Among the earliest musical influences that impressed themselves on the imagination of the young David Jones were Felix Mendelssohn and Danny Kaye. "There was a piece of religious music that was always played on the radio on Sunday called 'Oh For The Wings Of A Dove'," Bowie told Rolling Stone in 2003. "I must have been about six." This was undoubtedly the famous 1927 recording of Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer, from which 'Oh For The Wings Of A Dove', sung by the boy soprano Ernest Lough, became a staple of religious broadcasting during the mid-twentieth century. "Not so far after that I heard 'Inchworm' by Danny Kaye," David continued. "They are the first two pieces of music that made any impression on me. And they both have the same weight of sadness about them. For some reason I really empathised with that." In an interview for Q magazine in the same year he went further: "'Inchworm' is my childhood. It wasn't a happy one. Not that it was brutal, but mine were a certain type of British parent: quite cold emotionally and not many hugs. I always craved affection cause of that. 'Inchworm' gave me comfort, and the person singing it sounded like he'd been hurt too. And I'm into that, the artist singing away his pain."
"Inchworm", written by Frank Loesser for the 1952 film musical Hans Christian Andersen, would go on to exert a fundamental effect on Bowie's creative palette, influencing compositions like "Ashes To Ashes" and "Thursday's Child" in later years. "I loved it as a kid, and it's stayed with me forever," he told Performing Songwriter in 2003. "You wouldn't believe the amount of my songs that have sort of spun off that one song...There's a child's nursery rhyme element in it, and there's something so sad and mournful and poignant about it. It kept bringing me back to the feeling of those pure thoughts of sadness that you have as a child, and how they're so identifiable even when you're an adult. There's a connection that can be made between being a somewhat lost five-year-old and feeling a little abandoned and having the same feeling when you're in your twenties. And it was that song that did that for me." So, too, did the unusual harmonic structures of Hear My Prayer; as he told Michael Parkinson in 2002, these were "the pieces of music that kind of broke my expectations. Holst's Mars was another. Those notes were so weird. It didn't follow anything that I knew, you know. And songs like that - pieces of music where the notes didn't go the right way - really got me."
David's introduction to rock and roll came not long afterwards, and can largely be credited to his half-brother Terry. Ten years David's senior, Terry was one of two children born to Peggy Burns in the years before she met David's father Haywood Stenton Jones in 1946. "It was Terry who really started everything for me," Bowie told his first biographer George Tremlett many years later. "He was into all those different beat writers, and listening to jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy...while I was still at school, he would go up to town every Saturday evening to listen to jazz in the different clubs...he was growing his hair long, and rebelling in his own way...it all had a big impact on me." In 1999 he recalled that "Terry really opened up my mind. He had an innate intelligence, an excitement about the world and an appetite for knowledge. He taught me how to learn things, how to go out of my way to discover things."
In 1953 the family had left David's birthplace at 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, in favour of the leafy suburb of Bromley in Kent. There they changed addresses a couple of times before settling at 4 Plaistow Grove in June 1955. By now a new youth culture was emerging in force from America. "I saw a cousin of mine dance when I was very young," David later recalled. "She was dancing to Elvis's "Hound Dog" and I had never seen her get up and be moved so much by anything. It really impressed me, the power of the music. I started getting records immediately after that. My mother bought me Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" the next day. And then I fell in love with the Little Richard Band. I never heard anything that lived in such bright colours in the air. It really just painted the whole room for me."
Both "Hound Dog" and "Blueberry Hill" were UK hits late in 1956. A couple of years later, aged eleven, David began attending Bromley Technical High School, where he pursued a growing interest in rhythm and blues, skiffle and rock'n'roll. He began to dabble in the ukulele and a home-made string bass made from a broom-handle and a plywood tea-chest. By 1957 he was a chorister at St Mary's Church, Bromley, alongside George Underwood and Geoffrey MacCormack, both of who would remain friends for life. MacCormack, who first met David at the age of seven at Burnt Ash Primary School, would re-emerge as a backing vocalist and co-writer on several of Bowie's mid-1970s albums, and read a Psalm at David's wedding in 1992. David recalled in 1983 that MacCormack "had the big ska record collection, and it just wasn't worth competing with him, so I went straight into buying Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the blues stuff."
George Underwood would play in several of David's early R&B bands and later design some of his classic album sleeves. Apparently the two first met in 1957 at the 18th Bromley Scouts' Cub Pack. George owned an acoustic guitar, and it was this that provided the backing for David's first documented "rock" performance, at the Scouts' annual Summer Camp on the Isle of Wight in August 1958. The boys' set included "Cumberland Gap", "Gamblin' Man" and "Putting On The Style", three skiffle numbers which had featured on the A- and B-sides of Lonnie Donegan's chart-topping singles the previous summer, as well as the contemporary favourites "Tom Dooley", "16 Tons" and "The Balled Of Davy Crockett".
Another formative experience in David's musical education was a stint working at Vic Furlong's record shop in Bromley, where he was entranced by the sounds of James Brown, Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson, black musicians who were still very much on the periphery of the British market. In 1960, at the start of their third year at Bromley Tech, both David and George moved into the school's art stream where their creative predilections were encouraged by their progressive art master Owen Frampton, whose son Peter was also briefly a pupil at the school. Peter later recalled that he and David played Buddy Holly numbers like "Every Day" and "Peggy Sue" during school concerts. Over 25 years later, long after his own peak of fame as a rock musician, Peter Frampton would be reunited with David in the studio and on tour.
Several Bromley Tech contemporaries later testified that in those early days it was George Underwood, not David Jones, who was widely regarded as the boy most likely to succeed in the music business. In the autumn of 1961, fourteen-year-old Underwood was invited to become the new lead singer in a local beat group called The Konrads, a role into which he fell with aplomb. More than a little envious, and determined to join a band himself, David began taking an interest in the saxophone. Having already received an injection-moulded acrylic alto sax as a Christmas present, David persuaded his father to buy him his first tenor saxophone in January 1962. In the spring he began taking weekly lessons from jazz saxophonist Ronnie Ross, who lived not far away in Orpington. Terry had recommended Ross after seeing him nominated as best jazz newcomer in Downbeat magazine. "I rung him up," David would remember many years later. "I said, 'Hi, my name is David Jones, and I'm twelve [sic] years old, and I want to play the saxophone. Can you give me lessons?' He sounded like Keith Richards, and he said no. But I begged him until he said, 'If you can get yourself over here Saturday morning, I'll have a look at you.' He was so cool."
"He had about eight lessons, one every two weeks and I charged him £2 a lesson," Ronnie Ross later recalled. "He stuck it out for that time and then disappeared." David would later enlist Ross to perform the famous sax solo on Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side".
"For me the saxophone always embodied the West Coast beat generation," David recalled in 1983. "I was very entranced by that period of Americana. It became sort of a token, a symbol of freedom; a way of getting out of London that would lead me to America, which was an ambition at the time...Then when I started working with it, I found I didn't have a very good relationship with the sax and that lasted right the way through...I've always felt grossly uncomfortable playing it. I want it to do one thing and it wants me to do something else, and between us, we get something that comes and sounds peculiarly like my style of playing."
Back at Bromley Tech, the teenage rivalry between the budding saxophonist and The Konrads' frontman was not restricted to music: on the morning of February 12th 1962, an incident occurred which would have a lasting effect on them both. During a schoolyard quarrel over a girl, George Underwood punched David in the face, inadvertently inflicting what was diagnosed as traumatic mydriasis on David's left eye. "It was over this girl called Carol Goldsmith," Underwood revealed in 2001. "Obviously I didn't mean to hurt him as much as I did. I certainly didn't have a compass or battery in my hand as people have claimed since. It was just a knuckle but it dislodged something and damaged part of his eye."
"It started bleeding and I was in hospital for months," David melodramatically claimed a few years later. In fact it wasn't quite that serious, but it did leave him with a susceptibility to migraines and impaired eyesight. "It's left me with a wonky sense of perspective," he said in 1999. "When I'm driving, for instance, cars don't come towards me, they just get bigger."
The most noticeable result of the punch was that the pupil of David's left eye remained permanently dilated. Contrary to popular legend the iris did not change colour, although in photographs his left eye often appears greenish-brown due to the paralysed pupil, while his right eye remains blue.
David's convalescence lasted several weeks, and his friend was filled with remorse. "David's family were really mad with me and for a time there was talk of me being prosecuted for assault," Underwood later told Kevin Cann. "I cried when I spoke to David's father about it. In the end nothing came of it, and we made up straight away. But I felt bad for a long time." In later years, David would freely confess that it was his dishonourable conduct which had caused the fight in the first place. "David and I have never spoken about the incident," said Underwood, "but I don't really need to talk to him about it. He knew why I punched him."
In the early summer of 1962, shortly after the dissolution of Underwood's short-lived band George And The Dragons (whose performance at a school concert was apparently upstaged by the lost property lady's rendition of "There's A Hole In My Bucket"), the boys' continuing friendship was confirmed when George invited David to join him in the Konrads.
by Nicholas Pegg
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