At 27 and at 54

When I came back to Bowie one of the lures was this: How did he do it? I’d watch  Heathen-era youtubes and then the bits from  1974’s Cracked Actor and wonder  how did he go from  being the  95-pound  coke addict of 1975, to a man who looked better at 54 than at 27? Many are happier at 54 than 27, but not healthier.

And I think he genuinely was. Bowie is the first to say that his years of cocaine addiction messed up his emotional life and left his memory with “sizeable holes” but I think that he meant his memory of those years, not in general.

I think too that he was right when he said that his body was relatively unaffected by his addiction: “I’ve been a really lucky sod. . . I’m extremely fit.”

Of course, after his 2004 heart attack the tabloids were quick to blame his past drug use. The Sun was typical:

“…doctors now believe his heart attack may be a direct result of the hammering his body took during those years. Sun doctor Carol Cooper said: ‘Drugs cause heart muscle to deteriorate and can bring on coronary disease at a younger age. Sadly there is nothing David Bowie can do now to reverse the effects of the drugs he took.'”

There are a few problems here, other than the obvious, that Dr. Cooper never examined Bowie.

When Bowie had his heart attack, June 25, 2004, he was 57 and a half years old, and had just finished playing the 113th show of a worldwide tour that began October 7, 2003.

Surely, no insurance firm would have underwritten a 56-year-old rock star’s 128-show concert without doing the most thorough physical exams known to medicine.

And for every ex-drug user who has a heart attack in middle age, there are those like my friend Barry, who never smoked or drugged, drank in moderation, passed a physical on a Monday including a stress test during which he didn’t break a sweat, and had an emergency triple by-pass Friday of the same week. Barry’s doctor said had he not been in such great shape to start with, he would may well have not made it.

Same, I expect, could be said for Bowie.

There are no accounts of formal rehabilitation programs. In fact, Bowie has said he stayed away from psych hospitals because he worried if he ever got in, he’d never get out, and his family history removes this musing from paranoia to well-founded. I’ve seen occasional mentions of Coco Schwab hooking him up with a therapist during the Berlin years, and in the 1990s a comment in an interview I need to look up suggested he might take mood stablilizers — if I had to guess, when the SSRIs came out in the late 1980s, his life probably got a lot easier, as did so many others’.

I think Bowie left coke behind through the same means as he always got what he wanted: hard work and a strong will.

Peter Gillman and Leni Gillman in Alias David Bowie believe Bowie’s decision to bring Coco Schwab and Iggy Pop with him to Berlin essential to his success; Paul Trykna’s Starman credits Bowie’s desire to help Iggy Pop.

There’s something to be said for the  Gillmans’ and Trykna’s speculations. Coco I imagine was the friend who finally told him in LA that he would die alone if he continued doing as he did.

By taking both Iggy and Coco with him to Berlin, perhaps Bowie found a middle place to rest between the extremes of the singer’s outrageousness and his assistant’s responsibility.

Shy people are not necessarily solitairies, and Bowie typically had a friend in tow for new experiences: George Underwood and his wife accompanied Angela and David on their first QE2 voyage to America; Geoff MacCormack was his companion on the Aladdin Sane tours and during the making of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Iggy played that role in Berlin. That he was also in need of getting off drugs raised the stakes. On some level, perhaps Bowie realized that if he succeeded in leaving behind his drug addiction, maybe Iggy would too. Or maybe not. But almost certainly, if he failed, then Iggy would go down with him.

Bowie may have also been constructing a familiar family circle, with Coco playing the role of domineering mother and Iggy that of Terry Burns (Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother). Who then was David? The child? Or the father?

4 thoughts on “At 27 and at 54

  1. I always thought of Ms Schwab’s involvement as being that of a gatekeeper to Bowie while she also tended to the day-to-day stuff on his behalf and generally helped organize his life at a practical level. Not much has been said through the years about her but what has been suggests that she could ice people out of the scene altogether if she didn’t like them – so maybe you had to approach her in some specific way to get an audience with him. I do know that at some point in the 70s Bowie became quite well buffered from even his own musicians and she more or less called the shots on who got to interact with him outside of the shows and recording dates. There were stories of him slipping out for a drink with the boys who would later get in trouble with Coco – as if it was their fault.

    I suspect that she didn’t much care for those friends of Bowie who predated her arrival who might seek to bypass her when contacting or interacting with Bowie. I mean if you meaningfully knew the guy since 1969 are you really going to ask permission from her to call and say hello (assuming you had that type of relationship) ? Of course she was there to bounce the groupies and hangers-on who had overstayed their welcome, (she might have even had her own assistants to do that for her) but I get the sense that those who might have had a longstanding relationship with him could get the cold shoulder. “And who are you again ? ”

    But in general all major celebrities will have someone like her in their lives to gate keep and manage things but not maybe as long serving or as dedicated. Recall that she started in the secretarial pool as a “girl Friday” type and decades later was still there working in a close capacity. Obviously she probably knew him on a personal level as well (if not better) than most people. In my mind it seemed like a really tough job to have and it combined personal and professional dedication. I always saw her as more of a Nanny than anything else which isn’t to say that Bowie was childish but those of artistic temperment can be perceived as being such and that, combined with the pressures associated with recording and touring obligations, will probably necessitate someone to help put. If I recall correctly, in David Buckley’s bio there is a section where Carlos Alomar talks about getting slapped by Coco for some perceived offense. Clearly, she took her role as PA very, very seriously and, in the end, was much more than just a PA.

    1. I tend to think of her as a very protective sister, even a mother. She is now the Keeper of Secrets, and I admire the way she has kept David Jones and David Bowie separate, while being fully invested in both. If she was ever tyrannical, it was as I was for my kids: say what you want about me, but you will not hurt them or cause them pain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s