In the aftermath of David Bowie’s passing, there has been a marked increase in the number of books about his life and work.
Dylan Jones “David Bowie – A Life” was an unexpectedly enjoyable read. I’m not that partial to books made up of accounts by third parties but Jones handles it very well with an interesting range of participants. I particularly enjoyed the focus on the 80s and 90s, which was the period when Dylan Jones met Bowie on a few occasions. The Ziggy, American and Berlin years get a regular telling but the Glass Spider/Tin Machine years less so. It is also where I picked up as a Bowie fan from the early 80s onwards, so it has a personal interest for me, despite the perceived tailing off of the quality of his music.
I’ve given Paul Morley’s book a wide berth but have just spent an hour enjoying “Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie”. It’s a graphic novel by a Tunisian/French artist called Nejib who is a Bowie fan who was intrigued as to how David Bowie came to be the character inhabited by David Robert Jones.
The story is narrated by Haddon Hall itself, the large house in Beckenham that Bowie and his friends lived in during the late sixties, living effectively as a commune on the ground floor. The house welcomes Bowie and his alumni into its old dilapidated but regal shell and tells the story of David Jones becoming David Bowie up to the release of “The Man Who Sold The World” leaving Bowie poised on the cusp of “Life On Mars” and Ziggy with Spiders assembled and in tow.
Bowie filled Haddon Hall with paraphernalia and miscellany from Roy Pike’s shop opposite including a piano as his writing shifted from the acoustic guitar and broadened his musical palette. His first wife Angie moves in and his son Duncan is born. Tony Visconti joins him along and Bowie makes the transition from the London Boy to the figure we now recognise today as the proto-Ziggy.
Nejib uses some artistic licence with Bowie encountering the likes of Syd Barrett and John Lennon along the way. The ex-Beatle doles out advice to Bowie whilst driving around in a stretch limo:
In dear old England, proles are still proles. If the system were good and fair, they’d have spotted my genius, Oxford or Cambridge would’ve snapped me up.
I’m telling you this coz you’re a true prole, not like that monkey Jagger, he’s the opposite!
This is, of course, a fictitious conversation and Nejib’s use of the graphic novel form allows him to deviate more readily from what really happened than if he was constrained by simply putting the paragraphs together. The simply drawn but beautiful pictures add to the sense of fantasy. Inspired by Heinz Edelmann’s work on “Yellow Submarine”, it captures the glorious technicolour of the late 60s perfectly.
If you are unfamiliar with graphic novels then this is an ideal entry point. The book takes no more than hour to get through – perfect for an afternoon with a cup of coffee. Over the years I’ve become a great fan of this form of writing. It helped my daughter, who was a reluctant reader, get into books. There’s still a little snobbishness about graphic novels but they have a place alongside all the other forms of storytelling.
I picked the book up from the brilliant Gosh! in Soho in a half-price deal at £7.50. If you get there quickly, there may be some copies left but if not there are plenty more other great books to pick up and the staff are keen to give recommendations.
Haddon Hall is long gone, demolished. But Nejib’s book captures the spirit of the time and when combined with Dylan Jones’s account, gives a beautiful re-telling of Bowie on the brink of stardom.
It feels right to end with a bit of contemporaneous Bowie. “Conversation Piece” was left off the album that became known as “Space Oddity” in 1969. It eventually saw the light of day as the B-Side to “Prettiest Star” when the track was released as a single in 1970, three years before it appeared on “Aladdin Sane”.
It seems to capture Bowie’s struggles to make the step up as a respected artist whilst living at Haddon Hall:
And my essays lying scattered on the floor
Fulfill their needs just by being there
And my hands shake, my head hurts,
My voice sticks inside my throat
I’m invisible and dumb,
And no-one will recall me
It’s a dark number and fits in with Bowie’s troubles at the time – the death of his father, his half-brother Terry’s schizophrenia, the stalled nature of his career.
Bowie revisited the song later for the currently unreleased “Toy” album at the turn of this century but that’s another story for another day.