Sunday, 12 August 2007

Mick and Ziggy and the Spiders from Beckenham

Now, if this were Memphis, say, or Liverpool, you would be left in no doubt that a very famous rock star indeed hailed from these parts. Visiting those cities, no one could remain oblivious to Elvis's Graceland, or The Beatles' Penny Lane.

But this is not Memphis. Its Beckenham, slap bang in the suburban drab-lands of south London, and the fact that David Bowie grew up here and, indeed, did not leave until his 1972 album Ziggy Stardust made him a major star, has passed the place by.

It's the same story four A to Z pages east, in Dartford, where Mick Jagger and Keith Richard grew up.

But why is it, when there is very nearly a superstar for every suburb, that these places are not bristling with blue plaques, offering bus tours round the relevant sites and opening childhood homes to the public, kitted out in period G-plan with a guitar left nonchalantly on a candlewick bedspread and a lyric scrawled in a schoolbook on the kitchen table?

I put it down to a mix of indifference and embarrassment. Indifference from local burghers and the embarrassment of rock stars - for whom image is all - at their mundane suburban roots. Bowie even used to claim he was from Brixton. But the truth is out there, in Beckenham and in Dartford, and took a day trip to find it.

As the train rattles off through South London you can see why these boys would disown their origins. The inner city, with its seedy shops and dubious communal dwelling houses would have been nectar to a suburban kid. How his heart would have sunk as the train took him out past cool and slightly-scary Brixton and relentlessly on through Herne Hill with its detached villas and wide green open spaces. Why, Sydenham Hill station even has a nature reserve! Then it gets really ridiculous - you get places with joke names like Penge.

Imagine the embarrassment of taking the ultra-cool, kookie American chick called Angie who you met in a West End club down this line and getting out at Beckenham Junction, with its ornate Victorian ironwork. Imagine running the gauntlet of shops that sell limited edition prints of the parish church of St George, Fabulous Creatures glass animals and "superb sausages hand made on the premises" as you make for the pub where you run an arts lab and organised a free open-air festival.

But David Bowie did just that, and I don't think we should let him forget it.

The pub, which Bowie knew as the Three Tuns but which is now the Rat and Parrot, was an obvious starting point on my Rock the Suburbs tour. He used to run Sunday night folk sessions here, in the back room between the saloon bar and the beer garden. After his first hit single, Space Oddity, in 1969 he got more ambitious, and renamed these sessions an Arts Lab, where a strange hybrid of mime, poetry, art, Buddhist incantation, tie-dying classes and free form jazz took place. Bowie even wrote a song, called Memory of a Free Festival, about a multi-media event he organised here, which contains the toe-curling line "I kissed a lot of people that day."

Yes David, but how many of them kissed you back?

If this were America, where they know the value of a famous son, the Rat and Parrot, which stands on a bend in the High Street behind a particularly heavy camouflage of window boxes and hanging baskets, would be called Bowie's. The menu would boast Ziggy burgers and Young American fries, and a tall glass of milk would be a Thin White Drink. Mannequins would be sporting the costumes of the Spiders from Mars. Not so in Beckenham.

The barmaid sounded slightly apologetic as she broke it to me that they had absolutely no Bowie memorabilia on the premises. "There might have been some once," she said, "but since it was taken over by Scottish and Newcastle it got themed like this". She looked around in silence at the open-plan-but-olde-worlde place with its customers sipping cappuccinos and eating late breakfast. There was nothing more to be said.

In between his first, isolated hit single and his emergence three years later as a fully formed rock star, David Bowie lived with Angie in a cavernous flat at Haddon Hall, a vast Gothic Victorian villa just north of the town centre, at 42 Southend Road. He wrote most of the material for the albums The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust here. Night after night, with his guitarist Mick Ronson and the rest of his band he honed songs like Moonage Daydream, Changes, Andy Warhol, Queen Bitch and Kooks. Bowie has said that the character of Ziggy Stardust, the first of many strange and compelling personas that he created for himself, was born in Haddon Hall. The picture for the cover of Hunky Dory, with Bowie wearing a dress and reclining on a sofa, was shot here.

But as I reach the spot, past houses so vast and set so far back that they are almost out of sight, I discover that Haddon Hall is no more. Number 42 has been replaced by a block of yellow brick Sixties flats and a road called Shannon Way.

In 1970, while they were living at Haddon Hall, David and Angie got married at Bromley Register office, then at Swan Hill. If they had married at one of the wedding chapels in Las Vegas, their names would still be up in lights outside. But in Bromley, I discovered, they won't even confirm whether a marriage took place there or not. This could be another handicap for any travel entrepreneur thinking of opening up the Bowie trail.

Haddon Hall became a commune, a court in which Bowie was the ever-feted king. Over indulgence in sex, drugs and anything else that was going, was the norm. Maybe this over-indulgence helps account for the fact that, on the day Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, David saw an alien space craft land on the corner of Southend Road. And perhaps mind-expanding substances fuelled his desire to get in touch with any aliens who might be in the Beckenham area. One night he stood on the roof aiming a wire coat hanger at the skies until a golfer on the Beckenham Place Park course which Haddon Hall backed on to yelled at him: "Do you get BBC2?" This, presumably, was a topical joke at the time.

Bowie's weirdness was not an act. There was madness on his mother's side of the family and his constant fear was that it would be visited upon him, as it had been on his older half-bother, Terry Burns. Terry, 15 years Bowie's senior, suffered increasingly severe bouts of schizophrenia and was finally committed to Cane Hill Hospital in Coulsdon, five miles south of Beckenham. He eventually killed himself by jumping under a train at the neighbouring Coulson South station.

When Terry was troubled he would come to live in Bowie's house, and for several years shared his bedroom. He had a huge influence on David during his early teens. Bowie would escape up to Soho, where Terry took him to free-from jazz sessions, bistros and beat 'happenings' . Terry inspired the songs All The Madmen on The Man Who Sold The World and The Bewlay Brothers on Hunky Dory. When the picture of Bowie in a dress that appeared on the cover of Hunky Dory in Britain was rejected for America, Bowie substituted a sketch of Cane Hill Hospital.

In the days he was close to Terry, David was living at the family home, 24 Plaistow Grove, a mile or so to the west. As I walked there I reflected that it was his streak of madness that made Bowie who he was, that lifted him out of the ordinary and made him a star, someone who could constantly re-invent himself.

Without the weirdness he would never have risen above his suburban roots. He would have been merely Ziggy Sydenham, Aladdin Penge, and The Thin White Dulwich. And who would pay good money to see them?

Plaistow Grove is a tight, square cul de sac of terraced cottages beside Sundridge Park Station, a place of pebbledash and replacement windows. The house next door to Bowie's old home bears a plaque which reads: "An artist lives here." An artist lived next door too, but there is nothing to tell you so, or hint that this was the place where a nine year old picked up a guitar, thrashed out a Chuck Berry song, and announced to his startled parents that he was going to be a rock star. Today, the only music comes from a pub called the Crown, which the house backs on to. "Live Duo Karma" and Mike and Beanie are among the forthcoming attractions.

I took the train from Sundridge Park in search of Mick and Keith. Trains and stations had become inseparable to the story I was following, and Sundridge Park was a particularly nice one. Its a spotless little place hidden in a cutting and flanked by beech trees, and exists on a little three station backwater that would take me just one stop on my journey to Grove Park. It has even got a period open-air gents urinal. I could tell I was in a timewarp from the only other passenger. It was Wednesday, and he was still reading last Sunday's News of the World. I changed trains, headed for Lewisham, from where I could get to Dartford. On the way I sat back with my feet up, improvising that scene from Quadrophenia where the sound track is Out of My Brain on the Train.
Dartford is not a pretty sight. The town centre is swamped under monoliths including the Orchard Theatre, a multi-storey car park and a string of wharehouse shops. To the east the Glaxo Wellcome headquarters managed to look exactly like an architectural model of a new building rather than the real thing. All immaculate grass, gushing fountains and neat little figures striding purposefully. Beyond its roof the Dartford River Crossing was strung out over the Thames.

This station is a mess. The indicator boards don't work and nor do the staff. It is, nevertheless, historic. Because it was here, in 1960, on the London-bound platform, that former friends and neighbours Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were reunited. Mick was going to lectures at the London School of Economics, Keith to Sidcup Art College where he was studying technical illustration. Mick was carrying a pile of blues records and on the train journey they got talking about what music they liked. Shortly afterwards Keith joined Mick in a band called Little Boy Blues and the Blue Boys, and the partnership from which the Rolling Stones would develop was born.

I walked out to their childhood homes past the schools which had divided them. Mick went to the grammar in West Hill, Keith to the technical school one street away in Miskin Road. If Dartford is a suburb, then the little thirties enclave where Mick and Keith grew us is a suburb of the suburb. Keith lived in a flat above a now empty shop at 33 Chastillian Road, across the street from a pub called the Dart - referring, if its sign is to be believed, to a river rather than the game of arrows - and a gift shop called Grott, presumably in homage to Reggie Perrin.

First left is Denver Road, where Mick lived at number 39 and in the garden of which, each morning, he went through a daily regime of physical exercise instilled in him by his fitness instructor father. Oh how the neighbours laughed. As I walked along it, those old familiar suburban smells of creosote and conifer hedges hit me once again. There was Number 39 with its neat little front garden full of orange marigolds and its semi-detached front freshly pebbledashed. And suddenly I realised that the suburbs were growing on me. That they have a character that is cruelly overlooked. After all, if stucco is quite acceptable on New Mexico pueblos, why is pebbledashing so derided? If cobble stones and sash windows are OK in Coronation Street, why can't uPVC and pink concrete brick-effect paving be admired in Acacia Avenue?

And then, as I trekked on down Chastillian Road to Wentworth Primary School, where the Glimmer Twins first met as five-year-olds, the answer to my question presented itself. It is because pebbledash, plastic windows and concrete blocks are innately, irrefutably horrible.

The suburbs were beginning to get to me, as they got to David, Mick and Keith. But before I fled I had to pay homage at one last location - Bexley Hospital, just across the A2 in old Bexley Lane. Actually, this hospital features twice in the Rolling Stones story. In the Seventies, it was the place where Mick's ex-girlfriend, Marianne Faithful, spent seven months trying to cure her drug addiction. But, in the late Fifties, it had a far more important role in forming the Mick Jagger that we know and love. For it was here that, working as a porter during his school holidays, Mick lost his virginity, in a cupboard, to a nurse. Proving, once and for all that, whatever else they may lack, there is sex in the suburbs.

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