Bowie days

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I originally wrote this piece for GQ magazine, in the immediate wake of David Bowie’s passing. Decided to post it here for those who might be interested.

I first met David Bowie in the spring of 1969 when Comus, the band in which I played guitar, performed at The Three Tuns pub in Beckenham. The Arts Lab – founded there by David Bowie and Mary Finnigan – held its weekly events in the spacious back room of the pub. David was really enthusiastic about Comus and we were nominated resident band. The first time we played there, I remember David sitting cross-legged on the floor just a few feet away from the barstool I was sitting on. He was rocking backwards and forwards, a big grin on his face, enthralled. This impressed me as he had already made a name for himself as a singer-songwriter and here he was revelling in Comus music.

David regularly headlined at the Arts Lab (Comus and David shared the residency). I was really struck when, sitting on the same barstool I’d just vacated, David produced the famous Stylophone and performed “Major Tom”. The Stylophone was seen at the time as a kind of toy, made famous by Rolf Harris. It was not generally taken seriously as a musical instrument in its own right. It looked so insignificant resting on David’s knee as he began to slide the small, plastic stylus, across the metallic ‘keyboard’. I had to ask myself what the hell he was doing. But suddenly, hearing those warbling notes booming out of the PA, transformed this ‘toy’ into something totally unique. It had, for me, a strange mixture of the cheap-and-nasty and, at the same time, something much more haunting and profound. David would also play along to a tape machine set-up behind him on the small, cluttered dais and sync his performance with pre-recorded tracks. I don’t remember seeing anything like it before. It was typically David. He was constantly surprising, original, and eminently entertaining.

The Beckenham Arts Lab, as it was officially called, was always busy with musicians, artists, poets. Being young at the time I saw it as a real community of like-minded folk in the midst of a very creative enterprise and environment. People wanted to be part of it and learn about it. And, as far as I recall, no particular trend or social group was excluded. You’d meet all kinds of people who’d drifted over from the other bars to see what all the fuss was about and get drawn in. Maybe I’m idealising it but I can’t remember any fights or trouble there. Everyone seemed to get on well. As David once commented; it was no pseud’s corner. I guess, that was the biggest crime; to pretend to be something you were not.

Shortly after I moved to Beckenham I bumped into David one afternoon whilst travelling on a bus. I hadn’t known him long. He was older than me by several years and much more confidant and self-assured than myself. In fact, being a bit shy, I sometimes found him a little intimidating. He wasn’t one to mince words, as they say. The bus was a 194 heading in the direction of West Wickham. I got on and saw David sitting toward the back on the left. He was alone, staring out of the window. I caught his eye and we exchanged nods, but he didn’t smile, as he normally would have. He turned back to the window, apparently distracted by the passing world. I sat down next to him. He didn’t look up or turn my way. It was obvious he wasn’t in the mood for conversation. Eventually I broke the silence and asked him how he was. Then, with a hint of anger and bitterness in his voice, he came straight out with it; ‘my father’s just died’. And that was that. I was stunned. I sat there, immobilised, unable to comment. I couldn’t even utter a cliché like; ‘I’m very sorry to hear that, David’, because, as this phrase formed in my head, it sounded like some crass, throwaway remark from a bad film. But, a second passed, and those very words just tumbled out of my mouth. It was as if they had a will of their own – anything to fill the gaping vacuum that had opened up. The bus rumbled on, and David and I sat in complete silence. I had no idea where he was going and I had missed my stop.

David made frequent trips to the United States. He was spending more and more time there and coming into contact with new influences and musicians, such as Lou Reed. The States was really impacting his ideas about style, especially where music and fashion were heading. In one of our conversations he was excited to tell me that the days of long hair and flower power were over. The new ‘look’, as he had seen it emerging from the USA, was much more masculine; short hair, sharp suites and glamorous styling. He was acutely aware of trends and the way fashion and music were constantly changing and he wanted to play a major role in directing and influencing those changes.

David and Angie rented a large ground floor flat in Haddon Hall, Southend Road, Beckenham (since been demolished). It was pretty much open house, if I remember. You didn’t have to make an appointment or anything formal like that to visit, which I often did. At that time Zowie (Duncan) Bowie was an infant. So you would have this very interesting, nappy-changing, toy-rattling, baby-crying, family environment woven into this bohemian, very creative but slightly crazy atmosphere.

I remember David and Angie were having new tiles laid in the entrance hall. They were a particular interlocking design, in simple buff coloured clay. I’d never seen anything quite like them before. Angie said they were especially imported from Spain. It was another indication to me that you couldn’t put your foot down in this environment without treading on some original or arresting moment.

I think it was in a conversation at the Arts Lab one evening that David invited me round to Haddon Hall to show me an ‘interesting’ object he had recently acquired. He knew I was an artist as well as a musician and, I presumed, valued my opinion. It was on this occasion that I discovered David was an avid collector of ‘Victoriana’. Well, I believe it was his ‘current’ passion as he had a keen eye for anything he considered original, beautiful and ultimately inspiring.

To say he was glowing with enthusiasm when he produced this object would be overstating it, but he marvelled at it and wanted me to partake in the marvel. This recent discovery was the reason he had invited me over that day and, in all honesty, I did share that moment of marvel with him as he presented me a perplexing and curious ceramic bowl. It was the size of a fruit bowl, maybe ten or twelve inches in diameter and roughly six or seven inches deep. It was an unusual washed-out viridian and pale cream colour. The most striking feature, and obviously the reason why David had acquired it, was the ghostly arrangement of nymph-like heads modelled in low-relief that ‘swam’ all the way around the outside of the bowl. These heads were raised, as if out of water, under which, like weeds swaying in a clear stream, you could make out the vague outline of their submerged bodies. This image really stuck in my mind. It was captivating; a real one off, like David himself.

Time and distance play tricks with the memory but I believe it was following on from the exhibition of the ‘spirit’ bowl that David asked me if I would like to hear his latest album; ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. I don’t think the album had actually been released yet. So, I thought, as you would, great, what a treat. He’s going to give me a pre-release playing of the record. I was flattered. I followed David into another room. It was a smallish space with a fireplace. There was a kilim or some other Indian type rug on the floor. Then, to my astonishment, David picked up his guitar and sat down, cross-legged on the floor. He invited me to do the same. I sat opposite him with the rug, like some dormant magic-carpet, between us. He then said, ‘this is called Superman’. And he started playing and singing. I sat there while he performed the entire album to me. Every now and again he would ask me what I thought about this or that song. And I had to ask myself, what the hell was my opinion worth at this moment? Some pieces were certainly more melodic than others and I hoped my muttered approvals were understood for what they were. In all honesty I was not a huge fan of David’s music at that particular period of his career. I preferred the later stuff. Amusingly, I remember thinking as I watched his chord positions played close-up, and his right hand churning over the strings, that he wasn’t a great guitarist. But for David Bowie, what the hell did that matter?

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