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
Wednesday 13 March 2013
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.
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