A walk through Bowie's London

With a new album out and a retrospective at the V&A imminent, Paul Trynka goes back to where it all began for the Thin White Duke

Although he might well bask in anonymity with Iman and daughter Lexi in New York's Nolita neighbourhood, this month's David Bowie show at the V&A demonstrates that he is, and will always remain, a London Boy: born in Brixton in 1947. What's more surprising is that the London that formed Bowie's magpie mind is recognisably intact.

Crammed in by Crossrail building work, beleaguered by rising costs, Denmark Street ought to have lost its magic. But this little Georgian street loaded with guitar shops still has the same claustrophobic, in-crowd appeal that drew a young Davy Jones to catch a train in from Bromley. The blond-haired teenager sat for hours in the Giaconda Coffee Bar, spinning fantasies of stardom with Marc Bolan or Steve Marriott, from 1963 or so. You can still do that today, although the fare has gone upmarket; the Giaconda Dining Room dispenses decent, modern British cooking.

The rest of the street retains its shabby charms: number 7, Bowie's old agency, where he'd rub shoulders with Screaming Lord Sutch, is a coffee shop. In between, Rose Morris, at number 8, is where David packed boxes for publishers Southern Music. Further down, Vintage and Rare Guitars is another period jewel, unchanged for 200, never mind 50, years with a beautiful, mid-18th-century panelled interior crammed with beautifully patina-ed 50s Gibsons and Fenders at anything up to £60,000 – its customers have included Bowie's band members. Just next door is the site of Regent Sound studios, where Bowie's early idol, Brian Jones, recorded with the Rolling Stones.

Follow Bowie's footsteps over Charing Cross Road, and then down to Wardour Street, and the resonances persist. The most famous location is doubtless The Marquee Club; it was here that Bowie built up his first fan base in the summer of 1965 when, as one witness put it "There'd be six girls at the front, and half a dozen of us queens at the back – hanging on his every move."

Sadly, the club is gone and the building remodelled, but you can still enjoy a pint nearby at The Ship, an Edwardian pub with unchanged décor, chocolate-coloured tiles, dark wood panelling and stained glass – a regular haunt where Bowie dispensed memorable quotes to eager journalists. Just a few yards down, the tiny St Anne's Court is home to Trident Studios, where David recorded Space Oddity and, after a couple of fallow years, his coveted breakthrough, the Ziggy Stardust album. The doorway is tiny and anonymous, as it always was, and the studio is smaller, but you can still hire it for voiceover work if you fancy emulating your hero.

The huddle of buildings west of Wardour Street all formed a backdrop to Bowie's teens. Brewer and Windmill Street still buzz with authentic Soho sleaze; in 1964, many of the buildings featured interconnecting first floors with clubs or brothels which bands hired as rehearsal spaces. Archer Street, completing the block, was the home of Charlie Chester's Casino – here, David and band would nod politely at the Kray Twins and, on one occasion, auditioned for whizz-kid producer Mickie Most. The casino's sign is still there, although today the building hosts the elegant Italian restaurant, Bocca di Lupo. The ongoing gentrification is intermittent, though; Soho nostalgists will be pleased to know you can still be offered a girl, or a guy, in daylight hours on Rupert Street, just behind.

Still, if we march briskly north east, perhaps by way of Carnaby Street, where Bowie and Bolan used to pick through bags of clothing rejects, towards Marylebone, the streets open up. Soon we reach the elegant, airy Georgian and Edwardian terraces around Manchester Square, which back in the 1960s housed the EMI offices. It was on these streets that Bowie the Mod blossomed into something far more eclectic and exotic, influenced by manager Ken Pitt, who nurtured Bowie's career up to Space Oddity.

David moved into Pitt's flat at 39 Manchester Street in June 1967, remaking himself as a solo artist and songwriter, penning songs about Bombadiers and Gnomes. After a session reading Pitts' books on Aubrey Beardsley or Oscar Wilde, he'd venture out to Pollock's Toy Museum. "He'd come back with all sorts of things," says Pitt, "then he'd pin them on the wall." Today, the Toy Museum has moved a little nearer, just by Goodge Street, but its Victorian prints and card theatres still evoke the off-kilter eccentricity and child-like enthusiasm of Bowie's early songs. So too does Manchester Square's Wallace Collection, with its Dutch and Italian renaissance oils, armour and silverwear, where David would spend "an awful lot of time," says Pitt.

Then he'd return to the flat, with its Georgian hob grates and tall bookcases, and listen to his acetate of the Velvet Underground, another formative influence.

From Marylebone back to Regent Street is just a short step for a tourist, but a giant leap for a pop star, as the smaller terraces make way for gleaming shop fronts. For it was here that the final, epochal transformation of David Bowie took place. Even casual fans know of the little Heddon Street alley, where Ziggy Stardust was first sighted on a cold January 1972 night. There's a plaque to mark the spot, but the whole street is full of Ziggy references; the imposing Edwardian offices above Monsoon, at 252 Regent Street, are where Bowie first announced "I'm gay, and I always have been". On Lower Regent Street, another elegant, Edwardian stone edifice featuring LA Fitness marks the public unveiling of Ziggy's band, when Bowie previewed much of Hunky Dory in front of a tiny crowd in the tiny Paris Theatre.

Like Bowie, London moves on, restlessly. Nowhere symbolises that better than Regent Street's Café Royal. This historic hotel, once frequented by Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, was recently ruthlessly gutted with countless fittings sold off. It has now reopened with its gilded Grill Room "exquisitely restored to its original Louis XVI detailing". Here it was that Bowie partied with Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney after killing off Ziggy; an act of ruthlessness and risk-taking at which even the most hardened property speculator might blanch.

Such instinctive understanding of how to create an event explains why the V&A Bowie exhibition is the most popular in the museum's history, and why the man's new album dominates our media today. As curator Geoffrey Marsh puts it, "David Bowie is all around." He simultaneously occupies both present, and the past, just like the city that cradled him.

David Bowie Is, at the V&A from 23 March to 11 August 2013. Tickets are £15.50 (020-7942 2000; vam.ac.uk/davidbowieis). David Bowie's new album 'The Next Day', is out now.

'Starman' is Paul Trynka's biography of David Bowie (Sphere/Little, Brown)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future