Interview with Mary Finnigan, the author of a new memoir, “Psychedelic Suburbia” By Julia Llewellyn Smith Published: 10 January 2016 in the Sunday Times
Bowie’s summer of love
In 1969, before he found fame, the singer brought the Soho life to suburban Beckenham. His landlady and lover, who has just written her memoir, tells Julia Llewellyn Smith of sex, drugs and floor cushions
Julia Llewellyn Smith Published: 10 January 2016
David Bowie removing his stage make-up in 1973: ‘He was a very hard-working guy, completely focused on his music’ David Bowie removing his stage make-up in 1973: ‘He was a very hard-working guy, completely focused on his music’
The suburbs have always been mocked by intellectuals as bastions of conformity, stultifying dormitories at the end of railway lines that the young and artistic chafed against and fled from as soon as possible. But nearly 50 years ago, for a few happy months, the southeast London commuter town of Beckenham was a hotbed of creativity and alternative living.
At the centre of this explosion of inventiveness was blond, curly-haired, 22-year-old David Jones, the son of a Dr Barnardo’s promotions officer, who changed his name to David Bowie and, with like-minded suburban visionaries, introduced Californian counterculture to one of our safest Conservative seats.
“Between April and September 1969, suburban Beckenham fizzed with energy and excitement and the residents rose to the occasion,” recalls Bowie’s then landlady and lover, Mary Finnigan, the author of a new memoir, Psychedelic Suburbia, which catalogues her time with the rock star just as he became famous.
A finishing-school alumna from genteel Cheshire, Finnigan, now 77, was living at Flat 1, 24 Foxgrove Road, with her two young children from a failed marriage, surviving on benefits and occasional freelance journalism, which introduced her to the booming London underground scene with its emphasis on psychedelic drugs, promiscuity and Gaia — unity with the cosmos.
The neighbouring elegant villas were occupied by prosperous commuters whose children attended private school with Finnigan’s offspring (her ex-husband paid the fees). But Finnigan set about transforming her flat into an outpost of Soho, selling her antique dining table and replacing it with floor cushions, kaftans, beads and candles.
“The coffee mornings and cocktail party invitations faded away and I was snubbed in the pub,” she recalls. Her appalled mother demanded that social services intervene, but after a cursory visit they left her alone.
In April 1969 Finnigan — now a grandmother of three and a committed Buddhist — was pottering in her garden when she heard Bowie, who was visiting his former school friend Barry Jackson, playing his 12-string Gibson guitar from an upstairs window and invited him to share her tincture of cannabis.
“David had never tried tincture before and was very appreciative,” she recalls, sitting in her incense-scented living room in Bristol. “It was quite legal, there were four doctors in London who’d prescribe it, but then it ran out and never came back.”
Bowie was living with his parents in nearby Bromley so — after a long conversation about their shared passion for then outré Buddhism — Finnigan asked him to become her lodger, charging £5 a week. “But I never got any cash,” she laughs.
A couple of days later he moved into the spare room, greeting her children on their return from school by asking to play them his new song, Space Oddity. “David really engaged with the children. He’d compose sitting on the swing in the garden while they messed around beside him — and they loved him.”
With no gigs on the horizon Bowie was nonetheless a grafter, composing late into the night. “He was a very, very hard-working guy, completely focused on and motivated by his music. He wasn’t recognised by the business at the time, he was seen as too arty, but I think he never had any doubts he would be a star. He actually very rarely did drugs, he preferred alcohol; he told me he had never done LSD because he was frightened of losing control,” Finnigan says.
Bowie’s work ethic didn’t extend to housework, but a few days after he had moved in, Finnigan returned to an unusually clean kitchen and the children tucked up in bed. “David had cooked for me — I can’t remember what now, but it was all right, and afterwards we had a spliff, he played me his favourite music and seduced me,” she chortles. He was, as she recalls in her book, “very horny and sexually sophisticated”.
Shortly afterwards, Bowie moved in huge amounts of musical equipment, making Finnigan’s living room his de facto recording studio. “I was very docile — I wouldn’t have put up with any of it now,” she says. “David was never rude, he was very gentle, but he had a forceful personality and was used to getting his own way.”
To raise some cash, Bowie suggested that they organise a folk club. After scouring the area for potential venues, they settled on the Three Tuns, a “slightly seedy” mock-Tudor pub in Beckenham High Street, which Finnigan transformed into an outpost of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury with candles and Indian bedspreads. Bowie put on a mesmeric performance and, as word spread, he and his folk musician friends played every Sunday to growing crowds.
“There was a buzz in the air — excitement at being in on the start of something new,” Finnigan says. “Something the young people of the suburbs had heard about and perhaps even experienced in London was now happening at walking distance from their parental homes.”
The Foxgrove Road flat became the “Court of King David” with “long-haired, acid-dropping flower children and freaks” constantly turning up on the doorstep dressed in velvet loon pants and bearing obscure musical instruments. They came from every social background and mainly from other unglamorous south London suburbs — Orpington, Chiselhurst, Crystal Palace and Croydon.
Music boomed out all day and the air was thick with marijuana, to the horror of the nuns at the nearby convent school attended by Finnigan’s daughter. In her living room the flower children enthusiastically dropped acid, swapped partners and discussed way-out topics such as yoga, healthy eating and meditation. “An awful lot [that] we take for granted now was initiated then,” she says.
All over the home counties and beyond, similar scenes were playing out. Since the beginning of the century commuterland had mushroomed as a haven for the burgeoning white-collar classes, derided by the likes of John Betjeman and HG Wells (another Bromley native) for its narrow-mindedness. But postwar its children — lower-middle-class boys such as Mick Jagger (Dartford), Ray Davies (Muswell Hill) and Roger Daltrey (Acton) — were revolting against their bourgeois roots, transforming these rows of semis and neatly cut lawns into a cauldron of creativity.
“Where I grew up had the perfect combination of dullness and security to nurture a writer,” says Jonathan Coe, whose latest novel is Number 11, recalling his 1970s childhood in Lickey Hills outside Birmingham.
“Looking back, I was bored without realising that I was bored, but I felt completely safe and, more importantly, it gave me the imaginative space to dream of different worlds; wider, more exciting, not necessarily better. It was the very uneventfulness of life in the suburbs that turned so many of us into creators.”
Traditionally, artists escape the suburbs for the bright lights as soon as they can. Bowie and Finnigan, on the other hand, were intent on bringing their countercultural delights to the outer boroughs. Their next move was to recreate the legendary Drury Lane Arts Lab — the central London creative hub where John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s first joint artwork was exhibited — in Beckenham, whose only previous claim to artistic fame was having been the childhood home of Enid Blyton.
Dog-walkers in the park watched bemused as a shirtless Bowie directed rehearsals of avant-garde dance, music and puppetry in preparation for Saturday street theatre in front of the supermarket on the high street.
“We were concerned that the wackiness and exotic costumes might be too much for the locals, but they were enchanted,” Finnigan says.
“It was the perfect moment, when the older generation’s initial terror at the hippie movement had subsided and they realised we were actually just rather sweet and naive.”
By this time Finnigan had fallen in love with Bowie. But one day she returned to Foxgrove Road to find a glamorous 19-year-old American at the kitchen stove and with her things installed in Bowie’s room. Without embarrassment she introduced herself as his girlfriend Angela Barnett.
“David just moved Angie in, without ever apologising or asking permission, and I put up with it,” Finnigan exclaims. “Later, I found out he’d been two-timing me with her all along, staying with her whenever he was in London. I was very shocked and even more when years later I found out it wasn’t even just Angie; he’d been all over the place with women and men.”
Despite the heartbreak, Finnigan enjoyed Angie’s company: “She was a brilliant cook and had a genius for making a home cosy.” She was also given to “throwing massive wobblies when she wasn’t the centre of attention”. Bowie described life with her as like “living with a blowtorch”.
“That’s accurate,” Finnigan says. “But he was besotted and put up with a lot of histrionics.”
Despite some of his dalliances, Finnigan believes Bowie was never bisexual at heart: “It was opportunist, it chimed with the zeitgeist.” Angie, however, was the real deal and shortly after moving in she tried to seduce Finnigan to make amends for stealing her boyfriend.
“We went out for dinner in Beckenham High Street with her dressed in a tweed suit and a shirt and tie,” Finnigan recalls.
“Then back home she steered me into the bedroom. I was utterly gobsmacked, quite flattered by the attention but bemused. I went along with it because I was so docile, but it was a total failure. Still, there were no hard feelings afterwards and we carried on as before.”
Meanwhile, the Lab continued to flourish with rock stars such as Peter Frampton and Rick Wakeman and the composer Lionel Bart travelling from their West End haunts to perform. “Lionel had the hots for David and turned up at Foxgrove Road one day, making it very clear my presence wasn’t welcome,” Finnigan says. “He gave me the keys to the Roller and told me to go away and play and I think David told Angie to disappear too. For a rising star, Lionel’s patronage would have been very useful.”
The ultra-respectable Bromley arts centre asked members of the Lab to appear. Stumped as to what would be suitable for its middle-class patrons, they chose Chime Rinpoche, one of only four Tibetan lamas then living in the UK, to speak. A puzzled but enthusiastic audience, perched on gilt chairs, asked questions such as “What is meditation?” They loved Chime and he returned several times to talk about subjects such as compassion.
Two decades later Hanif Kureishi, an old boy of Bowie’s former school Bromley Tech, wrote the loosely autobiographical The Buddha of Suburbia, featuring haunts such as the Three Tuns, and with a petit-bourgeois teenage hero desperate to escape his mundane surroundings yet cursed with the fear of being found out.
These sentiments resonated with Bowie, who appeared in the novel as the thinly veiled Charlie Kay and wrote the music for the 1993 BBC adaptation, including the eponymous theme tune with its lyrics: “Englishmen going insane / Down on my knees in suburbia / Down on myself in every way.”
Events peaked in August when Bowie, Finnigan and friends threw a “free festival”, modelled on Woodstock in New York state, at the local recreation ground. It was attended by more than 1,000 blissed-out revellers. Bowie’s father had died only a few days previously, but the singer put on a mesmeric performance and later wrote Memory of a Free Festival in homage.
After that the party ended. To Finnigan’s relief (“It was all just too decadent and I had children”), Angie and Bowie moved to Haddon Hall, a converted mansion a few roads away, where orgies regularly took place. They married and had a son, Zowie, but Angie was “not the epitome of hands-on motherhood” and when they divorced in 1980 Bowie sued her for custody. “David was a doting father from the word go. He took his responsibilities very seriously,” Finnigan says. “But he was also on the stardom express train.”
Masterminded by Angie, Bowie moved away from his folk origins, cutting his hair and dying it red to become a more commercially viable glam rocker. His fame grew rapidly, he abandoned Beckenham for Chelsea and the suburb’s arty aspirations died. “As David became famous he lost the inclusiveness he’d had when he was still struggling and became a bit aloof and snooty and self-important,” says Finnigan, who hasn’t spoken to him in 43 years.
Today Bowie is estimated to be worth £120m and lives quietly in Manhattan with his wife Iman, the supermodel, having quit touring in 2004 after a heart attack. On Friday — his 69th birthday — he released his 27th studio album, Blackstar.
Finnigan stayed friends with Angie, only falling out recently when Angie took offence at Finnigan’s criticisms of her book Lipstick Legends. Angie is currently appearing in Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 5.
“That’s a train crash waiting to happen,” Finnigan sighs. “But Angie’s her own worst enemy, she doesn’t realise her limitations. She sacrificed her own aspirations for David, then thought, ‘It’s my turn now’, but she was reaching beyond her skill set.”
London’s commuter belt continued to be a petri dish for talent — Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux grew up in Bromley, the Stranglers formed in Guildford, Paul Weller was born in Woking. But as soon as possible they all headed to the metropolis to experience the joys of the inner city.
Beckenham returned to its starchy everydayness. The Foxgrove Road flat and Haddon Hall were knocked down by developers and the Three Tuns is a “sterile” Zizzi pizzeria “devoid of any form of atmosphere”. Two years ago Finnigan and friends threw another free festival but the council rejected requests to make it an annual event.
It may be that another creative heyday is on the horizon, as artists banished from the inner cities by rising rents have started to colonise the outer boroughs. Yet Finnigan doubts that history could repeat itself.
“Beckenham in 1969 had a magic moment, extraordinary things happened and the entire community got drawn in, but then it reverted to type. I’m not sure it could happen again. Our generation had the best sex, the best drugs and the best music.”
Psychedelic Suburbia: David Bowie and the Beckenham Arts Lab is published by Jorvik Press, £14.95
Yesterday on RTE Mary Finnigan gave a brief interview about Bowie. You can find it from 9:35 to12:15
Here is the her blog where you can see the origins of her book. We will tell the story of how Mary gave up her battle to show the abuse in Lamaism and decided to instead try to become a celebrity on the basis of her seduction by Bowie in 1969.
Filed under: Tibetan Buddhism = Lamaism |