Pete Martin: No rest for the enigmatic

David Bowie. Picture: Contributed
David Bowie. Picture: Contributed
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DAVID Bowie Is … That’s the title of an exhibition of the rock star’s artefacts which opens next week at London’s V&A Museum. Even at £40 a ticket, it’s the fastest, biggest, best-selling show in British art history.

After ten years in self-imposed retirement, and two years secretly recording his new critically-acclaimed album, there’s now a frenzied re-examination of Bowie’s life and work as a baffling phenomenon.

Continents of talent sink beneath oceans of time and only a few famed islands remain in the public mind. So, in a topography that includes Joyce, Eliot, Picasso and Kubrick, Bowie is assured as one of greatest individual artists of the 20th century. And yet, it all seems so unlikely.

More than 40 years ago, on Thursday, July 6, 1972, at 7 o’clock, the nation’s teenagers were bowed down in weekly supplication before the only TV programme that mattered: Top of the Pops.

The BBC show was always a curate’s egg. Hideous boy band The Osmonds was that year’s One Direction, and brother Donny was at No 1 with his sick-making Puppy Love. Like a showbiz fight league, you watched TOTP hoping for raucous rockers Slade to kick Donny Osmond in the head, musically-speaking.

So, love and peace hadn’t really caught on in early 70s Scotland. Unemployment and industrial unrest were rising, as heavy industries declined. Traditional roles for working class men were threatened. Idealism, wimps and hippies were easy to hate.

For young men, fashion ranged from tonic suits and tassel loafers to Levi’s and Doc Martens. At secondary school, I can’t say any of us really knew what homosexuality was, but “poof” was the biggest insult bandied around.

So, when the television picture mixes from a bright blue guitar to reveal a deathly pale, skinny dude with a shock of red hair and a self-confident smirk… it isn’t obvious we’re watching musical history being made, just something strange.

What is clear is that your mum and dad don’t like it. He’s dressed in a multi-coloured lizard-skin spandex suit, and snakes his arm round the neck of guitarist Mick Ronson. To my 12-year-old mind, they must be great pals. Then he points out of the TV at you.

To parents across the UK, this isn’t one of those nice effete “oh what a gay day” characters beloved of British comedies. This is different and, though harder to clock from our latter-day liberal viewpoint, designed to affront.

Married to Angie, a glamorous feisty American, and with a young son Zowie (now better known as film director Duncan Jones), the singer had already told Melody Maker magazine that he was gay. But if the confession is merely another artful showbiz stunt, the strategy seems more likely to alienate than succeed.

Since he was 15, he’d tried just about everything to be a pop star. Other than his single Space Oddity – regarded as a novelty song for the moon mission three years earlier – his four previous albums had not troubled the charts at all.

Growing up, there was little in his background to suggest burgeoning genius either. His father, Heywood Jones, at the time a failed theatre impresario but a good dad, latterly working for a children’s charity. Despite her outward conventionality and Conservative politics, mum seemed like a troubled woman. Peggy Burns had two children from previous liaisons: Terry, his ten years older half-brother who suffered from schizophrenia; and his half-sister Annie, given up for adoption. From his dad, he derived generosity and charm. From his mother’s side of the family he inherited not madness, but a certain coldness. His drive to succeed, however, seems to be all his own making.

As to the music, the single Starman was also a knowing confection. Elton John suggested the hook was lifted from Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland. But the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars suggests a darker vision – the end of the world in which an alien messiah arrives to save humanity through music.

Less than a year later, following a whirlwind world tour, it was all over. At Hammersmith Odeon, Bowie announced: “This show will stay the longest in our memories, not just because it is the end of the tour but because it is the last show we’ll ever do.” To the rear of the stage, the Spiders’ bassist Bolder and drummer Woodmansey couldn’t quite believe their ears: “What did he say?”

In reality, Bowie’s sudden rise and shifting sexuality reflected the de-industrialisation of British society. As manual labour became less important and physical strength ceded to brain-power, women swooned over him and even young, straight, working class guys admired him beyond reason.

Aged 13, I asked our local hairdresser to do my hair like David Bowie, but still ended up looking more like Donny Osmond. My older brother’s mate, Les, was not so lucky. He had a brilliant Bowie cut, superbly spiky and dyed bright red, except I remember him playing football, with the sweat running in red streaks down his face.

But social attitudes were changing. “Sailors fighting in the dancehall … look at those cavemen go,” sang Bowie on Hunky Dory. “Gotta make way for the homo superior”. Arguably, in subconscious mating strategies for the coming decades, young women might find the smart, skinny guy a better bet than the hard-to-employ hardman. At least, that’s what saps like me hoped to hear as we pored over Bowie’s opaque lyrics, looking for messages from a world of dangerous allure and sexual freedom so distant from our council house bedrooms.

From the early 70s, it’s usually suggested that Bowie went on a blinding streak of creativity as well as a drug-fuelled star lifestyle – shifting from sexual iconoclast to showbiz charmer to twitchy paranoid living on a diet of milk, red peppers and cocaine. What’s forgotten is that his “success” was built on a series of attempted commercial suicides.

Each move seemed designed to dismay fans, confound record companies and disrupt a conventional career.

He broke up the band, left rock for “plastic soul”, ditched funk for the chilly European hauteur of the Thin White Duke, before moving to Berlin to make Low and Heroes – each with one side of fractured pop, and the other side filled with wordless, electronic, “classical” muzak.

It’s an astonishing body of work in a handful of years. He hadn’t even reached his most successful phase with Let’s Dance. Only in the mid-80s when he pursued the “pension plan” of the Serious Moonlight tour, there followed the most barren creative patch in his career.

The singer always argued that he had only been a cult artist. The money from his early success disappeared into manager Tony Defries’ star-making machine Mainman. “I paid to get everyone else’s teeth fixed,” the star glumly observed.

Stung once, Bowie became famous for his “executive ability”. “He’s not a man, he’s a business,” moaned Morrissey, after the former Smiths’ frontman tried a stint supporting his hero. Equally baffling to long-time fans, Bowie didn’t show for Mick Ronson’s funeral in 1993, prompting Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter to offer to punch him in the face.

With a return to musical form in the 90s, Bowie seemed set to tour into sprightly old age – until, in 2004 at a gig in Norway, some idiot threw a lollipop. The stick stuck in his already famously injured left eye.

A week later, not surprisingly for a lifelong smoker and former cocaine addict, he had a heart attack during a concert.

He’s been a virtual recluse and family man for almost ten years. Today, his new album The Next Day is No 1 in more than 40 countries. Predictably, it’s not easy listening. Magpie intellectual, tasteful thief, maverick, and unlikely musical genius, David Bowie remains a “starman” despite himself.