David Bowie (David Robert Jones, 1947-2016) may have been a voice hearer.
There is a thin line between madness and genius. David Bowie’s childhood was not an easy one. Mental illness ran in his mother’s family and three of his aunts, and his half-brother Terry – whom David idolised – suffered from “schizophrenia”. Terry took his own life in 1985 (see article extract below).
Bowie once said that writing songs was a form of therapy. “My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter.”, he explained in 2002. “The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects (are always) to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety – all of the high points of one’s life.”
Mick Brown, in the Daily Telegraph, said that he was not only “the most significant pop culture figure of his age, with an influence that extended way beyond music, he was loved in a way few rock stars have been. It’s hard now to convey the impact of his early performances as Ziggy Stardust in 1972 – the sheer, outrageous, gender-bending thrill of it all. All over Britain, teenagers trapped in suburban conformity could look at Bowie and believe that they too could reinvent themselves.”
Ziggy Stardust made a striking bisexuality-flaunting appearance singing “Starman” on “Top of the Pops” in 1972, then evolved into Aladdin Sane (a pun on the mental illness Bowie feared) with a lightning streak across his face.
His final album,“Blackstar”, was released two days before his death.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven…” he sang, in the single “Lazarus”. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” (see song lyrics below)
Was David Bowie, as well as being a voice hearer, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse like his half-brother Terry Burns?
Whatever is the answer to the question, David Bowie was a brave and innovative genius and an epoque-maker of distinction whose life and work deserves to be remembered and celebrated across the world as a work of Art.
Chairman : Hearing Voices Network Cymru (Wales)*
16th January 2016
* The above is partly based on an article in the UK (16/1/16) publication “The Week” entitled “David Bowie 1947 – 2016 : The Starman who dazzled the world”.
David Bowie and family mental health issues
Born in Brixton, south London, on January 8, 1947, Bowie was christened David Robert Jones. It was another 18 years before he adopted his better known alias, partly in homage to the Texan hero who popularised the double-edged knife, and partly to avoid being confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees.
David’s father, John Jones, had a raffish side, and once disastrously owned a London piano bar named The Boop-ADoop, but he seems to have settled down with age, becoming a promotions officer for the charity Barnardo’s.
David’s mother, Peggy, a former cinema usher, was more colourful. According to several reliable witnesses and institutional records, there was more than a streak of mental instability in her family. Bowie’s Aunt Una suffered from clinical depression and schizophrenia, underwent electric shock treatment and died in her late 30s.
A second aunt, Vivienne, suffered a schizophrenic attack, and a third, Nora, was lobotomised in an effort to cure what her mother described as ‘bad nerves’.
Of Peggy’s two remaining siblings, a brother won a Military Medal for heroism in which he showed ‘utter disregard for his own life’ in the North African desert, and a fourth sister, Pat (described by Bowie as a ‘frightful aunt) was cast as the family rabble-rouser.
In 1937, after a brief affair with a bartender before she was married, Peggy gave birth to a son, Terry Burns. Some ten years later, Terry moved into the Jones household in Stansfield Road, Brixton, where he slept in the bed next to the newborn David.
He became his half-brother’s role model, introducing him to the world of modern jazz and Beat authors such as Jack Kerouac. Peggy’s sister, Pat, said: “David worshipped Terry, and Terry idolised him.”
Unfortunately, the family “condition”, as it was known, was again at work. In his mid-20s, Terry was diagnosed as a manic depressive and schizophrenic, and was eventually institutionalised.
One snowy morning in January 1985, he climbed over the wall of a psychiatric hospital in Surrey and walked to the nearby station, where he lay down on the track directly in the path of the oncoming London express train.
Terry was 47. David didn’t attend the funeral but sent a wreath of roses and a card which read: “You’ve seen more things than we could imagine but all these moments will be lost, like tears washed away by the rain. God bless you – David.”
Eight years later Bowie admitted: “It scared me. I felt my own mind was in question. I often wondered how near the line I was going – how far I should push myself.”
Ziggy and the other characters, he explained, had been “alternative egos”, a form of madness through which he had meant to preserve his sanity.
David Bowie never crossed the divide into mental illness. But he shared a number of the quirks shown by his maternal family. He would suddenly burst into tears, for example, and was said to have had a particularly active imagination.
One family friend told me that, as a four or five-year-old, David had phoned to summon the local ambulance one night, and successfully persuaded the operator that he was “dying”.
That Bowie was conscious of his heritage seems obvious from the number of songs he wrote touching on lunacy or schizophrenia. Of the Oh! You Pretty Things lyrics, Bowie said: “I hadn’t been to an analyst – my parents went, my brothers and sisters and my aunts and uncles and cousins, they did that. They ended up in a much worse state. I thought I’d write my problems out.”
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me
By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me
Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me