The Culture Interview: Lesley-Ann Jones

10 mn read

Lesley-Ann Jones, 58, met David Bowie when was she was 11 and lived down the road from him and Angie in Beckenham. She went on to get a rock n’pop column for the Sun! And then the Mail on Sunday. In the 80s, those were the sort of days they were – she interviewed Grace Jones on a massage table, U2 in a pool and Cyndi Lauper on a plane. Her latest book is Hero: David Bowie on Hodder & Stoughton.

Was the decision to do a biography about Bowie an easy one?

It was a no-brainer. I had been writing features about and interviews with David Bowie for years. I always knew that one day I would write a whole book about him. We even talked about it: he said to me during an interview once that one day he would get me to tell the ‘entire, brutal truth’ about him in an autobiography, and that I could be his ghost. We also joked that it would be unpublishHero: David Bowieable. The morning I heard that he had died, I began writing the book in my head there and then. By the time I came to have the conversation with my editor, just a couple of days later, I already knew what I wanted to say in it, and how the whole book would pan out. Minus the surprises, of course. I was not yet prepared for some of the amazing revelations that were made to me by people close to David, who mostly felt that they couldn’t say the things they had to say while he was still alive.

Was he your hero when you met him in his yellow kimono and you were an 11 year old schoolgirl?

The first time I met him, I was still at infants’ school: Oak Lodge County Primary in Kent. I had a friend there, Lisa Money, whose mother Hy Money worked as a photographer on a local newspaper, the Beckenham Record. Mostly mother-and-baby portraits, but she also used to cover local events. One Sunday afternoon, Hy took Lisa and me to the Arts Lab, in the back room of the Three Tuns pub on Beckenham High Street, to see a sitar player called Vytas Serelis, whom she had arranged to photograph. David Bowie and Marc Bolan were there that day, but they could have been anybody. By the time we got to grammar school, we were a little older, and more aware. David was a local hero thanks to his success with ‘Space Oddity’, which the BBC had used as a soundtrack for their coverage of the historic lunar landings in the summer of 1969. My friends and I resolved to find out where he lived – Haddon Hall in Beckenham – and we started doorstepping him after school. Angie, his first wife, would give us signed photos and pack us off home. But I knew that we should keep trying; one day, she would be out, he would answer the door, and of course he would ask in in for tea. This he did. Imagine all the eyebrow-raising today: two 11 year-old schoolgirls in uniform going round to a rock star’s gaff for tea, behind their mothers’ backs, and that rock star dressed in little more than a lemon silk kimono… The last vestiges of innocence have been eradicated in the internet age. Back then, there seemed nothing wrong about what we were doing. He was nice to us. He talked to us as equals, and he wasn’t at all up himself. He was absolutely our hero. That first time, just sitting there hanging out with him, talking to him, I knew that I needed to grow up and live my life among people like him. But how was I going to do that? I was neither musical nor artistic. Then the pennies dropped. I could do what my father Ken Jones had done. Once a professional footballer, he was injured out of the game, and became a journalist – a big-name columnist, eventually, who spent ten years travelling the world with Muhammad Ali. I could go on the road with artists and bands, and write about them. It’s what I did.willie-and-the-poor-boys

You seem to have kept up a relationship with him across the years?

I hadn’t seen David for a few years when I bumped into him in Chartier, a budget restaurant in Paris one Christmas. I was a Modern Languages student on my year out, living in France, and he’d been doing his Christmas shopping at the Galeries Lafayette just down the road from the brasserie. We had a glass of wine together. He had a little phrase that he always used to say whenever he saw me: ‘You again!’ Eventually, I was interviewing him in my own right, for a variety of publications. I think, perhaps, that he might have had a soft spot for me because I was ‘from home’: from the same neck of the woods as him. The greater the superstar he became, the more wistful he seemed about ‘home’, and the ‘good old days’. Every time I saw him, we’d sit there talking about Beckenham, Bromley, our old schools, Medhursts department store on Bromley Market Square, where we both used to buy records. About Top of the Pops. We had people in common in New York, where I spent a great deal of time, during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I used to bump into him, we’d go for coffee or lunch, and just hang out. I could never have said, and I never have said, that we were ‘friends’, as such. He was a planet, I was a satellite. Superstars do not forge bosom friendships with hacks, and that seems right. But he was never less than kind and generous to me.

I love the way you say his best friend, George Underwood was much better looking?

David and George met in the Cub Scouts, and had known each other since the age of 8. George was, and still is, deliciously good-looking, with a gentle demeanour and a rakish charm. An incredibly talented artist, he was the one who got to art school – not David. He had a most distinctive personal style, and seems to have been a great source of inspiration to David. He was also a talented guitarist and singer. He and David were in a number of bands together, before David went off and did his own thing. Then George signed his own recording contract with the most successful producer of the day, Mickie Most, and was tipped to eclipse his best friend. David was so angry and frustrated about this that he threatened to kill George. But then something terrible happened: George had a complete mental breakdown, and was admitted to Cane Hill – the same psychiatric institution in which David’s brother Terry was incarcerated. When George had recovered eventually re-emerged, all thoughts of a pop career had been cast aside. He settled into the quieter, and safer, lifestyle of artist and illustrator.

How do you perceive Bowie’s approach to getting older and the changes he made to his life? And how do they compare with your own?

I think, in common with most rock stars of his generation, that he felt invincible and immortal. For a while, at least. Journalists liked to write about him ‘maturing’ during the mid-‘80s: certainly he had cast aside his various alter egos, the shock-locks, the mad make-up and the outrageous interview style. By the time of Live Aid in 1985, he was 38 years old, looked fit and glowing, and was probably one of the world’s most eligible bachelors. He was a rich single dad with all his own hair. He’d been on his own for a few years by then, and he had begun to talk about ‘finding true love’ and ’settling down’. That had definitely become a focus. He got engaged to Melissa Hurley, a dancer on his Glass Spider world tour, 1987. But she was half his age, and the age gap really showed. She dumped him. Who dumps David Bowie?! She did! It wasn’t until he met Iman that things fell into place. The gift of the love of his life seemed to give him permission to let go. He was extremely happy with Iman. He relaxed, made the music he wanted to make -which didn’t please everybody, but so what – and started going with the flow. He became who he was always destined to be – as he put it himself, he evolved into his own dad!

As for me: like my own father, I’ve always raged against the dying of the light. I think the relationships that we have, and the way we have and raise our children, shape our ageing process. I have always been a late starter, at absolutely everything. I had my first child at 30, and became a single mother for 8 years. I married late, and had my second and third children in my forties. I had always been fit and active, crashing around the world with rock stars, doing my share of champagne-guzzling (though never anything worse). I had to come off the road when I had children, of course, and that cut me down to size. But I still think of myself as a young upstart. In my head, I’m still an 11 year-old pop fan, and from behind, I like to think (I have kept my hair long), I still look 25… yeah, I know, in my dreams. I still wear denim every day, and black at night. It’s not so much desperation to cling to my youth, but refusal to change from who I really am. Dad’s in his 80s, and he still wears jeans. Who’s to say that we shouldn’t, and who cares what they say anyway?

My marriage collapsed in divorce while my children were still very young. That took some getting over. For a long time, I regarded it as an ending, and an enormous loss. Another decade on, I have come to regard it as a definite beginning. I have written, published and promoted five more books since – which I may never have done, had I stayed married. It was definitely a new lease of life. My former husband wasn’t into rock and pop music – he preferred classical concerts, ballet and opera (which I love too, by the way), and so I hadn’t been to a rock gig for years. I picked up with a number of old friends in the music business, made some new ones, started going again. For me, the important thing is to be out there, and to take part. Life is all about people. Writing is a lonely occupation, but beyond work, there is no point in being a recluse. I maintain a strong Christian faith, and I truly believe that the next life will be infinitely more than this one. I’m not wild about growing old and losing my looks, such as they were: who is? But what are you gonna do about it? I’m far too squeamish for cosmetic surgery, and anyway, I have never met a face lift I found convincing. I lived with Raquel Welch in Los Angeles for a few months, a long time ago. She and her best friend Nancy Sinatra are richer than Croesus, and could afford the finest plastic surgeons on the planet. They looked ab-fab in photographs, but at point-blank range? The lips went one way, the eyes another. My take was always that you can cut through and re-stitch flesh and muscle, but not nerves. Our nerve endings give our faces their personality. As do our wrinkles. Jowls you can keep. But nowt can be done. I’ll keep drinking the champagne, then, and will remain ever grateful for myopia. And I only look in mirrors in the dark.

And his ways of thinking around his own approaching death?

I didn’t see David during his final years, and I never got to discuss this with him. But I have been told, by a couple of musicians who worked with him on his last albums, that he was sad when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer – because he didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to leave Iman, his daughter Lexi, his son Duncan. He wanted to be there when his grandson arrived. He at last had everything he’d ever wanted. He just didn’t have it for long enough.

What about you and getting older and how you look at the world of rock stars?

Once upon a time, they were supposed to want to die before they got old. Now, they just keep doing what they do for as long as they can. Why shouldn’t they? No one ever says that a classical musician must hang up his violin or her oboe because he/she has passed the point of no return. I know that many vintage rockers find the road gruelling beyond belief. There is no doubt that touring is exhausting. But Sir Paul McCartney is rarely off the road, and he’s still one of the finest rock musicians who ever lived. People love to knock, and to say that his voice is not what it was – but whose is? And why shouldn’t he? For as long as he’s performing live, I’ll be queuing up to buy tickets. Ridiculous? Who says? Who’s the judge? It’s not going to end well for any of us. We’ve got to make all the hay we can while the sun’s still out.

Please do reminisce a little about interviewing the famous in the 80s and compare to now?

It’s all very different now. Back then, pre-internet, we’d be sent everywhere, no expense spared. We’d get the exclusive interviews, sometimes trouncing our rivals. Sweet victory. If they liked you, the artist/s would say ‘let’s have dinner.’ You’d be invited on the road with them. You’d fly in their private jet, sit next to them on the plane, join them in the limo, go out with them for dinner. What changed? 1, technology. 2, middle men. In those days, there were not the managers, the promoters, the agents, the publicists, the hangers-on, coming between us and the artists. We could, and did, forge relationships with them, that lasted many years in a few cases, and a couple of which are still sound. Nowadays, journalists rarely get that close.

Bowie gave you his house in Mustique to live in while you were writing a book?

After he married Iman, they began offloading his various houses around the world. Iman was creating her own territory, her own landscape with him. She didn’t like Britannia Bay House on Mustique – primarily because Mustique is a very racist place. All the home-owners were rich white people, and all the servants were black. So David was getting rid of it. I happened to mention to him one day that I was going to go off for a while, to write my first book on Freddie Mercury. He invited me to go down to Mustique for a month. My elder daughter, Mia and I went together. That was special. There are photographs of our experience in the book.

Have you kept up a relationship with Iman?

I met her only once, and could never say that I had a relationship with her. Amazing woman, though. I have nothing but admiration for her.

By dying at 69 in the way that he did, at home, and by specifically not having a funeral, what was Bowie saying to the world?

I think he was telling us that he was in control. That he would die exactly as he had lived: by his own rules. On his own terms. How could he have a funeral? It would have been a bunfight. He would have loathed that whole showbizzy shebang. A funeral is an intensely private rite of passage. He left the rest of us to mourn him in our own individual ways. Some of us wept and gnashed and danced in the rain, in the street. Some went to his star on Hollywood Boulevard. Some left flowers and candles and album covers at appropriate landmarks around the world. Some pitched up on his doorstep. Some drew on walls. Some of us wrote books. Being David, he would have laughed at and approved of it all.

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