ONE ABSOLUTE BEGINNING
David Bowie’s first hit, “Space Oddity,” followed by “Life on Mars?” and “Starman,” insured that he would be forever associated with the planets, space, the moon, and the stars—and later on, when he made his cinematic debut in The Man Who Fell to Earth, with aliens and other worlds. Yet David Bowie was born in what in 1947 was one of the most mundane, down-to-earth, run-down communities in Britain: Brixton, in the London borough of Lambeth, a poor, grimy, working-class enclave. Yet stark and ordinary as Brixton was in those days, in true contrasting Bowie fashion, David’s birthplace also carried the visual blueprint of some of his creative dreams, his fantasies, his lyrics, his future.
As history tells us, during the Second World War German bombs didn’t drop on London’s historic landmarks, like Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Documents have revealed that after double agents planted deliberate misinformation within the Luftwaffe, the Germans set the coordinates of the flying bombs so they didn’t fall on Central London and destroy England’s most hallowed historic edifices, but rather on the East End and South London, which bore the brunt of the bombing.
Between October 1940 and June 1941, 1,215 bombs fell on Lambeth, an area three miles wide and seven miles long. And there was worse to come. Toward the end of the war, the lethal V-1 pilotless flying bombs (aka buzz bombs or doodlebugs) wrought havoc on London. At exactly 7:47 A.M. on July 16, 1944, a V-1 bomb hit Rumsey Road just one street north of Stansfield Road, where David Robert Jones (aka David Bowie) would be born just over two and a half years later, and in the process, demolished twelve houses and damaged forty others.
The ravages of that deadly attack (along with the hundreds of other bombs dropped on the Brixton area during the Second World War) were in evidence within a few miles’ radius of David’s home and would remain there well into the early fifties, when most of the houses were replaced with prefabricated reinforced concrete bungalows, known as “prefabs.” Hurriedly thrown-together eyesores with seemingly paper-thin walls, prefabs rose up from bombsites that resembled the desolate craters on the surface of the moon: forbidding, barren, like some bleak mysterious planet—all grist for David’s creativity.
Then there was the dark and sinister men’s prison, Brixton Prison, situated 0.8 miles from David’s home, where no less a luminary than Mick Jagger would be incarcerated for three nights after his drug bust, and where Anthony Newley, one of David’s earliest musical influences, spent twenty-eight days after being convicted of driving with a suspended license.
And the local movie theater, the Astoria, was a palatial mock renaissance-style monstrosity, complete with marble foyer and mosaic fountain, that may well have been the first example of architectural excess and opulence David would have encountered in his young life. Perhaps even more of a dramatic and lasting influence, located ten minutes by foot from David’s birthplace, was Brixton Market, the hub of Brixton’s thousands of Jamaican immigrants, the first wave of which first arrived in London in the year of David’s birth, all bringing with them the sounds, textures, and colors of the Caribbean.
Just across from the hallowed halls of Bon Marché, Brixton’s sober department store, Electric Avenue and Granville Arcade were at the heart of acres and acres of covered market filled with stalls spilling over with mangoes, plantains, yams, pineapples, bolts of crimson lace, purple linens, coral lipsticks, glistening cocoa butter, and platinum nylon wigs, all sold by Jamaican barrow boys to the tinkling sound of Caribbean steel bands.
The spiritual, cultural, and commercial center of the Jamaican immigrant community in Brixton, Brixton Market was also a hive of beautiful Jamaican women, selling, buying, or just simply stalking through the market like Rocketts sporting multicolored flared feathers: all, short, young, old, hips swaying, voluptuous bodies swathed tightly in Technicolor cotton clothes, intoxicating, mesmerizing, and indelibly memorable.
A segue back to America, to Hollywood, and to a vignette from the life of David Bowie, age thirty, an artist at the top of his game, an Adonis at the height of his physical beauty, and a rock star still intent on sampling as great an assortment of the sexual fruits of his stratospheric success as possible.
By 1977, Elizabeth Taylor and David had bonded, and consequently, when he was performing in Los Angeles, she invited him to meet one of her close friends. Her name was Loretta Young, and in her day she was one of America’s most beloved movie stars, and an Oscar-nominated actress. Her costars included Cary Grant and Clark Gable, who was also her lover, and with whom she had a daughter.
Once a household name, due to her eponymous TV show, Loretta Young was now sixty-four, long past her prime, yet still a great, if faded, beauty. She was vibrant and vivacious and, despite her age, her sexual appetites remained undimmed.
Moreover, her considerable carnal desires were now directed
obsessively at David Bowie. “All she had seen was his photographs, but she was enamored by him, fixated on him, and said to me, ‘I want to meet him. I want to be with him. Can you arrange it?’ ” Elizabeth Taylor confided to Kim Fowley, who then went on to detail her response. “I told Loretta that David wasn’t due in L.A. for a few months, and she said, ‘Good, that gives me time to prepare,’ ” Elizabeth Taylor reported.
According to Elizabeth Taylor, the David-obsessed Loretta proceeded to spend the next few months feverishly preparing herself for her first meeting with him.
“She started an exercise regime, she had her hair restyled, had some nips and tucks on her body and her face; then the big day came,” Elizabeth said. “I took Loretta to meet David. And assuming that it would be a foregone conclusion that she and David would immediately disappear into the night together, Loretta was very aggressive and said, ‘I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to meet you tonight, David.’ ”
Whereupon David, who had always had a propensity for strong women, but not aggressive ones, declared to Loretta Young in his polite English gentleman’s tone, “You shouldn’t have gone to the trouble, my dear. I only like black women and Asian men.”
Long after David’s birth at 40 Stansfield Road, a three-story terraced house, mythology had it that the midwife who delivered him swooned about his “knowing eyes” and insisted that the newborn baby had “been here before.” The baby David’s otherworldliness is the first of the many myths attached to David Bowie, perhaps by his father, John Haywood Jones, a seasoned public-relations man who devoted his considerable talents to raising David’s profile, or by subsequent publicists, or possibly by David himself, always his own best publicist, willing to spin untruths into truth, all in quest of lending luster to his image and his career.
But even if the midwife’s reaction was contrived and merely a publicity ploy, the truth is that David’s birth did have an otherworldly significance to it, one that would become clear only a few months before his tenth birthday, when Elvis Presley burst onto the scene with “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” thus becoming the world’s first rock idol whose megawatt rock-god appeal has never waned: David Bowie was born on January 8, 1947, Elvis Presley’s twelfth birthday. David’s mother, Peggy, no mean judge of male charisma, was overcome when Elvis flooded the radio with hits, and she viewed the fact that David shared his birthday as a positive omen. As David said, “She never let me forget it. She was enthralled by the idea.”
David himself was not immune to the significance of sharing a birthday with Elvis, and it added to his sense of his own destiny, his own specialness. Consequently, when he watched his aunt Una’s daughter, his cousin, Kristina, dance to “Hound Dog” soon after it was released in 1956, his passion for music was ignited. “It really impressed me, the power of the music. I started getting records immediately after that,” he said.
Even when David was on the threshold of stardom, Elvis continued to exercise a sway over him to such a degree that, in the face of the King, he would instantly be reduced to the level of fandom. In June 1972, David and his guitarist Mick Ronson took a midday flight from Heathrow to New York and arrived just in time to catch Elvis headlining Madison Square Garden. Or so they hoped. In fact, they arrived there after the show had begun.
As RCA was David’s record label at the time as well as Elvis’s, David had been given the best seats for the show. Which made it even worse that he and Mick arrived while Elvis was in mid-act. He was in the throes of “Proud Mary,” when David, hobbling on Kabuki platform heels, his hair dyed bright red, and in full Ziggy regalia, practically stopped the show. “I could see him thinking: Who the fuck is that? Sit the fuck down. It was really humiliating—but unmissable,” David said years later.
Although the idea was floated that David work with Elvis in a production-writer capacity, which David has said he would have loved, nothing ever came of it. But he still cherishes a note that Elvis sent him, wishing him a good tour—and his imitation of Elvis’s Southern drawl is perfect, mimicry being yet another of David’s manifold talents.
David may have cloaked himself in a mystical, magical, otherworldly image on his rise to stardom, but the reality is that his father came from solid Yorkshire stock, and it is likely that David inherited his financial savvy from him (witness the Bowie Bonds, shares in his back catalogue that David put on the stock market), his shrewdness, and his ability to remain grounded even while studiously projecting the opposite impression.
Born in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, and brought up in Tadcaster, John was orphaned in early childhood and raised by an aunt. Although he came from a working-class background (his father sold shoes and boots, and his maternal grandfather was foreman of a wool mill), like some hero out of Charles Dickens, John rose in the world after his wealthy aunt sent him to British public (private, in American terms) school, where he was drilled in good manners, thus emerging with the veneer of an English gentleman, to the manner born.
David claimed that his father received the call to work with orphans in a dream, and John did go on to do all he could to help them by taking a job at the children’s charity Dr. Barnardo’s Homes; he began working there in 1935 and continued until his death thirty-four years later.
But saintly as John’s work in his latter years might have been, and true to his son’s propensity for ringing the changes in the most dramatic way possible, he had also lived out a wild, anarchic side in his youth. After inheriting a substantial sum of money when he was only
sixteen years old, he had bought a theater club and then a nightclub on Charlotte Street, London, which was patronized by boxers, wrestlers, and gangsters. Both failed dismally.
Before Peggy came into his life, John had married a cabaret performer known as Hilda, the Viennese Nightingale, but he was unfaithful to her with a nurse who gave birth to his daughter, Annette, whom Hilda, clearly a remarkable woman, agreed to bring up as her own. In fact, when her marriage to John was spiraling downward, Hilda persuaded him to buy a house that Annette could one day inherit. That house was 40 Stansfield Road, and when David was born, Annette would help care for him.
However, in 1956, Annette met and married an Egyptian engineer and moved to Cairo with him, became a Muslim, and coincidentally changed her name to Iman. She last saw David when he was fifteen years old and she’d flown back to London for a visit. “When David walked into the room, it all came flooding back. I threw open my arms to hug him, but he just flinched. I was hurt because I suddenly realized he cut me off in his mind the moment I walked out the front door when he was nine,” Annette said.
After a chance meeting with Peggy Burns in her hometown of Tunbridge Wells, where she was working as a waitress at the Ritz movie theater café, John Haywood Jones fell in love with her. Both strong individuals, they had David in 1947 when they were in their midthirties, and by the time he was eight months old, they decided to marry, thus legitimizing him. They remained married until John’s death, and different as he, a placid and contemplative man, was from Peggy, who managed the unique feat of being alternately tempestuous and cold, he stayed the course with her.
From his father, David got his love of reading (even in his darkest drug days he traveled the world with trunks containing his vast library
of books); he got his first taste of Hemingway from his father’s readers’ book club, which sent him a book a month, each of which David eagerly devoured. “My father opened up my world because he taught me the habit of reading. I got so much information, so many of the things I wanted to do came from books,” he recalled.
Another, less salutary habit that David picked up from his father was chain-smoking, and despite undergoing hypnosis and aversion therapy to break the habit, for a great part of his life, he was unable to quit. John’s favorite brand of cigarette was Player’s, which he chain-smoked, and David followed suit, making Player’s his own cigarette of choice. In later years, though, he switched to Marlboros, making sure that Coco always carried a secret stash in her handbag, just in case he ran out.
Another legacy from his father, according to David, was religious tolerance. “My father was one of the few fathers I knew who had a lot of understanding of other religions. He encouraged me to become interested in other religions,” he said. His tolerance was enhanced as well by the fact that his half brother, Terry, nine years his senior and his mother’s son by her former lover, Jack Isaac Rosenberg, was half Jewish.
An adventurous and liberated woman, Peggy was the daughter of Jimmy Burns, a professional soldier of Irish descent who fought with distinction during the First World War. However, when he returned home to England virtually penniless, he resorted to what he did best: playing the clarinet in the streets of Tunbridge Wells, as passersby threw coins into his hat in appreciation. Music was a Burns family passion and all six of Jimmy’s children—Peggy, the eldest; Nora; Vivienne; Una; the youngest girl, Pat; and their brother, Jimmy, all sang and played an instrument.
When David was a little boy, every Sunday during lunch, he and his parents would listen to the BBC Light Programme’s Family Favorites together. Peggy’s most beloved song was “O for the Wings of a Dove,” sung by soprano boy singer Ernest Lough, and she would sing along with him, transported.
“Her voice would soar in ambitious unison, effortlessly matching Ernest note for note as she delivered the gravy boat to the table,” said David, who went on to remember that his mother told him: “ ‘All our family could sing. We couldn’t do much else but we all loved music. It was thought I’d have a career in music at one time.’ ”
Apart from sharing her son’s musical talent, he and Peggy had something else strikingly in common: Throughout her life, Peggy composed poems—lush, introspective poems—which, even though she left school at fourteen, were quite literate. In addition to writing poetry, like John, she also read a great deal. Sometimes it seemed to visitors that she was so involved in whatever book she was reading that it was as if she were alone in the room and David wasn’t there at all. Terminally self-involved, Peggy didn’t bother herself with encouraging David’s burgeoning artistic talents. “A compliment from her was very hard to come by. I would get my paints out and all she would say was, ‘I hope you’re not going to make a mess,’ ” David remembered.
According to Ken Pitt, David confided that his mother never kissed him. “There was no sign of affection any time,” Dudley Chapman, one of David’s childhood friends, confirmed. “It was a very cold household. She’d feed him, clothe him, do all the mother’s things, but there was no cuddling.”
Peggy’s lack of warmth toward David would take its toll on his emotions for her. So that when he grew up and left home, he would virtually sever contact with her and his family. In 1992 David’s aunt Pat, Peggy’s youngest sister, tracked his unhappy relationship with his mother and recalled, “David started out as a fun-loving, beautiful little child. But he grew up in a cold atmosphere and by the time he was five he was extremely quiet and serious.
“I remember David coming home from school when he was fourteen upset by something which had happened that day. He ran upstairs and threw himself onto his bed sobbing his heart out. I asked Peggy if she was going to see what was wrong. She went up, but, being such
an unemotional person, she was unable to give him a hug or a cuddle to make him feel better.
“David turned to her and said quietly, ‘You know, Mum, sometimes I think you hate me,’ ” his aunt Pat said.
Although Peggy did do the requisite amount of cooking and cleaning and washed David’s clothes into his teens, her deep-seated remoteness, her strangeness, her inability to relate closely to David are highly likely to have been a slight manifestation of the schizophrenia from which her sisters Una, Nora, and Vivienne also all suffered. For as much as David might try and joke about it, cracking of his family, “Most of them are nutty—just out of, or going into an institution,” the reality was dark and serious.
In September 1950, Una was sent to a mental hospital, Park Prewett, where she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. She was thereafter subjected to archaic treatments for the condition, and died in her thirties. Vivienne suffered from schizophrenia. Nora was also hospitalized, diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis, and, most horrifying of all, underwent a lobotomy. Then there was Terry, David’s half brother, whom David idolized, but who would also be felled by the family curse of schizophrenia.
It was inevitable, then, that David would grow up haunted by the specter of mental illness and petrified of losing his wits. “He told me so, quite often and quite clearly,” his first wife, Angie, confided.
“He told me about the insanity that ran through his family and that it scared him,” model Winona Williams, who had a two-year relationship with him in the early seventies, said.
“There’s a lot of madness in my family,” David told biographer George Tremlett, who proceeded to suggest to him that he was merely talking about eccentricity. “No, madness—real fucking madness,” David shot back. “It worries me sometimes, because I don’t know whether it’s in my genes and if I’ll end up that way, too.”
David’s salvation would prove to be his love of reading, which led him to R. D. Laing’s seminal reappraisal of schizophrenia, The Divided
Self, published when David was thirteen, and which became one of his all-time favorite books. In it, Laing wrote, “It is the thesis of this study that schizophrenia is a possible outcome of a more than usual difficulty in being a whole person with the other, and with not sharing the common-sense (i.e., the community sense) way of experiencing oneself in the world.” Or, put more simply, Laing also said, “Insanity—a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”
Laing’s book, a sensation upon publication in Britain, was the first bulwark against David’s fear of inheriting his family’s insanity. The second was his ability to submerge his fear in his lyrics and thus disarm it.
But he was a winsome baby, with blue eyes, blond hair; his photogenic little face is wreathed in smiles, and the only intimation of the future captured in the earliest photographs of him when he was ten months old, is his charisma. In short, he is the epitome of a happy bouncing baby. But as always, with David, everything is not what it seems.
A quintessential moment in his childhood: “The very first memory I have is of being left in my pram in the hallway of 40 Stansfield Road, facing the stairs. It seemed to be a very, very long time and I was very scared of the stairs. They were dark and shadowy,” he recalled