The view from Croydon: A tribute to David Bowie


By - Monday 18th January, 2016

In the latest in the Citizen’s occasional ‘The View From Croydon’ series, Katie Rose remembers the south London boy who made his life and death a work of art


For those of us who grew up in the last fifty years, David Bowie is woven into the soundtrack of our lives, whether you were a crazy punk, mad rocker or pixie-booted ’80s teen like me, captivated by Labyrinth. Bowie crafted inimitable multi-layered songs and images which are embedded in our collective subconscious.A weaver of dreams, he was a magician who tunneled the mazes of the mind where all manner of monsters and oddities dwelt. A master alchemist, he made his life and death a work of art, leaving us with music that will linger long after his passing.

When the world experienced revolutionary ch-ch-changes, Bowie was there. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, Bowie’s song ‘Space Oddity’ was used by the BBC. When the Berlin Wall began to crumble, Bowie played concerts that united East and West Berliners. When the internet launched, Bowie predicted its impact, created a download-only song (‘Telling Lies’, 1996) and his own ISP. When people wanted to get high, get mad and get out of their boxes, Bowie was there with a song and a ravishing outfit for the occasion.

In the words of John Lennon, it’s rock and roll with lipstick on

Bowie’s subversive genius and prolific creativity continued until his final days. He sold approximately 140 million albums, went on fourteen tours and produced twenty-seven studio albums, forty-nine compilation albums, nine live albums, six EPs, 120 singles, three soundtracks, thirteen videos and fifty-eight music videos. He collaborated with artists including Brian Eno, Tina Turner, Bing Crosby, Queen, Mick Jagger and John Lennon – who described his music as “rock’n'roll with lipstick on”. Bowie won numerous awards and turned down a knighthood saying: “It’s not what I spent my life working for”. The naming of a spider (Heteropoda davidbowie) in his honour is perhaps more appropriate.

Born David Jones in Brixton in 1947 to a waitress and a Barnados promotions officer, South London was Bowie’s early creative playground. He was found to be an astonishing dancer and excellent recorder player at Burnt Ash Junior School, Bromley. Whilst studying at Bromley Technical School, he formed his first bands and changed his surname to Bowie, after the Texan revolutionary James Bowie.

His galactic rise from a working class background inspired generations to reach for the stars

His theatre training with Lindsay Kemp at London Dance Centre allowed him to become “immersed in the creation of personae” and he began featuring in TV and film. He passed briefly through Croydon Art School, co-ran Beckenham Arts Lab at the Three Tuns and hosted a festival at Beckenham bandstand – now set to become a memorial.

Bowie, of course, famously described Croydon as “complete concrete hell”. But when he played The Greyhound in 1972 over a thousand people had to be turned away at the door and when Ziggy landed at Fairfield Halls in 1973, photographer Frazer Ashford said that the audience of flares, platforms and afghans knew that they were part of something momentous. His galactic rise from a working class urban background inspired generations to come to reach for the stars.

Bowie’s splintered self crossed lines of sexuality, identity, gender and genre

The power of music became apparent to Bowie when he saw his cousin dance to Elvis’s ‘Hound Dog’ and he “heard God” whilst listening to Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’. He included tributes to Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan on his album Hunky Dory (1971), saying that he saw a “leadership void: if there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it”.

To overcome his nerves and find the attitude he needed, Bowie started creating stage personae – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Major Tom and The Thin White Duke – and began his chameleon journey through musical styles. With his rapidly shifting identities, he became an embodiment of the modern splintered self, crossing lines of identity, sexuality, gender and genre. Paradoxically through his multiplicity, he became innately singular – utterly himself – and pursued consistent lines of creative enquiry: “The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life”.

Describing himself as “a librarian with a sex drive”, Bowie’s reading list indicates the depth and breadth of his curiosity. His songs are layered with a complexity which composer Philip Glass described as “works of genius… masquerading as simple pieces”. His musical talent encompassed the ability to play guitar, keyboard, harmonica, saxophone, stylophone, viola, cello, koto, thumb piano, drums, and percussion.

At one time, Bowie feared mental collapse. Later, after recovery from addiction, he assisted others to recover

The dark side of Bowie’s star cast shadows of addiction and breakdown in the early 70s. “The majority of the people in my family have been in some kind of mental institution”, Bowie revealed in 1971, saying he feared mental collapse. His first marriage to Angie Barrett broke down amidst drug-fuelled disputes and Bowie won custody of their son, film director Duncan Zowie Jones.

Bowie credits his assistant Coco for helping him move from America to Berlin in 1976 where he was able to clean up. Whilst addicted to cocaine, Bowie described Hitler as “one of the first rock stars” and espoused the need for an extreme right government to come and “tidy everything up”. He later retracted these statements, saying he was “out of his mind, totally crazed” and became a spokesperson for racial equality – calling MTV out on its racism and taking a stand against oppression in the videos for ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘China Girl’.

Bowie supported others to recover: he checked Iggy Pop out of mental hospital and relaunched his career, produced Lou Reed’s solo album Transformer post-Velvet Underground and acted as ‘kind of mentor, big brother, friend” and gave “kind of shamanish advice” to Trent Reznor. Bowie also supported and donated songs to causes including War Child, Every Mother Counts, Keep A Child Alive and The Cove, a documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan.

‘You’d think a rock star married to a supermodel is one of the greatest things in the world. It is’

Iman and David Bowie.
Photo by David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons licence.

In later life, Bowie enjoyed the privacy of a happy family life with his second wife, Somali-born groundbreaking supermodel Iman, remarking: “You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is”. He poignantly spoke of his love for their daughter Lexi in a BBC interview: “There’s such a cloud of melancholia about knowing I’m going to have to leave my daughter on her own, it just doubles me up in grief”. The family made a final trip to Bowie’s South London roots in 2014.

“I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t be boring”, Bowie said on his fiftieth birthday. He described himself as “not quite an atheist”. His music seems powered by an incredible creative intelligence: a delight in even the darkest of places and determination to search, discover and provoke that denotes his absolute love of life and “awe of the universe”.

“I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture I was living in”, he said. Mission accomplished, Mr Bowie. The world has been flooded with tributes that testify to the magnificence of your contribution. Fly high, Starman.

Katie Rose

Katie Rose

Katie Rose - Singer, Composer, Conductor, Writer - Katie loves singing and helping people sing. Described by the Guardian as a 'fine singer' and by fRoots magazine as an 'eye (and ear) opener,' she has released three albums. Committed to creating uplifting, inclusive experiences of singing, Katie has led singing sessions in hospitals, hospices, festivals and community choirs across London. Convinced of the power of music to make waves in the world she has conducted mass choral events for Sing for Water and is directing Croydon's first Festival of Peace 2018. For more information visit www.therosewindow.org

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