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The David Bowie Story
"Let The Children Use It" (pg. 7-11)
Page 7 image
So it took twenty-two years for David Bowie to reach the first part of his career ambition - that is, to get his name up there in the charts. But he'd certainly packed a whole lot of living into those twenty-two years and his life had changed direction about as often as a chameleon changes its spots.
The actual details about his childhood are sketchy, and David has always been disinclined to fill in the gaps. Those days have nothing to do, he reckons, with the days when he put his musical knowledge to good use.
He went to school - yes. He didn't much like it because they didn't teach him the subjects he was interested in and what's more they showed marked disregard for the "tricky" questions he posed for his teachers. But that doesn't make him any kind of stand-out character - more like run-of-the-mill million school-kids in any given year.
But music turned him on. At fourteen he started on saxophone - mainly because his brother happened to give him a tutor manual, and it's believed that Gerry Mulligan, jazz giant, was a sort of hero figure. And when he wasn't listening to music, and trying to lay down the hit songs of the day, David found himself more and more involved in Buddhism. And Tibet.
Tibet? Well, there was a Tibet Society, formed with the main aim of helping the Lamas driven out of that country in the war between the Chinese and Tibet.
There was no money to make in being a keen member of the Tibet Society, and a lad has to earn enough to feed and clothe himself, so at sixteen David left school and went to an advertising agency... "and tripped on capitalism for about six months."
He re-read his copy of "On The Road", got a few ideas about how to REALLY live!... and formed a progressive blues group of his own.
Really it all relates to a period which David only occasionally revisits in his mind. He was into so many different things... setting up a monastery in Dumfries, Scotland; into fighting off thoughts that he was really born to become a Tibetan monk; his moods varied from day to day, and in truth the only consistency was that he really did feel, deep down inside, that one day he'd be a famous and influential star.
Meeting Lindsay Kemp, who ran a mime company in London, was a very important step. For mime, practicing mime, showed David how a singer could create images with more than just his voice. He could, he found, express real feelings by using his hands, body, eyes. In fact, often there was no need to use his voice to get a point across.
Of course David Bowie was then David Jones. That name ring a bell? Well, in America, the powers-that-be in pop were molding a specially-manufactured group which was destined to become a giant in the art of creating hysteria among fans.
The Monkees. They stuck an advertisement in a Hollywood stage paper and they said they wanted four "zany" boys to act in a television series, which was being built around the adventures of a pop group. Musically, at the start anyway, it didn't matter much whether the boys were good or bad. They were hired to act parts, and it was pure chance that it was decided to "advertise" the upcoming television series by putting out a record.
The year was 1966 and most of the pop experts believed that there could never again be the kind of hysteria created by the Beatles some three years earlier. But they reckoned without the teenage appeal of the four Monkees...three Americans, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith - and the English lad Davy Jones.
Those early records had the boys singing, but not playing. They had to brush up their musical talents in a hurry so they could go out on stage and play passably well in front of wailing, screaming fans.
The hits fairly poured out, once Last Train To Clarksville and I'm A Believer had got the Monkees into the top idol class in 1966, and the follow-ups included Little Bit Me, Little Bit You, Alternate Title, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Daydream Believer, Tear Drop City.
Oh, they were nice guys, harmless characters. Peter Tork heralded the real split when he just walked out and went back to his old life of playing and enjoying himself in the coffee-bars of Greenwich Village in New York City. And the final split came soon afterwards.
But it was Manchester born one-time apprentice jockey Davy Jones who really created the hysteria. In the States and in most other parts of the world he was THE pop personality. Now he's a married man, enthusiastic father ... and the glitter has gone. There's a lesson to be learned there. One year it was impossible for Davy to walk the streets of London, or even show himself from his hotel room. And the next year he was able to go about wherever he he liked, with no fans jostling and no problems over privacy. In a way, though, Davy may be the lucky one ... he'd a history of success in stage musicals and presumably can one day go back to them.
So our Davy Jones realised that there was no point in fighting the fame of his Monkee-type namesake. And so he became David Bowie. Another pop idol was .. well, if not actually born, then created.
David Bowie was interested in mythology. He has said that he really felt a need to know and BELIEVE IN the legends from the past, particularly those of Atlantis. The imagery, depth of meaning, of those stories can be said to have influenced his own lyric-writing.
So many other influences, so many directions. As we said earlier, you can't trace a definite pattern in David Bowie's early life and times. He joined the mime company, became a clown, and decided to become a song-writing/clown. When you read the links, you either accept them or you don't. David himself doesn't much care.
He's said many times that he's sort of disillusioned old rocker, but what he means is that he became fed up with singing other people's songs in the role of leader of David Jones and the Lower Third ... so in the end he wrote his own songs, and he used his own talents to get these songs across. Also, disillusionment set in because he felt he was getting nowhere...fast. He had his chances to make the grade, certainly with recording companies - but maybe the kindest thing would be to say that pop music just wasn't ready for this eccentric escapee from middle-class suburbia.
So many influences? Well, he had some expert advice in those years before making it finally with Space Oddity. He had a whole stack of advice from Ken Pitt, a tall, bespectacled man of show-business who had a tremendous reputation for backing successful hunches...and for being an expert in the field of public relations.
Listen to Ken Pitt recalling those years ... they really were years of struggle, but he enjoyed them because he felt sure that in David Bowie pop had a tremendous and genuine talent. Not like the passing parade of talentless one-hit-wonders who littered the charts in those post-Beatle sixties.
"Well, I saw David - David Jones as he was then - for the first time in the Marquee club in London's Wardour Street. I found out later that he virtually lived there .. he was a city type by then, and he used to sleep, eat, just to live, in a van which was parked near to the club.
"I was sure he was something special. But the thing was that I went to America with another artist of mine, Crispian St Peters, and got right into the first part of that Monkee mania thing. Another David Jones - right! I sent David Bowie a telegram saying that he simply had to change his name.
"The trouble with the music business was that there were so few people who could show the personality of, say, a Tommy Steele ... who'd made the change from rock n roller to top stage and film star. You had the pop singer, pure and simple, on one end of the scale; and the West End musical type singer on the other.
"And David Bowie did have that much wider interest. I couldn't see much of a future for him in just playing the odd gig at the Marquee club, but David has this interest in dancing, in the theatre, in mime - had this picture of him going into his own show, really performing, not just being a pop star.
"Tony Newley .. that's a good example. I've been involved in his career and it was obvious that David Bowie dug him a great deal. We played the Newley records and so on and went to Decca Records and there Hugh Mendl, one of the executives, was really excited over David's style. And he said that he'd recorded Anthony Newley earlier and he thought that Bowie had tremendous potential in the same style .. and he also said that he felt the industry needed that kind of talent, instead of the eternal run of the guitar cowboys.
"David Jones and the Lower Third had recorded for Pye, but with no success, so as there was no contract involved we just went to Decca. David had already written some wonderful songs, and we did an album, and believe me, life as a manager was really hectic in those days.
"All the tedious routine things, which just didn't involve David at all ... the chasing up of agents for gigs, the efforts to get money we were owed, that kind of thing. Really it was a very competitive business in those days ... everybody was hustling to find the next big new star.
"I worked with Manfred Mann at that time too. David Bowie with a group did a Sunday show with Manfred, but the group aspect was just a matter of simple economics. He couldn't afford to pay musicians. Say he was getting 25 pounds a show, well, probably he'd have to pay the backing group thirty quid. All that for the joy of just about breaking your neck running up and down the M1 on gigs.
"So it was common sense as well as good economics for David to go into a solo scene. Just his own acoustic guitar and his songs. Maybe three, perhaps four, gigs a week ... and in between times, really soak up the atmosphere of the London theatre world.
"The thing was that he was so genuinely interested in - he was thinking of that prestige type of stardom, not just the odd hit record and the overnight success. We saw just about everything - things like Where The Rainbow Ended, and the dreadful shows like Cliff Richard in pantomime at London Palladium. Good things like Roy Dotrice's one-man stage show. It all helped David make up his mind which direction he'd like to take, as well as giving him the right sort of critical appraisal.
"Maybe you didn't know that he actually did do small crowd parts in films - like Virgin Soldiers. And there was that non-stop round of auditions. I can tell you David Bowie lined up at auditions for some of the best parts in the film world - like the Murray Head part in Sunday Bloody Sunday. He was a singer who wanted to be an actor and was determined to get himself in a position where he could do both.
On the record side, there was that first Decca single Love You To Tuesday. It got some attention inside the business, but it was no smash hit. The producer was Mike Vernon and the engineer was Gus Dudgeon.
"But you can guess the frustrations and the feelings that nothing big was going to come out of it. Of course, that single Space Oddity pushed his name right around the pop world in 1970, and I think it's an interesting story to explain just how he came to write that song.
"First, let's set the scene a bit. To build a name, a singer had to get television exposure. So you go along and sing to producers and they say, goodness he's wonderful - don't forget to come back and see us when he's on the charts. You had to have that hit single as a sort of morale-booster as well as a way into getting national exposure. So ... we hit on an idea.
"I was sure that David Bowie would be big if only he could be seen, so we decided to make our own half-hour film, aimed at the television market. I sank my money into it - a lot of money, lets say thousands and thousands, but I don't remember regarding it as a real risk. My view was that David Bowie was outstanding in film, and the television companies would bid against each other for the privilege of showing it to the world!
"Oh, it didn't work out anything like that. But the good thing that came out of it was ... yes Space Oddity. It was obvious to me that we needed a big production number so I got onto David and told him to sit down and write something really different. We'd highlight the song with special effects - and the whole thing would lift the whole film.
"He came up with Space Oddity. Of course he still hadn't had the hit single, so nobody bought the television programme and it rested, that film did, on a shelf in my office for ages. Then, just a while ago, they asked if they could use the Space Oddity sequence on the BBC-2 programme Old Grey Whistle Test. Of course everybody agreed it was delightful and so on. That's the difference. Hit records open up all sorts of things.
"Its the old show-business story. Everybody wants to know you when you are up at the top, but nobody cares how much you have to struggle.
"I was thinking about the various influences on David Bowie. There was all the theatre things, probably bits rubbed off on him from all kinds of things. But musically there's no doubting the influence of the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed from the States. And Andy Warhol, of course - and singer Nico. David was working in various things in Lodnon, and he'd get acetates of Velvet Underground records, and he'd stay up all night just listening to them."
But in the end, Ken Pitt's management deal with David Bowie came to an abrupt sort of finale. David was friendly with producer Tony Visconti, and through him met with the current Bowie manager Tony de Fries. Says Ken Pitt now: "David had this habit of getting into all kinds of things - a sort of Maoist philosophy, perhaps, and his Buddhist theories and so on. Quite honestly I wanted him to be number one in the world as an entertainer. I thought he has the talent to do just that, but also needed a large helping of self discipline, and there were so many things that he was letting his mind be sidetracked this way and that, instead of concentrating completely on building his own reputation.
"There were two years of our contract left to run, and we had a talk about the financial side of things and it was all settled and that was that. Of course it's interesting to see how the Bowie career has developed since. My mind naturally keeps going back to that time in the Marquee Club when I saw this David Jones and his band the Lower Third - and you find the dreams getting all mixed up with the hard facts."
Heaven knows how many dreams went through David Bowie's own head. There was the drop-out spell, when he turned his back on music. There was the death of his father and then, just a week or so later, the arrival of Space Oddity as a hit.
And there were the clothes that David insisted on wearing. They were ... well, they looked like ladies dresses! There was the album sleeve that showed David all decked out in ... yes, surely it was a lady's dress. David had to put up with a lot of criticism and comment, but he stressed that they were specifically created men's dresses, as worn by extremely tough nuts in mediaeval times. "I don't HAVE to get in drag," he said in one Record Mirror interview.
"I don't HAVE to but I've always been keen on designing my own clothes. I'm sort of cosmic yob, putting it simply. I just don't like wearing the standard sort of clothes that you can buy in any old shop. But after all, I don't wear dresses all the time. I change my dress style from day to day. Call me outrageous, if you like. But the fact is that I'm really just ... David Bowie."
And in another interview he tried to explain his influences in his songwriting. "My songs are a sort of outpouring of the subconscious. I don't question much. I relate - in fact, I see my answers in other people's writings. Lets see ... yes, the best summing-up would be that my own work is rather like talking to a psychiatrist. My act is my couch."
But he has own favourite writers. Syd Barrett, Lou Reed and Iggy pop, plus John Lennon. But again he changes direction regularly; creating new idols and goes careering off on new lines of thought.
How gay - GAY in the sexual sense - is David Bowie? Well, he says he's gay. He has played clubs in the London area where it has seemed that half the gay population has turned up to see him with his floppy hats, bizarre clothes and his high camp actions.
Mick Rock's Rolling Stone interview recalls a chat after a show at Birmingham Town Hall, up in the industrialized Midlands. "An unlikely event," he called it, "But it's worth the price of a ticket just to satisfy those old curiosity buds. Hey, fellas - a real live rock fag, that's got to be something. But if Bowie's a tart, as he's often described himself, then he's undoubtedly high class. His makeup is smart, his stage clothes are seductively flamboyant, beautifully fitted and ... he doesn't sweat.
"He rocks through a solid ninety minute set without a glimmer. And David is genuinely gay. He also has a wife and a child, both of whom he loves very much. He said "I got fed up with being one thing one time and something the next. I learned to relax. That dress bit on the sleeve of The Man Who Sold The World - it just happened. I'm not a queen. I'm not into the scene of it. I just like wearing what I like to wear.
"It's terrible in New York if you want to look feminine. Everything's at that awful high pitch. You've just got to be a cartoon. I've got this friend, who's just beautiful. When you meet him you don't even question whether he's a boy or a girl. He's just a person called Freddie, who's very nice to look at. That's what's important - to be a person, an individual."
David Bowie long ago established his right to be called one of the most individual pop giants of this day and age - and eyebrows are not lightly raised in surprise in that particular branch of show-business."
And there's no doubt he thinks very deeply about his place in music. For instance, he's very much into the soul scene, and admires James Brown - America's Soul Brother Number One - very much indeed. But unlike many of his contemporaries, David Bowie doesn't try to imitate the black singers. He said in front of a visiting pack of American journalists: "I'm never going to try and play black music simply because I'm white. In fact, I'm very white indeed."
He's white and he picks his real friends very carefully. Now take the much-mentioned Iggy pop, alias James Ostenberg as he was - a very close friend of David Bowie. He built his name as leader of the Stooges, who brought a new and violently spectacular dimension to American rock music.
But it is what he did on stage, rather than how he sang, that spread Iggy's name far and wide. He'd put on a show rather like an acrobat obsessed with the obscene. He'd fairly fling himself round the microphone in gravity defying acts. And the Stooges became the sort of act that would forever test the analytical powers forever of a thousand-dollars-an-hour psychiatrist. Iggy, because he believed in looking as glamorous as any movie queen, was getting his picture regularly in pin-up books - those for men as well as for women! One magazine even voted him the World's Sexiest Man. And in later times, there was talk of Iggy forming a band with Lou Reed.
So we are back to Lou Reed again. For a start. David Bowie won't argue if you repeat the much quoted statement that Lou Reed is to David Bowie what Chuck Berry was to the Rolling Stones. It's all a matter of influence...
So what do we know about this man Reed? Well, he's been regarded as perhaps the key figure in that legendary Velvet Underground team. People in the know rated the band above most others, but there were so many who just didn't know and couldn't be bothered to find out, so it just disintegrated.
But Reed is still very much in the public eye and ear. The Lou Reed album (RCA Victor SF 8281) came out in the summer, and it proved conclusively that he was writing some beautiful, meaningful and completely original songs. The album came out roughly the same time as David's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (RCA Victor LSP 4702), so that we had a first-rate chance of comparing and assessing the two talented friends.
But back to Lou Reed. He was the leader of Velvet Underground until 1970, and it was all tied up with Andy Warhol and the drug-lyric scene and so on - and an album called The Velvet Underground and Nico was probably the most popular. The songs were for real ... dramatic, highlighted stories of life in the New York gutters, mainly, and the songs really did matter, even if the cushioned mid-Westerners and West Coasters didn't realise just how for real they were.
Other albums included White Light White Heat - and Loaded, which was also for real, and it was Rock N Roll. Later Lou Reed was to influence so many other artists ... and Alice Cooper, another star of the camp-rock scene, was but one. Many and varied were the people who stated, categorically, that Lou Reed was the most original talent in the whole rock and roll scene.
Talk to Lou and you get the same sagas of sheer struggle in the early days. Like he can remember playing a high school with Velvet Underground ... and the band had to share 70 dollars between them, and even that pay-packet was grudgingly bestowed on the grounds that half the audience walked out after only half an act.
They had to get into places like the Cafe Bizarre in New York to register a bit. Andy Warhol was a very important film-maker and used to have whole-week sessions of his movies at Avant-Garde cinema clubs, and he though it a good idea to have a real-life rock n roll band playing behind the soundtrack of his movies. So Lou moved in, and took Velvet underground out on tour as part of what the hoardings described as "Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable."
Fun days, yes. But important too because fantastic Reed - boosting publicity-surrounded every move Warhol made.
But then everything in pop has to end, and the disintegration of Velvet Underground was slow but sure. They'd been a cultist group, a loud group, a group who were inevitably associated with drugs and violence. Anyway, Nico has made movies in Paris and still sings and makes records and her Nico-teeners think she's great, and John Cale has got into a classical and symphonic sort of field and there's Lou still doing what comes naturally...
Yes, a tremendous influence on David Bowie's career. Lou Reed has been into the mime thing, and the light show thing - and now Bowie has added his own ideas and theories. Pop music has always been a small world. The links keep breaking, then joining up again, then self-destructing and so on and so on. But there was one helluva evening in the Bataclan Club in Paris in the Spring of 1972 when Lou Reed, Nico and John Cale got together for a telly show and did their Heroin, Black Angel's Death Song, Femme Fatale and other never-forgotten big numbers.
Richard Richardson produced Lou Reed's first solo album. David Bowie was one of the most vociferous supporters of what came out ... as he had always been. That Andy Warhol-titled track on the Hunky Dory album ... David said: "Slight shades of the Velvet Underground at the end, but doing acoustically what they do electronically. There's not much to say about Andy Warhol, actually, because the simpler you make things about him, the better it is. He's just a quiet bloke, a nice simple guy. I like him very much."
Influences ... well. influences come to David Bowie from literally any source. Even Frank Sinatra. For instance, he based his song Life On Mars?, also on the Hunky Dory album on that chart-topping song My Way. And he explained it thus:
"I've never heard such rubbish in all my life as to hear than man Sinatra talk about how great it is to be an old soak. The general thing is him saying that I'm getting out now, and I'll tell you how I made it ... and he's told is how he made it. I just parodied it and actually, it's what he said - about how nice it is. I use the same chords that Sinatra used in My Way."
So many influences, since that day that David Bowie was born, in Brixton, South London, not very far from Her Majesty's Prison. In 1947, David felt he was really a war-time baby, even though World War II was over a couple of years earlier. From school in Brixton, he moved up to Yorkshire and lived on farms there.
He drew influences from those varied environments. From the coloured population of Brixton, to the wide-open spaces around the Yorkshire moors. And David has often said in interviews that his "sort of schizoid approach and style" comes from having seen the best and the worst of two separate ways of living.
And the Buddhist influence? In an interview with Patrick Salvo, David Bowie said: "I'm not a Buddhist any more - I don't now believe in any kind of organised religion. I wrote a song called The Supermen, which was about the Homosuperior race and through that I got interested in Nazism. I'm overwhelmed at their methods - diabolical.
"I have no room in my head to entertain their theory, the gross effects, the terrible disregard for human life, especially for particular races and religions. You know Roman Catholics were next - the Pope bought Hitler off. But mind you this is a mad planet, it's doomed to madness."
And he sometimes sounds as if he's a follower of Marshall McLuhan when he tries to describe his music: "It should be the clown, the pierrot medium. The music is the mask the message wears - music is the pierrot and I, the performer, am the message."
Not the easiest description to digest, but again it shows an influence.
Then again, there was his Arts Laboratory of Beckenham, Kent - which he financed largely from the proceeds of the Space Oddity hit.
Basically it was an experimental community of various sorts of artists in various kinds of areas of communication. From there, for many months, David Bowie drew many more influences, which were to change his whole lifestyle. Jack Kerouac was another influence - he was reading him at the age of thirteen. But then seeing The Defiant ones was another influence, and he was barely into his academic "career" at Bromley high School for Boys then.
Oh yes, and that mime master Lindsay Kemp. David explained the link there. "Lindsay was holding a one-man show and he played one of my records in the interval. So we met up backstage and he asked me to write some more music for his show, and I said I would if he'd lead me into the mysteries of mime.
"So became his pupil. He was the master and I was the student. I was into ballet and mime and I got into the company and I wrote some of the plays with him, and I realised that Lindsay Kemp was a living pierrot. Everything in his life was tragic and dramatic and straight theatrical. So the stage was, for him, just an extension of his own life.
I can tell you that you wouldn't believe his life. But when I formed my own troupe, a mime troupe, we ran into problems, and it didn't stick together and I found myself a folk singer, with a twelve string acoustic guitar, just because that happened to be the way I was earning my living."
Never the less, those days as a student of mime have paid up handsomely in dividends, because David Bowie became the great originator in blending the theatre with pop music.
And there's the influence of his wife Angie, and his son Zowie, which rhymes with Bowie, and that's the personal side of his life which is not there to be thrown into relief, because David insists on his right to privacy.
He's been called The Darling of The Avant-Garde and that's fair enough, except that he used to say with a laugh that he wasn't even The Darling of Beckenham yet, thanks very much!
His sense of humour has rarely deserted him, even during the periods when his life was very much down.
Continued on next page
---This page last modified: 29 Jun 2002---