One of the qualities I admire about Bowie is that it seems as if he is and was (his children were born 29 years apart) at least a good enough parent, in spite of about a zillion circumstances that must have made it harder for him than for most, and it is hard enough for any of us.
Of course I know nothing about the private man, David Robert Jones, but of this man’s public persona, David Bowie, I can speculate on his choices and character in much the same way as I would the actions and nature of a novel’s protagonist. More to the point, Bowie is like the demi-gods of myth, or King Arthur or the biblical King David. When it comes to living demi-gods, things get messier, chancier, tentative and accidental, obviously. However, when people seek fame, they know that what they say and do will be remarked upon: that is why they give interviews, arrange photoshoots and so on. When people become famous through no doing of their own, then the desire to know more seems grubby.
To speculate on Bowie as father means to wonder what it might be like to be his kid – the present child, Lexi, and the grown man Duncan. Neither of them chose to be scrutinized, and the Jones family and Bowie organization have done an admirable job of keeping Lexi out of the public eye, as they did with Zowie-Joey-Duncan, once his father took charge of him. And when his son re-emerged, being Bowie’s son wasn’t his claim to attention. He has made two very good movies, and there is every reason to believe he’ll make more. And he did it all on his own terms – no Zowie Bowie credit line, just Duncan Jones.
Maybe that is really all there is to say about what kind of dad Bowie must have been. His son learned to work for what he wanted. Duncan would agree: in 2006 he said, “My dad and I are incredibly close. . . . I think he’s very proud of the fact that I’ve done this on my own.”
Bowie’s own father, Haywood Stenton (“John”) Jones, lost his father very young. Bowie was 22 when Jones died, an adult, but far from ready for this loss (if ever at any age one is). Bowie remembers him as a “voracious reader” and while not financially astute, a “successful man.” In a 2004 “What I’ve Learned” piece for Esquire, Bowie noted:
I’ve always regretted that I never was able to talk openly with my parents, especially with my father. I’ve heard and read so many things about my family that I can no longer believe anything; every relative I question has a completely different story from the last. I seem to have half a dozen family histories.
No speculations follow in this post: just a few insights from father and son.
Bowie, Single Parent. 1983 interview in Musician:
. . . Then this parallel thing happened, where as I came out of that last bad period, I grew more aware of my son’s life and the responsibilities I have towards my son. I guess it’s aging, getting older, but now have a very direct link with the future. My son, just because of his presence, keeps telling me there is a tomorrow, there is a future, and that there’s no point in screwing up today; because every day that you screw up is going to have an effect, karma-wise, on the future. One just adjusts. . .
MUSICIAN: How old is Zowie now?
BOWIE: He’s eleven years old now. He lives with me. I have complete responsibility for him. I’m a single parent with a son, and more than anything else over the last five years, that fact has honed my outlook generally, and will continue to change my approach to music and whatever else I do.
Bowie looks back on raising his son, December 1996:
Whether it was me encouraging Joe to be curious about life, or whether it was just a genetic thing, I don’t know.’ He made a point, he says, never to brow-beat him about anything: drugs, sexuality, his choice of career. `The only times when I’ve lapsed into strictness . . .is in the matter of fundamental morality, that it’s wrong to harm or to steal, the requirement for honesty. I do think I’m basically an honest person and I know that he is a very honest person.’ Bowie took custody of Joe . . .when Joe was five. `He’s seen me through some of the most awful depressing times when I was really in absolute, abject agony over my emotional state; the heights of my drinking or drug-taking. He’s seen the lot. So he’s had the full dose of me – more than he’ll ever need again.’
Duncan on his dad’s encouragement, March 2006:
When I was growing up he kept on trying to get me to learn instruments but I just didn’t have the patience for it. But one of the things we were always doing together as a hobby was filming stuff, shooting on 8mm cameras and using tiny little editing systems to cut together Smurf movies. I had these Smurf and Star Wars figures and would do one-stop animation with them. I was six or seven.
“I Demand a Better Future”
Bowie on what he wants for Lexi:
On a Bowienet chat Bowie was asked, What is the most important lesson on life that you would like to instill in your new child?
Hopefully the same thing I tried to encourage in my son Duncan, which is a thirst for learning. It’s not the subject matter that’s important. It’s the desire to want to learn and how to collect and take knowledge in. If you have a thirst for life it will take you through so many depressing periods and you’ll have a wider panorama. . .
During a 2003 talk with Ken Scrudato for Soma magazine touching on post-modernism, nihilism, and existentialism, when speculation turned to whether humankind will destroy its world. Bowie changed course:
Well, I’m not going to tell my daughter that. I’m going to tell her that she’s going to have a great life, and it’s a terrific world, and that she should embrace all experiences…. carefully. You see, I HAVE to do that. It’s really important for me to work hard on developing a positive attitude. Because it’s not for me anymore, and I’m very keenly aware of that. I just can’t get that selfish. And it’s very, very easy for me to vacilate over into the more depressing, nihilistic, and dark side of life. It’s always been too easy for me to do that; and I just don’t need to do that right now. It comes through in my writing because it’s the only space I allow myself to function in that particular way.
Lexi is 11 now, which is what 14 used to be. I hope Bowie is summoning his psychic strength and following his own advice and doing a lot of writing.