The Man Who Sold the World (3 page)

From his secluded standpoint in 1990, David Bowie the aging rock star attempted to explain how this process had affected him and his peers: “In the 70s, people [of] my age group were disinclined to be a part of society. It was really hard to convince yourself that you
were
part of society. It's like, ‘OK, you've broken up the family unit, and you say you're trying to get out of your mind and expand yourself and all that. Fine. So now that you've left us, what are we left with? Cos here we are, without our families, totally out of our heads, and we don't know where on earth we are.' That was the feeling of the early seventies—nobody knew where they were.”

Bowie's immediate response to that disabling sense of confusion was to shift ground—invent new identities, constantly alter and update his musical style, discover new ways to access his creativity, keep himself and his observers guessing. “I change my mind a lot,” he admitted. “I usually don't agree with what I say very much. I'm an awful liar.” To remain eternally fascinating, he had to change his mind, and his story: from one interview to the next, he would be capable of delivering violently opposed, but devoutly sincere, explanations of himself and his work. He learned how to invite or repel the attentions of the media as the situation required: he would distance himself from the commonplace duties of an entertainer promoting himself and his product, but then treat the lucky few who were allowed access as if they were not only close personal friends, but also uniquely acute observers of his career. “That's it, exactly!” he would say when a journalist ventured a theory about a song or a change of direction; the interviewer would leave with a glow of triumph, and Bowie would survive with his mystique untouched.

Not just his mystique, but his “self”—which is what, ultimately, makes David Bowie such a perfect exemplar of Wolfe's “Me Decade.” It was not that Bowie was preternaturally selfish, or arrogant, or self-obsessed, or closeted, although (like every rock star) he could be all those things. What gave Bowie his Me Decade was the fact that, in the end, all of his creativity was focused on himself, just as even the most outside-oriented of artists cannot help but reveal themselves in their work. He set himself the task of exploring, quite fearlessly, what it was to exist amid the turmoil of a culture that was stumbling in search of a purpose and direction. By chronicling his own perilous journey through the decade, he encapsulated the spirit of the age, in all its anarchic disarray. His seventies was not the decade of the political historian, charting the progression from Wilson to Thatcher, or Nixon to Reagan; it was the decade of a sensitive man caught in the midst of a psychodrama that became a public spectacle, inspiring music that was as restless and creative as the man himself.

Bowie began his “long” seventies by trying to sell himself to the public, and ended it by canceling the sale. He was the man who sold himself to the world, and who sold the world an unrivaled vision of its own dreams, fears, and possibilities.

THE MAKING OF DAVID BOWIE: 1947–1968

THE PAST LOADS US WITH GUILT. ANNIHILATION CAN AT LEAST BE GUARANTEED TO EXONERATE US, TO CANCEL ALL THOSE INHERITED DEBTS.

 

—Peter Conrad, cultural historian

 

I

David Bowie was born in 1947, under another name, in a city that was still bearing the visible scars of war. His family was the haphazard creation of desires indulged years before his birth; it bequeathed to him the psychological inhibitions and thwarted dreams that had restricted the lives of his father and mother. He emerged in 1963 in the planet's most vibrant city, in time to witness—and participate in—a brief flowering of creativity and freedom, which has passed into our collective myth as the era of “Swinging London.”

In all human history, he might have reflected, there was scarcely a more welcoming time and place to be alive. He was young, attractive, creative, ambitious, self-confident, charismatic, flexible, impressionable, warm, and—so one mentor after another declared—a star in the making. He might become a singer, a composer, a poet, a dramatist, an actor, a mime artiste, an advertising executive, a television personality, a sculptor, a painter, a model, a hero, an idol, or some fabulous collage of all these possibilities. Yet for most of the “short” sixties, with the exception of a fleeting period of public acceptance as the era closed, David Bowie was awkwardly out of kilter with the times. He was always there, on the fringes of Soho or Carnaby Street, the King's Road or South Kensington, Mayfair or Piccadilly, familiar but strangely elusive, alive but never quite where he needed to be. He was held back not by any lack of talent—far more ephemeral and less attractive figures achieved far greater success during the 1960s—or determination, but by a void invisible to the naked eye, and which nullified every move he made. He did not entirely know who he was, or who he was intended to be. He was a charming vacancy, an elegant decoration on the lapel of a decade overstocked with such fripperies.

No wonder, then, that when the artificial construct of a fresh decade was signaled on the calendar, Bowie was ready to create a persona more appropriate for the new age. He would cast off his past and fashion a renewed, endlessly fluid sense of self out of his own imagination. By becoming something
other
, he would refuse to be enclosed by gender, by race, by style, or by reality. He would become a creature in a state of constant metamorphosis, no longer seeking to capture the spirit of the age but inviting the age to follow him. At the height of his fame, he would reassure his audience: “You're not alone—give me your hands” [61], and then stretch out his own emaciated arms toward them, coyly allowing the tips of his fingers to graze theirs for an instant, before he withdrew, keeping their tantalizing dream of contact alive while remaining ultimately aloof and alone.

Yet the David Bowie who formed and inhabited the shell of Ziggy Stardust carried the dubious inheritance of his troubled family in his genes. No matter how convincing his fantasy, and how often he boasted that he no longer related to his past, he was still the son of Haywood Stenton “John” Jones and Margaret Mary “Peggy” Burns; the half brother of Terry, Annette, and Myra; the child of Brixton, the schoolboy of Beckenham and Bromley, the cynical advertising trainee of the West End, the frustrated hero of countless adolescent dreams of transcendence and fame. Ziggy Stardust may have sold himself as a man from Mars, but he lived in Beckenham, an unambitious suburb of South London, in close vicinity to the family web that he had spent a decade struggling to escape.

 

II

The setting was mundane: the future David Bowie was born David Robert Jones, the son of a charity worker and a cinema usherette, in a three-story terraced house in Brixton, a working-class area of South London that would soon become synonymous with its community of economic migrants from the Caribbean. He entered this world seventeen months after the end of World War II, on January 8, 1947—the twelfth birthday, so he would discover many years later, of a child from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Presley. The Brixton boy later claimed to have been “absolutely mesmerized” by this coincidence: “I was probably stupid enough to believe that having the same birthday as [Elvis] actually meant something.”

Like Presley, whose father spent much of his son's childhood in jail, Bowie's family was shaped by scandal. His parents were not married until he was eight months old, because his father was waiting to divorce his first wife. The social taint of illegitimacy marked out the Jones family, as both John Jones and Peggy Burns had already spawned children out of wedlock, amid the moral confusion of a society at war. The young Bowie quickly became aware that “belonging” was a complicated issue for his family, in which blood ties could be disowned or forgotten without warning.

John Jones has been described as “a withdrawn and emotionally stunted young man who found it hard to display his feelings,” but this belied his reckless streak of romanticism. On the verge of inheriting a trust fund at twenty-one, he met a young cabaret performer who billed herself as “the Viennese Nightingale.” Rather disappointingly, her name was Hilda Sullivan, of Irish-Italian descent, but John was enraptured by her talent and potential. He offered to marry her, and bankroll her career, a combination that Hilda found difficult to resist. Much of his inheritance was channeled into a touring revue in which she was the star. When this failed, he diverted the remainder of his fortune into a drinking club in London's bohemian district of Fitzrovia, exotically named the Boop-A-Doop. Within a few months, his money was exhausted, the club closed, and—so Bowie alleged later—John Jones became an alcoholic down-and-out, before rousing himself as a hospital porter and then, in 1935, joining the Dr. Barnado's children's charity. (This swift turn of events suggests that Jones's alcoholism may well have been overstated by his son.)

Having separated during this period, husband and wife were reunited a few months later—whereupon Jones embarked on an affair that produced a daughter, Annette, in January 1938. Strangely, this mishap seems to have strengthened the ties between John and Hilda, who agreed to raise the child as her own. They were parted again while John was serving with the Eighth Army in North Africa, and recognized that their marriage was over, but continued to plan for Annette's future. When he was demobbed, Jones returned to Dr. Barnado's, where he acted as publicity officer, persuading stars of stage and screen to lend their names to the charity's work. One lunchtime in early 1946, he was served at the Ritz Cinema café in Tunbridge Wells by a thirty-one-year-old waitress named Peggy. Within weeks, they were living together; by April she was pregnant.

For another woman, this might have been an unbearable disgrace, but Peggy Burns had grown used to outraging bourgeois morals. She was one of six children of a World War I veteran regarded by his family (if not military historians) as a hero, and a mother who insisted that her bloodline was destined to be cursed by madness. Indeed, three of Peggy's siblings spent time in mental institutions. Her own history was tangled enough: she was reputed to have run with the “blackshirts” of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, while simultaneously staging an affair with a Jewish Frenchman. She fell pregnant, and her son Terence—originally given the old family name of Adair, but later known as Terry Burns—was born in November 1937.

During the war, Peggy became involved with a married man and had a second child, Myra Ann, who was swiftly exiled into adoption. When Peggy met John Jones, each partner must have welcomed the other's tarnished history as a means of exculpating their own. Indeed, John's life had recently become even more confused: he had bought a house with his estranged wife in Brixton, which they rented out with the intention of presenting it to Annette when she came of age. Hilda generously allowed John and Peggy to live there, while a divorce was obtained as speedily as the law would allow—which proved to be some seven months after David Jones was born.

There were now four children, then: David, the symbol of John and Peggy's union, who spent his entire childhood with his parents; an older son who was alternately accepted and rejected for the next decade; one daughter who had been adopted and forgotten; and an older girl who was only sporadically a member of the household. Terry was belatedly welcomed into the Jones home when he was ten and David was a baby. Family witnesses from these years each had their own prejudices and agendas: Bowie's early biographers were told, for example, that John Jones resented Terry's presence under his roof, because the boy resembled his father too closely; and also that Peggy showed little affection toward her elder son and began to erect an emotional barrier between herself and David once he became a child rather than a baby. She withheld physical affection from her children; John doted on his younger son but frequently scolded his stepson Terry, while the two boys, who shared a room in the Brixton house, established a tight bond.

Bowie was raised as the favored younger son: the cherished, blameless scion of family hopes, appearing all the more perfect alongside the flagrant flaws of the elder sibling, and carrying an assurance of entitlement into adulthood. His aunt recalled, however, that although Bowie relished his good fortune, he also felt guilty for prospering so blatantly at his brother's expense. Adolescence being a trial of identity in even the most well-adjusted family, Terry must have experienced extreme alienation from his parents, and from the outside world. His enthusiastic young brother became his ideal protégé, confidant, and ward: as Terry's stability wavered over the next decade, so David inherited the cultural script that Terry had imagined for his own life.

Given the tender rapport between the two boys, it seems insufferably cruel that when the Jones family moved from Brixton to a succession of small houses in the borough of Bromley, Terry was not invited to join them. By the time he had begrudgingly been allowed into their home in Plaistow Grove, Beckenham, he was awaiting his compulsory National Service with the Royal Air Force. Terry was squeezed into the tiny box room alongside David's larger bedroom, and as soon as Terry's call-up papers arrived, John Jones demonstrated his feelings by knocking through the partition wall, creating a more spacious room for David, and effectively signaling Terry's banishment from the family.

David was rarely short of companionship after Terry's departure. At least two of the friendships he made in Beckenham have survived to this day, with George Underwood (musical collaborator and designer) and Geoff MacCormack (backing vocalist and companion on Bowie's mid-seventies tours). At home, the family was augmented by the arrival of his slightly older cousin Kristina, whose mother had been consigned to a mental hospital. It was she who introduced the nine-year-old Bowie to the transcendent power of rock'n'roll, jiving around the sitting room to Elvis Presley's “Hound Dog” with an abandon that he found both compelling and slightly disturbing. John Jones's job led him to meet British stars such as Tommy Steele, and he would frequently allow his son to accompany him and spend a few golden moments with these otherworldly icons.

In drab mid-1950s Britain, which was still cowed by the memory of Nazi air raids and food rationing, rock'n'roll slapped luminous strokes of color across the monochrome landscape. The Jones household was shadowy, musty, cramped, repressed; the flamboyant gestures of the early rock pioneers pushed back the walls, opening a world of possibility and pleasure that was painfully out of sync with middle-aged reality. A similar explosion of mental and sexual energy was being experienced in homes across the land. For the ten-year-old Bowie, the cannonball propulsion of Little Richard's “Long Tall Sally” and the Alan Freed Rock And Roll Band's “Right Now, Right Now”—or the exotic menace of Screamin' Jay Hawkins's “I Put a Spell on You” and Bo Diddley's experiments with African rhythms—seemed as exotic as the science fiction melodramas he watched on the minuscule screen of the Joneses' black-and-white television.

Bowie's world changed significantly when he was eleven. His cousin Kristina emigrated to America and vanished from his life for fourteen years. Meanwhile, he moved to Bromley Technical High School—its name a sign that its pupils were expected to learn practical rather than academic skills. Two months later, Terry was demobbed from the air force. He spent a year lodging in North London, before finding accommodation closer to Beckenham.

Terry now reentered David's life as an influential force, described in one account as “a man, handsome and muscular, witty and worldly-wise.” Working in the City, he gravitated toward the clubs, coffee bars, and prostitutes of Soho, and on Friday evenings he would regularly escort David around central London's seamy nightlife, pointing out the call girls on corners and in exotically lit doorways, sneaking him into jazz clubs, and buying his younger brother Cokes in bohemian bars. He also began to expand David's intellectual horizons, introducing him to modern literature and jazz. “It was Terry who started everything for me,” Bowie recalled. “Terry was into all the Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes, and he'd come back home to Bromley with the latest paperbacks tucked away in a coat pocket. He was into everything, reading up the early drug writers, Buddhism, poetry, rock and jazz, especially the saxophone players John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. . . . His mind was open to everything. . . . He was rebelling in his own way. . . .” Bowie might have been talking about his future self.

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