Read Bowie: A Biography Online

Authors: Marc Spitz

Bowie: A Biography (8 page)

BOOK: Bowie: A Biography
2.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Both boys and girls were attracted to him because of his newly enhanced charisma and experience, and he did not differentiate between those who wished to pay a little physical tribute to it. Given the outrageousness of the Crowe interview it remains unclear just how extensively David explored his sexuality at the time. Surely the Beats, who he admired and took cues from, were frank about such experimentations, but both his best friend George Underwood and future wife Angie maintain that David’s motivation was “pussy,” or “the p word,” as they described it respectively. If his claim to Crowe is true, fastidious Peggy could not have possibly approved of any same-sex screwing under her own roof; perhaps she would have taken solace in the fact that he did it “neatly.”

David’s sexual fervor could, on occasion, get him into trouble. “We did have a falling-out over one girl,” Underwood recalls. “Carol Goldsmith.” This event, which took place in the spring of 1961, has become a
legendary part of the Bowie creation myth, and its result has been attributed to a Brixton street fight and even named as evidence of his extraterrestrial origins, as surely nobody born on planet Earth has mismatched eyes like that. The reality is that he cock-blocked his best friend and schoolmate and got slugged for it.

“When I was fourteen I fell in love with a girl,” David said in 1973. “I can’t even remember her name now—but at the time I was crazy about her. Only trouble was, my best mate had a bit of a soft spot for her, too. I was the winner. Quicker off the mark, I suppose! I moved in before he’d even made up his mind how to approach her. Anyway—next day I was at school boasting to my mate about what a Casanova I was and he became terribly annoyed. In fact he threw a punch at me!”

In actuality, David didn’t seduce her as much as make it impossible for Underwood to have a chance. “David would probably say that he can’t remember the actual story,” Underwood has said, “but he can remember things clearly if he chooses to. He knew damn well why I did it. We both wanted to go out with her and I was lucky enough to get a date. On the day [of the date] David rang me up and said that she had to cancel. So I didn’t go, but he’d made up the whole story. The girl stood around for over an hour, waiting for me, as I discovered later. It was a bastard thing to do and I was furious with him, so it developed into a fight between us. And during the punch-up, I caught his eye with a fingernail.”

“It caught me in the eye, and I stumbled against a wall and onto my knees,” David recalled. “At first he thought I was kidding—it wasn’t a very hard punch. But it had obviously caught me at rather an odd angle.”

Underwood accompanied David to the school secretary’s office, where the injured eye was treated with cold compresses. The nurse arrived and soon it became clear that the damage was a bit more serious. David was taken to nearby Farnsborough Hospital. There, doctors noticed that the sphincter muscles of his left eye were badly torn, preventing the pupil from dilating or contracting. David’s parents rushed to their son’s bedside to comfort him.

“At first they thought I’d lose my eye,” he recalled. “I was scared stiff.” Doctors managed to save David’s eye and his sight was not seriously affected, but the cosmetic aspects of the condition would be permanent.

“For quite a while I was very embarrassed about it,” David said in the early seventies. “Although I could see very well out of the eye, it made me self-conscious.” David grew to relish the attention. He had already started to use his distinctive qualities, his pale, thin androgynous physique to attract it. Now he had something that nobody else had: a screwed-up eye. Rock ’n’ roll has a long tradition of stars using their physical flaws in ways that make them unique and sexy. Pete Townshend did little to hide his outsized nose and in fact he held it high and regal. Prince’s stature, Meat-loafs girth, Joey Ramone’s gangly frame, Dolly Parton’s cup size—each of them probably found their unique feature to be a liability during their awkward teenage years but surely felt grateful for the distinction it provided once they were in their twenties.

“We didn’t have the Web back then, had no way of knowing the details of why he had that bad eye,” Professor Camille Paglia, a Bowie fan since the early 1970s, told me. “Now we have much more info about what happened, but at the time, it gave him an abstract look. It made him look like a mannequin. Like Nefertiti. He really does. His face during the
Aladdin Sane
period has a strangled Nefertiti look. Mysterious. The idea of having one eye that sees and one eye that has been touched or blighted in some way, in myth and legend, it implies mystic powers. The bad eye sees within. Sees invisible things. It’s uncanny. It’s eerie that Bowie has the regular eye and this strange eye that’s always permanently dilated … always looking but not really seeing. He has a dual vision, really. To me that’s symbolic of major artists anyway. They see the physical world and they see the spiritual world. To me they are oracular. Often in legends the artists have a handicap. Homer was blind, so and so was lame. You are physically incapacitated in some way but it gives you this special gift. That blighted eye is the sign of Bowie’s special gift, the hallucinatory part of his imagination.”

4.
 

D
AVID LEFT
B
ROMLEY
in the summer of 1963, when he was sixteen. Those who weren’t going on to college at that age were expected to get an entry-level job in an office, shop, food service establishment or factory. Despite his intelligence and creativity, David’s was a less than sterling academic record. He passed only two “O-levels,” or final exams. “I would have got three but they don’t award them for imagination,” he would later quip.

Bromley Tech’s careers officer responded to David’s declaration that he wanted to find work as a professional musician by pointing him toward an open position in a nearby factory that produced harps, but David politely ignored this suggestion. John Jones found him temporary work as an electrician’s assistant but he only helped with minimal wiring before politely declining to show up for work ever again. Finally, Owen Frampton pulled some strings and found him work as a designer at the London branch of the famous ad agency J. Walter Thompson.

J. Walter Thompson, or JWT as it’s commonly known today, was and is an industry giant, the first-ever global firm (founded in 1864), responsible for some of the best-known branding images in English and American pop history (from Prudential Life Insurance to Cadbury chocolates). Even a walk-in position at a prestigious corporation like this might have led to a long career in the field. The notion of a finely-tailored young David Bowie as modish
Mad Man
is certainly intriguing. However, David was only a bit more enthusiastic about this than he was about his part-time electrician gig and only because the position would enable him to spend his days in London.

Sometimes he would stay in the city and walk around, browsing the cafés, record shops and boutiques that were springing up daily in light of the continuing economic boom that Britain was then enjoying. There was, however, always the specter of that last train back to Bromley at eleven thirty. If he’d meet a girl or a fellow rock ’n’ roller he found interesting, he knew he’d have to extricate himself from whatever experience in order to make it home.

“The last train was a huge part of our lives,” says Hanif Kureishi. “The last train was a big deal for people from Bromley. If you got the last train you were lucky. Otherwise you had to sit at the station till morning. You know. You had to get the last train or you stayed up all night in London. You had to make this decision whether you’re going to pull this chick or whether you’re going to make the last train. It was a nightmare.”

“He only took the job for his father’s sake, because his father thought that all this business with groups and music could well be a passing fad and that at least if he spent a year or so at work, it would give him some stable grounding to fall back on,” Peggy said. “So David did go to work there, though not without protest. I can remember him coming home and moaning about his ‘blooming job’ and traveling up and down on the train.”

David’s job title, “junior visualizer,” was appropriately vague. The firm represented various clients, pasting up ads for raincoats and even a dietary cookie with the unfortunate brand name “Ayds” (which has since been discontinued for obvious reasons).

In all his meanderings outside the office, Dobell’s, one of the city’s best record shops at the time, located nearby on Charing Cross Road, was where he could be found on most days.

“My immediate boss, Ian, a groovy modernist with a Gerry Mulligan-style short-crop haircut and Chelsea boots, was very encouraging about my passion for music, something he and I both shared,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “He used to send me on errands to Dobell’s, knowing I’d be there for most of the morning till well after lunch break. It was there, in the bins, that I found Bob Dylan’s first album. Ian had sent me there to get him a John Lee Hooker release and advised me to pick up a copy for myself, as it was so wonderful.”

“Dobell’s was
the
record shop,” George Underwood says. “David played me some fuckin’ great music he picked up there. Mingus, Kirk, Dr. John, John Lee Hooker—loads of wicked blues records.”

By 1960, the blues had replaced the first wave of rock ’n’ roll as the fave rave music for hip young Londoners. With Little Richard a born-again Christian, Elvis enlisted in the army in Germany. Chuck Berry in jail for violating the Mann Act, Buddy Holly dead in a plane crash and Jerry Lee Lewis plagued by a scandal after bringing his thirteen-year-old
cousin and child bride overseas on a 1958 British tour, it seemed like the initial excitement and danger of rock had faded. In the place of the revolutionary first wave came a crop of pleasant pop crooners, like Matt Monro, or clueless teen idols who were in no hurry to change the culture. Many of these were discovered and managed by a figure named Larry Parnes, who would not have been out of place on our current
American Idol
panel. Parnes, clean-cut and handsome himself, was happy to prefabricate stars, package them with a Tin Pan Alley–penned “hit” and foist them condescendingly on the hungry teenage market. With ethnically vague names like Johnny Gentle, Vince Eager, Marty Wilde, Tommy Steele and Dickie Pride, many of these pop singers borrowed their look from an American icon like Presley or Sinatra but held none of their raw charisma or even adult sexuality. Only the Shadows, featuring Cliff Richard, were an English chart act that wrote their own songs, played their own instruments and seemed relatively authentic. They too were derivative of American acts like the Ventures, but they were a point of pride nonetheless for young rockers like David, George Underwood and Peter Frampton.

“The Shadows were our wildly loved band,” Frampton says. “They influenced everybody.” While barely known in America outside of a pocket of Anglophiles, the Shadows had a very strong effect on the early leather-clad Beatles who would soon adopt a similar look, if only because of their presentation (smart suits, long hair).

“[Shadows front man] Cliff Richard was a poor copy of Elvis Presley,” says music publicist Greg Tesser. “In everything he did, even the curled lip. They were boring. The wild men were gone and in their place, you had this real sort of cosmetic, this very sort of sanitized stuff, and it was very boring indeed.”

“Some of the guys who were part of the original rock scene were quite edgy initially but it all softened down,” Dick Taylor, of British R & B legends the Pretty Things, says today. “One year you had Gene Vincent and the next year you had people like Greg Douglas. For anybody who was really into music, rock ’n’ roll was losing its thing. We were pissed off with the fact that there wasn’t anything there anymore. It just sort of went into pop pap.”

Working up a passionate interest in the blues seemed an antidote to such cynical and self-interested offerings. Blues artists like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson found themselves in great demand for lucrative overseas gigs. Marginalized in their own country, they were greeted like heroes when they flew to London to play to packed crowds in dank, subterranean cafés in Soho. They also found a presence on BBC radio.

“The BBC had a musicians’ union ban on it about playing records. They got ’round this a bit by playing classic R & B records in programs that were designated either history or education. This built a market for artists of this genre and many started coming to the UK on small tours—often with trad [traditional] jazz bands. The BBC would put a live band behind them and do live broadcasts and the whole R & B genre grew in popularity,” Simon Napier-Bell says.

The rampant popularity of these easy-to-play but emotionally complex and effortlessly cool forms soon inspired bored teens all over England to found their own soul and R & B combos, all with an eye toward gaining a recording contract. Suddenly, every lead singer needed to play the harmonica. The older pop labels like Decca had signed the Rolling Stones from Dartford. EMI had signed the Beatles from, of course, Liverpool. Pye signed the Kinks from North London and the High Numbers, who would soon change their name to the Who. Months before they would explode, each of these bands was working up their act. There were dozens more: the aforementioned Pretty Things (Taylor was an old art school classmate of the Stones’ Keith Richards), Downliners Sect, Van Morrison’s early band Them, Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men, Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band (featuring Andy Summers, later of the Police), Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Brian Auger and the Trinity, Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds, Graham Bond Organization, Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc., Cyril Davies All-Stars, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

By ’63 London’s sweaty underground clubs, modeled on the Parisian jazz cellars, could no longer accommodate the blues-crazed teenagers, and one by one these acts came up from the caverns and took over proper jazz venues like the Marquee. To some, playing the blues in a “trad” jazz venue was tantamount to Dylan going electric a few years
later. “All the bollocks the snobby jazz fan put on the blues,” Taylor says. “They thought if you’re a musician somehow you can’t just enjoy playing. You’re selling out.”

BOOK: Bowie: A Biography
2.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Breaking the Greek's Rules by Anne McAllister
Never Marry a Stranger by Gayle Callen
Siren's Fury by Mary Weber
Good Sensations by S. L. Scott