Space Oddities by Jeremy Good
The Alan Yentob/BBC documentary ‘Cracked Actor’ first aired on UK television in January 1975. It followed Bowie on tour across America. I was 14 years old, struggling with my feelings and trying to understand my place in this world. It was a Sunday.
Many teenagers go through a period of feeling they don’t fit in, but for some of us, that sense of being an outsider, always on the periphery, is particularly acute and lingers on. It is more than just a phase. Bowie was the first rock star to eloquently recognise this. “One isn’t totally what one is conditioned to think one is. There are many facets of the personality, which a lot of us have trouble finding,” he told Yentob, as he languished effeminately on a couch, with his legs folded up under him like a gazelle. This was my Top of The Pops “Starman” moment. David Bowie spoke to me. Those few words were like gold. A promise of what could be, and I knew exactly what the girl with the glitter on her face was saying in the documentary when she said, “I’m just the space cadet, he’s the commander!”
And the beautiful spaced-out blonde youth who voiced my feelings of ‘otherliness’ when he said, “He’s from his own universe.”
“What universe is that?” asked Yentob, as the boy sat in the lotus position on the pavement, holding court.
“The Bowie universe.”
“Are you into the Bowie universe?”
“He’s the centre – I was drawn to it.”
“How were you drawn to it?”
“I’m from Phoenix – and I just – came.”
That moment. That was how I felt. I was drawn to something and here I was.
Eighteen months later I was dressed like Thomas Newton, the character Bowie played in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth‘ and being interviewed myself by Allan Jones for Melody Maker, outside Wembley Arena. Bowie had arrived in London at the start of that hot summer in his latest incarnation as the Thin White Duke, and I was one of the ‘Space Oddities’ who had landed there to see him, as the article headlined in the following weeks’ paper.
You might think that the ‘Bowie’ effect would have worn thin over the ensuing years, but, as witnessed by the success of the V&A Bowie Is exhibition, at the outpouring of emotion upon his death, and the legions of fans at the Bowie Convention in Liverpool this year, anything Bowie did or was involved in throughout his life was always an event and a signpost to the future.
I tracked down two of the original ‘Space Oddities’ interviewed by Jones at the Wembley concert in ’76. I was interested to know how their lives had panned out and what effect Bowie had on them throughout.
Billy Nevins, at the time dressed as a hybrid concoction of something out of A Clockwork Orange crossed with Ziggy, epitomised Bowie’s mantra of self-expression and experimentation.
Jones’ impression of Billy was of a “hoodlum space punk; a wild mutation of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, make-up smeared and grotesque, an old fox fur stole draped in nonchalant contempt about his shoulders”.
“I’m devoted to David Bowie,” Billy told Jones. “If it wasn’t for him, I’d be like everyone else, sat at home watching telly.“
When we spoke he still remembered the thrill of the tube ride from Rayners Lane to Wembley that day, the odd looks, the whispers of attention; ‘What 15-year-old wouldn’t have enjoyed it,’ he told me. ‘I was just waking up to a world of possibilities.’
Do you recognise that kid from back then, I asked?
‘Well, for one thing, I wasn’t a “hoodlum space punk”. In fact, I was a quiet kind of kid. Though I did buy an industrial sized indelible magic-marker and scrawl Future Legend in its entirety over a prominent public wall. It was bright red and very artistic. It took me two hours to do at two in the morning – how thoughtless of me! The irony is that I went on to become a calligrapher, photographer, and graphic designer. Of course, David Bowie was the gateway for me then, opening doors to so many thoughts and fantasies. I feel self-conscious now, looking back, but he really was my first living hero.’
Had Billy’s adoration subdued over the years?
‘Mellowed towards Bowie and his music? In a word – no. It would be like turning my back on an old and trusted friend – it would hurt.’
The most important thing in Billy’s eyes, was always the music. ‘His songs could make me laugh or cry. There’s lots of humour, but so much pain also. “Starman” was the hook, then I was forever on that Bowie highway, always listening, always watching his change of styles – the emperor’s new clothes – every year or so; wasn’t it fun? He looked cool, he sounded cool. He was everything a rock icon should be. Didn’t we all want to be a rock star like David Bowie? Damn it, I wanted to be Ziggy!’
Billy was right, what 14 or 15-year-old doesn’t want to be someone other than themselves? I took to writing angst lyrics to Bowie’s songs and played out the traumas of my teenage life in my bedroom in front of an imaginary audience with a backdrop of the ‘Station to Station‘ show in my mind. I would flick the light-switch on at the moment Bowie sang; ‘The return of the Thin White Duke ...’ to the adoring screams of my own make-believe fans and homage to the brilliant white lighting Bowie adopted for that show.
The Wembley Arena concert was the first live Bowie gig Billy had seen. ‘It was incredible. I had a seat stage right and I could see across to stage left, where there was what can only be described as a small cubicle set-up behind the speakers in which Bowie sat on a stool, spinning his arms at close quarters like they were attached to the wheels of a steam locomotive, I guess he was working on brandy, Charlie and adrenalin, before coolly walking out on to the stage crooning … ‘Throwing darts in lover’s eyes’. It worked!’
Christopher Aslanian, dressed as the Thin White Duke with scraped back bleached blonde hair and a packet of Gitanes cigarettes pushed neatly into the pocket of his black waistcoat, told Jones in the Melody Maker interview, “I always wanted to be different. Bowie was different. I like to be noticed and to look a bit special.”
‘What people have to remember,’ Chris told me as we reminisced, ‘is that it was the first time Bowie had performed in the UK since the Hammersmith Odeon. We’d missed out on the Diamond Dogs tour, so this was an event akin to the coming of the Pope.’
Chris is a fan on a whole different level. He’d followed Bowie since the early 70’s when he first heard Changes, and at the time he dressed like Bowie full-time. ‘I travelled down to London in a beige Diamond Dogs suit with white, Mary-Jane shoes and my hair in a quiff. I bought the black and white Station to Station clothes with me in a Tesco carrier bag and got changed in a garage toilet. Standing around outside the gig, waiting to go in, I just felt cool, especially when I was photographed and interviewed, and even more so when I appeared on the same page in the paper as the man himself.
‘I didn’t see it as brave or courageous to dress like that, I’d been doing it for so long by then it was a part of who I was, and yes you could say it was an obsession to look as much like Bowie as possible, down to the smallest detail, to the extent that I had a pair of identical bracelets made.
‘But every time I went out my life was in danger. I was attacked many times, sometimes with knives. Abuse was hurled my way all the time, bricks thrown, but I wasn’t going to change for anyone. The only time I saw other blokes adopting Bowie’s style was when it was safe to do so in the mid-eighties, but I was living the lifestyle 24 hours a day. I had all the clothes, the Ziggy jumpsuits, the red wedge boots made by the same person who made the originals, costumes made by Natasha Korniloff, the creator of the Ashes to Ashes clown outfit, and even a dress made that was identical to the one worn by Bowie on the original cover of ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.
‘The defining Bowie moment for me was when I saw him on tour in the early 70’s. I was expecting to see this Garboesque character walk out on stage, instead he came on with bright red hair, quilted jumpsuit, boxing boots, white make up and a blue 12 string Gibson guitar, he said, “My name is David Bowie, and this is my music.” Brilliant! He looked absolutely fantastic and beautiful – the coolest man on the planet. I decided I wanted to look like that too.
‘I got to meet him backstage after that show and my sister asked him, “Where do you get your clothes?” There was a momentary silence before he answered, “the likes of Rod Stewart go to London, I get mine made!” I met him again in a hotel I worked in, during the Aladdin Sane tour. Facing the sack, I knocked on the door and he appeared in bib and braces and make-up, doing the Daily Express crossword. We talked about bracelets and hair styles.’
I asked Chris how Bowie had influenced his life since.
‘It wasn’t a cult then, very few people were as obsessive and certainly not where I lived, but yes, I studied mime with Etienne Decroux. Later I performed solo shows in the North-West, supporting rock bands. I learned the alto-sax after dabbling with the guitar and piano and went on to do a music degree. I am still hugely interested in art, literature, fashion and performance. Although my passion for Bowie has waned as I’ve got older, I will always love his music from the seventies. The thing I admired about him was that he never stuck to the same formula and would always produce something different from the previous release. I will always have an interest in anything ‘Bowie’.
Billy didn’t carry on dressing like a space-aged hoodlum, nor Chris emulate every change of outfit or persona, nor I act-out my fantasies in imaginary shows, we all moved on. But what Bowie articulated, and this was virtually unheard of then, was that it was okay to feel and be different. He gave us the permission to explore ideas, new music, art, and to be open to all life’s possibilities.
I eventually found my place in the world through writing, but without Bowie, sat in the back of his Cadillac, driving across the desert, bopping to Aretha Franklin and musing, ‘There’s a fly floating around in my milk… a foreign body, I couldn’t help but soak it all up.’ – I’m not sure I would have ever found a way to get there.
In memory of Billy Nevins.
Jeremy writes under the name David Ledain and can be contacted via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @davidledain or via www.davidledain.com
Written by Jeremy Good
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