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David Bowie: Starman
By Paul Trynka
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Paul Trynka illuminates Bowie’s seemingly contradictory life and his many reinventions as an artist, offering over 300 new interviews with everyone from classmates to managers to lovers. He reveals Bowie’s broad influence on the entertainment world, from movie star to modern-day icon, trend-setter to musical innovator. This book will define Bowie for years to come.
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I Hope I Make It on My Own
When I'm Five
Everything seemed gray. We wore short gray flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, gray socks, and gray shirts. The roads were gray, the prefabs were gray, and there were still quite a few bomb sites around in 1956—these also seemed to be made of gray rubble.
IT WAS A COLD, wet November in 1991, like the cold, wet Novembers of his childhood, when David Bowie asked his driver to take the scenic route to the Brixton Academy. The smoke-filled tour bus pulled slowly through Stansfield Road, just a few hundred yards from the venue, paused briefly outside a large, anonymous three-story Victorian house, and then moved on.
Bowie had been chatty, open, almost surprisingly vulnerable in the past twelve weeks, but he remained silent for a few minutes as he gazed out the window. Then he turned around, and guitarist Eric Schermerhorn, sitting next to him, could see tears trickling down his employer's cheeks. "It's a miracle," David Bowie murmured. He was unashamed of his vulnerability. "I probably should have been an accountant. I don't know how this all happened."
For Schermerhorn, who'd witnessed Bowie's showmanship and poise close up, the mental image of David Robert Jones inspecting a company spreadsheet was ludicrous. And the doubt David had expressed to Schermerhorn a few days before—that he didn't even know if he could sing—was even more bizarre; Schermerhorn had seen the man's almost mystical ability to hold a show together and dominate a crowd. Over the forthcoming months, Schermerhorn would learn from Bowie's friends and from his own observations about the man's organization, his "executive abilities," his talent for working the system. Yet here he was, surveying the scene of his childhood, convinced this was some kind of accident. The idea was ridiculous. Hadn't someone so eminently glamorous always been fated to be a star?
DAVID Bowie has described himself as a "Brixton boy" more than once. Although his stay there was brief, it's an apt term. Brixton in January of 1947 was a unique location, the cultural focus of South London, blessed with its own racy glamour, battered but unbowed by the Luftwaffe and Hitler's terror weapons, whose destruction was visible wherever you walked.
It was natural that David's father, Haywood Stenton Jones, should gravitate toward Brixton, for its vaudeville traditions matched his own fantasies. Born in Doncaster on November 21, 1912, and brought up in the picturesque Yorkshire brewery town of Tadcaster, he had a tough childhood: His own father had died in the First World War, and his mother soon afterward. Raised by the local council and by an aunt, Haywood Jones came into an inheritance from the family footwear business when he was eighteen. "So he bought a theatre troupe. What a wise idea!" David recounted years later. The enterprise lost Haywood much of his fortune, and he invested what was left in a London West End nightclub that catered to boxers and other exotic characters; during this short-lived venture, he also acquired a wife, pianist Hilda Sullivan. When the nightclub burned up most of his remaining cash, Haywood developed a stomach ulcer. The idea of working for a children's charity came to him in a dream; it was both an escape route from his own troubles and a way of helping kids who'd suffered fractured childhoods like his own. In September of 1935 he started work at Dr. Barnardo's at Stepney Causeway, an imposing, Gothic-style complex of buildings in the heart of London's East End that had provided a refuge for homeless children since the 1870s.
When the Second World War broke out, Haywood was among the first to enlist; he served with the Royal Fusiliers, who fought in France, North Africa, and Europe. When he returned to a battered but victorious London in October of 1945, Haywood rejoined Barnardo's as general superintendent to the chief of staff. Like many marriages during the war, Haywood's didn't last; it was doubtless damaged by his affair with a nurse, which produced a child, Annette, born in 1941.
Haywood met Peggy Burns, a waitress at the Ritz Cinema, on a visit to a Barnardo's children's home at Tunbridge Wells soon after he returned, and he married Peggy when his divorce from Hilda came through, eight months after the birth of his second child. David Robert Jones was born at the family's new home at 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, on January 8, 1947.
In that immediate postwar period, Brixton was cold, damp, soot blackened, scarred by bomb damage, but still bustling. Its prewar raciness and music-hall glamour were only enhanced by its recent history, and in 1947, Brixton looked especially—to use one of David's favorite words—dystopian. This part of South London had been judged expendable in the Second World War: Churchill's spymasters had manipulated press reports of where Hitler's futuristic V-1 flying bombs were landing, ensuring that the vengeance weapons fell short and hit South London rather than the wealthy West End. More than forty of the pioneering cruise missiles smashed into Brixton and Lambeth—entire streets both behind and in front of the Joneses' house were flattened. Most of the rubble had been cleared away by 1947, but the area retained its foreboding gap-toothed look for decades.
David's first winter was grim. Britain in late 1947 was grim. The Second World War had invigorated American capitalism but had left Britain tired—and near broke. There were no streetlights; there was no coal; gas supplies were low, and ration cards were still needed to buy linen, fuel, "economy" suits, eggs, and the scraggy bits of Argentinean beef that were available only intermittently. Christopher Isherwood, the writer who would one day advise David to move to Berlin, visited London that year and was shocked by its shabbiness. "London is a dying city," one Londoner said, counseling him not to return.
For parents, life was hard. Yet for the children who scampered around this urban wilderness, it was a wonderland: the empty, bomb-damaged houses were playgrounds and museums, full of intriguing treasures abandoned by long-vanished tenants.
In later years, many of Peggy Burns's friends would notice her contempt for the left-wing Labour Party, yet given what life was like that winter, her attitude was understandable. The British had been exhausted by the war, but peace had brought no improvement in living standards. In Brixton it was impossible to find soap; the local Woolworth's was lit by candles; constant scouring of the local shops was required to find terry toweling for nappies; and at the end of February the Labour government introduced power rationing, with homes limited to five hours of electricity a day. During that same time, Haywood Jones and all of the Barnardo's organization wrestled with the problem of thousands of children displaced by the war.
David loved his father—to this day he wears a gold cross Haywood gave him when he was in his teens—but in 2002, when asked about his relationship with his mother, he quoted Philip Larkin's famously bleak "This Be the Verse," the poem that starts "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." The occasion was an informal live chat with interviewer Michael Parkinson; the line drew laughter, as had many of David's quips, but as David went on to quote the remaining lines about misery deepening like a coastal shelf, the titters gave way to uncomfortable silence.
The madness of Peggy Burns's family would one day become part of the Bowie legend, but as far as the young David Jones was concerned, it was coldness, a simple lack of emotion, that characterized his relationship with his mum. Peggy's sister Pat said of their mother, Margaret Mary Burns, née Heaton, that "she was a cold woman. There was not a lot of love around," and Peggy seems to have inherited that coldness. Yet according to family lore, in her youth Peggy was good with children, working as a nanny before falling in love with the handsome Jack Isaac Rosenberg, son of a wealthy Jewish furrier. Rosenberg promised to marry Peggy but disappeared before the birth of their son, David's half brother, Terence Guy Adair Burns, on November 5, 1937.
There were darker shadows in Peggy's past too. In 1986 David's aunt Pat—"the frightful aunt," as he later termed her—detailed the troubled history of the Burns family. Peggy's siblings included three sisters—Nora, Una, and Vivienne—who, according to Pat, suffered from varying degrees of mental instability, what one writer termed the Burns "family affliction." This history later inspired the theory that David Jones was forced to construct alter egos to distance himself from the madness within. Ken Pitt, David's manager, knew David, Peggy, and Pat as well as anyone and describes this theory as "unconvincing." Although David would later gleefully celebrate his family, announcing "most of them are nutty—in, just out of, or going into an institution," most people considered Haywood friendly and sincere and found Peggy talkative with many traces of her former vivaciousness once you got to know her.
Peggy's second child, Myra Ann, the result of another wartime romance, was born in August of 1941. The child was given up for adoption, but by the time Peggy met Haywood, she was ready to settle down to a conventional life, agreeing to marry the Yorkshireman on the condition he'd accept Terence as his son. Hence, for the first nine years of his life, David had an elder brother to snuggle up to, and when Terry left home in 1956 to join the air force, he remained the object of David's hero worship. The messy, confused nature of the Jones household was hardly unusual—illegitimate births had soared in wartime Britain (some historians blame a shortage of rubber and a subsequent fall in condom production). David's troubled relationship with his mother echoed those of contemporaries such as John Lennon and Eric Clapton, both of whom were raised in households that today would have a social worker knocking on the door.
As David grew into a toddler, austerity kept its tight grip, but glimmers of hope started to appear in 1953, a year treasured by many kids because it marked an end to sweets rationing as well as the advent of television. Haywood Jones was one of thousands who bought new sets so their families could watch the coronation of the glamorous young Queen Elizabeth. Just a few weeks later, the six-year-old David sneaked downstairs for another TV landmark: The Quatermass Experiment, the pioneering BBC science fiction series that had all of Britain glued to the screen. This "tremendous series" would leave its mark on David, who remembers how he'd watch each Saturday night "from behind the sofa when my parents had thought I had gone to bed. After each episode I would tip-toe back to my bedroom rigid with fear, so powerful did the action seem." The program sparked a lifelong fascination with science fiction and—by way of its theme tune, the dark, sinister "Mars, the Bringer of War" from Holst's The Planets—the emotional effects of music.
Brixton was the perfect breeding ground for a future Ziggy Stardust: Waterloo, the mecca of music-hall artists for a century or more, was just down the road, while Brixton's own Empress Theatre hosted Tony Hancock, Laurel and Hardy, and countless other variety stars. "Show-business people were scattered all the way from Kennington to Streatham," says David's near neighbor photographer Val Wilmer; many locals still talked of Charlie Chaplin, who had grown up just north of Brixton. Sharon Osbourne, five years younger than David, lived on the other side of Brixton Road with her father, Don Arden, a failed nightclub singer and comedian, and she remembers being surrounded by "all the vaudeville artists." Kids could look out and see comedians chatting in the corner shop or a racy character in a cheap suit and hat on his way to or from a show carrying a case that might contain a ventriloquist's dummy, a banjo, or a set of knives for his knife-throwing act.
David's home at 40 Stansfield Road was a typical roomy, three-story Victorian house shared, during most of their eight years in Brixton, with two other families. In later years, with conventional rock-star spin, David Bowie described his Brixton youth as if it were a walk on the wild side, with gangs roaming the streets. The local kids did indeed wander around the area freely, but their prey was butterflies, tadpoles, and other urban wildlife. "It was unbelievable," says David's neighbor and schoolmate Sue Larner, "there were these huge spaces from the bomb sites, and ruined houses, which seemed like mountains to us, covered in buddleia: they were our playgrounds." Derelict buildings at the bottom of Stansfield Road were sinister, yet fragrant—kids scampered around the sweet-smelling blooms with butterfly nets, for there were more butterflies around then than before or since, while the many pools and ponds in South London's abandoned bomb sites were packed with tadpoles and newts. Rats also meandered casually through the abandoned buildings, and local kids still remember the sound of mice scurrying around the drafty, uncarpeted Victorian houses; at night, the children clutched hot water bottles for warmth and comfort.
In those early years, the tiny Jones family kept themselves to themselves. Most local kids played out on the street, but David generally remained with his mum, and Haywood spent his days at Stepney. In 1951, David started at the Stockwell Infants School, three minutes' walk away on Stockwell Road, one of Brixton's main streets. He remembers wetting his pants on the first day; happily, friendly milk lady Bertha Douglas kept a supply of clean knickers for such common emergencies. The school's lofty Victorian building looked severe and had a characteristic aroma of disinfectant and rubber shoes, but the staff was mostly loving and kind: "It was a sweet, friendly school, small and cozy," remembers schoolmate Suzanne Liritis. "The teachers used to tell us things like 'You're special, Jesus loves you,' " says her friend Susan Larner.
Behind the Victorian primness, things were racier than they seemed. The headmistress, Miss Douglas, was tall and thin with severe scraped-back gray hair. This formidable woman lived with Miss Justin, who taught in the junior school. Only later did Sue and her friends conclude "they were obviously a sweet lesbian couple." If any parents suspected a relationship, they were unconcerned, for as Larner points out, "Lots of women had lost their beaus in the war." They took the conventional British attitude: exotic sexuality was fine, as long as it was kept behind closed doors. Just don't do it in the street and frighten the horses, as the saying went.
Most of the families around Stansfield Road were large, and kids in the neighborhood were almost invariably accompanied by their brothers and sisters. Maybe that's the reason that few of them remember David. Appropriately enough, one of the only children who did notice him, Sue Larner, now a sculptor, happened to register the nice-looking, well-scrubbed boy's skill at art: "None of us had much to do with boys, but I do remember showing him a few tricks on the drawing board—and he showed me even more. He showed me how to draw a woman's bonnet, with the neck, without having to draw a face first. He was good."
On weekends, or after school, the five-year-old David's universe was bounded by the bomb sites on Chantrey Road and the far side of Stockwell Road, where all kids played; turning left on Stockwell Road, he'd immediately reach the school playground; turning right, he'd reach two sweetshops, the nearest overseen by a kindly gay gentleman. Farther down Stockwell Road was the Astoria; later a famed rock venue—the Academy—whose attractions would include David Bowie, in the fifties it was still a thriving local cinema, with morning matinees featuring cowboy movies, Zorro, and Laurel and Hardy. On the way to the cinema there was a bookshop that spilled out onto the pavement, filled with comics and kids' books. There was a large dairy, with horse-drawn carts, but the main feature that dominated Stockwell Road was Pride and Clarke's, a celebrated motorbike and car showroom that sprawled across a row of maroon-painted buildings, later immortalized in Antonioni's Blow-Up. This was where David, the future car geek, could ogle BSAs, Rileys, and other legendary British bikes and cars.
There was another intrinsic part of Brixton's appeal: the sound of calypso and the smell of curried goat, brought by the new generations of Caribbean immigrants arriving in the area. But these were things David would have gotten only a whiff of, for in 1954, Haywood Jones and family packed up and moved to suburbia.
The beloved poet laureate John Betjeman described the suburbs as the home of "a new kind of citizen," and as proof of its futurism, David's new hometown, Bromley, was the birthplace of H. G. Wells. From the fifties onward, the suburbs were an object of both horror and aspiration—the upper classes despised the neat, mock-Tudor houses, while the middle classes flocked to the neatly manicured streets. Today, like many English market towns, Bromley is bland and overrun by chain stores—Wells's birthplace is now a Primark clothing outlet. But in the fifties it was a place in flux, a short train ride from London but friendly and small scale: "It was actually quite charming," says David's boyhood friend Geoff MacCormack, "even soulful."
The move to Bromley marked Haywood's promotion from board secretary to public relations officer. Haywood's colleagues regarded him as "unassuming but cheerful—good company." His new home was a small but neat Edwardian terraced house in Plaistow Grove, a cul-de-sac near the railway line; although unthinkably cramped by American standards, it was all their own, perfectly in keeping with the family's modestly respectable status.
Parts of Bromley were middle-class enclaves, 1930s fake-Tudor houses with leaded windows to proclaim their superior status, but poverty was never far away. Children and their parents were encouraged to save six cents a week in the Burnt Ash Boot Club to help them buy adequate footwear, and there were plenty of Dickensian sights. A rag-and-bone man walked the streets uttering the "Any old iron" cry familiar from Victorian times. Several roads still had gas lighting, and in most parts of Bromley there was hardly a car to be seen parked at the curb. United Dairies, which had a yard behind the Burnt Ash School, still used horses to deliver milk, left on everybody's doorstep each morning. Even in the 1950s, electricity supplies were erratic; radios and record players were usually plugged into the light sockets in the ceilings, while electric clocks often slowed down in the afternoon, the time of heavy demand, then sped up again at night. Few people owned phones—the Joneses were an exception.
David joined Burnt Ash School a couple of years after most of the other kids and didn't particularly stand out during the first few terms. But with his fine, perhaps slightly feminine features, he was a good-looking boy—a fact his female classmates noticed later. Within a year or so David was part of a small gang of schoolmates. This included Dudley Chapman and John Barrance, boys who lived nearby and were invited to David's eighth birthday party. Even at this age, many kids noted the cramped interior of the Joneses' modest two-up, two-down house. Eight-year-old John Barrance thought the family seemed restrained, quiet—"They were perfectly pleasant, but I think they had a 'don't touch this, don't touch that' attitude." David's friend Max Batten shared more easygoing good times with him, enjoying lollipops and chatting with Mrs. Jones; one memorable afternoon, he and David sneaked upstairs at Plaistow Grove, unwrapped Haywood's service revolver, and played with it furtively before carefully replacing it in the drawer where it had been concealed.
Though few of his contemporaries considered David's childhood anything out of the ordinary, in later years, it would be portrayed as dysfunctional—mostly by David himself, who, in the mid-1970s, when he was in his most flamboyantly deranged phase, loved to proclaim "everyone finds empathy in a nutty family." Peggy in particular was singled out as the perfect example of repression and eccentricity, but the most damning recollection of others is that she was a snob; in general, only the middle-class kids were treated to cups of tea at Plaistow Grove, and David seemed to learn which of his friends could be ushered in the front door and which ones should wait at the garden gate. In fairness, it's possible Peggy simply preferred boys who, like David, were trained to say "please" and "thank you." Well-brought-up Yorkshire lad John Hutchinson, who enjoyed sitting in the back room with its cozy fireplace and photos on the mantelpiece, maintains that "she was nice," remembering how in future years she would knit outfits for his young son, Christian. Some of the tensions between Peggy and David were simply due, says Hutchinson, to the generational shift that would soon grip the country, the advent of the teenager, and the fact that, as he puts it, "It became cool to put down your parents." In future years, Peggy's sister Pat bore witness to other tensions within the family. When the family first moved to Bromley, Terry apparently stayed behind in Brixton, which was thought to be more convenient for his job as a clerk in Southwark. Later he joined David, Peggy, and Haywood at Plaistow Grove, but his stay there was brief, and he left for National Service in 1955. Not one of David's friends remember seeing Terry at the Joneses' house. If parents "fuck you up," as Philip Larkin put it, Terry undoubtedly suffered more than his brother.
Peggy's friend Aubrey Goodchild maintains that David's mum was "good company. Forthright, though. And conservative in her politics." And many kids shared the same frustrations as David. Compared to America, with its comics and consumer booms, Britain was staid, and its kids felt suffocated. "We were shabby," says Bromley schoolgirl Dorothy Bass. "Everything seemed gray," remembers another contemporary, Peter Prickett. "We wore short gray flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, gray socks, and gray shirts. The roads were gray, the prefabs were gray, and there were still quite a few bomb sites around in 1956—these also seemed to be made of gray rubble." Life was predictable, defined by rituals. Some of the routines were oddly comforting, like the distributing of tiny glass bottles of free milk at school every morning at eleven, the playing of the national anthem on BBC radio and TV before they closed down for the night, and David's volunteer school routine, putting up the climbing ropes in the playground each morning.
For its time, Burnt Ash was a modern school. It emphasized the arts, particularly in the form of music and movement classes, during which the pupils were encouraged to express themselves and dance around in their underwear (no one owned any gym clothes). In other respects it followed 1950s norms: a strict uniform policy, formal assemblies with hymns, and the cane for misbehaving boys.
Headmaster George Lloyd was, as one pupil puts it, "interesting." Slightly portly and jolly, he gave classes in music and reading, individually tutoring his pupils. He was "gentle," affectionate with the children, and often sat alongside the boys as they read, putting his arm around favored pupils. There were a few boys for whom he seemed to have real affection, "and one of them," says a schoolmate, "was David. He definitely did like David."
At ten or eleven, David had fine, almost elfin features; his hair was cut in bangs, he was average in height, and slightly skinny. But there was an energy and enthusiasm about him that entranced George Lloyd and others, the beginnings of his knack for charming people. As early as his teens, he had developed a talent for using charm "as a weapon," says a later confidant, writer Charles Shaar Murray. "Even if you'd fallen out, when you met David again you'd be convinced within five minutes that he had barely been able to function in the years he hadn't seen you. I know, for a time, I developed a kind of platonic man-love for him."
- On Sale
- Jul 18, 2011
- Page Count
- 544 pages
- Little, Brown and Company