Chameleon. That’s the word people always reached for when describing David Bowie. Which seemed a little odd. Don’t chameleons change colour as a form of instant camouflage? If there was anything that Bowie’s multiple identities did not do, it was blend him in with the background. Whenever I met him, however, the background was the place he felt at home.
“I had an unbearable shyness,” he told me. “It was so much easier to be Ziggy.”
He’d begun his life with the none-more-ordinary name of David Jones and grew up in the classic anonymity of south-east London’s suburbs. But once he’d learned the art of self-reinvention – and he acquired it long before he was a superstar – he could stop traffic just by stepping outside the door. As an obscure teenage fop he was wolf-whistled by builders. As a rock idol he astonished the world with whatever new manifestation of Bowie-ness he’d just dreamt up.
Yet Bowie was that distinctively showbiz sort: a stubbornly extrovert wallflower. Only in the last years of his existence, as a semi-retired family man in Lower Manhattan, would he rediscover the skill of disappearing. He moved from gym sessions to hospital appointments in everyday clothes, a flat cap pulled over his brow. He savoured the escape from fame that only New York’s ineffable indifference can offer.
“It’s nice just to go shopping with the crowds,” he told me, “and that’s virtually impossible. Which is a shame, because there’s nothing better than just walking amongst people. It’s not great for a writer to find himself the centre of attention when he should be on the periphery – I whinge . . .”
I met Bowie on many occasions, but it was mostly in his sober, elder-statesman phase. People still suspected him of being an extraterrestrial, and he reminded me of Thomas Jerome Newton, the character he had played in Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was like someone who had studied how to pass as human by watching others, and who now practised his normality as carefully as a spy. But I wonder if he yearned to be simply David Jones from Bromley all over again.
He grew to dislike giving interviews. He prefaced most of my press encounters with him by politely stating his impatience at this unwelcome interruption from his “real” work, building one of rock music’s most protean catalogues. Yet he was instinctively well-mannered and quickly recovered his powers of charming self-effacement. No one could play the diffident Englishman in New York as well as David Bowie.
Where the former Beatles turned their speech into Scouse-American sing-song and Mick Jagger trademarked a high-camp mockney drawl, Bowie’s pronunciation remained as neatly clipped as a Beckenham privet hedge. He chose his words with studious precision and delivered them with the quiet stoicism of an Ealing Studios RAF pilot. He knew that journalists are easily seduced by famous people who remember their names, and could flatter you with earnest inquiries about life back in England.
He would sit still, look attentive to every question, and – not a large man to begin with – contrive to make himself smaller by folding his body up in some posture of humble concentration. Everyone who met David Bowie came pre-packed with a lifetime of memories. Doing interviews, he strove to recall past personae who now felt as foreign to him as they always did to us. To enter folk mythology is one thing, to cope with it while you’re still alive must be a challenge.
And yet, to the end, he could not stop making art that defied banality. David Jones had willed himself into becoming David Bowie, and there really was no way back to Bromley.
Paul Du Noyer’s latest book is “Conversations With McCartney” (Hodder & Stoughton)
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie