Crashing in the Same Car
All accounts I have read suggest that David Robert Jones [Bowie] was a cherished if not planned child. Both his parents, however, had histories of child abandonment, either accidental or deliberate.
His paternal grandfather died in WWI, and his grandmother soon afterwards. Bowie’s dad, Haywood Stenton Jones, was born in 1912 and raised by the State and an aunt. Haywood worked at Dr. Barnado’s, a well-known London shelter for orphaned and homeless children. He married Hilda Sullivan in the 1930s, then during WWII had an affair, and his first child, Annette was born to his mistress. Hilda and Haywood took custody of Annette. When Haywood left Hilda for Peggy Burns, David’s mother, Annette was left behind with Hilda.
David was Peggy’s third child. The first, his half-brother Terry, was born in 1937 and lived at times with his mother, aunt, and grandparents. Peggy’s second child, Myra Ann, was put up for adoption. David was born January 8, 1947, but Peggy and Haywood couldn’t marry until August that year because he first had to divorce Hilda.
So David had a half-brother ten years older than he whom he looked up to but who for many years did not live with his mother and step-father, a paternal half-sister he occasionally saw who lived not with her mother but with his father’s ex-wife (Hilda), and another Burns half-sister about whom nothing is known.
Now flash-forward to May 1971. To David and wife Angie is born Duncan Zowie Haywood Bowie Jones, first known as Zowie Bowie, then as Joe or Joey, and now as Duncan Jones. Within days of his birth, peeved that she isn’t getting enough tea, sympathy, and attention, mother dearest jets off on a holiday.
Athough he sometimes accompanied his parents on tour, during Bowie’s Berlin years and separation from Angie, a permanent nanny, Marion Skene, takes on the role of Zowie/Duncan’s mother, likely aided by Bowie’s best friend, Coco Schwab.
Then in 1975, on the condition that he stayed clean during filming, Nicholas Roeg offered Bowie the starring role playing Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Newton is an alien who has left behind his wife and two children to come to Earth in search of a way to alleviate his planet’s drought. He telepathically watches as his family weakens and dies. He never gets home.
I think his role in The Man Who Fell to Earth was critical to Bowie’s survival for two reasons: one, he proved to himself that he could stay off coke if he wanted to, and, two, his character’s sadness at being apart from his family reminded Bowie of what he was missing.
It took a while for Bowie to act. After shooting, he returned to LA and drugs.
Although the 1974 Dick Cavett interview is frequently cited as showing Bowie at his most out-of-it, I think that the 1975 Russell Harty interview is the most disturbing. Harty shows clips from The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bowie focuses on the story’s sadness. Harty asks if Bowie wants to make more movies, he responds,
“No, funnily enough what it did do was increase my appetite for going back to a lot of the bits and pieces I used to do many years ago, like painting, writing, spending free time with myself and my family, getting out of cities.”
When Harty asks about Zowie, Bowie’s response sounds much like what Tommy said to Betty Lou [Candy Clark] in The Man Who Fell to Earth when she asks about his children, that is, they are just like children everywhere: “He’s a child… he’s as bright as any child should be at four-and-a-half. He’s not a prodigy of any kind. Thank god.”
Bowie seems to have internalized Thomas Newton’s loss of his family. Like the alien, he suffers in exile. I think by the time of the Isolar or Station to Station tour, he knew he needed Zowie and he realized his son deserved at least one parent who would take care of him or ensure he would be taken care of.
Bowie survived, but it wasn’t for or because of Coco or Iggy Pop. It was for his son. When he took charge of Zowie, David Bowie stopped crashing in that same car –unlike his own mother and father, he didn’t abandon his firstborn.