Book review: Pyschedelic Suburbia: David Bowie and the Beckenham Arts Lab by Mary Finnigan

It would be a pity if anyone avoided Psychedelic Suburbia by wrongly dismissing it as one of those inevitable '˜cash in' publications which have followed David Bowie's shock death in January.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 12th April 2016, 10:56 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th April 2016, 11:02 am
Pyschedelic Suburbia: David Bowie and the Beckenham Arts Lab by Mary Finnigan
Pyschedelic Suburbia: David Bowie and the Beckenham Arts Lab by Mary Finnigan

Presumably no one was more surprised by Bowie’s passing than author Mary Finnigan herself because this book, the one she had been intending to write for decades instead of simply being interviewed for others, was actually published before that crucial date in January. Two days before, to be precise.

Don’t expect a sensational sex and drugs and rock'n'roll ‘kiss and tell’ exposé, although the pages do reveal a short-lived romance as well as Mary’s notebooks rapidly filling up with Bowie’s handwritten lyrics that would contribute to the songsmith’s eventual commercial breakthrough.

And, as for the drugs, a fair amount of substances were being ingested in Beckenham at the tail end of the 60s by young mother of two Mary’s ever-growing circle of friends, all drawn in by Bowie’s charisma.

Essentially this is a candid account of several key, colourful months in the early journey of a young wannabee still seeking his true direction, and those who helped him pass through from chart-bound Oddity to highly bankable commodity.

As the book reveals, when he arrived in journalist Mary’s suburban life almost half a century ago, the future Ziggy Stardust was 22, and still living with his mum and dad.

Despite time served in various bands and with singles and a debut solo album under his belt, he remained an unrecognised talent touting his material around London folk clubs with mixed success and with an elderly manager who thought he might be better fashioned into a cabaret act.

After visiting friends in the same building as Mary’s flat and a chance meeting with her, Bowie moved into the spare room within days, initially as her lodger despite the lack of any regular income to pay the rent. Very soon they became lovers, although she eventually discovered that throughout their relationship Bowie was sharing such intimacy with several other willing partners of both sexes.

Their fling ended abruptly, to Mary’s surprise and shock, when Angie Barnett, one of those previously ‘unknown’ encounters, moved in while she was away from the flat for a few days!

Mary admits she felt betrayed but helpless to do anything about it as she enjoyed Angie’s company and her children liked her too. The new arrangements continued for some months, during which she claims the woman who would soon become Bowie’s first wife and mother of his son, attempted –unsuccessfully – to seduce her too.

Bowie’s career references have often included the intriguingly-titled Beckenham Arts Lab and Mary explains that during his stay in 1969 they founded a Sunday night folk club in a local pub, initially to generate cash.

They quickly realised it was a honeypot attracting diverse creative individuals all eager to become involved, and the folkie element was widened out into said ‘Lab’, embracing not only music but visual arts, puppetry, poetry, film making and theatre.

That summer Bowie enjoyed his first top five hit Space Oddity and the Lab regulars organised the UK’s first-ever free festival in Beckenham’s park, immortalised in Bowie’s sprawling anthem Memory of a Free Festival.

All good things come to an end and Mary says: ‘I reflected on everything that happened and realised I had neglected my children and my profession in favour of those few short months of novelty and excitement. It was time to recalibrate and to reclaim my flat as a family home.’

From then on she became an onlooker rather than a participant in the Bowie phenomenon, their final encounter being at a 1973 after-show party during his Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars tour.

With his arm round her shoulder as she left, he told her: ‘Goodbye Mary, you are a wonderful woman and I will never forget you.’And Mary’s next words – written before Bowie’s death – now take on extra poignancy when she says she will ‘never see him in person or speak to him again.’

(Jorvik Press, paperback, £14.95)