Southend Road, Beckenham, 1973. Three of us are outside David Bowie’s front door at Haddon Hall where he lives in a giant galleried flat at the back. Flat 7. Angie Bowie opens the door and calls her husband. They are mirror images in different shades. He arrives with Zowie, who is a toddler, hanging on his legs. “Come here you little bastard,” his mother says affectionately and carts him off.
David knows me by sight. He ruffles my hair when emerging from Trident Studios after a day of recording: “You all right?” My friends and I are acquainted with his crowd. His tour manager, Andy, turns a blind eye to us when we creep into concert areas. Another of his Warhol crowd, Cherry Vanilla – later of The Thunderthighs who recorded Central Park Arrest – keeps us up to date on his movements. She gets us into Hammersmith Odeon for the second half of his final concert with The Spiders From Mars, letting us watch the first half from the Outside Broadcast van in the car park. His driver Stuart – black Bentley WMH 150G – is endlessly friendly and patient.
By then, I think (the timeline has blurred so I may be either ahead or behind of events), we had already had breakfast with Mick Ronson at the Hyde Park Hotel where Bowie’s band was staying between gigs. I had letters from Bowie at home – he always answered if they interested him.
It was about one of those letters that I was now inquiring. A letter I’d sent him on his birthday, which brings me to the reason for this post: today, 8 January 2012, is David Bowie’s 65th birthday. Happy Birthday David. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to wander down Memory Lane.
That year, 1973, I’d sent him a home made birthday card to the stage door at Newcastle where he was appearing. The words ‘Happy Birthday’ were spelt out on yellow paper in guitars and saxophones. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. In that same envelope was the usual adoring letter and a series of designs that I thought he’d like. A week or two later I got a reply in Angie’s clear, rounded script, telling me that they were trying to get a couple of the designs made up. I was thrilled.
I ask him about it now, at the entrance to Haddon Hall with my friends Georgia Carlettidou and Kim Blunden: “Did you get my designs?” Bowie looks at me with interest: “Were they yours?” He grins and runs his hand through my hair – he likes the copycat spikes, clearly, because he’s done it before. “Are you coming to Earl’s Court next week? You are? Well, you’re in for a big surprise.”
Next week at Earl’s Court, it is Georgia, not me, who spots it: “He’s had one of your costumes made up Shyam, look!” It takes me a minute to see it because it’s a thousand per cent better than I had drawn it. It’s in extraordinarily patterned spandex. Bowie has added giant ankle rings like bagels, and on his forehead is the most glorious golden circle. It is an iconic moment. An iconic image that is still potent today. I am stunned.
Typically, I lost my Bowie archive years ago and with it my proof of design, which was Angie’s letter. It was a brilliant archive – letters, signed photographs and brochures, concert memorabilia and endless freebies conned out of RCA, because I learned early that I could call their press office from the phonebox outside school pretending to be from The Daily Mirror and they’d leave envelopes of stills and other bits and bobs for collection at their reception in Curzon Street. The archive disappeared during a house move and with it, evidence of the most important influence on my adolescent and young adult self. There was nobody to correlate the story. Until Friends Reunited.
One day I got a message from Georgia, married with three children and living in South London. We exchanged numbers. She called: “D’you know, I still tell people how you designed one of David Bowie’s best costumes.” How happy was I?
Funnily enough he had a second design made up too. A spaceman type costume with square shoulders of which there are also photos. With hindsight, I know that there is sometimes more skill in executing an idea than having it. My design could have been rubbish if made from the wrong material or in a less exciting pattern, and it might also have failed without the make up and accessories. Nonethless, the drawing board for that one-piece was a tiny desk in a tiny bedroom in a tiny council flat on the Edgware Road.
For the next two years I enjoyed extra attention from David whether he was living in Beckenham, Chelsea or Maida Vale. Etched in my mind is a show at Kilburn Grange where he pointed me out as his car swept into the artists area, smiling and waving and looking so fine, mouthing words I couldn’t make out. Later, he found me at the front of the stage and sang to me. Really. It was heaven.
Years later I was interviewed by a journalist called Rani Sharma, putting together a video about Asian women in the mainstream. She asked me who had been the biggest influence on my life. “David Bowie” I replied. She burst out laughing: “Everyone else has said their mother or their father and you say David Bowie?” But it was true. He inspired me in so many ways I haven’t the space to list them. What gives me joy – though he may not remember because by his own admission those years are lost in his memory to drugs – is that for one small moment, I inspired him.