“Lindsay lived on his emotions, he was a wonderful influence. His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen, ever. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.”
David Bowie, 1997
A unique artist, a brilliant visual poet and one of the brightest stars in the Bowie constellation, Lindsay Kemp has died suddenly at his home in Livarno, Italy at the age of 80.
An inspirational dancer, actor, teacher, mime artist and choreographer, Lindsay Kemp had an acclaimed theatre career that was a maverick mix of mime, Kabuki, and oddball British light entertainment. In the Seventies he crept into mainstream awareness due to his associations with South London’s finest, former pupils David Bowie and Kate Bush. With his trademark balletic grace, he taught Bowie and Bush the power of movement and how to express themselves with their bodies, a profound mentoring that both artists never failed to forget. To put it in very simplistic terms, Kemp was a huge influence on Bowie, and thus influenced every pop musician since 1972 with the possible exception of Bob Marley.* “I owe it all to Lindsay,” The Dame later conceded.
Lindsay Keith Kemp was born on May 3rd 1938, in Irby, a village on the Wirral Peninsula near Liverpool. His father Norman was a naval officer in World War Two who was lost at sea when his ship was struck by a German torpedo when Kemp was barely two years old. Sailors, the sea as freedom and death, the angel and the albatross would become recurring symbols in Kemp’s work. According to Lindsay, like the ABBA song goes, Mother said he was a dancer before he could walk. He took his first steps from early childhood, by which time the Kemps had moved to Talbot Road in South Shields, a coastal town in County Durham:
“I would dance on the kitchen table almost from birth. From the moment I learned to walk, I danced. I have always found dancing much more pleasurable than walking. I’d dance to entertain the neighbours. I mean, it was a novelty in South Shields to see a little boy in full make-up dancing on pointe. Finally it got a bit too much for my mother, and she decided to send me to boarding school at the age of eight, hoping that it would knock some sense into me.”
But performing didn’t stop for Lindsay. Although his is mother had sent him to a distinguished school for the sons of merchant seaman (the Royal Merchant Navy School at Bearwood College in Berkshire) in the hope of following in his father’s footsteps, it was here that he learned his technique as a dancer: how to hypnotise and mesmerise with his gestures.
After completing his education, the Kemps moved to Yorkshire, and Lindsay developed his love of drawing and painting at Bradford Art College before, in the 1950s, studying dance with Hilde Holger, and mime under Marcel Marceau and Marie Rambert. His first notable role behind the camera was as the Player Queen in the BBC‘s Shakespeare Quatercentenary production of Hamlet in 1963, which starred Christopher Plummer. Kemp’s natural talent for assembling a collection of like-minded talents around him resulted in his forming his own dance troupe. Into the serious world of British theatre, he injected a huge dose of camp, with productions drenched in blood and glitter, full of pansexual orgies and naked young men.
By 1967 his classes at the newly opened Dance Centre (dance, mime, improvisation, creative release) in Floral Street, Covent Garden were becoming quite a draw. Lindsay met a 20-year-old David Bowie midway through the year—the so-called Summer of Love—backstage after the Lindsay Kemp Company’s performance of Clowns at the Little Theatre, off St. Martin’s Lane. Following the failure of The Laughing Gnome and his eponymously titled debut (infamously, the “Deram” album was released on the same day as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper), Bowie was looking to expand his multiple identities. By autumn the singing shapeshifter was an enrolee, and from attending classes was drawn further into Kemp’s world, becoming a regular visitor to the older man’s small flat above a strip club in Bateman’s Buildings, Soho. As Lindsay told it, “He had an enormous sexual appetite”—a central part of David’s pull.
“I’d heard David Bowie on the radio a few times, and then I was told by my agent Brian Epstein’s secretary, they knew someone that I just had to meet because they thought I’d really like him a lot, and we’d get on really well together. They brought him to the theatre that night, and I was playing this first track of his record, When I Live My Dream, from his first album. He was very flattered and he came to my dressing room and he was like the archangel Gabriel standing there, I was like Mary. It was love at first sight. Then he fell in love, he fell in love with the show and with my work, with my world.”
As yet their interests hardly overlapped; it was David’s “great sense of humour” that sealed their relationship, and they would spend much of their time trading impersonations of music-hall stars, or movie icons like Laurel and Hardy: “Bowie wasn’t a great mime, or a natural mover – he was too stiff – but he had talent as a mimic. He was certainly multi-faceted, a chameleon, splendid, inspiring, a genius of a creature. Kemp, for his part, recalled, “But I did show him how to do it. I didn’t really teach him to be a mime artiste but to be more of himself on the outside. I enabled him to free the angel and demon that he is on the inside.”
Kemp later claimed, deliberately helping to create that legend, that he’d saved Bowie from becoming a Buddhist monk, as the singer was said to be was considering taking vows. Kemp asked Bowie to perform and write songs for a new production he was mounting, Pierrot in Turquoise. Bowie suggested turquoise as it was the Buddhist symbol for everlastingness. The play featured Lindsay as the sad, ever-trusting cuckold Pierrot, Annie Stainer as his two-timing inamorata Columbine and Kemp’s confidante Jack Birkett—The Incredible Orlando—as her lover Harlequin, variations on classic Commedia dell’arte types. And in his first non-silent acting role, David played Cloud, a protean balladeer who performed a mix of current and brand new compositions written for the piece**. Turquoise played on the tension between fictional roles and their real performers, soon becoming a traveling soap opera: the dastardly Dame was having simultaneous affairs with Lindsay and the show’s costume designer Natasha Korniloff.
Kemp had become used to Bowie’s frequent, unexplained disappearances, but in Whitehaven, he woke up alone and heard noises through the wall. He went outside and found Bowie’s shoes and watch neatly piled up outside Korniloff’s bedroom. Legend has it the star of the show fled to his dressing room, guzzled a bottle of whisky and, living up the role of the betrayed Pierrot, sliced*** his wrists with a razor blade. Mercifully, he didn’t cut too deep and he was found unconscious the next morning and taken to hospital. Did Kemp really want to die?
“Oh, I don’t think so. No, it wasn’t serious. If I’d been serious, the cuts would have been a bit deeper. The doctor put a bit of bandage round them and said, ‘You best get back to work. Don’t be so daft.’ But that night, what little blood there was soaked into the white Pierrot costume and it was very dramatic. Bowie was in tears and Natasha had taken a handful of pills and she was brought round by one of the firemen.”
A surreally untraditional evocation of traditional characters, material from the extravaganza featured strongly in Pierrot In Turquoise or The Looking Glass Murders, a thoroughly bizarre spectacle filmed for Scottish Television in 1970, and featuring a fabulously frightwigged Bowie a good decade and a half before Labyrinth… or Tina Turner at her most sky-high. The smaller independent TV stations like Scottish often used to fill out their end-of-day programming with oddities such as this, the kind of thing that would have been screened once to a bewildered audience then forgotten. The programme was assumed lost until 1994 when the author and filmmaker Nick Hedges, researching a book about Lindsay, unearthed the footage purely by chance in the telly company’s archives. More on him later.
Bowie worked as a mime and dancer throughout 1968 and 1969, dancing in a Kemp-choreographed version of Pushkin’s The Pistol Shot and performing his own Tibetan-inspired production Yet-San and The Eagle, which in part depicted a Chinese boy under the foot of Chinese Communists. It drew the indignation of a student Maoist, who reportedly heckled one performance.
When Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt arranged for his charge to record a promo film (later released as Love You Till Tuesday in 1984) as a way to revive his career, David threw into the mix a mime piece (with narration) he had written entitled The Mask. During its five minute span, Bowie calmly and ominously depicts his future stardom and the subsequent near-madness it caused him. He acted out his future, then endured it. There really ain’t nothing like a Dame.
Bowie’s ascension to superstardom owes much to Kemp’s distinct and unique theatre training. And mime, like it or loathe it, was absolutely essential to Bowie’s art—it’s as important an influence as The Dame’s love of jazz and R&B, or science fiction, or Iggy Pop. It lies behind almost everything that he did after 1967: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke—even the androgynous extraterrestrial figure hamming it up in the video clips for Heroes and Boys Keep Swinging—are essentially mimetic interpretations of rock stars. Coming full circle, it doesn’t take much of a leap to realise it’s Lindsay’s Pierrot Bowie’s dressed as (via George Underwood’s Space Oddity rear cover painting from 1969) in his groundbreaking video for 1980’s Ashes To Ashes, winding down his most creative period, just as his co-star Steve Strange’s was getting going.
Bowie’s training with Kemp marked him with a different aesthetic than the typical rocker. The Dame was essentially a mime who played the part of a rock god, which is why his fiercest critics considered him campy and calculating: a poseur, a thief, a charlatan and a heartless vampire that always lacked soul. Hell, but Bowie even admitted as such on Changes, playfully referring to himself as “the faker”, Hunky Dory, the album the song’s extracted from, was, of course, where he credited himself as The Actor.
“Bowie in class would drink up my words and do exactly as I asked of him. And a few years later, when he invited me to stage Ziggy Stardust for him at the Rainbow, he was still a joy to direct. I would keep encouraging him to simplify his performance, which he did, and we never had any artistic disagreements. He was an ideal student.”
Lindsay Kemp, interviewed in 1993 by Nick Hedges for The Bowie Companion book
“Then (via Bowie’s wife Angie) he asked me to do Ziggy Stardust. He was about to become one of the world’s greatest rock’n’roll stars. So I’m credited with putting glam rock on the map.”
The last time Kemp and Bowie collaborated was August 1972, when Lindsay directed, choreographed and performed as “guest artist” in The Ziggy Stardust Show: two elaborate concerts at London’s Rainbow Theatre in August 1972 where Bowie could unveil his most fully realised vision of Ziggy. With a set built of stark high scaffolding, soaring ladders and platforms inspired by A Clockwork Orange and 1920s constructivism, it was a milestone in pop performance. Mick Rock’s footage of Kemp and Birkett filmed at show rehearsals also appeared in the promotional video for David’s most overtly gay single John, I’m Only Dancing (a song which, coincidentally, had been recorded on my third birthday that June) . It was a film the stuffy old BBC found too weird and/or queer, and refused to show it. Nonetheless, with an avuncular pride, Kemp was delighted at his student’s stagecraft.
“I’ve never seen a more beautiful entrance than that of David in his first appearance in Ziggy Stardust through clouds of dry ice as he slowly emerged towards the audience to sing Lady Stardust. I really taught him how to be on the stage. How to make an entrance, how to make an exit, and quite a few things in between. It was a wonderful, wonderful time, and David was incredible to work with. He was so easy, and such a joy to direct, it was great. I got my own way with everything. And so I was credited with marrying the theatre to rock ’n’ roll.”
In the concert, when Bowie sang his then hit single Starman, Lindsay appeared wearing a wig and wings, smoking a joint and leering at the audience from the rafters as he played the titular role. During the song The Dame also snuck in a line from Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow in recognition of its influence on the composition of his own song, and of the name of the venue.
“There’s a Starman… over the rainbow. Way up there… Can you tell me. Let the children lose it. Let the children use it. Let all the children boogie.”
The stylised theatricality of Bowie and Kemp’s innovative multimedia presentation drew huge critical acclaim and sales of the Ziggy Stardust album climbed sharply. Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Alice Cooper were in the audience. Lou Reed called it “the greatest thing I’ve ever seen”, and it was the start of Bowie being nailed to the top of the British charts for two years.There were, however, some dissenters; those types generally uncomfortable with the introduction of theatre to rock. A less than glamorous Elton John walked out before the finale, famously denouncing it as “too camp,” and with an oh-so-accurate prediction that “He’s blown it now. He’ll never mean anything any more!” Of course with the benefit of hindsight, it was just an allusion to The Dame’s swishy artifice, which Elton, embarrassed, found to be an affront to the sexuality he would continue to conceal for a good few more years. The whole shebang led to a cold war between David and Fat Reg that Bowie remained bitter about right up until his death.
Roxy Music, whose debut single entered the charts the same week, were the opening act the Ziggy Stardust Show. Although frontman Bryan Ferry was also less than impressed, saying succinctly: “I don’t think it worked.” However, Ferry’s comments appeared tainted with more than a little bitterness, as it was rumoured that his band had been prevented from rehearsing in the theatre prior to the show. Furthermore, Mainman had prevented Roxy’s representatives from handing out promotional material in the foyer, which may have led to some animosity towards David. Indeed, when questioned on the day, Bowie’s biggest cheerleader, his wife Angie, was heard to remark: “Roxy Music? Oh, aren’t they here to clean the toilets?”
“Even though I was part of it, I hope I can be forgiven for saying that the 1972 Rainbow show featuring David Bowie and Roxy Music on a double bill was pretty amazing. But David had a secret weapon: Lindsay Kemp. Lindsay was, is, and always has been, extraordinary.”
Brian Eno, 2016****
By now, Kemp was a popular and inspirational teacher of dance and mime. Though it was his 1974 production of Flowers: A Pantomime For Jean Genet that transported his career into an international dimension. A dreamlike journey to destruction, through seduction, shock, pimps and poetry, Flowers was an exceedingly camp interpretation of a hallucinatory prison novel by Genet, the French writer who in turn inspired Bowie’s Jean Genie. The book on which its based, Our Lady Of The Flowers, also happens to be a literary favourite of one of Bowie’s Nineties Bands To Champion, whiney goth rockers Placebo, who released a song with the same title on their debut album.
Kemp excelled in the central role of Divine, an outlandish Golgotha Madonna-type transvestite transcending drag queen (sound familiar?). With more than a hint of mayhem, The Dame had been set to star as the show’s protagonist, but, due to overseas ambitions in America, had to withdraw, much to Lindsay’s regret. David did attend an early performance at the Bush Theatre in January ’74 though, before the show transferred to the West End. The theatre critic Michael Coveney, then deputy editor of Plays And Players magazine remembers being seated next to David.
“Bowie sat through Flowers without a flicker of emotion or reaction–our knees brushed once or twice, but no words were spoken–mesmerised by Kemp as he glided, white-faced and shrouded in a white veil, through prison fantasies of escape to the stirring sounds of Mozart’s Requiem and Piaf singing La Vie En Rose, one of his accompanying male prisoner/whores delivering a hilariously tuneless rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”
David had recently treated himself to a Super 8 camera, and couldn’t wait for the grainy black and white films captured with his new toy to be made public: which they did in 1987 (the “wave bye-bye” backdrop during Heroes on the Glass Spider tour), and again in 1996 when extracts from the Flowers footage was presented as part of Eight Segments made viewable through a video wall peephole as part of a Bowie art installation for The Prison & The Asylum: Incarceration And Liberation In Artaud & Genet, a celebration of the two artists at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. His somewhat pretentious four-part Jarman-referencing project, Derek, Here Are A Few Ideas Toward A Non-Violent Theatre…. played to indifferent audiences in May and June of that year. Patti Smith told me she though it was “mediocre”, Morrissey said he’d only come to see Patti Smith.
In a Daily Express interview to plug his Wembley concerts of May ’76, Bowie was still channelling Kemp, telling Jean Rook: “I’m Pierrot. I’m Everyman. What I’m doing is theatre, and only theatre … What you see on stage isn’t sinister. It’s pure clown. I’m using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants – they’re Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness of 1976. Ziggy was putting over the bizarre in our time. Now Bowie’s putting over the sadness.”
By the late 1970s, Kate Bush, a confirmed Bowie fan, had also fallen under Lindsay’s spell, taking lessons with him in Covent Garden. Bush later wrote the song Moving as a tribute to her dance guru, which appeared on her debut album The Kick Inside, the shy one famously pushing a copy under the door of his London flat. The singer also contributed vocals to second Kemp tribute, Zaine Griff’s Flowers, and the two worked on preparations for her only concert trek, 1979’s Tour of Life.
While the cracked, gleeful spirit of the performer went missing for much of the Eighties, Bowie and Bush kept quietly drawing from his stores. Kate would often namecheck her mentor in interviews, and paid tribute to his teachings by casting Lindsay in a supporting role as Guide in her short film The Line, The Cross & The Curve (1994).
But this wasn’t a rare foray into the movie world for him: Kemp had previously enjoyed some small-time big screen exposure as the pub landlord Alder MacGregor in Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man (1973), Topstar in The Stud (1974), and as an indecent dancer and cabaret performer in Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) and Jubilee (1977) respectively. In the latter punk vehicle Lindsay co-starred with Birkett, Toyah and a very young Adam Ant. His last notable film role was playing a pantomime dame in Todd Haynes’ Bowie-inspired glam rock semi-biography Velvet Goldmine (1998).
Attending with the author Spencer Kansa, I managed to snatch an interview with Lindsay in February 1995 after a performance of Cinderella, his latest operetta at Sadler’s Wells. He’d voiced a slight irritation at being labelled as an avant-garde artist, but the quote of the night, offered with a devilish hint in his eye was in response to my asking him if he’d managed to catch Bowie’s concert tours over the years: “Off and on, yes… but not as much as I would have liked to have done. Very often I’m just somewhere where we don’t have a radio.” Cue merriment on all sides.
Funnily enough, the last time The Dame and the mime maestro met was on 9 February 1996. The former was playing one of his indoor shows on the Outside Tour, at the 5000-seater Palasport Casalecchio. There are two slightly varying accounts, but at the after-show shindig, David greeted his mentor warmly with a huge hug and told him: “I’ve just been asked to write the foreword for your book,” … or DB actually confirmed the task, exclaiming “I’m writing the foreword for your book!” Either way, one thing was definite: Kemp was extremely drunk. In 2013 he told the Guardian: “I saw him very rarely. The last time in Bologna about 15 years ago. He kept me waiting for hours and was surrounded by heavies. He seemed very detached, like an alien. I didn’t feel comfortable, but I’d love to see him again.” Sadly that wasn’t to happen.
I wasn’t at the concert, but three days earlier I had covered the Slovenian show at Ljubljana’s Hala Tivoli, where I’d passed David a letter from a friend of mine, Lindsay’s co-author, Nick Hedges. In the short hand-written note Nick told him of the upcoming book—Lindsay Kemp: A Life, to be published by HarperCollins—and asked Bowie, as the most celebrated act to come under the older man’s tutelage, if he would like to pen the introduction.
To this day I’m still not exactly sure what went wrong, but it was a matter of weeks before Hedges received a terse letter from Eileen D’Arcy, the president of Isolar Enterprises, which was Bowie’s business office in New York City: “Please be advised that Mr. Bowie does not traditionally contribute to biographies of others.” Wow, just wow. I can’t help but wonder, naturally, if the proposal prompted David to dig out his 8mm footage of Flowers for that art thing at the ICA just three months later though.
Despite the professional setback, I’d go on to be flatmates with Hedges, who hit the headlines in his own right just eight months later with one of the most notorious media hoaxes of the late 20th Century. Do you remember News International’s so-called “Princess Diana surveillance footage” which scandalised the world for a week?
Purportedly secretly filmed by MI5, the grainy, black-and-white video apparently showed a semi-naked Princess Di romping with her lover, James Hewitt. Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun and its TV arm Sky One ran the story as an exclusive and it was picked up all over the world, before Hedges stepped forward to announce that he had shot the footage in the back garden of a friend’s London home using “lookalike” performers. He’d “taken the piss out of the tabloids” (his words), for a large sum of money, naturally, only it had slipped his mind who the owner of HarperCollins was: Rupert Murdoch. The book contract with Lindsay was ripped to shreds. Project cancelled.
As a postscript, 1996 was also the year when Bowie got tricky with another colleague, though this one was a completely current collaborator. The Dame was approached personally by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys to headline that year’s Stonewall Equality Show. The Stonewall charity campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across Britain, and their annual fundraising concert at the Albert Hall was now being directed by Sir Ian McKellen and had become the largest ticketed LGBT event ever held in the UK. The previous year the central stars of Absolutely Fabulous, Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders had stolen the show—which was closed out by that utter pianist from Pinner—when they performed in character as Patsy and Edina.
Having just given Bowie his biggest hit of the 1990s with Hallo Spaceboy, the PSB frontman thought he stood a good chance of persuading his hero, at least initially: “But I don’t know that he’s that keen on it really,” Tennant told me that April. “I mentioned we had Elton headlining last year and David gave me a right look. Then I realised ‘Oh, he doesn’t like Elton John.’” Despite – or should I say because – of Bowie’s reservations, he eventually agreed to close the show as long as he didn’t sing! Instead, The Dame said he wanted to perform some mime and read some of his recently completed poetry. The organisers got Robbie Williams instead, who was only too happy to get his hits out for the lads. Lindsay would have liked this.
“Yes, David was one of my great loves. There haven’t been many. I counted up the other day and I think there were five. So I think it was a great love, though I think a great love would last a bit longer. I got over it! Now I am living in Livorno, I have a house somewhere else, near Rome, I love Livorno, it’s by the sea, it’s a seaport, and it’s very me. I’m a poet and Britain is not a land for poets anymore.”
When it was suggested in a 2016 interview that Bowie’s final video, for Lazarus (from Blackstar), was a tribute to his lessons, Kemp confessed, “I haven’t seen it yet. I was obviously very upset about David. He meant a lot to me. It still brings tears to my eyes.”
Lindsay Kemp’s last public performance in the UK was a collaboration with singer songwriter Tim Arnold, at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in a multimedia live arts installation of Arnold’s song What Love Would Want in June 2018. An ever grateful Kate Bush sent her teacher flowers to congratulate him on the performance. Earlier today she put out the following statement.
“To call him a mime artist is like calling Mozart a pianist. He was very brave, very funny and above all, astonishingly inspirational. There was no-one quite like Lindsay. I was incredibly lucky to study with him, work with him and spend time with him. I loved him very much and will miss him dearly. Thank you, dear Lindsay.”
Rest in peace, child.
Steve Pafford, Covent Garden
*Bob Marley’s son David Nesta Marley, born 17 October 1968, went on to become known as Ziggy, a nickname said to have been given to him by his father Bob Marley, meaning ‘little spliff’. But in an 1988 interview with Melody Maker, Ziggy stated the following: “Me name David but me big Bowie fan. So at the time of the Ziggy Stardust album, me call meself Ziggy and now everyone do.”
**As Cloud, Bowie performed When I Live My Dream, Sell Me A Coat, Threepenny Pierrot, Columbine and The Mirror, the latter triumvirate only ever being released on a 2005 DVD when STV’s Looking Glass Murders was included as a bonus with Bowie’s Sixties short Love You Till Tuesday. The jaunty Threepenny Pierrot would go on to be rewritten as London Bye Ta-Ta (1968), while variations of the guitar line of Columbine ended up in Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (1969) and at the end of The Width Of A Circle (1970).
***In an interview Natasha Kornilof conducted with this author in 1999 for the BowieStyle book she played down the severity of Lindsay’s injuries, telling me: “They were just scratches, really. But he loved the drama.”
****Mary Hopkin, one of the first artists to sign to the Fab Four’s Apple Records, was born on Kemp’s 12th birthday. By the time of her twee but lovely Eno-arranged “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” vocal melody on Bowie’s Sound And Vision she’d become Mrs Tony Visconti.