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David Bowie: The Early Years

David Bowie: The Early Years

The MALESTROM spoke to Mary Finnigan with whom David Bowie set up home in 1969, just before he became famous. Strumming an early version of Space Oddity to her in the kitchen and entertaining her two children with his unique compositions, this period of David’s life when he was broke and unknown, but on the cusp of super stardom has been unknown to the world for 45 years. Until last year that is, when Mary decided to speak publicly about their time together and publish her memoir: Psychedelic Suburbia.

A black and white photo of a young Mary Finnegan
Mary Finnigan by Ray Stevenson

The MALESTROM: For those of us who weren’t there Mary, what were the psychedelic sixties really like?

Mary Finnigan: It was an entirely unique experience which has not been repeated because in the early days it was based on the idea of rejection of materialistic values, which were very much at the heart of our parent’s generation and it was a peace movement which was against any form of military intervention.

It was revolutionary in that it expected people to have the power rather than a quasi-democratic model which doesn’t really work. Today this has a lot of resonance.

TM: Blimey, it sounds just like what we need! But what really stands out about your story is what a radical figure you were. Which would have been attractive to an aspiring star like David Bowie?

MF: Well I don’t know about that. Although I was leading a very alternative life, I was still a suburban single mum bringing up two kids in Beckenham.

TM: Yes, but you had the whole hippy ethos?

MF:(Laughs) Yes, taking LSD and all the rest of it and yes, I had definitely dropped out, which was from about mid-1967 to 73.

TM: But surely you were the bright light that David was attracted to?

MF: Yes, possibly. What I was doing was trendy and David always followed the trends. He had been a mod and when I knew him he was a hippy. Musicians do tend to be out on the leading edge of whatever happening.

TM: And in Beckenham it was you?

MF: I’m not sure he saw me in that role and looking back I think Angie (Bowie) was the person who he really felt could take him where he wanted to go. I think I provided him with a launch pad, I gave him a place to live and food in his stomach, became his lover and we founded the Beckenham Arts Lab together.

At first it was just a folk club and little to our surprise, we woke up the suburbs to the same alternative and radical perspective that was happening in London at the time – and this is where David got his first following at the Three Tuns pub which became a honey pot, a place for the youth of the whole of south London.

TM: It was certainly a unique period in David Bowie’s life and one that has not been revealed until you wrote about it. Tell us about the first time you met David.

MF: I was sunbathing in the garden. My friends Barry and Christina Jackson lived in the top floor flat of a crumbling Victorian house where I lived on the ground floor. The window of their flat was open and I heard music coming out of their window.

It was very different from the average wannabe guitar player. It was very original, very passionate, very interesting, there wasn’t a single cliché chord change in it. It was all very cutting edge stuff, obviously an original composition.

TM: That’s interesting. So, it even stood out back then?

MF: Oh totally, instantly. So I called up from my deckchair and said, ‘Hello, who’s that playing’? And this head popped out the window… a pale face with a runny nose and a halo of blonde curls and said, ‘Hello, I’m David. Who are you’? And I said,

‘I’m Mary, would you like to come down for a cup of tea and some tincture of cannabis’?

TM: And what did he say?

MF: Yes please! (laughs) he was down like a shot! We got high together and he played me a lot more music

TM: So, what was he like back then?

MF: He was normal, pleasant and polite, quite handsome, he had nice manners and he never wanted to step out of line. But he wasn’t very domesticated, it was hard to get him to do anything but make toast and baked beans (laughs).

TM: What was it about him that attracted you to him?

MF: Charisma, charm, very pleasant, very friendly, very attentive, confident. At the time he had just split up with his girlfriend Hermione and it had broken his heart…

TM: So how long after he moved in did you two become an item?

MF: You mean how long before we slept together?

TM: Yeah!

MF: I think after about a week. It was a beautiful seduction, really quite irresistible. He was only 22 but he was very experienced, he knew exactly what he was doing.

TM: And did that impress you?

MF: The way it was done impressed me. I came home from work and he had fed the children, put them to bed, cooked me this lovely supper plus a nice bottle of white wine and he’d rolled some spliffs.

He took me into his room where he’d put cushions on the floor and he put two big speakers either side of my head and played me his favourite music, Hendrix, Jacques Brel and the Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta.

TM: He was interested in Japanese culture later on around Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence?

MF: He’d always been into it because he was introduced to Kabuki (classical Japanese dance-drama) by Lindsay Kemp, the mime artist. David was very multi-cultural and well informed, quite intellectual, avant-garde along the lines of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac

TM: So, he was quite radical back then?

MF: Absolutely, if you look at the lyrics of his songs you can see that influence was already there. There was some very weird psychedelic stuff from that time, The Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud, The Bewley Brothers.

TM: The Bewley Brothers and Aladdin Sane are rumoured to be about his brother Terry, who had schizophrenia. It has been suggested David was also paranoid about suffering the same mental illness. Did he ever mention that to you?

MF: Well, I think he spoke about it once, but a whole mythology has grown up around that and I am not sure I take it that seriously. He spoke about Terry once and said how sad he was that Terry had been sectioned. He wouldn’t take LSD when he was living with me because he didn’t want to lose control and because he was worried he might end up the same as Terry.

TM: Wow! Did he write The Bewley Brothers at your house?

MF: No, he wrote that at Haddon Hall… but he wrote The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud sitting on the swing in our garden with Richard my son playing around him. Richard probably inspired that song.

TM: What did your children make of him?

MF: They adored him. They were fascinated by him because he was so interesting and such fun. He played music and sang songs to the children. Richard was still very young but Caroline my daughter was a couple of years older and she absolutely fell into it. She loved being around David.

What do they say about it now, all these years later?

MF: I think they look back on it with some sort of nostalgia now. It was such an unconventional childhood

TM: What else did he write or play you when you were living together?

MF: One time just after he’d moved in he only had a 12 string Gibson, a Stylophone and a backpack. He sat down on a stool in the kitchen and I was making tea for the kids. He said, ‘Can I play you a song’? and I said, ‘Yes’, and he played Space Oddity, with the Stylophone, a fascinating little gadget, and the guitar, which was difficult as the song was written for two people, for him and John Hutchinson, but Hutch went off back to his wife and kid up north.

TM: He must be regretting that!

MF: Seems likely. The kids were fascinated, they were very much in tune with him. Richard was inspired to draw spacecraft and space encounters and space this and that as a result of listening to Space Oddity. Caroline even played the Stylophone on Space Oddity at the Three Tuns folk club one night.

TM: Did he write any other landmark songs at your house? 

MF: Pretty much everything on his second album, David Bowie which was re-released as ‘Space Oddity’. For example, Janine, Letter to Hermione and An Occasional Dream.

TM: Did you think he was destined for superstardom?

MF: No, I didn’t. I had no idea he would be so big, I mean he was very talented, very dedicated and determined to go where he wanted to go, and I thought he had a great deal of charm and charisma and I thought the combination was certainly very promising.

And there were a lot of people in the music business around him at the time who also thought the same, Marc Bolan, Tony Visconti. But he hadn’t broken through yet and had had a lot of knockbacks.

TM: It’s been said that he struggled for something like seven years before he got his breakthrough?

MF: Yes. I think it was something like that.

TM: Was he ever upset at how long he’d struggled for?

MF: I think he was resigned, sometimes a bit sad. And he was unhappy with his manager, Ken Pitt, who wanted to turn him into a Cliff Richard or Tommy Steele, but David wasn’t having any of that!

TM: What role do you think you played in his life at the time?

MF: Landlady, lover, collaborator, muse, maybe? I don’t know, I was just a step along the way.

TM: If it hadn’t have been for you and the Beckenham Arts Lab and the people it attracted, he wouldn’t have had a following in the first place?

MF: Yes, undoubtedly I helped him to do that.

TM: You are quite modest. Surely your role in him breaking through was more significant than you realise?

MF: I don’t know about that. The Beckenham Arts Lab has certainly been overlooked, even ignored. In the 30 or so books written about David Bowie it barely gets a mention. It was his first platform, his first following. We were trailblazers. The same thing happened with the Free Festival we organised on 16 August 1969, which was straight out of the Arts Lab. It was the first of its kind in the UK.

Photo by David Bebbington

TM: What influence did Angie Barnett (later, Angie Bowie) have on him when she arrived on the scene?

MF: It’s very painful to go over that. When she turned up at Foxgrove Road, and basically took over I should have been more resentful than I was… but I was quite docile in many ways, I didn’t have huge self-confidence, or self-esteem and I accepted Angie. She ousted me

TM: So, even at 19 she was quite a strong figure?

MF: She was very loud, very pushy and very dynamic. She was a very good looking woman, very pretty!

A black and white photograph of Angie Barnett
Angie Barnett

TM: Did she see you as a threat?

MF: I don’t think so. She had me around her little finger, she moved in and completely dominated David’s life from then onwards, while living under my roof but we became friends, if I’m honest it was still jolly good fun.

TM: Did the three of you sit down and have Sunday roast together?

MF: Oh yes! But there was normally more than the three of us. There were the kids and often various Arts Lab people who were in and out of the flat all the time.

TM: That’s so funny! So there’s you, David Bowie and Angie Bowie in Beckenham, all sitting round having Sunday lunch together?

MF: In many respects, it was a very ordinary suburban life, my children went to school, they were fed, they were entertained, had their share of the television time and everything like that. They went to bed on time and they led a fairly disciplined life, it was by no means chaotic for them, but we still had a lot of young people visiting, lying round, playing music and generally being very boho.

TM: Angie’s later influence goes far and wide, especially in the 70’s. But do you think he was attracted to her because she was so openly bi-sexual?

MF: I think it was part of it … but I think the main thing was that Angie really pushed out the leading edge with her capacity to be outrageous and totally orientated towards pop music, which I wasn’t and she was involved with all sorts of music people in London. She had that dynamic about her, which I think David realised could carry him into the next stage, which is precisely what happened.

TM: And she tried to seduce you as well?

MF: Oh yes … she did (laughs) … she would try to seduce anybody she fancied.

A black and white photo of David Bowie sat on a chair legs crossed staring down the lens of the camera
Bowie at Haddon Hall

TM:  So, when he left living with you and moved into Haddon Hall with Angie, did you see this massive transformation into Ziggy Stardust?

MF: Yes, I watched it happen, we were still close friends at that time. It was Mick Ronson who made a very big difference when he turned up because Mick did the musical arrangements, which David couldn’t do. He was a great entertainer, a great performer, but not technical.

When Ziggy came into being, Angie did the style and presentation, Freddie Burretti and his girlfriend, Daniela lived with them at the time. They contributed a lot. Freddie was a dressmaker and made the costumes for David and Mick.

TM: So, the conversion to Ziggy Stardust was a team effort of collaborators?

MF: Yes, yes it was, it was definitely a team effort.

That’s interesting because everyone thinks it was Bowie’s unique incarnation, that he walked into the bathroom one day and walked out as Ziggy Stardust?

MF: No. That’s too simplistic, everyone helped him.

TM: What did you think when you first saw him as Ziggy?

MF: Well, I was bowled over at the time, it was marvellous, the album is a work of genius. Anyone who heard the songs on it said ‘Oh wow what an amazing album’, every single track was just so… perfect!

TM: Did you get to hear any of the songs early on, before they were released?

MF: I think one or two of them at their flat at Haddon Hall

TM: What was it like to go to the legendary Earls Court concert of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars?

MF: We all went from Beckenham, everyone who had a role in the Arts Lab basically, it was very exciting. David gave us free tickets and very nice seats. We were completely knocked out and we all went back to David and Angie’s afterwards at Haddon Hall for a party.

TM: But not long after that, certainly within the next few years and leading up to The Man Who Fell To Earth, he had morphed into this paranoid, drug-addled, troubled soul?

MF: He was never a troubled soul when I knew him, and after Ziggy I was really out of the picture as he became so successful and famous, he hit the stratosphere, so it’s hard for me to comment on that. Many years down the line Angie got me tickets for a Thin White Duke concert but I never got to speak to David or Angie that night… she just sent me two tickets out of the blue.

TM: When you saw him all those years later as The Thin White Duke what did you think, because he was a completely different person to the one who lived with you?

MF: He was a huge pop star with a massive following and he’d morphed several times from hippy to glam, to Thin White Duke – it went on and on and on, David was primarily an ‘actor’, I think he loved to play roles.

I think that was based to a large extent on his Buddhist experience. David spent a lot of time on the cushion at the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre in Scotland. In meditation, at that level, many people experience ego loss. I think he probably went through that experience and stopped taking himself so seriously, and after that, he realised he could be anything he wanted to be.

TM: Your time with him seemed to be a time of innocence…

MF: … Yes!

TM: There’s a very famous interview of him on American TV on the Dick Cavett show where he was so off his face on cocaine, he scared every mother and father half to death?

MF: But then he did totally reform later on. He was cautious about drugs when I knew him he would drink and smoke a little dope but that’s all.

TM: This is what makes the period you knew him so unique. It’s a different David Bowie to the one we all grew up with?

MF: Well, there were many different David Bowie’s, you can’t actually pin it down to one person or era, I mean when he married Iman he was a totally different person again.

TM: Did you buy his last album, Blackstar?

MF: Yes, yes I did. It is actually the first David Bowie album I’ve ever had to pay for! I think there was some very interesting stuff on it. It was obviously ‘I’ll do whatever I feel like doing, and I am not going to pander to anyone’s ideas’.

It was almost like him going back to square one, it was very avant-garde… difficult, not very approachable and basically the end.

TM: And it’s nominated for The Mercury Prize…

MF: Well it deserves it, it’s extraordinary. There’s lot’s about it musically that I don’t like very much… but the whole feel of it and the underlying message is very interesting!

TM: How did you take the news when he passed away?

MF: I was absolutely devastated… (silence)… I just ran downstairs crying. I was in bed when I heard it on the radio and I rushed into the room where my partner was doing his exercises and I said (shrill) ‘He’s dead’! And my partner said, ‘Who’s dead’? And then the penny dropped, I was devastated. I wasn’t even aware of how sad and how shocked I would be, it was like losing a member of my family, I cried on and off for, I don’t know, two or three months.

TM: What’s your lasting memory of him?

MF: (silence)… A guy with a beautiful soul. A man with basically a very good heart. A person who cared about people and was really quite human.

Mary’s book: Psychedelic Suburbia: David Bowie and the Beckenham Arts Lab is available now.

The front cover of Mary Finnegan's book featuring a black and white photo of a shirtless David Bowie

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