“We Were So Turned On”

I know exactly where I was the first time I heard all the Bowie albums before Scary Monsters and where I watched the Nomi/Bowie performance on Saturday Night Live and where I was introduced to T Rex and Eno, and so much else.

I was in the dorm room of an artist, Jim Sanders, who signed his work Sabbat. I usually called him that.

He was a friend, never a lover. We were perhaps too wise for that (at that age such relationships usually ended in tears), and I, a scrappy ill-groomed half-feral thing, was clearly not his type.

He came from the least likely of places, Centerville, Alabama, a non-place really, but as an Army brat had been around some, in fact being born on a base in France.

He was tall, thin, with a delicate frame, and long slender fingers. In spite of always having a beautiful girlfriend with him, one with an hourglass figure, he caught a lot of hell and insults. Fag was the word of that time, and what could an artistic male with no interest in sports, hunting, and machismo be if not gay? I don’t know how sharply he was stung, but he was who he was, and certainly had no intention of shunning his gay friends or conforming to the dull.

Sabbat was the host. He stood by the turntable and knew just what to play next. By day, his room was what it was: a concrete block tiny barracks with some cloths draped about and quite a few paintings on the wall. By night it was a salon or quasi-opium den, those cloths illuminated by colored bulbs.

People would come and go and there he would stand, presiding at the coolest place those who self-selected themselves would want to be.

Sometimes a stray memory manifests. One year, I was taking a train trip and asked him to make me a cassette of songs, but I didn’t know quite what. It opened with “Station to Station.”

I last saw him in 1983 at my wedding, but we corresponded for a while. He had moved to Columbia, SC., not a full day away from me, but one thing led to the next. We fell out of touch. I used to ask mutual friends what had become of Sabbat, and no one knew.

Then one day in 2012 a stranger called. She had failed to locate family but had found our letters. I’d lived in the same house 20 years, and we kept our phone number when we moved. This was back when there were land lines and directory assistance.

Sabbat had died in 2011, aged 53, after having been sick a long time. He had no health insurance. He died alone, from shock after bleeding out from a burst esophageal varix. He was months past due in rent. His phone service had been cut off, so when he started vomiting blood, he couldn’t call for help. It would not have been painful, but scary, yes. He would have lost consciousness fairly quickly. When his friend told me that he always wore long sleeves even when it was over 100 degrees in Columbia because he itched all the time and left flakes of himself everywhere (pruritus), and that he had started drinking very heavily following one girlfriend’s suicide and another’s cruel departure, it was obvious he had died of advanced cirrhosis.

He wasn’t much of a drinker when I knew him. Different times, different culture.

She put me in touch with his best friend, and there had been some good years. Sabbat taught himself bass guitar, dj’ed at various clubs, worked at a stained glass shop, and loved to cook.  I had organized a reunion of friends to go over and see his work and where the county had buried his ashes, but it fell apart when I got very sick.

It is hard to think of him dying alone of liver disease. Why did he not reach out to me? How did I lose him? I don’t know.

Bowie and Sabbat and those memories of the enchanted days, the true golden years: All of this will never be again.

Post title alludes to “The Bewlay Brothers.

This photo reminds me of Hunky Dory Bowie plus fedora; the second, of Lodger.


The inset above is cropped from a much larger print of Sabbat’s, Subtle Passengers.

I call this one Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy in Another Green World.



Sailor’s Journals, Part 10: Wisdom

If you don’t read anything else, skip to the end and read the extended quotations about Heathen — and mortality and music. 

These are a few of the passages from Sailor’s Journals I found particularly affecting. Some I have written about before.

On Grief & Empathy: One of the very earliest entries, 9/4/1998, was posted two days following the crash of  Swiss Air 111, a route Bowie used to travel from New York to Geneva. He commented on the mood at JFK International Airport:

“There has been enough sadness in my life for me to at least measure the depth of grief the surviving families must be suffocating in.”

On Love: A beautiful tribute appears on October 14, 1998, the anniversary of the first time he met Iman.

We’ve so grown into our love that I think we both feel that we’ve also grown up. And the feeling that our relationship being so joyous that we’re getting away with something has transformed into the realization that despite all odds we actually were meant to find each other. Hey, gentle vanities are the domain of the older man. Darling Iman, I can’t imagine life without you. I’m reluctantly grateful that I hadn’t known you before as I know I would have lost the best, most stabilizing thing in my life. I was a dumb guy for many years but I’m only stupid now. I love you. Happy anniversary.

On Music: November 27, 1998, Bowie was sorting his piles and came across this:

“What the music says may be serious, but as a medium it should not be questioned, analyzed, or taken so seriously. I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium. The music is the mask the message wears – music is the Pierrot and I, the performer, am the message.’ Los Angeles Feb 1971. This was printed in Rolling Stone in April of that year. That was said nearly 28 years ago, and I really don’t think my approach to music has altered very much at all. What say you?”

The journal entries for December 20 to 26, 1998, “The Early Ears,” recall Bowie’s earliest musical memories, as well as the slow erosion of spirit that comes with a mother’s litany of, had it not been for you, my life would have been so much better. See [No Longer] Crashing in the Same Car: Mothers. 

The first two posts in this index list the songs and artists mentioned here. Use your Find function for dates 12/20/98, 12/22/98/ 12/23/98, and 12/26/98.

On the Potential of the Internet: Bowie posted this September 8, 1999. He introduces the entry by saying he  “dropped a really obvious mistake into my speech for the benefit of the press, but, so far not one report has noted it!!!” [There are two good answers, the most obvious being that the “man is born free” quotation is Rousseau’s; the other is that although born in England, Paine was a Revolutionist in the War of Independence. Likely a deliberate mistake about a deliberate mistake: how Bowie!]

…I’m delighted to be here with everyone to give some profile to Net Aid. The existence of any one of the so-called ‘pillars of poverty’ creates walls. And these walls create, not a certainty of security and comfort, but a prison. Both psychological and real.
The English radical Thomas Paine wrote: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” It’s stupefying that 200 years later those words are still applicable. And stupefying is, unfortunately, the appropriate word here. We so often feel incapable of contributing to our future world. All this, it seems, is in the hands of others.
     That is why I’m so enthusiastic about the involvement of the internet in such an event as this. Because here is a positive initiative that can be accessed by all. Apart from the obvious streams of constant information, you’ll be able to link direct with agencies and charities.
     Stricken communities will be able to advertise for urgent requirements, a water pump say, or particular medical supplies. And if you’ve got ’em you can act.
     Suppliers of commodities will be able to talk one-on-one with sales outlets, cutting out the middle man. A signature ability of the Net and a positive sign of things to come.

Becoming-Being-Surviving: Finally, three passages on the creation of Heathen.  From October 2001 to May 2002, Bowie discusses the making of this album at Allaire Studios (formerly Glen Tonche), not far from Woodstock, NY. There is a lot about the writing and recording of the songs, and many pictures, but these passages were the ones I found, especially from the viewpoint of 2017, the most moving of the journals. They are also the last of any substance.

5/14/02 [The studio is]  just outside of Woodstock, remote, silent and inspirational. We couldn’t believe what a find it was.
I just knew exactly what lyrics I was to write as I stepped into the room although I didn’t yet know what the words themselves were.
Now someplace like that can set me off two ways. I either get super euphoric or darkly depressive, misery being my default position. My soul flies erratically on the wings of what I would imagine is a feeble bi-polarism. Not the all out kind. I’ve encountered that and I’m not  that. However, something akin to that brushes past me in my quietest hours.
5/15/02: One reads about encountering epiphany, a Damascene experience. Giddy at the tranquility and the pure gravitas of the place, everything that I had written became galvanized somehow, into an unwavering focus.  

5/24/02: I didn’t like writing Heathen. There was something so ominous and final about it. …  these words were just streaming out and there were tears running down my face. But I couldn’t stop, they just flew out. It’s an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you, although forcing your hand is more like it.

On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts. There, I’m using that old language again. I don’t believe in demons. I don’t think there is such a thing. Or evil. I don’t believe in some force outside of ourselves that creates bad things. I just think of it as all dysfunctionalism of one kind or another. No satan, no devil. We create so many circles on this straight line we’re told we’re traveling. The truth of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time. 

5/27/02: For the purposes of this album, Heathenism is a state of mind. You can take it that I’m referring to one who does not see his world. He has no mental light. He destroys almost unwittingly. He cannot feel any Gods presence in his life. He is the 21st century man. However, there is no direct theme or concept behind Heathen, just a number of songs, but somehow there is a thread that runs through it that is quite as strong as any of my thematic type albums.  . . .

I had to resign myself, many years ago, that I’m not too articulate when it comes to explaining how I feel about things. But my music does it for me, it really does. There, in the chords and melodies, is everything I want to say. The words just jolly it along. It’s always been my way of expressing what for me is inexpressible by any other means.
What is very enlightening for me right now is that I sense that I’m arriving at a place of peace with my writing that I’ve never experienced before. I think I’m going to be writing some of the most worthwhile things that I’ve ever written in the coming years. I’m very confident and trusting in my abilities right now. But I’ve got to think of myself as the luckiest guy. Robert Johnson only had one albums worth of work as his legacy. That’s all that life allowed him.

Psychic First Aid

When Dion Fortune reaches the last division of her book Psychic Self-Defense, she admits that all she can offer the layman are simple means of coping with the attack, “a manual of first aid rather than a treatise on treatment.” Far better is to come under the care of someone with “specially trained faculties and specially developed powers” (183), an exorcist, in other words.  Three tasks are essential: repairing the aura, clearing the atmosphere, and breaking contacts.

We don’t know whether Bowie took any of this to heart, but Fortune stresses that even the most mundane activity can be made restorative if approached mindfully. Simple bathing is an example; better still is bathing with salt and water, for which Fortune provides a blessing.

Fortune describes two categories of “practical psychic work” (193). One is meditating on what is good; the other, which she favors, is “invocative” – prayer. 

She describes the means of making a banishing circle: face east, make the Qabalistic cross (very similar to the Sign of the Cross), imagine holding a sword (the Sword of Power) aloft, and then draw the circle with the tip of the Sword of Power while imagining that from the tip flames ignite– visualized within the confines of imagination, fortunately (197).

Bowie is said to have drawn pentagrams for protection during his LA days and nights.

Fortune describes the correct way to make a pentagram with one’s arms to protect the body.

Other choreographies are effective for sealing one’s aura. In the presence of people who sap your energy? Make a “closed circuit” of your body by interlacing fingers, placing them against your solar plexus, elbows pressed to body, and feet touching (201). 

The choreography for the line “from Kether to Malkuth” in “Station to Station” is well known. It would be interesting to look at Bowie’s other choreographies to see if any could have been inspired by Fortune. 

Angelic Assists

“‘Word On A Wing’ I can’t talk about. There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing.

It was the first time I’d really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth and ‘Word On A Wing’ was a protection.” Bowie, NME

Finally, Fortune is an advocate of Guardian or “Bright Angels:

“in times of spiritual crisis, when the very soul is being swept away, then it is that the cry of the soul is heard, and Something manifests out of the mists of the Unseen, manifests itself in a form that is comprehensible to the one who calls.” (213)

The cry of a soul being swept away is what Bowie expressed in “Word on a Wing.”

It would take Bowie a year or so to even begin to attain psychic peace.

Along the way, he — or at least, the Thin White Duke — partook of what Fortune calls the “worst faults of occultism”: “credulity, a slipshod scholarship that verges on illiteracy, and a widespread sappiness of intellect” (224) .

Bowie Sighting: Philip Hoare

At the end of my last post, I quoted a passage at the end of Spike Island in which Philip Hoare gives credit to Bowie for delivering Hoare’s generation from the conventions of suburban life. This was the shared Bowie experience.

But there is also a personal one. Hoare’s latest book, The Sea Inside —part natural history/part cultural history/part adventure tale/part travelogue  has nothing to do with David Bowie. It begins with the author returning to his childhood home. His parents are dead and surviving siblings scattered. He has returned from places he never dreamed he’d go and finds that the

“lawn where I lay as a teenager, reading King Lear on a hot midsummer’s afternoon, although I’d rather have been listening to Ziggy Stardust on my cassette recorder, has long been overtaken by meadow grass.”

The passages of his life, rendered in such brief but resonant allusions, are about his own Bowie.

Thousands, quite possibly millions, of words have been written about Bowie since his death was announced on January 12, 2016, and nearly always the attempt to accommodate both the public and personal Bowie is obvious.

Hoare’s elegy for Bowie in the New Statesman, which I expect will be just one of many he will pen, begins by acknowledging this:

“the problem with writing about Bowie is that we are all writing about ourselves. That’s how important he was.”

How can a writer distinguish his own Bowie from everyone’s shared Bowie? Is that the question to ask? Or is it why do so, since the two are so entwined.

Can a conventional biography ever be written about Bowie? Those in which the author has tried to keep himself out of the book, that is, all the biographies published, are unsatisfactory (Pegg’s Complete David Bowie is encyclopedic, the essential reference book through 2011, but it is not a biography).

The factual is superficial when the subject is David Jones/David Bowie.

There is a historical David Jones. David Bowie never existed; he is mythic. We make him in our own images; if he had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

I’ll discuss Hoare’s essays and interviews about setting Jones/Bowie in a historical context, both personal and public, next time.







Bowie Sighting: Philip Hoare, Part 1

I’m not going to write about my feelings on hearing David Bowie has crossed over; this blog has over the years been an extended thank you to David. I  don’t know if I ever wrote here about one of the worst periods of my life when the only thing that brought me solace was scrolling through Bowie tumblrs for hours and hours, and for a year listening to only Bowie: that pretty much sums things up. My respect for his bravery — see posts “At 27 and 54,” the “(No Longer Crashing in the Same Car”) series, and, perhaps most relevantly, “Wake Up to the Next Day”.

I’ve neglected this blog because of my own liver disease (see any post in havealittletalk.wordpress.com. for the past year).

But now I want to pick up where I left off. and that is with what I call Bowie sightings: when he is alluded to or mentioned in a context where you wouldn’t expect to find him.

And my favorites are in the works of Philip Hoare, a longtime friend to the Pet Shop Boys and a contributor to the roundtable discussion of Bowie’s films in David Bowie Is.

But I started reading him after watching  The Man Who Bought Mustique (2000). I’d come across Stephen Tennant 1906-1987) before as an acquaintance of novelist Anthony Powell and the source for the (barely) fictionalized landlord of V. S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival, and I knew there was a huge biography of this man who essentially did nothing, but did it beautifully.

Hoare does not explicitly mention Bowie in Serious Pleasures, but there is a sense that Tennant was a forerunner of Bowie as a persona. He was a beautiful boy  and unabashedly androgynous. In all other meaningful ways, David Jones/Bowie and Stephen Tennant could not be more different. Bowie was a self made man (or men); Tennant, an aristocrat. Bowie had an enormous capacity for work, but Tennant never finished anything, instead writing and rewriting the same book for decades. Hoare did make the link explicit later:

“Indeed, Stephen is a Zelig of 20th-century culture, having appeared as a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novels in the 1920s, in Woolf’s diaries and in his niece Emma Tennant’s novels. He was still being visited by Derek Jarman, David Hockney and Marie Helvin in the 1960s and 1970s. I followed in their footsteps, and met him in 1986. It was a visit that changed my life, since it prompted me to write my first book – an attempt to explain the effect of that memorable day.

“Caroline Blackwood, who knew Stephen when she was married to Lucian Freud, told me that Stephen was the nearest thing to David Bowie that the 1920s produced.”

He [Hoare] adds: “You can see why I liked him.”


“Stephen really had been a Bright Young Thing, and he had looked like David Bowie in 1927, wearing gold dust in his hair and that extraordinary leather coat with the chinchilla fur collar – the alien in Mayfair. And I was Stephen Tennant’s stalker… John Waters would love that.”

I confess to having only read the first 100 pages of Hoare’s biography of Noël Coward (1996). I did read England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia (2005) but did not see any allusions to Bowie.

There’s an oblique one in Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century (it’s a long story, in sum, conservative homophobic war-mongering politicians conspire successfully to reverse social progress). The so-called Cult of the Clitoris met in The Golden Calf, a private club on Heddon Street — where 60 years later, Ziggy landed. See “Going Underground,” an interview following the 1997 publication of the book, in which Hoare reminds us that Lindsay Kemp performed a decadent version of Wilde’s Salome.

I consider Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital (2001) to be Hoare’s break-through book. Like his other books, Spike Island is obviously meticulously researched. But this time Hoare does not hesitate to connect his subject to his own life, and as he does so, he explicitly thanks David Bowie.

Hoare tells us in its opening chapter that he grew up near Netley Hospital in Southampton, the biggest hospital ever built, a place for broken men from the Crimean War through WWII. It’s oddly fascinating (would you pick up a book about a hospital now in ruins?), but befitting its subject, it is dark, despairing, melancholy.

At the book’s end, Hoare tells of about the event that shaped his childhood: the death of his older brother in a motorcycling accident. What kept him going was London, great expectations of a release from his working class background and, while not putting his brother’s death behind him, finding his own way in a world beyond the confinement of grief:

“As I lay in my narrow bed by the window, while Bowie drifted in white space, a sci-fi Dietrich in powder-blue suit and make-up singing ‘Life on Mars,’ I dreamed of UFOs landing in our back garden, scanning the terrifying dark skies in my head for phosphorescent craft set to conquer the world. But the future did not descend from outer space. It arrived by train. . . And in a Somerset field, . . . I watched a middle-aged Thin White Duke. . .as the fires burn in front of him and the stars shine behind until they all go out.” [p. 362]

Hoare’s next books, Leviathan [American title: The Whale] (2011) and The Sea Within (2014) bear witness to Hoare’s gratitude to Bowie primarily in several allusions to The Man Who Fell to Earth. For example, in The Whale (p. 17): ”

“And I stood looking out to sea, watching transtlantic ships sail by like Fitzgerald’s boats borne back ceaselessly into the past. waiting for a future that might never come, like the man who fell to earth,”

an echo, he explains by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby of the closing lines of Melville’s Moby Dick, and which Hoare finds re-imagined by Nicholas Roeg and Bowie (source notes, found on Penguin Books’ website).

But more on Philip Hoare’s gratitude to Bowie and Thomas Jerome Newton next time.

Are You Lithuanian?

I’d always assumed that the “Are you Lithuanian” scene in Nicolas Roeg’s film of Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth was an episode of Roeg-ishness, a dialog equivalent of some of the odd visuals in the film.

And then I read Walter Tevis’s novel. And, yes indeed, Bryce, the chemical engineer, does ask Thomas Jerome Newton just that question. The two men have been drinking through lunch, and Bryce had long wondered about Newton. Bryce

“looked at him again, and Newton smiled gravely. From Mars? He was probably a Lithuanian, or from Massachusetts . . . he peered inquisitively at Newton and said ‘Are you from Lithuania?’


It’s easy to imagine how excited Roeg must have been when he saw Bowie in Cracked Actor. Except that Tevis’s Newton is 6½ feet tall, the character could have been modeled on mid-70s Bowie. He needed to be very pale and very light, light enough to be carried by a woman. He needed delicate hands and to walk “slowly, his tall body erect, but with a light gracefulness to the movement.” 

Why Newton is on earth is very clear in the novel. Only 400 or so of his life form remain on planet Anthea, the rest dead and the planet dying from a series of nuclear wars. There isn’t fuel remaining to evacuate, so Newton is selected to come in a life-boat type craft, simple and rudimentary, then use the Antheans’ technology to amass a fortune, build a craft, develop a means to conserve fuel, and return and bring the rest of his people to earth. They will be saved, but through their leadership and technological powers, the Antheans will also save humanity from blowing itself up. The novel was first published in 1963 at the height of the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. (However, a reference to Watergate means Tevis or his executors made some later revisions.)

Nothing Has Changed — Everything Has Changed

1. The biggest difference is that there is a lot of sex in Roeg’s film, and none in Tevis’s book. This meant that Roeg had to change a good deal about Betty Jo/Mary Lou and Nathan Bryce. Betty Jo does not visit Newton during his imprisonment. Bryce and Betty Jo do, however, get together at the end.

Tevis’s Betty Jo and Roeg’s Mary Lou don’t have a lot in common other than their social status and alcoholism. I guess the name change was to make the song “Hello Mary Lou” work with the gun sex scene. Tevis’s Betty Jo is fat and forty. She is more housekeeper than mistress. But she does comfort and truly cares for her Tommy. Tevis’s Bryce is a widower and not a swinger.

2. Tevis’s Newton falls to Earth in a remote region of Kentucky; Roeg’s, New Mexico. Their first encounter with a human is selling gold rings. What the Antheans know of humans is what they have gathered from TV, and they realize they cannot get a clear enough image of currency to forge bills. But they have plenty of gold.

3. In the novel Newton arrives in 1985; the last scene is in 1990, so Tevis was projecting 25 years or so into the future. Political turmoil, both within the US and internationally, is extreme. Within the US, the CIA and FBI are out of control and competitors. (Tevis gets the party in the White House wrong, but it’s clear that both parties are essentially the same.) Roeg’s film is set in the present day, that is, c. 1975.  

4. Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, which gets a little screen time in the movie, is frequently viewed and discussed in the novel. The first and third sections of the novel are “Icarus Descending” and “Icarus Drowning.” The middle one, “Rumplestiltskin,” an allusion to the fairy tale, doesn’t get a mention in the movie and frankly doesn’t work well in the novel.

5. In the novel, Newton is described removing his nipples and ears and contacts, but he does so alone. He doesn’t out himself to Betty Jo.

6. The music spheres Newton has in the movie are Tevis’s idea.

7. Remember the cat in the New Mexico hotel room and later at Bryce’s and Mary Lou’s? Tevis’s Newton was fond of cats. and he and Betty Jo had several. Tevis’s Newton’s eyes without the disguising contact are described as like a cat’s, as are Roeg’s Newton.

8. In the novel, the x-raying of Newton’s eyes blinds him.

9. The Visitor album Bryce sees on Christmas Eve in a record store in the film is also the means by which Tevis’s Bryce tracks down Newton once the Anthean has abandoned his project. It’s not vinyl in the book, but a little metal sphere like Newton had in his home. The spheres are marketed with big tags taking the place of vinyl covers. The Visitor’s reads “poems from outer space. . . .we guarantee you won’t know the language, but you’ll wish you did! seven out-of-this-world poems by a man we call the ‘visitor’.” Newton tells Bryce it is his farewell letter to his wife and people.

10. In book and movie both, Newton ends up drunk, but in the novel, the fedora falls off as Newton weeps. Tevis’s bartender says, “‘I’m afraid that the fellow needs help.’ ‘Yes,’ Bryce said. ‘Yes, I guess he does.'”

fedora cropped