As Bowie releases his first album in 10 years, we find out what he’s really like from friends, lovers, bandmates… and the man who directed him in SpongeBob SquarePants
George Underwood, artist and lifelong friend
I met David when we were both nine, enrolling for St Mary’s boy scouts in Bromley. Even then he’d go in and out of things quickly: skiffle, hairstyles.
When we formed the King Bees, he wrote to John Bloom, the Richard Branson of his time, saying, “Brian Epstein‘s got the Beatles. You need us.” Anyone who’s got the guts to do that isn’t going to worry about dressing up as Ziggy Stardust.
At school, this kid, Brian Gill, had big sideburns and the headmaster told him to shave them off. Brian told him to “fuck off” and quit school. David was full of admiration and later it seeped into the “Weird and Gilly” line in Ziggy Stardust. And Jean Genie was from Jean Genet – I was strumming this John Lee Hooker riff on a bus and David said, “Pass the guitar over here”, reworked the riff and wrote Jean Genie just like that.
He took my wife and me on the QE2 when Ziggy went to America, and went to dinner in a Ziggy catsuit. After that, he wouldn’t come out of his cabin. He said, “They were all looking at me.” I said, “What do you expect?” Another time, he came out of the bathroom and he’d shaved off his eyebrows.
He’s an emotional, passionate person who put everything into the music. I’ve seen him in the studio burst out crying after finishing a song – Life On Mars springs to mind. After some gigs, he’d say, “The audience were a bit quiet.” I’d say, “David, they’re staring at you with their mouths open.”
He had created this fierce storm, but he was the only one in it. He felt as if everyone was feeding off him, like leeches. To me, he’s always been the same. I don’t see enough of him now. It’s mainly email, but he once said to me, “George, I might not see you for five years, but it doesn’t matter.”
We fell out once, when we were 15. David told me a date of mine had cancelled, so she waited for an hour. I punched him. A week later, my dad said, “You never told me you hit David Jones.” It turned out he’d been rushed to hospital and almost lost the sight in his eye. Instead, it turned a different colour. Years later he said, “You did me a favour.” People wrote to him saying, “I’m from the same planet as you, man, and it ain’t Earth.”
Ken Scott, produced several early Bowie albums
When David gets into a character, he gets into it 110%, for good and bad. When the drugs kicked in, he didn’t start slowly: he was up and running. With each one, he became the character he was trying to portray.
I’ve heard so many interpretations of that song The Bewlay Brothers – supposedly about his brother, Terry. He told me, “You won’t understand the lyrics. I wrote it for the American market. They’ll read so much into anything you give them.” You never quite knew when he was being honest. It’s not something I realised at the time, but seeing various different explanations in interviews of something I’d know about, I’d think, “Ah, so that’s what you’re like!”
I always email him on his birthday, to remind him he’s four months older than me.
Dana Gillespie, singer and teenage squeeze
I met David in 1962 when he played the Marquee. I was brushing my hair and he took the brush and carried on brushing. He asked if he could stay at my home – a way of saying he’d missed the last train. I had a single bed, so it was a tight squeeze. I introduced him to my parents the next morning. His hair was so long, they thought he was a girl.
People were interested in me because of how I looked – tits, skirt up to here – but David carried my ballet shoes, taught me guitar and was very encouraging. I visited his parents. I’d never been into a working-class household, where people sat in silence glued to the television set. His brother was in the mental hospital and we went to see him. One time David said, “Whatever I do, I want to get out of here. I do not want to live like this.”
We had a fling, but not really a love affair. One day he said, “I’d like you to meet somebody,” and that was Angie Bowie. One of the biographies says we were lesbians together, but we were just good mates. David was cool, calm, collected and cold, but after Angie had Zowie, she went to Italy with me and David was on the phone every day saying, “I miss you. Come back,” so there is emotion there.
When he fell out with the management company, he fled to Berlin. It’s sad when your best pals are too damaged to speak to you. I met [guitarist] Mick Ronson years later and he said, “David doesn’t speak to me.” I don’t think he wanted to face up to the hurt he’d caused by breaking up the Spiders From Mars, but he needed American musicians to do something different.
Lindsay Kemp, taught Bowie dance and mime
In 1967, a mutual friend told me about David and gave me his first album. I fell in love with his plaintive voice. I played When I Live My Dreambefore a show in London, and David was flattered, came backstage and fell in love with my world. He started dance classes with me the next day.
He often arrived for classes bleary-eyed, but was a very diligent student. I taught him to dance and mime. We both liked silent films – he’d impersonate Laurel and Hardy. I never saw David’s hard, ambitious side. He was always gentle.
We toured together in a theatrical show called Pierrot In Turquoise. It was love at first sight for me, but I found out he was seeing a dear friend of mine, Natasha Korniloff, the show’s costume designer, at the same time as having an affair with me. Of course I wasn’t the only love in his life. There were scores, even then. When the tour reached Whitehaven, I heard noises through the wall: it was David and Natasha, who hadn’t known I was seeing David. After that, he couldn’t go to Natasha’s bed and he certainly couldn’t go to mine, so he spent three nights sleeping in a chair, the tortured martyr. I drank a bottle of whiskey and rode my bicycle into the sea, but the water was so cold I staggered back to the theatre and cut my wrist. They found me slumped on the floor. A few hours after being taken to hospital, I was on stage, blood seeping through my Pierrot costume – a fabulous dramatic effect, but I’d been desperately in love.
Three years later, Angela [Bowie] told me David wanted me to direct theZiggy Stardust show at the Rainbow. After that, I saw him very rarely, the last time in Bologna about 15 years ago. He kept me waiting for hours and was surrounded by heavies. He seemed very detached, like an alien. I didn’t feel comfortable, but I’d love to see him again.
“Whispering” Bob Harris, DJ and friend in Bowie’s early days
I first saw David in a folky act called Feathers. He was very polite and surprisingly “English”. A couple of years earlier, he’d been interviewed when he’d founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, but he’d just had a short back and sides for a bit part in a film.
It was a fantastic, creative time. I lived with a mobile DJ and he’d double-booked himself, so I took David with me to a college gig. I introduced him, he played Space Oddity and they started slow handclapping. I was so angry I took the microphone and said, “Remember this name: David Bowie. He’s going to be a star and you’ll remember the day you booed him off stage.”
Even then it struck me that while the surface David was very warm and exciting, he was closed off. He went behind some kind of mask: the make-up, the Lindsay Kemp mime thing. I counted him as one of the closest people in my life, but once he became successful, he was unreachable. I think to get to that level of stardom, you’ve got to have a very high degree of self-absorption. Recently, when I was involved with the Sound & Vision charity for Cancer Research, David immediately donated something. He can be very distant, but on this occasion he really wasn’t.
Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, Spiders From Mars drummer
When we met, he was wearing red trousers, red shoes with blue stars, a rainbow T-shirt and bangles. In Hull, where I’m from, even the girls didn’t wear bracelets. I saw him in the Man Who Sold The World dress once. He said it was a man’s dress. When he announced he was gay, we were all surprised. Angie was bisexual, but I never saw any evidence of it with David. But he was very good at creating in the moment. If he ever had an idea and we said, “We’re not doing that,” he’d push it until we did.
When we lived together in Beckenham, I never saw him do any household tasks and he wasn’t mechanically minded. His car, a Riley, was his pride and joy. He once left it in gear, turned the starting handle and it ran him over.
There was a lot of pressure on him. We went on holiday to Cyprus and the plane got hit by lightning. He went white and fainted. He was so emaciated from the hard work, you could see the veins on his face. He didn’t fly after that.
David Bowie with Geeling Ng in the China Girl video in 1983In the early days, we’d have a laugh, go clubbing, but later on it became apparent that he’d gone into character. You’d come off stage and he’d do interviews as Ziggy – you’d be sat in a taxi with this alien. You’d ask a question and he’d look right through you. He had turned into Ziggy Stardust.
Geeling Ng, starred in the China Girl video
Acting opposite David was terrifying, because he had a long history as a performer and I was a model and waitress. And in the storyline we were meant to be intimate. The first album I’d ever bought was Ziggy Stardust and I owned all his others, so it was overawing, but he was really generous as a performer. There’s a scene where I sit up suddenly, as if woken from a dream, and David leaps on top of me, and I sat up and gave him a full Liverpool kiss in the face. “Oh my God, I’ve just killed David Bowie!” But he laughed and said, “I’ve got a hard head.”
He was unfailingly polite, charming and a gentleman. For us to act as boyfriend and girlfriend, we did the obvious thing in Sydney – purely as method acting. After the shoot, I got a call: “Do you want to come to Europe with me?” I became a bit of a groupie for two weeks. I knew it was a passing phase. I was 23, we lived in different worlds, but he gave me an experience that I’ll never forget. We were whisked out of back doors of hotels, flying in private jets, David hiding from fans under a rug in the limousine. It was like being in the movies.
Toni Basil, choreographed the Diamond Dogs and Glass Spider tours
David has the greatest work ethic. Other performers freak out and get unpleasant, but he has incredible fortitude. He had a fear of heights, but it didn’t stop him. He got in a cherry picker for Space Oddity, and managed to sing and dance. He’s very funny. He’s a fabulous actor. He knows what he’s capable of, and will suss it out and research it. And he’s drop-dead gorgeous. He’d have made a great James Bond.
Julien Temple, directed Bowie in pop videos and Absolute Beginners
He asked me to do the Jazzin’ For Blue Jean video. He had a funny perspective on rock stardom and wanted to take the piss out of himself, portraying a side of himself he’d kept hidden. It was risky, because part of Bowie’s power is mystique. One minute he’d be walking down Frith Street with people open-mouthed, touching him, then I’d be walking next to a very normal bloke. He took me to West End dive bars that had been there since the 60s, and everyone knew him from the old days.
I’m not sure how happy he is with fame and I think the 70s character roles were a way of dealing with it, in the same way Keith Richardsbecame a junkie. There is a normal version of David, but I’ve seen him before he goes on stage and he somehow has the ability to will himself into something magnetic and incandescent.
Roger Taylor, Queen drummer
I got to know David when he was living in Switzerland. He was the most charming man, probably one of the most talented, charismatic people I’ve ever been involved with: great company, very funny and a brilliantly dangerous mind – interesting dark corners. I haven’t seen him for years. I probably shouldn’t say this but – ha! – I remember him saying he was quite annoyed that the Spiders wouldn’t cut off their mullets.
Sterling Campbell, drummer
David doesn’t talk down to you – he makes you feel like an equal. But I didn’t meet Ziggy. I met him in another place. Working with David, there’s a lot of comedy. He was the first person to turn me on to The Office. He was getting it sent from England. He’s an extremely funny man. There’ll be an ongoing joke at dinner, or on stage he might be going up on the catwalk and, when no one can see, he’ll turn round and make a really funny face.
Tony Selznick, taught Bowie to roller-skate for the Day-In Day-Out video
David came across as very humble and in between careers, almost. He was disillusioned with the music industry. I taught him to skate in a parking lot. We shot the video on Hollywood Boulevard at night, with me in a wig and leather jacket as his double for some scenes. The only bad fall involved the instructor: my wheels came off, I was bleeding everywhere, and David helped me clean up. He was so nice, normal. A couple of years later I was driving down Sunset and he pulled up alongside. I rolled down the window and he was really approachable, just like any other dad in a Lexus.
Adrian Belew, guitarist
David knows so much, the conversation never gets dull. When I first worked with him in the late 1970s, I was a naive youngster from Kentucky and he was like a mentor to me. One time, we went to the Prado in Madrid and he amazed me with his knowledge of paintings and painters. He knew all this wonderful trivia that made my museum visit so much more interesting. David Bowie as museum tour guide! I tipped him at the end.
On the 1990 Sound And Vision tour, he was much less guarded and seemed to want to be the person diving in the pool with everyone else. We both had girl problems, so would sob on each other’s shoulders, but that tour was a life-changer for us both. I met my wife. On the plane he was looking through magazines and I heard him say to his assistant, “This girl’s interesting.” That was Iman. After the tour, I heard they were dating, and the rest is history.
Tim Pope, video director
I’d become friends with Iggy Pop and at one show he said, “I’ve got a couple of friends joining us.” I look around and it’s Bowie and Jagger. We went to this restaurant and when Iggy went for a pee, there was a space between us. He turned to me and said “Tim Pope. You’re a funny little arsehole, aren’t you?” and I went, “Yeah, David Bowie, and you’re a complete…” I won’t say the word. And that was the start of a beautiful relationship.
He’s incredibly physically strong, a muscly bloke, not a willowy thing. In one shot we tied a camera to him and if he had fallen over, it would have broken his back. He has a real commitment.
I worked with him for 15 years. For some reason I brought out this character I called the Guv, who was like a London cab driver. There’s the legend, but he has that person in him.
I was once in a studio with him and Lou Reed, and I saw them in the kitchen and just had to sneak in to hear what they were talking about. Lou was saying that he was going to Africa and David said, “The thing is, you go to these places and you forget the climate’s changed. I bought a bowl and by the time I got home it had cracked.” It was the least esoteric conversation I could imagine between Lou Reed and David Bowie.
Paul Tibbitt, recruited Bowie to provide a voice for animated TV series SpongeBob SquarePants
We asked David if he would be interested in voicing Lord Royal Highness. He jumped at the chance, because he and his daughter watched SpongeBob together. I flew to New York to direct him. Who in their right mind would pass up that opportunity? The next day on his blog he called the job “the Holy Grail of animation gigs”. Needless to say, that made my year.
Édouard Lock, choreographer and artistic director on world tours
I got to know David quite well, but there is a reserve, a part that isn’t for public consumption and doesn’t get revealed – or perhaps it does to people who know him much more than I do.
When he was feeling social, it almost felt like a triangle: you, him and this thing he wanted to talk about. He was fascinating and wanted to share his knowledge and educate. He liked logic, thought puzzles, memory stuff. The non-serious side to him came out when things seemed tense.
I don’t know if performing changed him. I think he went through what he had to to get at those performances. It’s partly losing your anonymity and also going into the most uncomfortable places in your psyche.
Kenneth Pitt, manager from 1966 to 1970
He had this marvellous way of bringing one of his legs up under him and rocking backwards and forwards, and he was doing this while we were working out what to do, and he got dreadfully excited. Then I had to live up to his excitement. We made life-size models of the Beatles, which he used for publicity. That didn’t last long. We were walking down Baker Street with them and who should approach us but one of the Beatles?
He used to rehearse late at night at home and because they lived in a tiny house, it was very bad for his father, who wasn’t well. David told me this and I said, “I think you’d better move in here,” and he burst into tears, saying, “May I? Really?” He lived at my place for about two years. My clothes were his clothes. I took a lot of pictures of him and there’s one where he’s wearing my lumber jacket and I just knew he was going to make it. He was very polite – splendid, really.
When Angie and David came to tell me they were firing me, he sat looking at the wall and again there were tears in his eyes. I’m 90 now and hadn’t seen him for years, but about four years ago there was a knock at my door and it was David. He didn’t seem too well, but we talked for over an hour. It was a lovely thing to do.
Geoff MacCormack, lifelong friend
David is a too-far person. He doesn’t drink any more because he took that too far. He lives a very clean life now, but I’m sure he’s obsessing about something else. When he moved to Switzerland for a while he started skiing. I remember thinking, “Bowie? Skiing?!”
On stage with Iggy Pop (left) and Ricky Gardiner (centre) in 1978: ‘Back then he was very spontaneous.’ Photograph: Getty ImagesBut he’s a very normal, gracious person. People are surprised by that. When we went to the Museum of Modern Art, his instinct was to queue with everyone else. I saw him recently and it was the same old in-jokes, slight competitiveness on silly things. We went bowling with Iman and his daughter. Iman found it hilarious that we were so competitive. He’s got the time and money now to watch his child grow up, which he didn’t have with Duncan [Zowie], so he’s taking time to be a family man, walking around New York in a flat cap.
Ricky Gardiner, guitarist during the Berlin period
I remember David as being extremely well-read in the areas that interested him. His apartment had a well-stocked library on astrology, UFOs, oriental music and psychic phenomena. Nearby, there were bullet holes in the walls and David took us to a place where they ran the Nazi propaganda films 24/7. We rehearsed at the old UFA studios, where those films were made, and one could see guards pacing the wall atHansa studios. The atmosphere was laden with the resonance of the war. We stayed at the old Schlosshotel Gerhus, and one night we happened on this Nazi commemorative event. We must have seemed as odd to them as they did to us, in their Nazi regalia, dancing in formation like dummies.
David’s new single, Where Are We Now?, is just beautiful, and retrospectively captures the sentiments we felt then, which were not easy to express at the time. He was very spontaneous. Always Crashing In The Same Car is about him crashing his Mercedes in the hotel garage.
Mike Garson, keyboards, Bowie’s longest-serving musician
I was hired in 1972 for eight weeks, and for the next two years he had five different bands, all of whom were fired or left except me. Then, around 1975, after we’d finished the Young Americans tour, I was visiting him in New York and he said, “Mike, you’re going to be with me for the next 20 years.” And I don’t hear from him for 17 years. He gets on the phone in 1992 and asks me back for Black Tie, White Noise, and I stay for more albums and tours than I can remember.
I’ve seen him joyous over something he’s created and other times, just before going on stage, [full of] nerves and fear and vulnerability. When he played Glastonbury to 100,000 people, he sent me out first, to test the waters. He once told me, “You wouldn’t want to be in my shoes,” about fame and what it does to you. I don’t think he cares about the spotlight as much as people think.
After [his heart attack in 2004], I did the first performance with him and Alicia Keys. He said, “Thank you. If I hadn’t done this and got over the fear, I might not have been able to sing again.”
David has an extraordinary gift, but he’s basically a normal guy. We’re friends, but he’s an isolated person. With most big stars, the vanity and the power and the money take over. Maybe he’s experienced that and didn’t like that feeling.
Sometimes, others get left in the dust, but one always has the opportunity to fix that. We’ve never discussed this, but I could feel an undercurrent of regret. He did fix it with Mick Ronson before Mick’s death. In his own way, he does repair it. Underneath all the crap you read in books, David is a good guy.
Zachary Alford, drummer on recent tours and albums, including the forthcoming The Next Day
When I met David, I was starstruck. Our eyes met and I had to look down. But he puts you at ease. This wasn’t the version of him you hear about, high on cocaine. I felt safe. If you’re not partying, you have interesting conversations, usually around art or history. I was reading Roman Life In The Days Of Cicero, which he found interesting, but we could as soon be talking about Peter Cook or Spike Milligan. Until recently I hadn’t seen him in a decade. He called and asked, “Are you available? I can’t say what it’s about.” When we got together, I was amazed how good he looked, because I’d seen pictures of him. He’s stopped smoking. He works out. He looks better than he has in 15 years. When I heard Where Are We Now? I cried. It was a mixture of happiness that it was being released, that it sounded gorgeous, and hearing this vulnerability in a person that I know and think of as almost superhuman.