Long before he transformed himself into an androgynous Rock God and chameleon-like space alien singer/songwriter, the former David Jones would often stop to chat with an apparent vagrant on the Tottenham Court Road in London during the late 1960s.
David Jones, of course, became David Bowie, while the vagrant enjoyed a Rock God path of his own when he was Vince Taylor – rock and roller, “the French Elvis”, and occasional Jesus in his Own Head.
Bowie recognised him, bought him cups of tea from the nearby greasy spoon, and questioned him about music and stardom and fame and demise.
Taylor, born Brian Holden in Middlesex in 1939, enjoyed modest success as one of the raft of British rock ‘n’ roll singers peddled by impresarios like Larry Parnes and Jack Good. The Clash later covered Taylor’s Brand New Cadillac, but he didn’t enjoy total status as a Rock God until he moved to France in the early 1960s.
France was in the grip of all things British Beat and took to Taylor from the start. Sell-out concerts followed as frenzied audiences ate up the leather-clad and wild Brit and with his backing band, The Playboys Taylor’s bid for immortality was secure.
Until a fateful concert in Paris in the mid-60s when one dose of LSD too many coupled with a freak incident when all the light bulbs blew led Taylor to suffer a total delusional mental breakdown where he believed he was Jesus and took to dressing in white robes and growing his hair out. The gigs ceased, and virtually penniless Taylor returned to the UK, took up residence on the streets of London, and drank tea with Mr Jones.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Bowie owned records by another semi-obscure wild man of rock – The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Texan Norman Odem, along with fellow Southerner Hasil Adkins, is considered by many as one of the pioneers of psychobilly. The snarling, growling, yelping frenzy of Cowboy, as personified on Paralyzed sets the tone for the darker side of rock and roll but it was his obsession with space travel and aliens that properly caught David Jones’ imagination (Bowie later covered Cowboy’s I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship).
Bowie, born in Brixton but raised in Beckenham in the suburbs was always a square peg in a round hole. Creative, artistic, and decidedly odd looking – a school fight gave him the paralysed retina which made his eyes look like they were different colours – he wanted to be a rock star, trying every venture he possibly could to make that happen.
Bowie’s determination persisted. He tried (and failed) as a Mod with Love You Til Tuesday. He tried (and failed) as a Hippie at the first ever Glastonbury. He tried (and sort of failed) as a generic rocker with Hunky Dory.
His music and lyrics evolved. Now he just needed a stage persona.
Spiders from Mars’ guitarist Mick Ronson dated (and later married) Suzi Fussey, a hairdresser, and it was she who cut and sculpted and dyed Bowie’s naturally mousey locks into the bright red mullet that became his first trademark. A pair of equally bright red wrestler’s boots followed along with a skintight jumpsuit and shaved eyebrows. It was producer Tony Visconti who suggested that Bowie embraced his alien within – singing like him, acting like him, living like him.
But exactly what shape should that alien within take and what was his name?
There are times in history when the planets align precisely when every idea and thought process about a project suddenly click into place and arrive almost as if they were fully formed and perfect from the beginning. So it was with Bowie. Vince Taylor’s Messiah on stage breakdown, the notion of Rock Star as alien saviour, the frenzy and name of The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, the androgyny of Bowie’s new hair and makeup and wardrobe and demeanour – all of these things combined, and led Bowie first into the recording studio, and then down Heddon Street in Soho, and a Star was born.
Stardust to be precise. Ziggy if you’re friends.
Guitar slung low on the hip, leg rested upon the bricks, a red British telephone booth on the back sleeve, and K. West lit up above his head. Immortality achieved.
(Years later Vince Taylor got his life together and worked as an airport mechanic in Switzerland – mere miles away from the residence of the young rocker who’d bought him cups of tea all those years ago. He died in 1991. Bowie died in 2016. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy continues to record and perform.)