Angie Bowie’s second autobiography Backstage Passes: Life On The Wild Side With David Bowie is, whether you like the author or not, one of the great rock ‘n’ roll exposés. Read on then.
Published an entire quarter-century ago on 8th January 1993 — her ex-husband’s 46th birthday, not at all coincidentally — Bowie’s book is a scandalous, sexy, and uncompromising memoir of her turbulent years with the Dame. She recounts how she helped launch him from curly haired cult hero to Ziggy Stardust‘s future shock superstar and the demonic Thin White Duke. The swingorilliant bisexual orgies, the debauched partying on industrial quantities of cocaine, David’s descent into chemical-induced psychosis in Los Angeles at the hands of satanic cults (however imagined), the Cyprus-born Angela Barnett witnessed them all.
Angie Bowie, as she became known after their wedding in 1970, was, as if you didn’t know, the first wife of the man who came into the world as David Robert Jones. A brusque, brassy blonde vision with steely blue eyes and the most scandalously scarlet of lipsticks, she effortlessly surpassed the epithet larger-than-life. She prefers to be known by her birth name of Angela these days, though, conveniently for publicity purposes, she’s retained the Bowie, even though it was never the Dame’s legal name.
Backstage Passes is witchy, dishy and eminently trashy, full of inside dirt about what drugs glamorous people ingested while doing which creative sex acts with whom: Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Elton John, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed to name a few. There are lots of italics and exclamation points. She’s brilliantly and breathlessly descriptive, especially when it comes to what everyone wore in those psychedelic peacock years of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, lingering lustily on detail: the turquoise silk, silver netting, yellow patent leather and soft, golden, double-breasted velour, “the shiny skin of the alien archetype, the starry strangeness of the impression David was trying to create.”
Angie’s book boasts the kind of carnal, fantastically vivid writing that we’re more used to seeing done about food, though maybe not surprisingly, there’s not a lot of food in Backstage Passes. The odd fry-up aside, David only ever really ate if he had to. The indulgences of the Thin White Duke and company didn’t take place at the table, so much. Except, that is, for breakfast sausages.
Disappointingly for me at the time (in 1993 I was about to enter my final year as a trained chef), the only two food stories in the memoir are about sausages—particularly cheap pork breakfast bangers by the venerable British brand Wall’s, a food item that she declares “what foreigners, especially Americans, always assume fish and chips or steak and kidney pie to be: the One True Food of the Original English-Speaking Peoples.” It was 1977, and she had gone to visit with Led Zeppelin, who were staying at the Montreux Palace hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Zep’s Welsh roadie, she learned, had a breakfast problem.
The luxury hotel had excellent restaurant facilities, and for the wealthy and massively famous drummer of Led Zeppelin, surely, they might have taken a special order. But John Bonham, apparently, didn’t travel anywhere without a stock of his own Wall’s pork sausages which the roadie, Gully, dutifully fried up in a greasy cloud of smoke and pig fat each morning on the balcony of his elegant five-star suite. Gully had a pan and a small barbecue grill, and he had plenty of sausages in reserve, forty pounds’ worth. But if he kept them in his portable cooler, they would spoil. If he stored them in the hotel kitchen’s freezer, he suspected, they would be pilfered.
“And Bonzo won’t have his bangers,” Gully told Angie worriedly, “and there’ll be hell to pay.” Luckily, Mrs. Bowie had a ready fix. She and David had been living nearby, at the Chalet Clos des Mésanges in Blonay, to escape a huge Californian tax bill from the dreaded IRS. Situated near Vevey, the author describes it as “a charming village above Lake Geneva near Montreux in the French-speaking part of the country”. She then goes on to say that the place she’d found them was a “commodious cuckoo-clock of a house très Swiss.” Ever resourceful, she cleared out space in the freezer for the breakfast sausage, gave Gully a set of spare keys and the threat to Bonzo’s morning routine was gone. Backstage sausages indeed.
“But also, when it comes to those who seem so larger than life, less subject to the boring gravity of the flesh, knowing what they like to eat is comfortingly grounding.”
David and Angela divorced in 1980, and in ’82 the Blonay house was sold and the artist and his son Duncan Jones moved into the larger 20-room Château du Signal in nearby Épalinges, situated next to the Sauvabelin forest high above Lausanne. Bowie married the Somalian-American model Iman in a low key ceremony at Lausanne Registry Office in 1992, and as she was no great fan of the quiet pace of life in Switzerland, it was put on the market and sold in 1999, having remained empty for over three years. By then the newly-weds had long settled in New York City for a distinctly edgier pace.
Even though my interest in cooking for people waned long ago, it’s always nice to know what people are eating. It’s intimate. When Prince died, just three months after David Bowie’s passing and six weeks after I saw him be all kinds of utterly amazing at Sydney Opera House, there were two different interviews with his former personal chefs, one from Food and Wine and one from the Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages, which circulated widely in my corner of social media. His last intended meal, which went untouched, had been a kale salad and a bowl of roasted red pepper soup. But before that, in life, Prince ate teriyaki salmon and coconut soup with mango, edamame dumplings and poblanos with beans and corn tortillas. Unlike Bowie, the equally thin black Prince also loved cake, somewhat surprisingly. I read all those articles, carefully and more than once, as if they were menus I was going to choose from.
Partly, the Bonham sausage manoeuvre of ‘77 reads like one of those wacky tales of the excesses of those with extravagant means, which are always somehow funnier when they have to do with food – Elvis Presley taking care of belly business in his private jet on a thousand-mile trip from Memphis to Denver, for example, to buy his favorite peanut butter-jelly-and-bacon sandwiches. Certainly, we love to read about the rarefied foodstuffs allegedly consumed by stars.
Hell, even the Greek gods ate nectar and ambrosia, not sandwiches.
But also, when it comes to those who seem so larger than life, less subject to the boring gravity of the flesh, knowing what they like to eat is comfortingly grounding. Here’s Prince, riding a flying guitar to ecstatic congress in a bubble bath with the angels—but also, there is the Purple One quietly eating his soup. The same sorts of stories came out after the Dame’s death, stories that cast the man‚whose life and whose death, which he built around himself in coded art like a pharaoh’s tomb, was a long, exquisitely crafted and protean creative accomplishment—as also just a normcore guy who had a favourite sandwich and a regular double macchiato order at his neighbourhood coffee place in Lower Manhattan to start the day.
Breakfast is the humblest, most wholesome meal, which is maybe what makes the tale of Bonzo’s bangers so endearing. When The Beatles were on their Maharishi trip, as the story goes, Ringo Starr tried to jump in and embrace vegetarianism along with his more gastronomically sophisticated bandmates, but he couldn’t quite get the hang of it: his idea of a veggie meal was the old English standby of beans on toast. John Bonham is famous for his outsized and extraordinary talent, as well as for the excesses of consumption that eventually killed him.
All of these guys were reshaping the course of Western culture, creating legacies the size of planets. What could you even imagine the Spiders from Mars or Led Zeppelin or Sabbath eating for their breakfast in the ‘70s, these ambisexual aliens and dark gods of thunder? Moonbeams and mescaline served on a twitching butterfly wing? Miruvor and honey-cakes, straight from Middle Earth? A bat’s head? A mud shark?
Or a pile of cheap sausages, painstakingly transported and carefully guarded—“browned and sizzling in its own awesomely plentiful excrescences,” as Angie Bowie writes—that makes breakfast taste like home?