Looking back on little-reported moments in the life of the Thin White Duke.
One day, the frail knot of people and places that is you will dissolve forever. It doesn't matter who you are—one day your body will leap up and kill you. That seems to be a feeling pushing back against everyone's sense of immortality this week: If death got Bowie—well, maybe it really can get me, too.
With the thousands of well-crafted pages of obituary that have already been written, there seems no point in throwing another posy on the Kensington Palace flower pile. But there might be something in avoiding any attempt at being comprehensive, and instead diving into the off-center bits of Bowie most obits would leave on the cutting room floor.
So here's that:
DAVID BOWIE'S DAD LOST ALL HIS MONEY PROMOTING THE CAREER OF HIS FIRST WIFE
She was "Chèrie, the Viennesse Nightingale," real-name Hilda, a jazz singer on whose behalf the love-struck 26-year-old John Jones staged a disastrous revue in the 1930s. Jones had also owned a piano bar—the Boop-a-Doop in Charlotte Street, Soho—before he was forced to take a job as a porter, eventually finding better work for the Children's charity Barnardo's. Bowie's mother, Peggy Burns, a former cinema usherette, was also on her second marriage.
HE HAD A HALF-BROTHER WHO KILLED HIMSELF
On January 16, 1985, Terry Burns, Bowie's decade-older half-brother, left the Cane Hill psychiatric hospital in Coulsdon and lay down on the tracks, facing away from the train, awaiting the express service to London, which killed him a few minutes later. Cane Hill is on the cover of "The Man Who Sold the World," and Bowie wrote a range of songs dealing with mental illness, most obviously "All the Madmen," and more obliquely "Bewlay Brothers," which many think is designed to be a syllabic overlay of "Bowie Brothers." The tabloid press later accused Bowie of abandoning his brother (Bowie stayed away from the funeral, fearing it would become a media circus).
But the truth was very different. Ten years older, Burns had introduced the young Bowie to pretty much everything that shaped his first phase: jazz, the Beats, science fiction, R&B, Buddhism. Among the stolid townhouses of Bromley—where Bowie spent much of his childhood—Terry was a lighthouse from a world beyond suburbia, and Bowie grabbed at everything he was offering.
Years later, in a 1993 interview, he played all of this down, saying he had projected a great deal onto the elder sibling. "I think I unconsciously exaggerated his importance," he said. "I invented this hero-worship to discharge my guilt and failure, and to set myself free from my own hang-ups."
Read on Noisey: Let's Dance—David Bowie's Everlasting Influence on Pop Music
HE HAD A RUTHLESS STREAK
In 1964, Bowie left his first, unsuccessful band, The King Bees, and journeyed up the Thames to Margate, where he auditioned to be part of an R&B group called The Lower Third. The rest of the band had assumed they were recruiting an equal member, but Bowie decided to give himself top billing, issuing a press release on their behalf that read: "This is to inform you of the existence of Davie Jones and the Lower Third."
In the early 1970s, after Mick Jagger showed him some forthcoming album sleeve designs by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert, Bowie went behind his back and hired Peellaert to do the cover for Diamond Dogs. The canon is full of examples of moments when the ground suddenly gave way under former friends.
Most seem to have grudgingly respected this streak. After all, anyone who's prepared to turn themselves self into a pop art mannequin is committed to success in a way we can barely imagine. Michael Lippman, who was Bowie's manager in 1975, described him as: "very charming and friendly, and at the same time he [could] be very cold and self-centered... He wanted to rule the world."
HE WAS THE MAN WHO FUCKED THE WORLD
Bowie had modeled himself on a pan-galactic Pan of polyamory, and it certainly wasn't all artifice. During the 1970s, in his pioneering "open" marriage to Angie, he would regularly invite girls he saw at parties to have sex in the bathroom a few moments after learning their names. Even within their marriage, the Bowies were extravagantly open: "Angie and David used to have the most amazing orgies at Oakley Street," remembered former London socialite Vicki Hodge. "Everybody fucked everybody in the pit. Mick Jagger used to come there and be involved with sexual things. John [her boyfriend] told me that David watched while he had sex with Angie."
Susan Sarandon, Tina Turner, Lulu, Ronnie Spector: These are just a few of the (known) Bowie conquests. Nor did he restrict his womanizing to women. He was sleeping with his legendary mime teacher, Lindsay Kemp, and also Kemp's costume designer, Natasha Korniloff. When the pair realized what he was up to, Korniloff took an overdose, while Kemp cut his wrists. Both survived.
For the early 1980s, Bowie was involved in a three-year thing with Susan Sarandon, and by the late-80s was engaged to a dancer 20 years his junior, Melissa Hurley. But they split, and in October of that year, at a party in LA, he met Iman.
DESPITE HIS SEXUAL SUCCESS, HE WAS A CARD-CARRYING MIME ARTIST
It was meeting Kemp that transformed Bowie from the mop-top cheeky-chappie pop singer who made "The Laughing Gnome" into the genius monument to self-construction that he became.
Kemp was a mime artist, who instructed Bowie in this most ridiculed of crafts, plus several other cultural variations. He taught Bowie how to use his body, to pose, to dance. He introduced him to Kabuki, the Japanese onnagata tradition of male actors playing female roles.
"Kabuki is oddly fitting to Bowie," explained cultural critic Ian Buruma. "[It's] a theater of extravagant, stylized gestures. At climactic moments the actors freeze, as though in a photograph, while striking a particularly dramatic pose. Bowie never became a great actor, but he did become a great poseur, in the best sense of the word; he always moves with peculiar grace."
Kemp and Bowie put on a show together called Pierrot in Turquoise.
"His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I'd ever seen, ever," Bowie said of Kemp. "Everything I thought Bohemia probably was, he was living."
And so, too, Bowie began to turn his everyday into his fantasy, and soon enough, his fantasy became everyone else's reality.
HE ONCE EXORCISED HIS SWIMMING POOL
"I'd found a soulmate in this drug," Bowie told Paul Du Noyer in 2002, of cocaine. "Well, speed as well, actually. The combination."
He loved fast drugs, he said. He hated anything that slowed him down. And cocaine, from the early-70s up to the giddying climax of 1975, certainly accelerated his muse. He had Herculean tolerance for it that left his hangers-on for dust. Sessions would be delayed or canceled while the Thin White Duke waited for his man, and became increasingly akin to that character as he'd originally described it: "A very Aryan, fascist-type; a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all, but who spouted a lot of neo-romance."
Key witness to the madness was Glenn Hughes, the Deep Purple bassist, who had offered Bowie space in his Los Feliz home. "David had a fear of heights and wouldn't go into an elevator," Hughes later recalled. "He never used to go above the third floor. Ever. If I got him into an elevator, it was frightening. He was paranoid and so I became paranoid. We partied in private."
Following a stint hanging out with Jimmy Page, Bowie became obsessed with the book Psychic Self Defense, supposedly written as a "safeguard for protecting yourself against paranormal malevolence," and began drawing pentagrams on every surface (later fictionalized as "Don't look at the carpet / I drew something awful on it" in "Breaking Glass").
As Hughes says, "He felt inclined to go on very bizarre tangents about Aleister Crowley or the Nazis or numerals a lot... He was completely wired. Maniacally wired. I could not keep up with him. He was on the edge all the time of paranoia, and also going on about things I had no friggin' idea of what he was talking about. He'd go into a rap on it and I wouldn't know what he was talking about."
Living out in California, not too far from the Manson/Sharon Tate house, Bowie had also become increasingly obsessed with echoes of Rosemary's Baby manifesting in his own life.
"He had this whole thing about these black girls who were trying to get him to impregnate them to make a devil baby," said Cherry Vanilla, the Warhol acolyte. "He asked me to get him a white witch to take this curse off of him, so I put him in touch with her."
The white witch was a former journalist and Wicca enthusiast called Walli Elmlark, and she performed an exorcism on the house, at the height of which, Angie Bowie later wrote, "the pool began to bubble. It bubbled vigorously—perhaps 'thrashed' is a better term—in a manner inconsistent with any explanation involving filters and the like."
"Under the God" by Tin Machine
YOU MIGHT HAVE HATED IT, BUT TIN MACHINE MADE HIM HAPPY AGAIN
Bowie's career can be read sometimes as a series of magnetic partnerships—a Richards to his Jagger for every age. Mick Ronson. Brian Eno. Tony Visconti. Robert Fripp on Scary Monsters. Nile Rodgers on Let's Dance. Then, at the end of his increasingly dire 80s pop run, Reeve Gabrels, a "virtuous" noodler and arch-session guy whom he'd met on the Glass Spiders tour.
"I look back on the Tin Machine years with great fondness," Bowie told Uncut. "They charged me up. I can't tell you how much. Reeves shook me out of my doldrums, pointed me at some kind of light—said, 'Be adventurous again.' I've been finding my voice, and a certain authority, ever since."
Even after the outright failure of Tin Machine, Gabrels became Bowie's guitar go-to guy, and his influence continued on the likes of Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, and Hours....
Few have ever thanked him, but far from the image of an auteur he always projected, Bowie needed his wing-men.
Bowie talking about how meeting Iman made the "idea of love concrete."
HIS LIFE OF CONNUBIAL BLISS WITH IMAN SOUNDS ALMOST AS SEDUCTIVE AS ANY SESSION OF PAN-SEXUAL COCAINE CREATIVITY
Bowie said he was "naming the children the first night we met." Ten years on, that child was named Alexandria Zahra Jones, and arrived in August of 2000, when Iman was already 45 and the couple were giving up on IVF.
"My attraction to her was immediate and all-encompassing," Bowie told, um, Hello Magazine, that year. "I couldn't sleep for the excitement of our first date. That she would be my wife, in my head, was a done deal. I'd never gone after anything in my life with such passion in all my life. I just knew she was the one."
"My marriage is exactly as fabulous as you all would think," Iman declared around the same time. "We've always been very close, but if it's possible we've been drawn even closer. There's a joy or a contentment that's almost palpable to both of us."
Part of the explanation for Bowie's long fallow period—between 2003's Reality and his surprise comeback in 2013—was simply that domestic bliss, watching TV on the couch with his daughter, or painting while Iman did needlepoint alongside him. Bowie will be remembered by history as a series of artistic exhibitionisms, but by the 1990s his lust for glory had already ebbed in favor of a highly domesticated love-nest.
"I don't have that sense of loneliness that I had before," he said in 2003. "Which was very, very strong."
It's a touching and slightly sobering reminder that, in the end, what survives of us is love. Even if you're David Bowie.
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