The Lost Shrines of David Bowie
A year ago South London lost its favourite son, thus leaving the cosmos unguarded from the scary monsters and super creeps of 2016. Much has been written on Bowie’s work, even more on his impact, but less on the best places to honour his passing with a pint. It’s a good job we’re here.
There are many significant Bowie sites throughout the Chosen Boroughs, ensuring that all South Londoners have the opportunity to do the decent thing on the anniversary of his birth (Jan 8th) or death (Jan 10th). Or both. Brixton, Bromley, Beckenham, Greenwich, Croydon and the South Bank all felt his footsteps before he went on to conquer the globe.
But how would you best pay your respects to the man who was, for many, Britain’s most inspiring musical artist? Bowie always attracted copycat fans dressed like Ziggy, Aladdin Sane or The Man Who Fell To Earth, so some of you may be interestested in his choice of poison. At a time when the counterculture was more into acid than ale, he was avoiding acid, and drinking strong ale. Barley wine isn’t a wine. It’s a dark, strong, malty beer which DB was particularly partial to in his South London days.
If you want to go the extra mile you should prepare a cannabis tincture, aka Green Dragon – a smokeless way of enjoying marijuana in what is essentially weed-infused alcohol that you take orally from a dropper. Perfect if you don’t fancy tobacco or are on one of those ‘no chocolate brownie’ diets.
But while we’re sure he’d be flattered by imitation, ploughing your own furrow would be an equal salute. Everyone’s on the ale nowadays. Have you tried LSD?
But where to Bowie? Only James Cochran’s mural in central Brixton has any official sanction, and even that is defaced with a mixed bag of graffiti, from the well-meant to the inane. Below are some places where hats should be doffed if you’re passing, and where to charge your glass nearby.
Nowhere was the response to Bowie’s passing more spontaneous and emotional than in Brixton, the place of his birth. The mural on the side of Morley’s department store became an instant focal point for people to leave flowers, try to take in the news and maybe get on telly.
As night fell, the mourning turned into a celebration of Bowie’s life in a massive party in front of the Ritzy cinema. It’s one of humanity’s best instincts; turning sadness into a joyful knees-up, as people reflected on what Bowie meant to them and danced in the street.
Bowie only spent the first six years of his life in SW9, under the impression he was David Jones. He might not have remembered much about Brixton, but Brixton remembers him.
Lay flowers: At the mural, 472-488 Brixton Road.
The O2 Academy hosts a Celebrating David Bowie night with Gary Oldman and friends too on Sunday 8th January.
The Jones family finally settled in the leafy Sundridge Park area of Bromley, where David found suburbia the perfect place to forment the alienation that would fuel his songwriting. At 15 he was the coolest guy in The Konrads, playing sax at venues like Chislehurst Caves and The Bromel Club at the wholly unlikely Bromley Court Hotel, still shining a beacon for weird neighbourhoods to have a massive hotel.
At the long-gone Green Man, Blackheath, David stepped up as lead singer for the first time, when the frontman, Roger, suffered that awful moment when a broken pint glass cuts your foot, you have to go to hospital and your place in the band is taken by David Bowie.
David and his lifelong pal, George Underwood, who created the album covers for several Bowie albums, used to drink in the Cellar Bar of the Royal Bell, glammed up to the nines in their Notting Hill clobber. The now-closed pub is grade II listed and Antic are in the process of acquiring it, so hopefully it will reopen soon with a nod to Bowie’s presence.
Lay flowers: At the closed Royal Bell
Drink strong, dark ale: The also grade II listed Star & Garter.
A tribute gig takes place at his old school, now called Ravens Wood, on Sunday 8th January.
More than anywhere Beckenham should have a place of remembrance. He played in a pub there every week, put on a music festival in the park and wrote his early albums there. By the time he moved to Beckenham, he had become David Bowie. The Three Tuns housed the Beckenham Arts Club, the folk club he founded. There, he was joined by Marc Bolan, Steve Harley, The Strawbs, Peter Frampton, Rick Wakeman and many others.
Bowie told Melody Maker at the time: ‘There’s a lot of talent in the green belt and there’s a load of tripe in Drury Lane’.
Even in the ’80s you could find Haircut 100 propping up the bar at the Tuns. Now it’s an Italian chain restaurant, Zizzi. The name is derived from the Sicilian word for ‘stylish youth’, according to their Customer Experience Representative.
On news of his death people came to lay flowers at the site of the Tuns, where a plaque marks its past. It turned into a Bowie sing-a-long and an impromptu tribute gig in front of the bemused consumers of pizza rustica.
Bowie’s home nearby was a turreted gothic building called Haddon Hall, with silver ceilings and pink walls. David lived there with his American wife, Angie and their young child, Zowie. Since demolished, it was once one of the most fashionable houses in Greater London, attracting musicians and other artists that the golden couple wanted to hang out with. Guitarist Mick Ronson, drummer Woody Woodmansey and producer Tony Visconti moved in. ‘From Hull to heaven,’ quipped Ronson.
To raise money for the Arts Lab, Bowie put on a festival at Croydon Road Recreation Ground to about 3000 people. He played a solo set including a reggae version of Space Oddity a few weeks before it became a Top Ten hit. When he died, the gates to the park were left open so people could pay their respects at the Victorian bandstand that night. The Council stated they want to make a lasting Bowie tribute there, though so far they’ve only come up with a padlock for the fence that surrounds it. There is a collection for a tribute underway, in conjunction with Friends of the Rec but the bandstand is currently a forlorn sight.
Lay flowers: Zizzi/Three Tuns
Drink strong, dark ale: BYOB at the Croydon Road Rec on the bandstand, with a cannabis tincture.
Bowie and his Spiders knocked the Ziggy album into shape in two weeks of rehearsals at Underhill Studios at the bottom of Blackheath Hill. The result catapulted him to worldwide fame. The studios are now store rooms for the chemist’s that sits on the corner. Iggy Pop and Lou Reed also rehearsed their first London shows here. At one point in his life Lou would have appreciated the place being a storage facility for pharmaceuticals, though he became very anti-drugs later in life. ‘I stopped. You shouldn’t start,’ he said, after he’d done all the good stuff.
There’s a local campaign underway to put up a plaque to denote its place in rock history. Bowie’s choice of studio may have had something to do with its proximity to one of his lovers, Natasha Korniloff, the costume designer responsible for his Pierrot outfit in the Ashes to Ashes video, among others. He was a bit of a one with the ladies, was David, not to mention the lads.
While the location is at an unpromising junction you are at least opposite two pubs. At The Graduate you can honour the Irish blood of Bowie’s mother, Peggy, and at the George & Dragon you can celebrate David’s sexual inclusiveness at one of South London’s surviving gay pubs. Neither are going to do you a barley wine, however.
Lay Flowers: Gee-Pharm’s side door.
Pint: The Grad for Guinness or The George for Newcastle Brown.
After the release of his Space Oddity single, Bowie continued to play at the Three Tuns, but when it hit the charts he played to an invited audience at the Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre. Unfortunately someone forgot to invite the press and a reportedly brilliant performance went unnoticed by all but his friends. By the time he next played the South Bank, three years later at the Royal Festival Hall, he was the coolest man on the planet, even if he didn’t have any eyebrows.
Lay flowers: On the RFH balcony. He must surely have had a fag there, plus it will annoy security.
Drink strong, dark ale: Hole in the Wall – a pub unchanged since 1972, at least.
In the final summer of his life, Bowie came back to South London with his wife, Iman and their daughter, Lexi. The Bowies drove all over Bromley and Beckenham to places he had lived and loved in: Plaistow Grove, Foxgrove Road and Southend Road. They visited 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, the house in which he was born. The owner of the house doesn’t see the big deal. ‘It’s not like having a big star like Amy Winehouse’s home,’ he said.
Despite the title of this post, I don’t believe Bowie needs a shrine. Worship is a bit silly. But what about a memorial or museum? With a nice bar.
The runaway success of his V&A show, David Bowie Is, proves there is continued appetite. We don’t know if he’ll be remembered in 100 years time, but there are many streets and squares named after old dukes, some of them thin and white, but mostly not so globally popular. He sold 140 million records. That’s a number equivalent to the population of Russia.
It’s sad that so many key sites of his life have forgotten him, when half the world won’t. Jersey City has an 180-foot mural to Bowie, while we’re still leaving flowers on the street. Many credit him with helping them find the courage to defy conformity and expectation. And maybe that spirit doesn’t belong in a museum, but in all of us.
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