At 27 and at 54

When I came back to Bowie one of the lures was this: How did he do it? I’d watch  Heathen-era youtubes and then the bits from  1974’s Cracked Actor and wonder  how did he go from  being the  95-pound  coke addict of 1975, to a man who looked better at 54 than at 27? Many are happier at 54 than 27, but not healthier.

And I think he genuinely was. Bowie is the first to say that his years of cocaine addiction messed up his emotional life and left his memory with “sizeable holes” but I think that he meant his memory of those years, not in general.

I think too that he was right when he said that his body was relatively unaffected by his addiction: “I’ve been a really lucky sod. . . I’m extremely fit.”

Of course, after his 2004 heart attack the tabloids were quick to blame his past drug use. The Sun was typical:

“…doctors now believe his heart attack may be a direct result of the hammering his body took during those years. Sun doctor Carol Cooper said: ‘Drugs cause heart muscle to deteriorate and can bring on coronary disease at a younger age. Sadly there is nothing David Bowie can do now to reverse the effects of the drugs he took.'”

There are a few problems here, other than the obvious, that Dr. Cooper never examined Bowie.

When Bowie had his heart attack, June 25, 2004, he was 57 and a half years old, and had just finished playing the 113th show of a worldwide tour that began October 7, 2003.

Surely, no insurance firm would have underwritten a 56-year-old rock star’s 128-show concert without doing the most thorough physical exams known to medicine.

And for every ex-drug user who has a heart attack in middle age, there are those like my friend Barry, who never smoked or drugged, drank in moderation, passed a physical on a Monday including a stress test during which he didn’t break a sweat, and had an emergency triple by-pass Friday of the same week. Barry’s doctor said had he not been in such great shape to start with, he would may well have not made it.

Same, I expect, could be said for Bowie.

There are no accounts of formal rehabilitation programs. In fact, Bowie has said he stayed away from psych hospitals because he worried if he ever got in, he’d never get out, and his family history removes this musing from paranoia to well-founded. I’ve seen occasional mentions of Coco Schwab hooking him up with a therapist during the Berlin years, and in the 1990s a comment in an interview I need to look up suggested he might take mood stablilizers — if I had to guess, when the SSRIs came out in the late 1980s, his life probably got a lot easier, as did so many others’.

I think Bowie left coke behind through the same means as he always got what he wanted: hard work and a strong will.

Peter Gillman and Leni Gillman in Alias David Bowie believe Bowie’s decision to bring Coco Schwab and Iggy Pop with him to Berlin essential to his success; Paul Trykna’s Starman credits Bowie’s desire to help Iggy Pop.

There’s something to be said for the  Gillmans’ and Trykna’s speculations. Coco I imagine was the friend who finally told him in LA that he would die alone if he continued doing as he did.

By taking both Iggy and Coco with him to Berlin, perhaps Bowie found a middle place to rest between the extremes of the singer’s outrageousness and his assistant’s responsibility.

Shy people are not necessarily solitairies, and Bowie typically had a friend in tow for new experiences: George Underwood and his wife accompanied Angela and David on their first QE2 voyage to America; Geoff MacCormack was his companion on the Aladdin Sane tours and during the making of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Iggy played that role in Berlin. That he was also in need of getting off drugs raised the stakes. On some level, perhaps Bowie realized that if he succeeded in leaving behind his drug addiction, maybe Iggy would too. Or maybe not. But almost certainly, if he failed, then Iggy would go down with him.

Bowie may have also been constructing a familiar family circle, with Coco playing the role of domineering mother and Iggy that of Terry Burns (Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother). Who then was David? The child? Or the father?


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