I discover David Bowie,
the overrated white duke!
by John Mendelssohn | Originally published in MOJO.
On the strength of my slashing wit and glamorous self-presentation (I wore ruby satin suits from London and had a layered $15 haircut, while other writers-about-rock all looked like Lester Bangs), I was the king of LA, but I fancied a getaway. When the new publicist for the notoriously clueless Mercury Records offered me an all-expenses trip to San Francisco on the condition that I interview an obscure British folkie someone at the label reckoned might be up to something, I eagerly accepted.
I was sent some albums. Their covers showed a frail young fellow with bad teeth and a terrific perm. I found most of his stuff tedious and wordy.
Mercury Records were already paying for my hired car, so they asked me to collect him at San Francisco International when he arrived from Houston. The vision that got off the plane bore little resemblance to the one on the album covers. This one had long flowing hair, was wearing a dress and carrying a purse. At the baggage claim, he batted his eyelashes, and I reflexively offered to carry his heavy, wheel-less trunk for him. I wondered how he'd got out of Texas alive, and admired his audacity immediately. But I was the product of a homophobic culture, and had to sound him out, if you will. Driving into San Francisco, I mused that it might be fun to go bash a few queers. (Irony, you see. My homophobia didn't extend to violence.) When he didn't get nervous, I reckoned he was all right. He spoke, in this regard, of having been propositioned by some combination of Walker Bros. I'd always loved “The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore”, and was impressed.
I liked that he seemed to appreciate my slashing wit, even when manifested deadpan. I liked his too, and there was talk of our becoming actual friends. We were bivouacked in adjoining rooms at the Holiday Inn, in whose downstairs lounge a remarkable duo, who simultaneously played drums, organ, and two horns between them, were, uh, entertaining. They hooted at the sight of a man in a dress. We retaliated by braying implacably for songs we supposed they'd be deathly sick of playing.
Rodney Bingenheimer, the famous LA scenemaker, phoned to find if David craved a groupie. (Sight unseen, David was of interest to Rodney by virtue of being English. A Brit could write his own ticket in LA in those days.) David did. Oh, boy, did he! When she showed up, she was considerably more interested in me. Gracious host that I was, I demurred. He asked with a gleam in his eye (the blue one, as I recall, but very possibly the brown) if she fancied a guitar lesson. I thought that wonderfully debonair.
Mercury Records hoped to save more money, and prevailed upon me to drive him down to San Jose, where a radio station had agreed (probably with the greatest reluctance) to interview him on the air. We improvised a ribald new version of Edwin Starr's “War”. Instead of War, what is it good for? we sang Tits, what are they good for! Good clean obnoxious heterosexual fun!
The disk jockey looked like Lester Bangs and was clearly appalled by my new pal. Cutting short their very brief interview, during which he demonstrated himself immune to Bowie's slashing wit, the DJ asked if there were anything Bowie wished to hear. "The Stooges," I whispered to Bowie, who hadn't heard of them, but trusted my judgment. He loved them, as how could one not? I would later become as rich as a rajah on the back of Bowie's collaborations with Iggy Stooge, later Pop, and occasionally be mentioned in the many biographies that came to be written about them.
Back in San Francisco, I photographed Bowie, in his dress and flowing hair and handbag, in front of the Holiday Inn. He was unnervingly pretty, and I found myself flustered. I'd never found another man unnervingly pretty before. He, very much more sophisticated in such matters, detected my discomfort and mischievously played the coquette, resulting in my becoming even more unnerved. Bastard.
We went upstairs to his room. You're expecting this sentence to get juicy, but all I did was interview him. Actually, he pretty much interviewed himself. I was still reeling from discovering myself capable of finding myself attracted to another man. I hadn't found his music very interesting, and he was speaking of things of which I knew nothing. He talked about having been a mime and a Buddhist. A part of me yearned for a whoopee cushion, as, perhaps wrongly, I believed mime and Buddhism to be the provinces of the very pretentious. He referred to pop music as the Pierrot medium. I hadn't a clue what he was on about, but, rather than revealing my provinciality, confined myself to an occasional murmur of acknowledgment. He seemed to have an extensive agenda, and was quite happy to pose his own questions. He said something about being caught in bed with Raquel Welch's husband that I thought saucy. I suspect he thought it would make it into print and get him some attention. It made it into print, in Rolling Stone.
We flew down to Los Angeles with the Mercury Records publicist between us. For the Mercury Records publicist: stereophonic terror, as I shared Bowie's extreme discomfort with flying. During a moment of no turbulence, he asked if she would be waiting. I was between girlfriends at the time, and deeply embarrassed about it, and felt mocked. Rodney Bingenheimer collected him at the airport.
And then, with another scenemaker, threw a party for Bowie at a house in the hills above the Sunset Strip. Bowie happily unnerved a number of luscious young starlets who arrived in the height of Valley of the Dolls chic, enormous at the time, by greeting them effeminately. We Americans are incapable of irony. Some sort of legal snafu had precluded his performing in an actual venue, but this was his party, and he'd play his guitar and sing if he wanted to. To the considerable discomfort of many of his guests, he did indeed want to. Many an eyelid got heavy during his interpretation of Jacques Brel's "Amsterdam". An apparently rather more swinging party for the Andy Warhol superstar Cherry Vanilla was said to be raging somewhere up the hill. Many murmured of abandoning the one for the other, Bowie among them.
He was said to be cavorting with a groupie who I long believed (until a British journalist researching a biography set me straight in 2001) to be called Kascia. She had a remarkable physique. He didn't bring her to my band's rehearsal on the A&M (originally Charlie Chaplin's) soundstage. He did, though, ask if we might play “Waiting for the Man” together. A couple of months later, he generously listed my band as one of his three favourites in an NME poll of C-list rock stars. He admired my Porsche, and pointed out that it was much like the one in which James Dean had perished.
The day he flew back to Britain, Kascia was on the phone to me, inviting herself over, hardly before he'd taken his seat in coach. We spent a steamy couple of days together, and then I determined she was 16.
The following September, my girlfriend (the Cameron Diaz of an earlier decade) and I holidayed in Britain, and stayed in London at the Portobello Hotel, whose extremely trendy staff were ritually sniffy with us until the evening we and the Bowies shared a minicab home from the chic Kings Road bistro where Bowie and I renewed our friendship and Angela was all over my poor girlfriend like a rash. He played me a test pressing of the album he'd just helped produce for Lou Reed. I thought it was crap, and still do.
He went on to become a cultural icon and I someone who was still milking our brief friendship three decades and more after the fact, and whose wife rushes out to get hold of books Duncan Jones, formerly Zowie (the great man's son), reveals that the great man read, while ignoring my own.
The co-founder of REET, John Mendelssohn writes a blog you might find of interest. The photo that accompanies this piece originally appeared in Rolling Stone in 1971, and has been prolifically stolen.