Some Random Thoughts on The Man Who Fell to Earth, Part 1

Each time I watch The Man Who Fell to Earth, I wonder anew. I have no thesis here, so these thoughts just roughly follow the chronology of the movie.

  1. Bowie’s character does not smoke cigarettes during the movie. Buck Henry’s Oliver Farnsworth does in the first scene in which he appears and at least once again. Stills from the set show a great deal of smoking going on, but although this was during Bowie’s chain-smoking days, Thomas Jerome Newton does not smoke.
  2. Is Newton drinking water from cupped hands when we first see him crouched? I used to think so, but he is too close to the roadway and far from the lake to make that practical. After he sells a ring to the curio shop owner for $20, he returns with a coffee cup. It is more of a prayerful pose. (He has cupped hands (2)bundles of $100 bills, but these must have been counterfeited on his home planet, which is the way that Newton is finally taken into custody in the Walter Tevis novel. From television, Tevis’s aliens had gotten a good idea, but not good enough, of the appearance of $20 bills. Also, paying with $100s to get a cup and some snacks would be attention-grabbing.) 
  3.  There are three trains, excluding the one on Newton’s planet: a rusted steam engine, a Santa Fe freight, and an Amtrak passenger. A presentiment of the opening of Station to Station?
  4. This is America. We know immediately and for certain because there are guns. The first is in the cash box at the curio shop, a snub-nosed piece. The Chekovian rule that if a gun appears in Act I, it will be used by Act V sort of applies when Newton orders a pistol that shoots blanks from his jailers when he hears of Mary Lou’s visit. At first he says they gave him one, then corrects himself: he paid for it. He [unwillingly] pays for it all. Not their faces, but their guns are also what we first see of police who check out Newton’s limo in NM. They are a prominent feature in many of movies Tommy watches, including The Third Man and cowboy and Indian movies.
  5. Did Newton walk all 20 or so staircases to Farnsworth’s penthouse to avoid the elevator? Just going five floors in Artesia, NM leaves him in a faint.  From the views and time it eventually takes Farnsworth to fall, his penthouse must have been high up. This falls into the realm of the unknowable, the suspend your disbelief category. Newton could have gone one floor by elevator or stairs, rested, and continued. He could have had Tony carry him. It doesn’t matter, just a curiosity. 
  6. Some equally irrelevant things are knowable. For example, if Arthur isn’t allowed to go over 30 mph, how long would a limo ride take to Artesia? (By the way, at 3,380 ft elevation, any physical exertion would be harder than at sea level.) Artesia is 1965 miles from New York City, so that would be roughly 65 hours, 30 minutes. So if Arthur drove 12 hours a day, about 5 and a half days. Not so bad. By the time Mary Lou and Tommy start looking for a building site for their home, they must have moved their base to Albuquerque because from Artesia to the city is 239 miles, about 8 hours, Newton time. (The film locale is Fenton, just 77 miles or 2.5 hours at 30 mph.)
  7. Coca-Cola is everywhere in America, but considering that the movie was filmed during a hiatus in Bowie’s coke years, it is amusing to hear the Coke commercial “I’d like to teach the world to sing” on in the background on one of the TVs in the early days of the movie and to see a Coke machine in the lobby of the hotel in which Bowie had been kept prisoner.
  8. Mary Lou has an orange cat in her apartment in Artesia and much later when she is living with Nathan Bryce. It could be 10, 15, even 20 years old. Bryce and Mary Lou have certainly aged — and Mary Lou looks fairly bloated — since they betrayed Tommy, although Mary Lou still looks the same naked when she visits the prisoner, who has been in custody long enough to declare his intention to stop trying to prove anything to anyone. Enough time passes between Tommy’s release, Christmas with the unhappy couple, and the final scene for Tommy to have recorded The VisitorWorldwide had been in business for long enough to have a publishing and photography division when Dr. Nathan Bryce enters the story.

Check back in a few days for more.

 

 

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Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar. David Bowie, Islander

 

David Bowie was an islander, born in England, died in Manhattan, his ashes scattered off the island of Bali. He had a lifelong interest in another island nation, Japan, and homes in Australia, Mustique, and Bermuda. Like Thomas Jerome Newton, his avocation could easily be described as Traveler; his moniker on his website was Sailor; at the Secret Roseland Concert for Bowienetters (2000),  he wore a sailor’s blouse with ribbons and triangular placket and loose bell bottoms; on the Isolar tours, a white sailor’s or captain’s hat; and during the Mick Rock Aladdin Sane photo shoot, his face was adorned with an anchor, as shown on the last page of RisingTideFallingStar.

For 20 years, and when he made Lodger, the album most dominated by terrestrial rootlessness, Bowie lodged in Berlin and lived in Switzerland, where “the vaults” may still be; the mountains provide a level of physical and psychological security not to be found in coastal regions, certainly not along the coast of southern California, in spite of the imperious tone of “Station to Station’s” “Tall in this room overlooking the ocean.”

RisingTideFallingStar is about people who by birth or choice live on the coast, where land ends and sea begins and there is nowhere left to go but back. Hoare grew up  in Southampton, England. Southampton was for embarkation; south Florida, where I was raised, final arrival.  Once he settled in Manhattan, Bowie could see Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands, very near to Ellis Island, through which so many poor came, many who began their journeys in Southampton, who would never again see their homelands.

Mine was quite a different coast. Miami was a city in its infancy when my grandparents arrived, my maternal great-grandmother and her daughters coming east from far west Texas, and my father’s people from Ohio; they were lured  into a malarial swamp by advertisements for a better future.  I have looked at the 1930 census for my father’s block, and no head of household had been born in Miami.  They were what Hoare calls “washashores,” (34) referring to the fulltime residents of  Provincetown, Massachussetts: “No one arrives here accidentally, unless they do. It is not on the way to anywhere else, except to the sea” (41). 

Last spring I went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which I imagine to be geographically similar to Provincetown on Cape Cod, where much of RisingTideFallungStar takes place. It too is a can’t-get-there-from-here sort of place. One road connects these islands, and there is one bridge to the mainland. Otherwise access is by ferries and air (Kill Devil Hawks, where the Wright Brothers first flew, is on the Outer Banks). It is shifting so much now that Cape Hatteras Lighthouse had to be moved inland in 1999. 

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Public domain (USG) aerial of Cape Hattaras lighthouse before it was moved.

The Outer Banks are the closest part of the US mainland to Bermuda, the island that well could have been the model for Prospero’s in The Tempest, a glimpse of the coming New World. David Bowie had a home there, between worlds. The Tempest is a character, at least an informing force, in RisingTideFallungStar. The first mention of the “starman” is Derek Jarman’s fancy that Bowie would sing Ariel’s song in his version of the play .  From Shakespeare’s Ariel, Hoare goes by easy stages to Percy Bysshe Shelley, described by a contemporary as the “image of some heavenly spirit come down to earth by mistake” (185), and said by another to have drawn pentacles and seen demons, never eating much or sitting still (190).

Then there’s the Phoenician sailor in Eliot’s The Wasteland, Melville’s Billy Budd and Moby Dick, Jack London’s Martin Eden, Keats (“Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” [213]), Stephen Tennant’s Lascars (337), and Wilfred Owen, pictured as a child in his Edwardian sailor suit and later as a WWI captain, who drowned in poison gas, in murky muck and mangled landscapes. Selkies and mermen.

There are so many more: Hoare’s family, who lost their connection to their native country of Ireland (369) as I assume did Bowie’s mother; there is no mention of his retracing her family’s path from Ireland to Kent. 

But I will end, as I began: Read RisingTideFallingStar. 

Some Random Thoughts:

Hoare notes Shelley had a flooded house in Italy and that John Lily developed one in Bimini in the 1960s to study dolphins (203). There is a wonderful novel about this experiment, Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets.

Brixton and Bromley, London, where Bowie grew up, are much closer to the Thames Estuary and North Sea than is metro Houston to the Gulf of Mexico, but whether London is considered coastal, I don’t know. Considering whales have swum up the Thames, I”m inclined to say if is. (I lived a few years in Houston, but there I was aware of its geography only if hurricanes threatened. Its metro area is considered the largest coastal city along the Gulf of Mexico, but it doesn’t have a coastal feel.  I began reading RisingTideFallungStar just before Harvey hit Houston and had to put it aside when Irma came across Florida.)

Warren Ellis has a very fine essay, “A Compendium of Tides” on the shapeshifting qualities of the Thames Estuary in the anthology Spirits of Place.

In the early 1990s Bowie had a Balinese-inspired estate on Mustique in the Grenadaires in the Caribbean. I don’t know why he sold this retreat he considered enchanting, but I have two guesses. Iman may have not found visits to a part of the world well known for its brutal slavery as charming (there is no hope of escape on islands)  (the fortune of Elizabeth Barrett, one of the authors Hoare features in this volume was derived from  Caribbean sugar cane plantations), and the island’s celebrity-dominated parties proved deadly to the family of its owner, Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner.

This post follows several others on Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar, which will be released in the US in April.

Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar: Frock Coats and the End of Empire


Bowie on Outside in 1995 interview with Larry Katz: 

Outside is set at the end of the millennium. What are your thoughts about what’s in store?” Bowie: “‘I’m very positive about it. …What Brian and I are trying to do is develop a series of albums that trace the last five years of  the ‘90s. This is the first in this series or cycle of albums.’ [As it turned out, Outside was Bowie and Eno’s last recording together.]”

In the second half of Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar, Hoare visits the Royal Museums Greenwich for a personal viewing of Admiral Nelson’s undress coat worn when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.

What, I wondered on first reading, is Admiral Nelson doing in a book featuring so many poets that returns again and again to Bowie?

It’s the frock coats, the frock coats with “pleated skirts [that] swung as Nelson walked. . .and gold-lace cuffs” (327). It’s also the stockings, and the emphasis in portraits on the Admiral’s “balanced” “stance,” more like a “dancer than a fighter” (323). Much of ruling is looking the part. It’s as theatrical and improbable as Bowie.

As the curators explain the fascinating construction of these amphibious woolen maritime frock coats, Hoare muses on how it would feel to be so protected, much as he earlier considered what it would be like to assume the body of a dolphin washed ashore in Provincetown: “I imagine her as a human in a dolphin wetsuit. I think of her bones, lighter than mine since they did not have to bear the full weight of gravity” (61), and the claims of the poet Oppian (AD 180) that killing dolphins is immoral because they were humans who returned to the sea, and “the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thought and human deeds” (60). If, Hoare imagines, he could slip on Nelson’s coat, and “feel the skirts sway and bounce like a kilt,” he could “be a hero, just for a minute or two” (328). 

In fact, Nelson was not a handsome sailor but a small admiral who had lost an arm in battle and was blinded in one eye, above which was a scar, “as if he’d been ripped by lighting, a zig-zag rip” (324). His scar reminds me of the one on Pierrot in Ashes to Ashes, and during the production of David Bowie Is, the curators took Hoare to see the costume up close, which is described both in this book and a passage from a profile of Hoare in The Guardian:

 “There lay a cross between a plywood cradle and a semi-circular, space-age coffin. Like the casket of a mummy. In there was the Pierrot costume for the “Ashes to Ashes” video. It was made of buckram and silver fabric and sequins, but it was stiff and looked like the chrysalis of an insect which had vacated it.  It was in the shape of David Bowie, as if he’d been teleported out of this world and left this reliquary we were worshipping. I reached out but I couldn’t touch it. It would have been too much. It would have broken the spell.” 

As Hoare leaves the Nelson vaults, he notices a sequin had fallen from the coat, “a bit of stardust,” and dutifully returns it to the curator.

But what do these coats have to do with Bowie? RisingTideFallingStar covers the past five hundred years. It is, on one level, about the rise of Empire, the allure of the New World, the migrations of peoples, exploration, cruelty and destruction, and making it new.

It begins with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a shipwreck halfway to the New World on Prospero’s island, likely Bermuda. Bowie spent a lot of time there is the late 1990s after selling his place on Mustique. He was poised then between Old and New Worlds, becoming, finally a New World New Yorker. He, like Hoare, was a child of a near-dead Empire, and when I look at Bowie’s wardrobe for Outside and Earthling, the End of Empire (millennium, century, and decade) comes to mind.

There is, of course, the slashed Union Jack coat for Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen, and some of Earthling’s titles allude to WWII, e.g. “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” but the coat itself is the most eloquent statement. 

I’ve long been fascinated by the frock coat Bowie wore on the Outside tour. Why cobwebs? But when Hoare mentions Nelson’s coat that the admiral “wore at the Battle of the Nile… now sadly injured by moths” (317), my thinking changed. It’s described as “a dark, wool frock coat veiled with torn embroidered tulle, and a pair of high-waist, full dark trousers dribbled and smudged with paint.”

Torn embroidered tulle and lacy ruffled cuffs, deliberately distressed or delicate: this is the end of the Empire.

Sailor’s Journals Indexed, Part 4: Places

Galleries, museums, cemeteries, cities, nations, even a zoo: places in Sailor’s Journals.

For the most part, Bowie lived in New York City for the years covered by Sailor’s Journals. Unless Bowie is discussing a specific observation about New York, it isn’t indexed.

Continue reading “Sailor’s Journals Indexed, Part 4: Places”

Psychic Attacks

A disclaimer: My understanding of what Dion Fortune wrote is slight, as is my knowledge of the occult. I read Psychic Self-Defense because I was intrigued by Bowie mentioning the book and his use of  “psychically damaged,” which I previously figured he used because of his antipathy toward psychiatry. Psychic Self-Defense defies summary. If I get things wrong, please comment.
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Page numbers are from this 2001 edition (Weiser Books) of Fortune’s 1930 text.

Speculation: Could one of the reasons Bowie cited Psychic Self-Defense as one of two books about the occult that were most important to him during his terrible time in LA, be that it allowed him a different way to think about what was happening in his head? He never denied that his behavior during that period was bizarre, and I expect he probably wondered if what he had long feared had come to pass, that he would have a psychotic break like his half-brother Terry, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, institutionalized for much of his adult life, and committed suicide, or one of his three maternal aunts, including one who was lobotomized.

Fortune trained as a psychologist, and a good deal of  Psychic Self-Defense addresses mental illness and psychic experiences. The differential diagnosis of a mental illness or psychic attack is complicated because the effects of both are so similar. An unstable person might have delusions of psychic attack, but a psychic attack can cause madness as well. There are ways of dealing with and overcoming psychic attack, according to Dion Fortune. In Bowie’s mother’s family, psychiatry lost the battle with mental illness every time.

“We live,” Fortune writes, “in the midst of invisible forces whose effects alone we perceive [and] invisible forms whose actions we very often do not perceive at all, though we may be profoundly affected by them” (3). Life goes on, the veil between worlds stays in place – until it doesn’t, and we are face to face with the Unseen. It’s not that the Unseen is any more inherently evil than water or fire. It’s when it has been “corrupted and perverted” by “adepts of the Left-hand Path” that problems arise (6).

One of four conditions usually applies when the Unseen makes itself known in a psychically damaging way:

  • Being in a place where forces are concentrated*
  • Associating with people who are “handling these forces”*
  • Seeking out the Unseen and getting in too deeply
  • Being ill with “certain pathological conditions which rend the veil.” [p. 4]

Any – or possibly all – of these could have contributed to the psychic damage that took Bowie from Beverly Hills to Bel Air to Berlin, and years to repair.

Psychic attacks are preceded by a sense of fear and foreboding, then nervous exhaustion, fear of sleep, and mental breakdown – in other words, the warning signs are much the same as what Bowie experienced. The liminal state between sleep and wakefulness is a time of vulnerability. If Bowie feared sleeping, his wakefulness may not have been a side-effect of the cocaine; it may have been the goal. **

Fortune warns against jumping to the conclusion that these feelings are necessarily the result of an externally sourced attack. When a person first becomes involved in the occult, psychic disturbance is not uncommon since his “consciousness is being disturbed by an unaccustomed force” (102). Another risk is “partial recovery of the memories of past incarnations” (103), especially those having to do with involvement in the occult. The emotions associated with the memory are recovered first, and it can take a long time for the memory itself to emerge. 

Although Bowie had been interested in the occult for many years before LA (“Quicksand”), it is possible that all he knew was limited to what he had read. Fortune stresses that it one thing to read about the occult, and another to participate in ritual and ceremonial magic (if he did so).

Bowie’s years of training with Lama Chime Rinpoche, beginning in 1965, may have made it easier for him to deal with memories of his past lives. I expect he would have had a better understanding of this than most who get involved in the occult.

When other explanations had been rejected and Fortune was asked to evaluate a probable psychic attack, she considered three possible causes of the disturbance:

  • physical disease 
  • “malicious human action” 
  • “non-human interference” (175).

I’m going to leave “malicious human action” for the next post and concentrate instead on “non-human interference.”

A good deal of detective work went into evaluating whether a psychic attack had occurred and if so, what type. When Fortune interviewed a victim, she’d first ask about the place where the attack occurred and check out the neighborhood (Had a prison, asylum or workhouse been there before?).  Were any unusual objects in the house, particularly those associated with religious rituals?

Bowie’s house was described as Egyptian in style. Who had owned or lived in it before? Did they practice any ceremonial Egyptian magic? What had caused them to leave the property? Did it contain any Egyptian artifacts?

His collection of occult books would have been of interest as well. Surely among the hundreds of occult books Bowie is said to have carted around there would have been more than a few second-hand ones, and some of these may have been used by sinister magicians (180).

Knowing Bowie had an interest in Buddhism, she would have asked about any Buddha statues he possessed. Fortune had her own encounter with a seemingly benign Buddha that had been excavated in Burma. One evening she spontaneously placed a marigold before him; the next time she passed him, she found herself pursued by “a ball of pale golden light.” Later she learned that these types of statues (“archaic soap-stone statuette, some nine inches high”) had been consecrated with human blood (66).

Fortune also notes that care should be taken with Buddhas from Tibet in case they have been used in Dugpa sect, one that engaged in “some of the worst black magic in the world” (66).

His investigator would want to know too whether Bowie’s symptoms improved when he was away from home. A likely yes. Had he been as tormented in New Mexico as he was in LA, he could not have worked. Then again, he wasn’t using cocaine when on The Man Who Fell to Earth set.

He possibly felt better in New Mexico because, probably by accident, he was doing things that Fortune suggests to alleviate suffering: One is exposure to sunlight, which strengthens the aura (169), and another is to eat regularly  (170). Anything that strengthens the body is helpful. Solitude is not. The person under attack is advised to stop all occult studies and return to the “prayers of his childhood” (172).  

But whatever progress he had made in New Mexico, when Bowie returned to LA, he came closer than ever to the abyss.

When the attack is in the nature of a haunting, the solution is to get away from the place and leave behind all possessions (185).

The dates are vague, but at some point Bowie left the Beverly Hills house for one in Bel Air. He only lived there a few months before decamping for Berlin. This was his fourth residence in 11 months, not counting time spent in New Mexico.

And yes, I do know about the exorcism of Bowie’s swimming pool, but since the only witness was Angie Bowie, I hesitate to credit it. Some accounts say that white witch Walli Elmlark exorcised the demon in the pool, but Angie (Backstage Passes) says that David himself conducted the exorcism as she looked on, aided by notes from Elmlark and several hundred dollars worth of occult supplies. She says the experience  prompted the move to Bel Air. 

*For a sense of the concentration of occult activity in Bowie’s neighborhood, see Christopher Knowles’s The Secret History of Rock N’ Roll or visit his blog and follow the “rock and roll” tags. http://secretsun.blogspot.com/

**When Fortune suspected psychic attack, if the victim had to be drugged to sleep, she sought the assistance of someone who knew how to keep an “occult guard” (169).

Ziggy in the UK and US: What Americans Missed

At times I’ve found the emphasis on the Ziggy years to be puzzling. Pick up any of the biographies or most of the obituaries, and you’ll see what I mean: the 1970s are covered at much greater length than the whole of 1980 to 2016 (36 years!), and even within these pages, Ziggy gets a disproportionate amount of attention.

There are good reasons for this: the theatricality and myth-making are two. And the risk Bowie took. Had he not been able to pull it off, a silly Ziggy Stardust would’ve been hard to overcome.

I don’t know how to substantiate my next claim, but I’d guess that the strongest feelings for Ziggy (not to be confused with Bowie) are held by English fans born in 1955 or earlier, and that this is largely a matter of geography.

The first concerts for Ziggy and the Spiders were in small venues, taverns and pubs. Then they graduated to university halls, and finally to civic centers and theaters.

From January 29 to September 7, 1972, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars performed 55 times in England and once in Wales. I imagine it would have taken at least two concerts for fans to take in what they were seeing, and then if you were in these early, small audiences, you’d be back as often as you could manage, and you would start to notice those that were doing the same.

From an audience, a congregation would emerge.

Membership in the church of man, love. You didn’t need faith you weren’t alone in your weirdness; you had evidence, and no matter how miserable your work or school week was, there would be another chance to be back with your people.

Or so it could have been in England.

But not in America.

Why? The whole of England is roughly 400 miles at its longest and 300 at its widest, and it has a functional rail system.

Whether by car or rail, it would have been possible to attend dozens of performances. The longest legs, like  Manchester  to Plymouth (300 miles) or Sunderland to Torquay (380) could be done in a day (and a night) round trip. Most distances were less than 250 miles. Even Aberystwyth, Wales is only 210 miles from London.

Ziggy Stardust played half as many shows — 26 — in the US in 1972. And in so doing, the entourage covered over 15,000 miles by bus, car, or train. (Bowie refused to fly for a few years).* Whoever planned this itinerary had never opened an atlas, had no experience of a road trip from hell, and wasn’t footing the bill.

One stretch of the tour was 1632 miles (Kansas City to Santa Monica); another, Seattle to Phoenix, was 1440, not counting the 800 it took to get from San Francisco to Seattle to play for an audience of 400.**

I’m guessing that other than journalists, very, very few people in the US saw Ziggy Stardust more than once in 1972***. Only those who had a lot of time and a fair amount of money could do what wouldn’t have been a big deal for those in the UK.

No church of man, love in the US, in other words.

Ultimately I suppose it mattered little. The congregants who formed the hard-core fan base in the UK probably numbered only in the thousands.

But wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been one of these?

What Bowie’s manager Tony Defries did right in the US was to get the journalists and celebs on the East and West Coasts excited about Bowie. Those shows, and perhaps for good will, Cleveland’s would have sufficed. The fan experience wouldn’t have been so different that it would justify the strain on Bowie.****

Whenever I hear people knock down Bowie for his 1980s money-making shows, I think about those 15,000 miles. Supporting an entourage of 42 or so people didn’t fall on the folks who engineered this zigzagging mess, but on Bowie, who ended up having made very little money for the physical and psychological investment demanded by the Defries machine. Once out of this servitude to Defries, he decided to take care of his (and his son’s) financial security.

And then he was able to do what he enjoyed.

——–

*Look at some of these distances: Cleveland to Memphis: 730 miles; back up to NYC 1100; down to Boston: 216; west to Chicago 990; up to Detroit 280; down to St. Louis, 530; then to Kansas City, 280; out to Santa Monica: 1632; up to San Francisco, 380, and then to Seattle, 800*; down to Phoenix, 1414; east to New Orleans: 1550; south to Ft. Lauderdale (Dania), Florida 875, and so on.
**Another site not worth the effort it took to get there: Pirate’s World in Dania, FL. Dania is a small Southern town, when you get right down to it, north of Ft. Lauderdale, or about an hour and a half from Miami.  Pirate’s World was an amusement park, so bands were competing with screams from roller coasters, etc. I looked for audience size for this concert, and on two sites, Bowie’s appearance isn’t even listed. These folks came out for Grand Funk Railroad, Iron Butterfly, Alice Cooper. And for this, Bowie traveled 1775 miles from New Orleans to Dania (875 miles) and then back up to Nashville (900 miles).
And why go to Nashville in the first place? It’s the epicenter for country music. And it is in the Bible Belt of the Deep South.
***The few who did, if there were any, probably lived in or near Cleveland, Ohio (3 shows), Santa Monica, San Francisco, or Philadelphia (2 each). Only the Cleveland shows weren’t all on consecutive nights (one at the start of the tour, two toward the end).
****Cleveland, Ohio, had disc jockeys who in 1972 took a break from “Horse with No Name” and “Song Sung Blue” to play a bit of Bowie; they were ready for Ziggy’s landing. And Cleveland is on the way from NYC to California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Late Cat Turbo of the House Where Bowie Doesn’t Live

Once upon a time Bowie owned a house called Mandalay on the island of Mustique, the subject of a scrumptious photo-essay in the September 1992 Architectural Digest. Google Mustique today and you will still find Bowie; the young Prince George vacationed on Mustique last week, where, Hello! says, he can “meet interesting people” maybe at David Bowie’s house.

Bowie sold the house twenty years ago — in 1995 — to Felix Dennis, publishing tycoon, who died last summer. I cannot find who owns Mandalay now.

Last month I watched The Man Who Bought Mustique (2000) about its one-time owner or king or laird, Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner. The IMDB lists Bowie in its cast as appearing in archival footage. I didn’t see him. Colin Tennant bought the island in 1958 but having run through a fortune was forced to sell it to its homeowners’ association in 1987. He repaired to St. Lucia, and this odd little documentary covers his first — and unsatisfactory — visit to Mustique since his departure.

Stephen Tennant photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1927

The Tennant family was quintessentially British eccentric. A 100 years of decadence ended with the 3rd Baron’s death. Stephen Tennant (1906-1987), one of the 1920’s brightest young things and fourth son of the 1st Baron, took to his bed for the last decades of his life after doing very little beside being beautiful. VS Naipaul fans will know him as the landlord suffering from acedia (or sloth) in Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (Naipaul is from Trinidad, an island not far from Mustique. When the UK banned slavery, it imported peasants from India to work its Caribbean plantations.).

I was curious to see if Lord Glenconner’s path and Bowie’s crossed. Probably so, since Colin was still hosting memorable parties in the 1980s, and Duncan Jones recalls school holidays in Mustique.

Duncan (b. 1971) may have run into the Baron’s twin daughters (b. 1970) or third son (b. 1968). The older Tennant boys, both of whom died young, would have been closer to Bowie’s age.

 Lord Glenconner disinherited his heir Charles (1957 – 1996), but the title passed to Charles’s son Cody when Charles, a one-time heroin addict, died from hepatitis C. Henry (1960 – 1990) died of AIDS.

Below is Charles, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1978. Mapplethorpe met Charles when Lord Glenconner invited him to Mustique to photograph his 50th birthday party for Interview. The photo is owned by The Tate. That same year Charles published one issue of a broadsheet, The Chelsea Scoop, which featured his meeting with Andy Warhol, who called Charles “the most modern person I’ve ever met” (as reported by Charles himself).

Bowie bought the land for Mandalay in 1986 and first vacationed in his new house Christmas 1989. But by then Tennant was gone. And three years after Bowie married Iman in 1992, he sold his house. Perhaps the tone of the island changed when Tennant left; the Baron oozes contempt for the The Mustique Company in the film. Or perhaps Iman found the island’s history too ugly to disregard. The descendants of the slaves who worked Mustique’s sugar plantations are now the island’s “help,” as is obvious in the film. As a side note, when the Baron died in 2010, he left his St. Lucia estate to his servant of 30 years, born and raised in one of Mustique’s shanty towns — and his family challenged the will.

Felix Dennis, who bought Mandalay from Bowie, has a history in some ways reminiscent of Bowie’s: working class Londoner, born in 1947; went to art college while preparing himself for rock stardom but ended up in publishing with an illustrious launch as editor of Oz; recorded a single in 1971 with John Lennon “God Save Us” (which no one has heard of; its purpose was to raise money and awareness when Dennis was jailed on obscenity charges); used narcotics heavily and quit, made a fortune, and in 1995 bought Mandalay, which is where I will stop. You can continue though at the Time Line on felixdennis.com.

Dennis remained a Bowie fan. His company publishes The Week, which featured “Did Bowie bring down the Berlin Wall?” in 2008, and Bowie is a frequent topic on his denofgeek.com. But the relationship seems one-sided. After speculation on a sequel to Labyrinth, a complaint: ” Don’t ask us about David Bowie, because he hasn’t returned our calls in ages. Ziggy, baby, give us a ring.” Perhaps Bowie was not pleased to hear that Mandalay’s gardens were no longer as he left them.

At last, the cat.

Felix Dennis has lots of poems on his website, and one from his collection Island of Dreams, “The King of Mandalay,” is an elegy to a cat named Turbo;

They told me, dear old Turbo, they told me you had died;
‘The king is dead’ is what they said. I very nearly cried. . . .
You bullied little Molly; your ways were rough and rude;
You never wanted petting, — you always wanted food. . . . 
But now the house feels empty and Molly seems to say:
Oh where is my tormentor, Turbo — King of Mandalay?

Dennis’s note reads:

“Turbo was the tomcat at my home, ‘Mandalay’ in Mustique. I inherited him from David Bowie. . . .  Molly is Mandalay’s lap cat, a petite white female. Turbo hated her with an abiding passion and I was forced to throw him in the fish pond once or twice to teach him to mind his manners. It was Tony, our old butler, who christened Turbo ‘The King of Mandalay’, as indeed he was, but I never did find out why he was called Turbo in the first place.”

I can find no cats, neither the tiger striped Turbo nor little puss Molly, in the Architectural Digest spread.

But there is a big fat dog.

Everyone says hi.