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Review: Dana Gillespie Weren’t Born A Man

She’s made more than seventy albums, everything from delicate Dylanesque folk to Bowie-esque glam rock before reinventing herself as a saucy, bawdy blues queen. She starred as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar and been a devout follower of the Indian spiritual leader Sai Baba for four decades. 

Yet for people of a certain generation, Dana Gillespie will always be the lusty, busty provocateur who appeared in her Moulin Rouge undercrackers on the cover of her best-known album Weren’t Born A Man, as if she needed to illustrate the point made by the title. Recently she published her long-awaited memoir of the same name, so to celebrate the winding down of Women’s History Month and Dana’s birthday here’s a mini review at 72.

One can understand why she might choose to call her memoir after her most famous album. Make no mistake, Dana Gillespie is a man’s woman. From a tender age, she’s driven men wild, and probably a fair few women too. In the sixties and seventies she was the ultimate it girl, before we knew what an it girl was. Her long list of lovers has included Bob Dylan, Michael Caine, Roman Polanski, Sean Connery, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, David Bowie and Mick Jagger, the latter pair not actually at the same time. Then again, anything and anyone was possible in Dana land, facilitated by substance abuse that may have resulted in the odd episode of selective amnesia.

Cue page 157 of Weren’t Born A Man.

“Okay, my memory is a little hazy of what went on then… Everyone was so out of it that I’m amazed anyone remembers anything. Mick would normally come round to see David… Everyone would get stoned, and then whoever was still able to function at the end of the night would end up in bed together.” 

At Bowie's Sherry Netherland suite, 1974

Dana first bedded Bowie before he was even Bowie, when he was still the unspectacular custard-mopped beat singer Davy Jones of The Mannish Boys. He was 16 and she “already a big-busted girl,”but still under-age at a nubile 14. 

Then there was Dylan, whom she slept with (“though horizontally might be a more accurate description” after gatecrashing his London press conference in 1965. “I was just 16 when that happened, so I can’t put him in prison, although I definitely could have put Bowie in there,” says Gillespie, who at the time was launching her own career as a winsome acoustic folk singer. The raw and innuendo-heavy blues came later.

Not everyone shared Dana’s bed, but when she set her heart on meeting a guy — and as she says on the penultimate page “in those days the way you met people was that you slept with them” — her oft-mentioned 44” bosom was better than an all-access backstage pass.

Even her cleavage made headlines. A review of the Othello musical Catch My Soul from the Manchester Evening News in 1970 focused on “a lady in the chorus with the biggest boobs Manchester has ever seen”. One rag said of her part in the 1977 movie The People That Time Forgot, “The sight of Dana Gillespie’s boobs makes one regret the invention of the bra.” Not everyone was wowed by her bazookas though. Amusingly, when I interviewed Dana for the first time in 1995 she delighted in telling me, almost as a badge of honour, that she auditioned for a Russ Meyer film but was rejected “because he didn’t think my tits were big enough.”

Holy voluptuousness.

She’s always been a physical sort, has Dana.

In her early teens, she was four-times British junior water ski champion. At 15, she was buried in an avalanche during a skiing holiday in Klosters and thought she was dead. She survived only because one of her skis stuck out of the snow and marked her place of entombment. She has led an incredible life. Reading her hilarious and rather moving memoir, however, one thing sticks out. And this time I’m not talking titties…

She writes that almost single-handedly, Mick Ronson effectively produced and arranged Dana’s version of Andy Warhol, the song Bowie wrote for her, despite what the credits say. Lulu said the same thing about The Man Who Sold The World, Lou Reed said the same thing about Transformer. She describes David in the early ‘70s as “rather shy and retiring” (and his then wife Angie as the one with enough “drive and ambition” for both of them), though clearly he wasn’t too shy when it came to claiming credit and thus, financial recompense that really should have gone to Ronno. The dastardly Dame!

As a whole, the deliciously vivid and refreshingly candid autobiography paints a not always vulgar picture of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s not available to less free thinking music fans of the time. The musings of a liberated lady that enjoyed a carefree existence that some may only dream of.

This being something of a sobering morality tale in disguise, by the mid 1970s the free spirits of the 1960s were fast burning themselves out in a purple haze of cocaine and the like. Though Dana stayed largely immune to the burn-out, all of her conquests and musical cohorts were winding down creatively. Indeed, a few years before he died, Dana had told me the likes of Bowie were plagued by health problems because “of all the coke they did back then.”

The last third of the book brings us up to date with how Dana has spent her later life. She has a deep spiritual experience that has continued after she met Sai Baba in India. And though it would seem that this experience was life-changing and fundamental to her wellbeing, I found this final act less interesting to read. Thankfully, Dana is still producing music today. She sees it as her life’s work. Good.

Steve Pafford

Dana Gillespie: Weren’t Born A Man is published by Hawksmoor Books 

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