The Man Who Sold the World (4 page)

BOOK: The Man Who Sold the World

The education Bowie received from his brother's lead was reinforced in 1960 when he was accepted into an experimental school program masterminded by teacher Owen Frampton (father of future rock star Peter, who was three years Bowie's junior). Bowie would sometimes later pretend that, like many of his fellow British rock stars, he had attended art college, but Frampton's curriculum, based around art, handicrafts, and design, occupied an equally pivotal role in his development. Frampton encouraged his naïve interest in Kerouac and Coltrane, and by 1961 Bowie had been introduced to the era's most symbolic literary influences, from Baudelaire to Orwell, French existentialist Sartre to precocious British theorist Colin Wilson. Nothing in his background had prepared him for the jolt of this expansive artistic landscape.

There were now two contrasting but reconcilable strands to Bowie's life: his fascination with existentialism, the beats, and the bohemian lifestyle; and his immersion in US youth culture, via movies, rock'n'roll, and jazz. In his early teens, his father gave him an alto saxophone—white plastic, like that played by free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman. His teacher Ronnie Ross encouraged him to listen to Charlie Parker, the bebop pioneer who built dynamic dimensions of sound on the foundation of Broadway standards and familiar blues changes. Parker's conscious steps into atonality were the missing link between the orthodox harmonies of “trad” jazz and the fearsome sheets of sound unleashed by Terry's jazz hero, John Coltrane. Terry also encouraged him to soak himself in the daredevil rhythms and unfettered melodicism of Eric Dolphy, whose most ambitious album (
Out to Lunch!
) was released just as Bowie abandoned his commitment to jazz in early 1964. “I tried passionately at that time to believe I liked Eric Dolphy,” Bowie recalled. “I'd been forcing myself at first to listen to modern jazz, fighting myself to understand what it was I loved about it, but I really didn't know. I couldn't digest it yet.”

Besides the iconoclastic music suggested by his brother and his teacher, Bowie was exposed to more direct showcases for the saxophone. Many of the early rock'n'roll records, by Little Richard and the Coasters, Lloyd Price and Elvis Presley, featured the “yakety,” staccato sax of King Curtis, or the guttural roar of Boots Randolph. Although the British “trad jazz” heroes of the age, such as Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, and Chris Barber, often excluded saxophone from their arrangements, there were many show bands on the club circuit who offered a danceable medley of big band jazz, R&B, rock, and pop—Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, for example, or Sounds Incorporated—and when Bowie saw them in early sixties package shows at the Odeon cinemas in Lewisham or Streatham, he could imagine himself onstage. “I spent my days thinking about whether I was gonna be a rock'n'roll singer or if I was gonna be John Coltrane,” he recounted many years later. Emulating Coltrane required genius and technical prowess that was beyond him at fourteen, and he wasn't yet confident about his voice. A few weeks after his fifteenth birthday, with a year or more of school ahead of him, he joined a budding local show band, named the Kon-Rads, as saxophonist and occasional vocalist.

The surviving photographs of the group, in their matching blazers with grammar school piping, identify Bowie as the youngest and, so it seemed, cheekiest member, his hair crafted into an approximation of a pompadour, an Artful Dodger smile flickering across his face. “He was a very charming, pleasant young man, who quickly developed real aspirations of stardom,” remembered the Kon-Rads' drummer, David Hadfield. “The Kon-Rads gave him the opportunity to help him create a mental picture of his own career. With us, he started to evolve his own ideas of image and theatrics—the first sparks of what he later became. He could see real potential in what we were doing, but he was young and impatient.”

When Bowie joined up, it was still nine months before the Beatles would release their first single, eighteen until the Rolling Stones' debut. For a rock group, the successful template was the Shadows, all guitars and matching dance steps; so Bowie's only apparent route to fame involved seizing the spotlight as a vocalist. By October, when the Beatles' “Love Me Do” was issued, Bowie was styling himself David Jay (the resemblance to Peter Jay was not coincidental) and singing approximately a quarter of the Kon-Rads' live repertoire: lightweight American pop for the most part, with only Joe Brown's ballad “A Picture of You” betraying even a hint of his London origins. This was teen entertainment that wouldn't upset elder members of the family, with none of Coltrane's startling cacophony or Little Richard's audacious swagger. There was applause and even adulation, however, and like any fifteen-year-old, Bowie relished the sexual attention sparked by his performances.

Bowie's enthusiasm for school soon paled by comparison. He was still reading voraciously, and filling sketchbooks with designs for stage uniforms, but none of that coincided with his school curriculum. Nor was there a clear connection between the controlled exuberance of the Kon-Rads, neatly parceled into unthreatening three-minute vehicles for teenage romance, and the limitless horizons that tantalized him in the pages of his brother's beat literature, or in the transcendent and frankly unsettling vastness of Coltrane's or Dolphy's saxophone solos.

Several events in the summer of 1963 altered Bowie's sense of himself, and his potential future. He left Bromley Technical High School with a single O-level qualification in art—evidence of his failure to engage with academic requirements. In a time of virtually full employment, and a booming economy desperate for teenage fodder, he found it easy (with Owen Frampton's assistance) to secure a job as a trainee commercial artist in a Bond Street advertising agency. If he'd been asked to symbolize the spirit of the age, he could hardly have manufactured a more convincing image: by day, he helped to fashion the dreams of consumerism; by night, he lived out the wildest of those dreams as—within the London borough of Bromley, at least—a pop star.



This sunny snapshot of Swinging London was shadowed by an alarming development in his family life. By summer 1963, Terry Burns's behavior was beginning to worry Bowie, and his parents. His mother, Peggy, quite capable of acting erratically herself, recognized the signs of the family curse, the schizophrenia that had afflicted her own mother and several of her siblings. When Terry's grasp on reality began to waver, Bowie not only suffered the fear and distress of watching his much-loved brother slowly slip into another, terrifying psychological world, but he also began to realize that the Burns heritage of instability could extend to his own generation.

Terry continued to live independently for several more years. But Bowie could no longer rely on his strength and vigor. During an uncharacteristically candid interview with the journalist Timothy White in late 1977, he shone a momentary flashbulb on how he experienced his brother at this time: “He cried an awful lot at an age when I had been led to believe that it was not a particularly adult thing to do . . . he would seem miserable.” Bowie recalled that in his final months at school, “I became very withdrawn,” and felt that he must have “repressed a lot of strange things I thought about or saw in my mind.” He believed that his brother, and other relations, had experienced similar visions and fantasies but been unable to repress them: “I know insanity happened frequently within my family. A lot of institutions kept cropping up to claim various members, most of it coming out of bad experiences, loneliness, in-built caution with other people. . . . I tried to sort it out for myself to prevent it.”

In the same interview, he admitted that “the first time I felt uncomfortable” was when he was reading
, Franz Kafka's tale of psychological and physical transformation, with its suggestion that our shared humanity might be ripped away in a night's sleep, to reveal a bestial creature within. Turning the pages of Kafka, and watching his own brother's transformation, he must have wondered whether his own fate would be equally traumatic.

By 1970, when Bowie was a pop star and Terry was living in an asylum, there was an organized revolt against the savage division of mankind into “sane” and “insane.” Organizations such as People for a New Psychiatry and the Campaign Against Psychiatric Atrocities (CAPA), founded by patients and mental health practitioners, offered a new approach to “madness.” CAPA saw insanity as a convenient way of enforcing political control, and said that the inability to exist within a repressive capitalist society was nothing less than a badge of honor: “People who break down because they cannot find a way to live sanely in an insane society are shattered forces of change. Kept whole and mended, restored to themselves, they might threaten. So whilst they are broken and defenceless, the lackeys of the power system step in and make new men and women of them . . . new but no longer themselves.” The moral was simple: “The sane make war, slaughter each other by the million, lock people up for years, for life. The mad take trips, talk strangely, act oddly, but they rarely kill each other and they don't imprison and oppress. So are they really mad? Are the others really sane?”

Bowie would have seen that manifesto in the pages of a paper he read avidly, the
International Times
, and it helped to shape his 1970 album
The Man Who Sold the World
. In 1963, when there was no underground press in Britain to represent what would soon become known as a counterculture, and Bowie read nothing more radical than the
Daily Mirror
, the nature of insanity was being challenged only by psychotherapists such as R. D. Laing, whose analysis of the family culture of schizophrenia still casts an intriguing light on the extended Jones household.

Laing balked at the idea of schizophrenia as a disease of the psyche. Behavior that was categorized as schizophrenic, he argued, was not “a biochemical, neurophysical, psychological fact”; instead, it was “a social event,” a product of relationships within the family. He insisted that “each person does not occupy a single definable position in relation to other members of his or her own family. . . . People have identities. But they may also change quite remarkably as they become different others-to-others. . . . Not only may the one person behave differently in his different alterations, but he may experience himself in different ways.”

Imagine Terry Burns, then, already ostracized from his mother and stepfather; unwelcome in his family home; his room physically obliterated as soon as he joined the air force; being raised among a female line of relatives for whom madness was not so much a fear as an expectation; growing to feel, perhaps, that schizophrenia might represent a way of belonging to his family in a profound sense that was otherwise unavailable to him. Yet within that family unit, he has one person, his stepbrother David, who accepts him, respects him, trusts him, regards him as a source of knowledge and experience. Using Laing's logic, it is easy to imagine how Terry might submit to the tradition of “insanity” presented by his mother, while in his relationship with David, the same chaotic emotional responses that his family classed as “madness” might become a means of exposing his young sibling to the artistic potential of life. The more exuberant Terry would become when talking about literature or music, the more likely it is that David would be enraptured by his example and, at the same moment, that his mother and stepfather would see not joie de vivre, but the unmistakable traits of insanity.

That visceral sense of life was encapsulated for Bowie in a book that Terry gave him, and which he acknowledged as a major influence on his teenage self: Jack Kerouac's
On the Road
. Set in the year of Bowie's birth, 1947,
On the Road
is the exemplar of the beat generation—a manifesto to the wild impulse to go, get gone, change, keep pushing out and on and over the limits, in cars, in the free-form extravagance of bebop jazz, on pills and weed and beer, in lust and in the sheer necessity of moving to keep from standing still. Its ethos is speed—the Benzedrine pills that propel through the body through all-night stands, the cars that career across state lines at midnight, the conversation that pulses back and forth across smoke-filled rooms, everything that let its characters realize that “we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!”

Speed and motion governed everything in
On the Road
, from sex (“the one and only holy and important thing in life”) to writing (“you've got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict”) and bop (“going like mad all over America”). In a key passage, Kerouac proclaims that “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Bowie would meet those spiders again later, but in Kerouac's desperate yearning for the extreme he would have recognized his own relentless desire to change and burn, and his brother's wild enthusiasms.

Kerouac, and the savage pileup of imagery in Allen Ginsberg's epic poem
; the tortured extremities of William Burroughs's
The Naked Lunch
, and the elemental clamor of John Clellon Holmes's
: that perverse and electrifying set of images jangled Bowie's nerves and roused his adrenaline just as Little Richard and John Coltrane had done. Rock'n'roll and bop—and now beat literature—precluded the need for chemical stimulation, although that merely added to the heightened surge of energy. In 1963, Bowie was a cauldron of excitement, onstage and in his head, while being told that one vital source of that adrenaline, Terry's quicksilver mind, was not to be trusted. Doctors and psychiatrists prescribed drugs for his elder brother, which subdued his brain and set a distance between the two young men that would rarely be bridged again. Only the imprint of Terry's influence remained, a cocktail of art and experience that amounted to a vision of life's possibilities and pitfalls.

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