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WIld-eyed boy from Bromley

Fri 11 November 2016, 1:05 pm

Bromley Council and local people are commemorating the life of David Bowie, their former resident, who massively influenced contemporary culture. James Wood reports

David Bowie at the Beckenham Free Festival in 1969

Fans all around the world mourned the loss of one of popular culture’s most prominent figures, David Bowie, when he died in January 2016. Since then, many have been poring over the influential life of one of the best-loved recording artists of the last 50 years. True fanatics are looking back to the singer’s Bromley roots to trace his inspirational story.

This south London borough is proud of its most famous former resident and in recognition of his legacy, the council is promoting the restoration of a bandstand in Beckenham where the singer performed in the late 1960s – a concert widely remembered and admired.

Bromley was a big part of Bowie’s early life and career. He attended its Technical High School for boys (now Ravens Wood School) as a teenager, where he would achieve an O-level in art in 1963. Earlier, he had developed the eye condition anisocoria, allegedly after being hit in the face by school friend George Underwood. One of Bowie’s pupils was left permanently dilated, giving him the impression of having different coloured eyes. What was not known then was that this teenage scuffle would later form such a key part of the Ziggy Stardust mystique. 

Family ties were important to Bowie too and he enjoyed a particularly close relationship with his half-brother, Terry, who suffered from mental illness for many years and tragically took his own life in 1983. The fragility of the human mind and body is a theme to which Bowie would return right up until the end of his musical career and his brother’s battle with psychosis is said to have had a profound impact on the demons Bowie himself would later encounter, influencing his music and art.

Returning to Beckenham in 1969 after a brief spell in central London, the 22-year-old Bowie moved in with his then girlfriend, freelance journalist, Mary Finnigan, who worked for The Sunday Times and underground newspaper, IT

In the very early days of the singer’s career – the mid 60s – gigs would largely be confined to haunts in Bromley, with the singer performing at the Assembly Hall in West Wickham and the Hillsiders Youth Club in Biggin Hill. With his career beginning to take off – his first big hit, Space Oddity, would be released later in 1969 – Bowie set up a Sunday evening folk club at The Three Tuns pub in Beckenham with Finnigan and friends, Christina Ostrom and Barry Jackson, which later became the Arts Lab. 

During this time, he wrote to the late DJ John Peel, who was a champion of his early work, asking him to fund the project to support grassroots acts. As well as weekly performances from Bowie, the Arts Lab also featured (then) folk heroes Steve Harley, The Strawbs, and Keith Christmas.

Regarded as a launchpad for Bowie’s success, the Arts Lab would continue until 1973, featuring poetry nights, light shows, street theatre, mime and dance. Finnigan later wrote a book about the period, called Psychedelic Suburbia. 

A longer version of this article appears in the latest edition of Invest Bromley

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