Authors: Marc Spitz
“It wasn’t a place of much distinction,” Hanif Kureishi, author of the Bromley-set novel
The Buddha of Suburbia
and another famous son, told me in his clipped, vaguely tough (for a novelist anyway) accent. “And
H. G. Wells was a big source of pride. He was a very hip writer.” To be middle-class in England, I’m also told, is akin to being, say, upper-working-class in America. It essentially means that there is enough money for food and bills but few amenities or luxuries. It means that you can own a small house, as opposed to a tiny flat. Your family might also boast a small tree in the yard, enabling those inside to look out your window and see something green, and ostensibly preventing neighbors from peering in completely.
In the fifties, Brixton became a place where many West Indian immigrants settled and sought work repairing the war-damaged infrastructure. As Britain’s economy slowly began strengthening in the new postwar decade, many white families like the Joneses drew on their small savings and left the city for the fast-developing suburbs. The same thing happened in America, only the houses were much larger; so were the dreams of leafy safety and modernized comfort, something to which more people felt entitled. Few upwardly mobile American families would settle for a home as boxlike as the one the Joneses moved into at 106 Canon Drive in south Bromley in the winter of 1953, with no driveway in which to park a new Cadillac or Buick. But for the Blitz-scarred English of a certain age, this was a huge step up. The following year the Joneses moved to a slightly larger house, set slightly back among the rows at 23 Clarence Road. Here they enjoyed an even more effective illusion of privacy. Still, one gets the sense, walking past these homes today (like the Brixton homes, they are largely unchanged), that everyone remained very aware of everyone else’s business. Perhaps this is because none of these buildings extend beyond two or three stories and few are farther than fifteen feet apart. For those given to mild claustrophobia, the feeling produced while inside must be akin to quietly choking: inhaling the very same air that your parents and siblings breathe, but also that which your neighbors, tolerated or reviled, breathe. If there’s a message implicit in the energy there, it’s this: there better not be anything funny going on; if there is, we will know about it.
“In England, the suburbs are a place where people have conservative values,” punk icon Siouxsie Sioux, who grew up in nearby Chislehurst, says. “Keep a stiff upper lip and mind your own business, but they’re also secretly very nosey about everybody else.”
The Jones family’s third and final residence in Bromley, at 4 Plaistow Grove, sits at the dead end of a curved road, just behind the local Tudor-style pub, known as the Crown. It overlooks a chain-link fence tangled with vegetation and a dark wood railway station. At night, the preadolescent David could hear the pub chatter emanate from the back room, which was directly under his bedroom window, only about fifteen yards or so away beyond a thin plywood fence. The Crown is still there today, offering “good food, and fine ale.” Perhaps the pub chatter was lulling, akin to falling asleep with the television or radio on today. Or maybe it was distracting. People do tend to say things after a few pints that a young boy might not want to know about. Did he hear soldiers and merchants talk about travel? Did this, coupled with the trains pulling in and out, also impossible to avoid from his bed, pique David’s interest in a world beyond this modest, white two-story house, with its stone walk and little square of lawn, now full of dandelions? The closeness to the pub’s back room and the station really do beg such questions. And if all of this did affect him, there were only two ways to escape such taunting: via one’s imagination and, eventually, by stepping onto a train at that railway station. This spot may very well be where the confluence of David Bowie’s need for intellectual stimulation and unmoored searching might have been formed in the young David Jones’s personality. Walk across the elevated concrete bridge and stare down at the tracks, and it’s hard not to wonder how strange it must have been for the adult David to return there from the city after a night performing at the Marquee Club in Soho. He lived here, after all, well into his career as a professional musician. I imagine that he could hear Peggy and John snore in their bedroom. On a Bowie-ist side note—and this probably means little to anyone living in Bromley—directly across from the Crown pub and facing the back fence of David’s house and the window of his room is a black storefront with a giant glass window full of mannequins attired in Renaissance costume or Victorian formal-wear. Its name: Larger Than Life Stagewear: Theatrical Costumes for Hire. While the store is obviously one of the newer developments on this slowly modernizing block, its wares are symbolic, as theatrical costume would essentially provide David with his H. G. Wells–ian ticket out of Bromley for good.
In keeping with their new stature, the Joneses took pains to make sure that their child was exceedingly presentable. The class photo from his
primary school, Burnt Ash in Bromley, dated 1958, shows David with a starched shirt and neatly parted hair, looking more like a miniature man than a tousle-haired kid. Every one of his classmates appears exactly the same.
“David was always clean and tidy and spotless,” his aunt Pat Antoniou has said. “My sister made a thing of that. Every five minutes she would say, ‘Pull your sock up,’ ‘Have you washed your face?’”
For all of his childhood and much of his adult life, the private David Bowie has been painfully shy. It’s naturally difficult to believe that any celebrity is shy, as the very prism through which we view them is public, loud and larger than life. Lots of performers claim to be shy offstage and freely acknowledge the paradoxical elements of their public and private selves. They invent personas who can speak and sing and be generally extroverted (Eminem’s “Slim Shady” and Beyoncé’s “Sasha Fierce” being the latest in a long line that most famously includes Ziggy Stardust), while their true shy selves lie buried and protected somewhere deep inside. Once he’d achieved a kind of perma-fame previously enjoyed only by movie legends, David began to reveal much about his own shyness. In a 1975 interview with Dinah Shore, for example, he admits, “The one thing I didn’t like was being terribly shy. An incredibly shy person. And so I over-compensated. I thought that if I gave myself an alarming kind of reputation then I would have to learn to defend myself and therefore come out of myself.” Henry Winkler, by the way, is one of Dinah Shore’s other guests on that show (Nancy Walker of the famous Bounty paper towel ads rounds the panel out). Dinah introduced Winkler as “the David Bowie
of Happy Days.”
(Eternally polite, Bowie says, “I’m a great fan of Fonzie.”) In the clip, while Bowie and Walker puff away on their cigarettes, Winkler blathers on about art (“The chemicals come together and there’s fire!”). It’s a telling clip nonetheless.
Rather than being a form of self-denial, many believe that shyness is actually a form of heightened self-regard. This is crucial to understanding how David Bowie, rock star, grew out of David Jones, potential suburban drone. Unchecked, the self-preoccupation manifests as social awkwardness or phobia, but examined and harnessed (as Bowie claims to have done quite literally, explaining in interviews that he would literally itemize things that he disliked about himself, then take pains to remove the useless inventory) one can, with luck and timing in the mix, go supernova. On
another interesting side note, I’ve come across reports that suggest that those possessing the physical characteristics of blue eyes, blond hair and pale skin, which Bowie does, can be more shy than those without. Experts believe it has something to do with melatonin. Shyness can be detected in infants as early as two months.
By the time the Joneses moved from Brixton to Bromley and David enrolled in school, he was exhibiting these tendencies. Famously, during his first day at Raglan Infant school, he was so overcome, he reportedly wet himself.
Those afflicted by self-regard in the extreme frequently require the attention of others either to confirm an observation or suspicion about themselves or justify the fixation altogether. And so, although it would seem antithetical, it’s often the most painfully shy people who eventually do become the most flamboyant public figures. Behind the closed doors of his new suburban home, with its neatly arranged knickknacks and chintz and plastic sheets covering every chair as well as the sofa, the preadolescent David Jones was already exhibiting unusual, “look at me” tendencies, most of which were quickly discouraged.
“When he was about three years old, he put on makeup for the first time,” Peggy recalled. “We had tenants in the house and one day he went missing upstairs and found a bag of lipstick, eyeliner and face powder, and decided it would be a good idea to plaster his face with it. When I finally found him, he looked for all the world like a clown. I told him that he shouldn’t use makeup, but he said, ‘You do, Mummy.’ I agreed but pointed out that it wasn’t for little boys.”
As with most British youth of the era, David was taught strict manners, and these seem to have stuck. In interviews with most rock stars it’s rare to see an abundance of pleases and thank-yous. Grunts and sulking is much more common. Not so with Bowie. Bound by this rigidity, David initially fell neatly in line at school and became popular with his teachers. He participated in school activities like choir and the local scouting troop the Wolf Cubs. His half brother Terry may have been the one who provided, although probably not intentionally, an insight into how this polite and uniform veneer was something of an illusion.
David sensed that Terry—who had grown into a darkly handsome man, not unlike Dustin Hoffman circa
in photos—was in a
steadily increasing amount of pain. He began to have fainting spells. His reportedly chilly relationship with John Jones only got worse, and as a teen, Terry started to rebel. He stayed in school until age fifteen. Despite what Angie Bowie and others have insisted to me was a fierce intellect, Terry Burns did not go on to college. Instead, as many of his generation did naturally, he joined the workforce, taking odd jobs and finding modest lodgings in the Bromley vicinity. The usual domestic politicking that marks any family, especially one with stepchildren and parents involved, went on in the privacy of the Plaistow Grove house. The only child Peggy and John had together, of the three that they had in total, David was doted on, while Terry, when present, was often ignored. And it could not have been easy for David to accept this without feeling some measure of guilt. David worshipped Terry, by all accounts, and the older child doted on the boy. When friction arose between John and Terry, Peggy was pressured to side with her spouse. While such details are not uncommon, especially in the postwar West, they provide a key to understanding what soon pulled the preteen David out of his inner world and forced him to reckon with the darker, more volatile elements of social engagement and essentially invent himself as an emotionally armored teenage rebel, a sort of proto–Ziggy Stardust; essentially, what led him to music. “I think he felt very responsible, as children do, for the fact that he was the favorite child,” his cousin Kristina has said, “and he was given attention by his father, and Terry wasn’t.”
It was around this period of domestic volatility when David first heard what would become one of his touchstone songs: “The Inchworm.”
In 1952 the Brooklyn-born actor Danny Kaye (real name David Daniel Kaminsky) starred in
Hans Christian Andersen
, a musical version of the life and work of the beloved Danish children’s fairy tale writer. The songs were composed by the great Frank Loesser, who also wrote the songs for the Broadway musical
Guys and Dolls
and the sexy holiday standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Although “Thumbelina” is probably the best-known song on the film’s soundtrack, the “deep Loesser cut” is “Inchworm,” or “The Inchworm,” depending on how it’s listed.
In the film, there’s an unintentionally creepy scene in which Kaye (whose sexual preference was, like Andersen’s and David Bowie’s, the
subject of much ambiguity and debate) walks past a classroom and peers into the open door at the children as they sit in their rows, counting in song: “Two and two are four. Four and four are eight …” The justifiably concerned professor slams the door on him. Hardly chastened, he finds a patch of yellow marigolds, and, happily, another small boy, and as the schoolchildren continue to sing the melody, he sings a counter verse: “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds / Seems to me you’d stop and see how beautiful they are.” It’s a practical ditty designed to teach young children measurements, but surely it also instructs them on how fleeting serenity will be as they grow older and fussier—the most mournful song about math ever made.
“The Inchworm” has been covered by everyone from John Coltrane to John Lithgow. Tony Bennett does a version that will give you stomach flutters, but Kaye’s rendition, with or without Muppets (he reprised it on
The Muppet Show
in the late seventies), is the standard, and the recorded version became five-year-old David Jones’s favorite. Simply, it made him feel safe and hopeful when his increasingly discomfiting family life and shyness filled him with guilt and wariness. The record was never far from his gramophone.
“‘Inchworm’ is my childhood,” Bowie said in 1993 (curiously, in an interview with fashion model Kate Moss). “It wasn’t a happy one. Not that it was brutal but mine were a certain type of British parent: quite cold emotionally and not many hugs. I always craved affection cause of that. ‘Inchworm’ gave me comfort and the person singing it sounded like he’d been hurt too and I’m into that, the artist singing away his pain.”
When David first began learning guitar and saxophone in his adolescence, the chords for “The Inchworm” would be the first he would seek out. If you listen to the structure and melody, you can hear the template for many of David Bowie’s best and saddest songs. It’s there in “Life on Mars?” and “Aladdin Sane.” Even his cover of Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington’s “Wild Is the Wind” (first recorded by Johnny Mathis for the 1957 film of the same name, but made famous by Nina Simone in ’64, Bowie in ’76, and much later, in 2000, Chan Marshall on Cat Power’s
The Covers Record)
has a little “Inchworm” in its arrangement and delivery.