Where things are hollow; a sort of David Bowie review

Here’s my (sort of) David Bowie story – and bear with me because it has a long preamble..  Back in the mid-1980’s I was friendly with a strange character – let’s call him Rick (with a capital ‘P’) – who was a photographer, a hustler and a tattoo fan in just about equal measure.  He got me to write a few commentaries to accompany his photos in amateur tattooing mags, but then announced one day that he’d cut a deal with a Viennese publisher to produce a book with a German/English text about tattooed women – and he wanted a much longer piece of writing from me for this new book.  There was even some money involved, so I agreed to his proposition – and all this despite the fact that my body was (and remains) a tattoo-free zone

At the time (1984), I was working away in Scandinavia a lot and thus it was, one Saturday afternoon , I sequestered myself in the conference room of a hotel in Voss in Western Norway.   I had an IBM golfball typewriter,  a sheaf of paper and a thick batch of notes from various learned anthropological tomes that dealt with tribes from the Marquesas Islands, Borneo and other obscure parts of the world where tattooing was big news.  Rick had been bending my ear for several weeks about the text and had pursued me by fax and phone all over Norway stressing that he needed everything, like, yesterday.

In the end, I simply bashed out about 8,000 words of text and bundled it into an envelope, addressed to him in London.  After that, I went back to work and forgot about the whole thing.  Fast forward to the December of that year and I was back in Newcastle when the postman arrived at my Fenham flat with a heavy box.  This turned out to be 25 copies of the ‘Tattooed Women’ book (“Tattoo Art – Tätowierte Frauen – Skin Fantasies on Tattooed Women“). 

I won’t say that I had forgotten about the (possible) book, but I had been back in the UK for 6 weeks and had had no contact with Rick, so the arrival of this book with my name emblazoned across the cover came as a huge surprise.  Seemingly, he had received a similar package, because he was suddenly on the phone about three times a day, ranting on about how we had to have a launch party and how he was going to organise it.
About a month later, I travelled down to London for the launch.  At the time, Rick was living in a squat in Brixton with his Japanese girlfriend.  The houses along this road had apparently been occupied at some point by ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R.D.Laing and were known locally as ‘Screamer’s Row’ because of the rather vocal nature of some of Laing’s therapies.  Rick’s place was in the basement of one of these houses and the whole flat was lined with some heavy grey felt-type material, giving it a creepily womb-like feel.  Having been up in Newcastle for 4 years and having not visited London for a while, I was already feeling somewhat dislocated, so the squat just made it worse.
The next night we all descended on ‘The Fridge’, a Brixton nightclub/music venue that had originally been The Palladium Picture House when it opened back in 1913.  Rick had been busy, hiring a heavily-tattooed rockabilly band to play and organising a buffet.  There was a bar,of course and a stall selling copies of the book.  I got introduced to about a zillion people, most of whom I promptly forgot, but there were a few who stood out.  These included a film crew from RAI (Italian state broadcaster) who wandered about filming everything and also interviewing me at some length about the ‘sociology’ of tattooing in the modern West.  This was quite difficult for me as I was a long way from being a proselytiser of tattoos and had essentially just been a ‘hired pen’ on this project.  Anyway, I did my best to sound suitably learned, though I can’t imagine how much (if any) of the footage they shot got used.
Also present were a bunch of heavily tattooed exhibitionists with pretty much full ‘body suits’ of tattoos, who, having gathered a small audience, would then disrobe in a slow and formal manner to gradually reveal the illustrations with which their bodies were covered.  It was like a kind of striptease, but without the customary heterosexual tensions.
We also had some minor celebs; these included punk singer turned trans-sexual Jayne (nee Wayne) County, in the company of several other trannies and Angela Bowie, who attended in the company of her then-current boyfriend, a sort of ageing rockabilly cat who apparently was the manager of some band or other.  She was garrulous in a typically American way but also very effusive about how much she liked the book – and it was obvious from some of the questions  she asked me that she had actually read my text.  Before she left she invited Rick and I to a housewarming at her new house in Battersea the following evening.
I would like to tell you that I spent the intervening 24 hours mulling over the transitory nature of fame, (‘Puts you there where things are hollow’) but in truth I had a whopping hangover and spent much of the next day in bed, fed on numerous bowls of green tea and miso soup by Rick’s girlfriend.  As it was, we duly rolled up the following evening at a pleasant semi in Battersea for the housewarming.  It was an unremarkable event, really, though a couple of members of The Damned showed up, but even they were terribly well-mannered.  What I do recall was that the  staircase in the house came down into the living room and at one point I noticed a few people staring at a figure that had appeared at the top of the stairs before making his way slowly down and into the throng.    White shirt, buttoned to the throat, black trousers with a knife-edge crease and a floppy brown/blonde fringe hanging over one eye.  This was Zowie Bowie, son of David and Angie, who at this point would have been about 14.  To say that he was the spitting image of his Dad would not do justice to the occasion.  To be frank, I got goosebumps just watching him come down the stairs.  He never spoke a word to anyone and just headed off in search of his Mum.  These days, he goes by the name of Duncan Jones and is the director of the critically acclaimed 2009 movie ‘Moon’.  Angie Bowie, meanwhile is apparently living in a 1-bedroomed flat in Tucson, Arizona.  Hmmm… 
As for Rick and I, we were on a roll and set to do another book for Virgin’s new book division, but they got cold feet at quite an advanced stage.  At least, that’s what Rick told me and I believed him.  Unfortunately, he forgot to remove my name from the list of people who were due to receive ‘review copies’ and I got  quite a shock when Virgin’s ‘aborted’ book landed on my doormat one morning.  An even greater shock was in store as I realised that he had used all my original 10,000 word text but had taken the credit for it himself.  I wasn’t even mentioned in the acknowledgements.  Hmm….

The unclear nuclear Bowie clan in Amsterdam, 1974

Anyway, I started out this piece to write an ‘appreciation’ of my favourite David Bowie album, ‘Station to Station’ from 1976, which is about to be re-released in several expanded forms.  There’s a 3-cd set and a 5 cd/dvd  version (at a ludicrous cost) for completists.  The 3-cd version is perhaps enough for most fans.  It features a re-mastered version of the original album, which may float the boat of audiophile geeks, but is of debatable consequence to mere mortals.  More significantly, there is a two-cd set of one of the most celebrated Bowie gigs of this era, the 23rd March 1976 show at the Nassau Coliseum, an ice-hockey rink out on Long Island.  Part of this show has long been circulating as one of the best David Bowie bootlegs, ‘The Thin White Duke’, but this new release seems to feature the entire show, though mercifully, the tedious drum solo that dominated ‘Panic in Detroit’ has been cut short.  (Note for masochists: the full 13-minute long ‘Panic in Detroit’ with complete & dreadful drum solo is available as a ‘bonus track’  in the digital download version of this set.  Some ‘bonus’!) 

What always made ‘The Thin White Duke’ such a special album was not just its illicit provenance, but principally the fact that it caught Bowie and his band on top form.  That recording was probably lifted from an FM radio broadcast, but this ‘official’ version is taken directly from the master tapes and is quite splendid.  When I checked, the 3-cd version seemed to be available on advance order from the usual internet traders for as little as £11.99, which to my mind is twelve quid well-spent by anyone’s reckoning. 

Despite all this fervent praise, I have to say that I am mystified as to why it has taken Bowie nearly 35 years to sanction the release of this stuff.   Of course, there’s pension funds to be thought of and all that, but back in the day, this one would have been the hottest of hot potatoes and would have sold by the skipload.  Bowie could have taken the wind out of the bootleggers’ sails (and sales) if he’d wanted to, but elected not to.  Perhaps it was because we’d had the insipid ‘David Live’ just a year or so previously and would then have to wait until 1978 for the equally anodyne ‘Stage’. Talk about missing the boat.  At least this finally demonstrates officially what a great band this was and how Bowie was at his peak in this era. 

“It’s too late to be grateful…..”

3 responses to “Where things are hollow; a sort of David Bowie review

  1. Hey thats funny I found this review – I am in Chris’s tattoo book you refer to – and was at that wild launch party at The Fridge – Julie – Phoenix back tattoo by Lal Hardy middle of book black and white photo – I was the Australian chick !! but I doubt anyone will remember that night – worst hangover I’ve ever had – slipped and twisted my ankle at the train station tottering home under escort of some stranger from the party who ended up crashing at my house. great night!! gotta love the 80’s – some 25 years on now – turned 53 last week – proud to say I had a couple of tattoos and that one rather large one!. when they weren’t fashionable!!!…

    • Hi Julie,

      Thanks for the post. I will freely confess that although I got introduced to about 400 people that night (well it seemed like 400) I can barely remember any of them – probably because I was as hammered as you seem to have been! It actually was a good night, but as you can probably understand from the rest of the article, my memories of our mutual friend the photographer are not quite as rosy as yours might be.

  2. I was at that party to launch the tattoo book and am in that book – contact me!. Julie – phoenix by Lal Hardy (black and white photo taken at Chris’s apartment.

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