads were gray, the prefabs were gray, and there were still quite a few bomb sites around in 1956—these also seemed to be made of gray rubble.” Life was predictable, defined by rituals. Some of the routines were oddly comforting, like the distributing of tiny glass bottles of free milk at school every morning at eleven, the playing of the national anthem on BBC radio and TV before they closed down for the night, and David’s volunteer school routine, putting up the climbing ropes in the playground each morning.

For its time, Burnt Ash was a modern school. It emphasized the arts, particularly in the form of music and movement classes, during which the pupils were encouraged to express themselves and dance around in their underwear (no one owned any gym clothes). In other respects it followed 1950s norms: a strict uniform policy, formal assemblies with hymns, and the cane for misbehaving boys.

Headmaster George Lloyd was, as one pupil puts it, “interesting.” Slightly portly and jolly, he gave classes in music and reading, individually tutoring his pupils. He was “gentle,” affectionate with the children, and often sat alongside the boys as they read, putting his arm around favored pupils. There were a few boys for whom he seemed to have real affection, “and one of them,” says a schoolmate, “was David. He definitely did like David.”

At ten or eleven, David had fine, almost elfin features; his hair was cut in bangs, he was average in height, and slightly skinny. But there was an energy and enthusiasm about him that entranced George Lloyd and others, the beginnings of his knack for charming people. As early as his teens, he had developed a talent for using charm “as a weapon,” says a later confidant, writer Charles Shaar Murray. “Even if you’d fallen out, when you met David again you’d be convinced within five minutes that he had barely been able to function in the years he hadn’t seen you. I know, for a time, I developed a kind of platonic man-love for him.”

It was this charm, this ability to be whoever his companion wanted him to be, that would be the making of David Bowie; it’s what brought him his breaks, opportunities his ever-active mind worked out how to exploit. In these early days, that charm was not deployed so intensely—or so ruthlessly. Still, “he was just, somehow, one of the kids you noticed,” says schoolmate Jan Powling, “bright, quite funny, with oodles of personality.” He was invariably neatly dressed—more so than his classmates. “Always well scrubbed, with clean fingernails,” says Powling, “in short, the kind of boy that if you were his mum, you would have been really proud of him.”

Well-scrubbed, polite, every suburban mother’s dream son, the ten-year-old David Jones also stuck to middle-class convention by enrolling in the local Scout pack and the Church of England choir. “We were slung in,” says fellow Cub Scout Geoff MacCormack, “because that’s what parents did with kids then. We didn’t kick up a fuss; we just got on with it.” Like Keith Richards, one of the unlikeliest champions of Robert Baden-Powell’s Scout movement, these kids lapped up the outdoor adventures. The weekly pack meetings and services became a crucial part of David’s world; it was there that he met MacCormack and George Underwood, who would prove the most enduring friends of his life. Together, the three donned cassocks, surplices, and ruffles for church services, as well as for the frequent weddings that would become David Bowie’s first paying gigs as a singer: “Not only were you paid five shillings—a princely sum in those days,” says MacCormack, “but if the ceremony took place in the week, you got a day off school.”

George Underwood’s family lived on the other side of Bromley, so he was enrolled at a different primary school. Tall for his age, good-looking, with an easy, relaxed, but passionate air about him, he would become the closest friend of David’s youth. Their relationship would go through some rocky patches but would be a formative one in both of their lives. For the glue that held their friendship together was rock and roll.

For most members of David and George’s generation there was a “eureka” moment, the instant when rock and roll exploded into each one’s consciousness, an escape route from the gray world. For both boys, that moment hit in 1955. Toward the end of that year, Blackboard Jungle caused a sensation in the UK, generating widespread outrage as politicians denounced its baleful influence. Around that same time, Haywood arrived home from Stepney Causeway with a bagful of singles that he’d been given. That night, David played each of the records, by Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. “Then,” he says, “I hit gold: ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Little Richard—my heart nearly burst with excitement. I’d never heard anything even resembling this. It filled the room with energy and color and outrageous defiance. I had heard God.” More than anyone else, Little Richard would be his career-long role model: “I always wanted to be Little Richard—he was my idol.”

Born Richard Penniman, the most controversial, genre-busting early rock and roller would be a potent touchstone. Many of David’s contemporaries, such as the Stones’ Keith Richards, would cite Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry as their heroes—they represented authentic blues forged deep in the Mississippi Delta. Little Richard was a city boy; he had made his name in New Orleans, studying outrageous performers like Guitar Slim and Esquerita, hanging out in a campy, cross-dressing scene where fur-coated queens competed to deliver the best impressions of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. His records were a far cry from Muddy’s deep, soulful songs of yearning and sexual bravado; they were mini-explosions of sound, cranked up using the city’s best session men, designed to pack the maximum thrills possible into the two minutes and thirty seconds allowed by the South’s jukebox operators. Richard Penniman didn’t rely on his innate musicianship and thrilling voice only; he packaged his music in outrageous showmanship and brightly colored suits in an act honed by his presence at literally hundreds of competitive cutting concerts across the South at which the best R & B performers vied for supremacy. Later still, he would come out as gay; eventually, he would find God; much later, David Bowie’s wife would buy one of Richard’s suits for her husband. Over all those years, David Jones would treasure the first Little Richard records he bought on Bromley High Street.

Elvis Presley would be another idol—all the more so when David discovered he shared a birthday with the ultimate white rock-and-roll icon—but Little Richard would remain the touchstone of David’s musical identity.

Fatefully, Little Richard became the first American rock and roller to be beamed into the homes of British television viewers. On February 16, 1957, the BBC unveiled its momentous Six-Five Special, a TV show aimed at teenagers. It included segments of classical music, dance competitions, and a short extract from the movie Don’t Knock the Rock, with Richard performing “Tutti Frutti.” Over the next few weeks, the program would feature more Little Richard, British rockers Tommy Steele and Adam Faith, plus, tellingly, Lonnie Donegan.

Like many British teenagers, David Jones and George Underwood idolized Little Richard but copied Lonnie Donegan. Today, Donegan’s music is comparatively neglected, but the influence of his DIY ethos lives on in British music from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols. Donegan’s take on American performers like Leadbelly was gloriously naive—his music was made on the simplest of instruments, and his technical deficiencies were part of his charm. It might take a schoolboy years of work to sound like Little Richard or Chuck Berry, but that same schoolboy could attempt Lonnie’s brand of folksy music—skiffle, as it’s called—after just a few afternoons of practice. Donegan’s homegrown skiffle signaled the end of the UK’s outdated dance culture and inspired a generation of British rock and rollers, among them the eleven-year-old Jones and Underwood. For all the kids raised in postwar austerity, this was a moment they’d anticipated for years: “We’d waited and waited for something fabulous to happen,” says George Underwood. “And it did happen. That was the catalyst. And from then on, music was the one thing we talked about constantly.”

At Burnt Ash, there were several kids who’d become known as rock-and-roll fans—one of them, Ian Carfrae, later of the New Vaudeville Band, was admonished by the headmaster for bringing “Rock Around the Clock” into 1955’s Christmastime gramophone-listening sessions. But while David became the best-known fan, George Underwood got his rock-and-roll act together before everyone else. He’d already bought a huge Hofner acoustic guitar and formed a duo with a family friend when he met David—who had a ukulele and a burning desire to be in a band. In the summer of 1958, roughly a year after they met, the two traveled down to the eighteenth Cub Scouts summer camp on the Isle of Wight. “We put a washboard bass in the back of the van, and David’s ukulele, and between us we managed to conjure up a couple of songs around the campfire. And that was our first public performance. Neither of us had any claim to virtuosity—but we wanted to sing.”

THAT tentative first show, with David strumming and George singing, was not the only rite of passage that year. The previous autumn David had taken his eleven-plus, the crucial exam that would determine his future school. The Burnt Ash pupils were well prepared under the gimlet eye of David’s respected and feared teacher Mrs. Baldry, and David and most of his friends passed. The rigid pecking order of schools in the area started with Beckenham and Bromley Grammar at the top, followed by Bromley Technical School—which opened in 1959 and was aimed at future commercial artists and engineers—with Quernmore Secondary Modern languishing in the rear. Later in life, David would advise one of his closest friends, “Do the contrary action,” and he himself first did that at the age of eleven. Though David’s results were good enough for the grammar school, against all convention he opted for Bromley Tech, and he talked his parents into supporting his decision.

Some of the inspiration for this precociously unconventional move undoubtedly came from George Underwood, who was also heading for Bromley Tech. The Tech’s links with the nearby Bromley College of Art meant he would join a wider community of art-school kids, students who would ultimately come to define postwar Britain. Contemporaries and near neighbors the Stones’ Keith Richards and the Pretty Things’ Dick Taylor—“the war babies,” as Richards would describe them—were already embarked on the same course. The notion that a generation of kids could make a living through art was novel, born of the radical reworking of the British educational system in 1944; the art-college system provided the foundation of Britain’s future influence on art, advertising, publishing, movies, and fashion. As countless ex-pupils point out, art college taught them that they didn’t have to work in an office or a factory—they could make a living with “ideas.” This freedom was all the more powerful for being combined with an unrelenting postwar work ethic: “We understood then,” says David’s friend Dorothy Bass, “that after your two years at art college, you would have to pay your dues.”

Bromley Tech had moved to a new site alongside Bromley School of Art just one year before, and with its airy concrete-and-glass building it seemed modern and forward-looking. Yet its academic structure aped the English public school system, with pupils organized into houses and some teachers dressed in gowns and mortarboards for formal assemblies (to which Catholic and Jewish students were not invited). Every morning, David and his friends sang Victorian-era hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and murmured “amen” in response to prayers for the royal family and other pillars of the establishment.

For all the formality of Bromley Tech, the quality of teaching was variable—except in the art department. This was housed in a custom-designed building with north-facing windows to give better natural light for painting. Owen Frampton, the head of the department, was undoubtedly the school’s best-liked teacher. He was enthusiastic—David describes him as “an excellent art teacher and an inspiration”—but no pushover. Owen, or Ossy, had a superb eye for art, and he could unerringly spot mischief, says John Edmonds. Edmonds once threw a snowball at a teacher unobserved, or so he’d thought until he was pulled out of class by the beady-eyed head of art who’d seen the incident. “I did gain a respect both for his eyesight, and his skills with the skipper,” he recalls ruefully.

Frampton was a man of eclectic background and tastes—he had served in the Guards in wartime, designed wallpaper for the Sanderson company, could explain in inspiring terms both classical and modern art (David would mention him as the source of his interest in the painter Egon Schiele), and played guitar. So did his son Peter, who enrolled at Bromley Tech in 1961. Peter, David, and George soon became well known around the school. George and David found a spot in the stairwell that had a natural echo. “My big hero was Buddy Holly—although David wasn’t a big fan, we used to do Buddy Holly numbers,” says George. “David was a great harmonizer, so we used to work on a lot of that material together, by the stairs.” Peter would sit on the school steps with a guitar showing kids how to play Shadows and Ventures riffs, and he started calling himself Paul Raven.

David paid rapt attention during Owen’s art classes. He sketched with charcoals and hung out in the art department, but year by year his interest in other subjects declined to the point that, in year three, his school report described him as “a pleasant idler.” At fourteen, he had succumbed to the obsessions that would define the years to come: music and girls. He would feed both these addictions after school in a quintessentially suburban location on Bromley High Street: Medhurst’s department store, a huge Victorian building that sold furniture and other household goods and also boasted one of South London’s best gramophone departments.

Housed in a long narrow corridor, the gramophone section was overseen by a discreetly gay couple named Charles and Jim. Although they stocked the customary chart hits and sheet music, the partners were also aficionados of modern jazz music and specialized in American imports. David turned up most afternoons after school to check out new releases at their listening booth. His interest in music had become an obsession, and in those years he would buy singles and albums by Elvis Presley and Little Richard, as well as by UK artists, like Joe Brown. As time went on, his tastes became more and more eclectic, and, encouraged by Terry, his record collection expanded to include jazz releases by Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus. Soon he gained the status of a regular; Jim, the younger of the two partners, would let him have records at a discount, as would Jane Green, the assistant. Soon, David explains, she “took a liking to me. Whenever I would pop in, which was most afternoons after school, she’d let me play records in the ‘sound booth’ to my heart’s content till they closed at five thirty. Jane would often join me and we would smooch big-time to the sounds of Ray Charles or Eddie Cochran. This was very exciting as I was thirteen or fourteen, and she would be a womanly seventeen at that time. My first older woman.”

The Medhurst’s gramophone booth became a prime hangout for many Bromley teenagers seeking glamour on Bromley High Street. In this small world in the early sixties, the arrival of an Indian curry house was an event of seismic importance, as was the opening of two Wimpy coffee bars shortly afterward, one in North Bromley and one in South Bromley. The teenagers would hang out in the library gardens south of the market square, trying to look cool in their mostly shabby clothes—the girls wore black pullovers from Marks and Spencer, the nearest they could get to a Parisian Beat look, while David took trips to town in search of “Italian trousers.” These rebels with a cause included David, George Underwood, and Geoff MacCormack; there was also a merchant seaman named Richard Dendy who brought back obscure records from New York, plus Dorothy Bass, who went out briefly with George, their relationship mainly inspired by their shared love of music.

George was charming, good-looking, remembers Dorothy, well known around Bromley, “but not pushy, not ‘look-at-me.’ Neither was David… really,” she continues, “but he was really driven. David shows the difference between someone who’s good—and someone who devotes their life to what they believe in.”

Nearly all the recollections of Bromley Tech pupils seem to feature George and David as a pair; of the two, George was better known, better remembered. He was ebullient, lovable, more expansive. David was cool; people noticed his clothes or his hair or his possessions, but not so much his personality. In his later days, when David’s first band became known around school, he was kind to younger kids, but several of his contemporaries share the impression of Len Routledge, who remembers, “I think I envied him, or resented him, as kids do. Because he had a better lifestyle than us, and a father who’d bring him things some of us could never expect: a full American football kit, the saxophone, etc. I genuinely admired what he achieved… but the comfortable circumstances of his life contrasted sharply with me, and many of the other boys.”

Most of the Bromley kids remember David getting a saxophone and brandishing it around Bromley Tech. He’d wanted a baritone sax, but he had to settle for a Grafton alto, a cheaper but nonetheless glamorous cream-colored plastic art deco concoction that Haywood bought him around 1960. For a short time, David managed to cadge some lessons from baritone player Ronnie Ross, a man who’d performed with Ted Heath and other big bands and who lived nearby. Although the musical value of the eight or so lessons from Ronnie was negligible, their name-dropping value was incalculable and probably helped David score a Saturday-morning job at Furlong’s, the record and instrument store in South Bromley. This little music shop, run by a pipe-smoking, trumpet-playing trad jazz fan, was a mecca in Bromley’s tiny musical landscape; its notice board provided a hotline for news of local bands’ formation and dissolution, and David’s role, of turning customers on to “new sounds,” helped fuel his credibility in the music community and—just as crucially—with local girls.

Even though peers like George Underwood overshadowed David as musicians, David’s confidence got him noticed. The most celebrated example of this was when the tech pupils took what was for almost all of them their first foray outside England, a school trip to Spain over the Easter holidays in 1960. Many families couldn’t afford the trip; David was one of the first, and the youngest, to sign up. The small troop took the ferry to Dieppe, then a bus all the way to Spain. There they saw a bullfight, goggled at Franco’s armed militia, and moaned about the spicy foreign food. Most of the tech students exchanged smiles or played soccer with the Spanish kids; Jones spent much of the day with the local talent, “off chatting to the girls,” classmate Richard Comben remembers. David’s prowess was commemorated in the school magazine’s reference to “Don Jones, the lover, last seen pursued by 13 senoritas.”

David describes his behavior once he discovered girls as “terrible,” a quintessential slick operator, but as far as Bromley’s girls were concerned, he was anything but, says Jan Powling. “He was nice, charming—not at all any kind of show-off.” She knew David from Burnt Ash Junior, and around their third year at secondary, David asked her out on a date. As was traditional, he phoned Mr. Powling to get his permission a day or two before the outing, which at some point became a double date. Hence four teenagers took the 94 bus to the Bromley Odeon cinema: David’s moral support was Nick, a Bromley Tech acquaintance, while Jan was accompanied by Deirdre Jackson, her friend from Burnt Ash Secondary. It was unfortunate, reflects Jan, that Deirdre was one of the most popular girls in her year, with a blond bob and trendy clothes; at the end of the evening, David departed arm in arm with Deirdre, while Jan had been paired off with Nicholas. “But I don’t blame David,” she adds generously, “she was one of the prettiest girls we knew.”

Not everyone was as forgiving of David’s slick behavior. One example of David’s duplicity would become famous in Bromley Tech folklore and subsequently in rock-and-roll history, for it would leave David marked, an outward sign of what was later taken to be his alien nature.

George Underwood was involved in the celebrated fracas—which is all the more ironic, as Underwood is the most likable and mild-mannered of characters. The cause was an act of outright skullduggery by George’s friend in the spring of 1962, when both of them were fifteen; George had arranged a date with a Bromley schoolgirl, Carol Goldsmith, but David told him she had changed her mind and decided not to turn up. Soon George discovered that David, who fancied Carol, had lied; Carol had waited in vain for George for an hour or so before going home, distraught that she’d been stood up. David’s plan was to swoop on the abandoned girl, but when Underwood discovered the dastardly scheme, there was an altercation. Underwood, enraged, impulsively punched his friend in the eye, and by some mishap scratched his eyeball. “It was just unfortunate. I didn’t have a compass or a battery or various things I was meant to have—I didn’t even wear a ring, although something must have caught. I just don’t know how it managed to hurt his eye badly… I didn’t mean it to be like that at all.”

The damage was serious; David was taken to the hospital, and his schoolmates were told he was in danger of losing the sight in his left eye. Underwood, mortified, heard that Haywood and Peggy Jones were considering charging him with assault. David was in the hospital for several weeks, and George eventually plucked up enough courage to go see Haywood. “I wanted to tell him it wasn’t intentional at all, I didn’t want to maim him, for God’s sake!”

David’s eye injury resulted in the paralysis of the muscles that contract the pupil, leaving the pupil permanently dilated and giving that eye the appearance of being a different color than his other eye; additionally, his depth perception was shot. “It left me with a wonky sense of perspective,” David explained later. “When I’m driving, for instance, cars don’t come toward, me, they just get bigger.” It was weeks before David returned to Bromley Tech, and at least a month before he talked to George. The rift meant that David missed out on a momentous event, the arrival of rock and roll at Bromley Tech, in April of 1962. Owen Frampton was one of the key figures in the event, overseeing the lights and the sound system. His son’s band, the Little Ravens, played the first half, sandwiched between a magician and a dance duo; George and the Dragons came on after the intermission, a louder, more raucous show than Frampton Junior’s band: “Very avant-garde for the time,” says Pete Goodchild, who was in the audience.

Underwood wonders to this day how the band would have sounded if his friend had appeared on the stage with him. By the summer term, their friendship was repaired, although Underwood suffered pangs of guilt for years afterward—“I was always looking at him thinking, Oh God, I did that.” Eventually, David would thank George for the notorious eye injury—“he told me it gave him a kind of mystique”—although for decades George would get irritated when David said he had no idea why his friend had punched him. “He gave the impression he doesn’t know why I did it. And he should have known.”

Underwood’s disappointment that his best friend missed the George and the Dragons’ Easter show was as short-lived as the band. George went on to play in the Hillsiders and Spitfires over this period, and soon after Easter teamed up with the Kon-Rads, a rather old-fashioned dance-based band formed a few months earlier by drummer Dave Crook and guitarist Neville Wills.

Once George was in, he invited David along too, asking him to join the band on saxophone but with the proviso “I’m the singer—but you can do a couple of numbers.” David brought his Grafton down to rehearsals. “He looked a bit like Joe Brown at the time, so we said you can do ‘A Picture of You’ and ‘A Night at Daddy G’s.’ ”

David Bowie’s first public performance took place just a few weeks later, on June 12, 1962, at the Bromley Tech PTA school fete. This was the tech’s biggest summertime event to date—the PTA bought a new sound system for the show, and four thousand parents and locals attended. No one got to hear David’s Joe Brown impression that afternoon; the Kon-Rads’ set consisted strictly of instrumentals.

David, his hair arranged in a blond pompadour, his cream-colored sax slung over his shoulder, stood next to George Underwood, who picked out Shadows’ riffs on his Hofner guitar. David looked “cool, well dressed,” according to schoolmate Nick Brookes. It was a pretty impressive debut, but there was a clear consensus among most of the audience about who would go on to stardom: David’s taller, better-looking, more popular friend. “It was George was the singer, who did a great Elvis impression,” says Bromley Tech pupil Roger Bevan, who remembers, like many other pupils, Underwood’s dark, glossy hair and Elvis sneer. “Everyone reckoned he was going to be big.”


Excerpted from David Bowie: Starman by Trynka, Paul Copyright © 2011 by Trynka, Paul. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Genius Steals ix

Part 1 I Hope I Make It on My Own

Chapter 1 When I'm Five 5

Chapter 2 "Numero Uno, Mate!" 28

Chapter 3 Thinking about Me 45

Chapter 4 Laughing Gnome 69

Chapter 5 I Wish Something Would Happen 88

Chapter 6 Check Ignition 107

Chapter 7 All the Madmen 125

Chapter 8 Kooks 147

Chapter 9 Over the Rainbow 175

Chapter 10 Battle Cries and Champagne 202

Part 2 Where Things Are Hollow

Chapter 11 Star 223

Chapter 12 The Changing Isn't Free 243

Chapter 13 Make Me Break Down and Cry 258

Chapter 14 White Stains 275

Chapter 15 Ghosts in the Echo Chambers 298

Chapter 16 Helden 321

Chapter 17 I Am Not a Freak 340

Chapter 18 Snapshot of a Brain 362

Chapter 19 On the Other Side 384

Chapter 20 It's My Life—So Fuck Off 409

Chapter 21 The Heart's Filthy Lesson 435

Epilogue: The Houdini Mechanism 467

Discography 481

Notes and Sources 497

Acknowledgments 509

Index 513

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