David Bowie is a phenomenon rather than a pop star

Who is the real David Bowie? From suburban boy to sell-out at the V&A, Steve Turner followed Britain’s most mysterious rock star every step of the way

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The 24-year-old man who picked me up from Beckenham Station in his vintage two-seater sports car was long-haired, unshaven and wearing a woollen roll-neck pullover and needle-cord jeans. This was May 1971, and no one looked at him twice.

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He drove me to the large rented ground floor of a Victorian mansion, where he lived with his heavily pregnant American wife, Angie. We sat and talked in the living room as he played me tracks he told me he’d recorded that morning. We got on so well that Angie cooked a meal and I ended up staying the whole evening.

These days David Bowie is known for his reluctance to speak to the media; his preference for domestic life with his Somalia-born model wife, Iman, and their 12-year-old daughter Alexandria (known as Lexi) in a luxury New York apartment. He doesn’t do parties, clubbing and star-studded openings. He refused all overtures to perform at the London Olympics ceremonies and didn’t give a single interview to promote his much talked about album The Next Day when it was released in March.

The core of the current, sold-out V&A exhibition David Bowie is (that runs until 11 August) comprises 300 items – costumes, instruments, handwritten lyrics – from Bowie’s extensive personal collection of 75,000 objects (he employs a full-time archivist) but, true to form, the man himself never met the curators or attended the opening. As far as staff are aware he hasn’t yet visited the retrospective that bears his name.

It’s not that Bowie doesn’t believe in publicity – he’s the master of it. He worked out early on that less can be more and that decreasing supply increases demand. Elvis and Bob Dylan were parsimonious when it came to interviews and Bowie took note. Two of his early movie heroines were Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, both of whom made a few utterances go a long way. His silence proved to be golden. Fans hang on his every word, which these days are sung, not spoken.

But back in 1971 he was hungry to talk. He would frequently call me at the magazine I was writing for with invitations to sit in on recording sessions he was producing in Soho. I thought he was just another annoying singer/songwriter and didn’t go. Finally his persistence won me over and I agreed to meet him at his home.

What I discovered was a shy but warm man who was engaging, quick to laugh and excited by his art. He had a voracious appetite for learning, probably the result of having left school at 16, displaying an interest in everything from painting, sculpture, mime and theatre to psychology, subliminal advertising and Tibetan Buddhism. He’d recently visited America for the first time and his living room was littered with boxes of magazines, books and vinyl albums that he’d brought back. “I don’t like giving interviews,” he told me right from the start. “I don’t feel that anything I could say would be worth quoting.”

He didn’t mind conversation, though, and was happy for me to take notes. He just didn’t want to be formally quizzed. We talked about poetry, religion, Bob Dylan and the films of Andy Warhol. He told me he’d just written songs about Dylan and Warhol (they would appear on his album Hunky Dory) and when I took a bathroom break he sang both of them for me onto my cassette recorder. Regretfully, I didn’t keep the tape.

It was almost a year before I saw him again but this was probably the most significant year in his life. He’d not only put out Hunky Dory with its theme song Changes, but had got himself a manager, written a batch of songs about a fictional rock ‘n’ roll star he named Ziggy Stardust and has remodelled his image.

We met in the bar of a theatre in Harlow, Essex, where he was about to play with his new band the Spiders from Mars. Gone were the stubble and hippy tresses. He’d chopped his hair short and was wearing make-up. Instead of jeans and a pullover he was sporting a clinging all-in-one suit tucked into what looked like white boxing boots.

I was reading a copy of The Hidden Persuaders, a classic exposé of American advertising techniques in the 1950s. Bowie noticed the cover and complimented me on my choice. He loved reading about advertising, image, media manipulation and propaganda. He saw it as homework. A few days later we reconvened in Beckenham. This time he wore one of his stage suits and a matching floppy hat. His hair was dyed a carroty red. “A character called David Bowie has sprung up over the past year and I don’t quite know him,” he told me. “I read all my articles and I don’t know how this character has snowballed.”

He was being disingenuous. The snowballing of the Bowie character was very much his doing. Scattered across the floor were recent photos of himself that he’d been scrutinising. One of his strengths as an artist was his lack of commitment to a single point of view, image or musical style. He was a product of his times and happy to be so. Part of his skill was in understanding the culture well enough to be shaped by the zeitgeist. “I’m carried along,” he told me, “by the current of energy I feel in the environment in which I exist.”

The smartest move he made was to act like a glamorous superstar even when he was living in rented accommodation and living off an overdraft. He and his manager Tony Defries hired a phalanx of bodyguards to create the illusion that he was already in need of protection, banned all but a hand-picked official photographer in order to control his visual image and limited his contact with the press so that mystery prevailed.

“He had a shrewd sense of perspective,” Bowie’s photographer Mick Rock said of Defries. “He saw David as a building, something like the Chrysler Building in New York. I think he said it would take two years, and by that time he would be an established landmark.” He was also determined to become one of those rare stars whose surnames became virtual brand names: Brando, Garbo, Dylan, Chaplin, Valentino, Sinatra.

Dai Davies, hired at the end of 1971 to handle Bowie’s publicity, outlined to me the theory behind their strategy. “The general idea was that Bowie was a phenomenon rather than a pop star. After a while it became a matter of controlling the coverage so that we could have prestige magazines and large spaces. You had to ration it out to get more. When you have something unique and you make it scarce it adds to its value.” His producer Tony Visconti told me, “He’s very aware of the mystery he’s created and he’s taken to keep it that way.”

By 1973 Bowie had become as inaccessible as Elvis or Garbo and, remarkably, though his image and music has changed in the 40 years since, his status hasn’t. For most stars a year out of the lime-light would render them obsolete but for Bowie, time has merely added layers of priceless mystery. Paparazzi photos of him shopping in New York are treated like visitations of a long-dead saint. His abstract lyrics are raked through as if they were newly discovered fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Martian that stares from the cover of Ziggy Stardust is still very much with us.

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David Bowie – Five Years is on Saturday at 9:20pm on BBC2