In 1998, Bowie did a cover version of John Lennon’s “Mother” for a tribute album produced by Tony Visconti to John Lennon that was never released.
Lennon was raised by his aunt. Bowie grew up with both his natural parents, but if his mother was physically available, she was not, it seems, emotionally accessible. Bowie sings Lennon’s lyrics with great conviction:
Mother, you had me/But I never had you/I wanted you/But you didn’t want me
That Bowie’s relationship with his mom was at best strained is obvious in the Dick Cavett and Russell Harty interviews in the mid 1970s. In 1974, when Dick Cavett asks what his mother tells the neighbors about him, Bowie responds that likely she pretends he “isn’t hers” and adds he was never close to his mother. A year later, Harty says his mother has been a “bit tearful” that he hasn’t been in touch, but Bowie refuses to comment.
Bowie’s relationship with his father, Haywood Stenton (“John”) Jones, was much stronger, but Jones died after a short illness in 1969. The small cross David wore beginning in the mid-1970’s was, he has said, a gift from his father: “It became part of a new positive frame of mind that I have about trying to reestablish my own identity for myself-for my own sanity. And for my son’s sake.”
“The Early Ears”
From 1998 to 2006, one of the features for subscribers only of his official site, davidbowie.com, were Bowie’s occasional journal entries – now I suppose they’ed be blog posts – (the last one is from 2006, by the way). Usually they are light – what galleries he has visited, bands he’s heard, preparations for various shows – but very briefly the week before Christmas 1998 he posted several uncharacteristically intimate anecdotes about his childhood. Bowie called them, “The Early Ears” and it seemed like his thrust was going to be early musical influences, but what he ended up talking about was what it was like to be the child of Peggy Burns Jones. Bowie wrote:
Sundays were the nearest to a non-stressful period that I can remember in our house. The aroma of food hit the spot and the radio soothed with its own diet of strangely britlove sounds.’Oh, I love this one,’ my mother would say as Ernest Luft stroked the clouds with ‘Oh For The Wings Of A Dove.’
Her voice would soar in ambitious unison, effortlessly matching Ernest note for note as she delivered the gravy boat to the table. ‘All our family could sing’ she’d inform my father and me. ‘We couldn’t do much else but we all loved music. It was thought I’d have a career in music at one time.’
‘But I didn’t have the chance did I, I had to work for a living. Then you came along and put paid to any plans I might have had in that direction.’ At first when this slow-burning accusation began its build, my dad would try and defuse the situation with a joke or a sympathetic rejoinder, but not wanting her platform taken, my mother would whirl her unwelcome bitterness at life’s unfairness, around her head and around the room.
By the age of ten, I knew these pronouncements of my mothers backwards, and I’d intone them under my breath along with her, counting down the seconds to when she’d be finished so I could listen to the Little Richard song on the radio properly, compassionately forgiving myself the ignoble act of being born with the fast growing realization that if I were Little Richard I wouldn’t have to live here any more. And she’d be free to go and sing, too. And dad would have the house to himself without her berating him for some injustice or other that life had delivered her.
Bowie abandoned “The Early Ears” post series.
I wonder if there is a connection on some pre-conscious level between his memories of his mother singing “Wings of a Dove” and Station to Station’s plaintive “Word on a Wing.”
It’s very sad, though, isn’t it, that the least stressful times in his household were still punctuated by his mother blaming his very existence for her disappointments. Or was it Terry Burns, her firstborn she was addressing? It sounds as if David is the only one of her three kids at the table, however, and the sheer absurdity of this woman blaming her third-born for ruining her expectations shows the level of bitterness that was her normalcy.
Crashing in the Same Car
It is said that men marry their mothers – at least the first time they marry. And true to the crashing in the same car dynamic that governs so many human relationships, the mother of Bowie’s son turned out to be a woman he later described as having “as much insight into the human condition as a walnut and a self-interest that would make Narcissus green with envy.”
You don’t have to take David’s word for it. Just read Angela Bowie’s Backstage Passes. It is an astounding self-indictment. Here she had the chance to make herself look good, and maybe she thinks she is doing so, and that is a scary thought.
She complains of not getting enough attention after giving birth to her son, and so she jets off to party with a friend, but unfortunately her post-labor gynecological issues get in the way of having as much fun as she would like.
She complains that when she visited David and Zowie during the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth that there was no water in the pool of the house they were renting and that she saw a rattler, prompting her to make a quick exit back to New York City. There is no mention, as you would expect, of her taking Zowie with her, however.
She describes the proximity of the child’s bedroom to hers in her London house, then details the orgies hosted in her bed, but is outraged that Zowie witnesses his father and Bianca Jagger strolling hand-in-hand along a Riviera promenade. And so on.
Fortunately, for Zowie/Joey/Duncan, his father had an epiphany:
One day I suddenly realised that something seriously had to be done about Joe’s life, because he wasn’t being looked after in the way he should have been. I decided to take the reins, and so I fought and won for the custody. As you probably know it’s a very unusual thing for a father to be given custody of his child, especially in Switzerland. Which, without having to say any more indicates how the maternal side of his life was going. It was tragic. So I took full reign and ever since that time I’ve had to grow up with him, which has been delightful and a source of reserve and discipline and energy.
In 1980, a few weeks after John Lennon was murdered, Bowie and his son spent Christmas in New York City. Also with them was Peggy Burns Jones, Joey’s grandmother.
I’ve wondered about David’s reconciliation with his mother. I think John’s death was the cause. David soon left NYC and became much more attentive to security. It may have troubled him too that were he to die, there would be no family member who would look out for his son’s interests. He could appoint a legal guardian, but once he was gone, there would have been no way to stop Angie from claiming Joey as her own, not out of love, but for the millions that would come along with him.
Only one other person could counter her claim: Joey’s granny. And as selfish and narcissistic as Peggy Burns Jones was, such traits might have come in handy when the opposition was the crazy and ruthless Angie. What a choice of mothers, but at least he had the money for a good boarding school.