Lennon and Bowie

David told me he was going to do a version of ‘Across The Universe’ and I thought, ‘Great,’ because I’d never done a good version of that song myself. It’s one of my favourite songs, but I didn’t like my version of it. So I went down and played rhythm on the track. Then he got this guitar lick, so me and him put this together in another song called ‘Fame’ which is on his next album too, I had fun and it’ll be out soon.
John Lennon
Melody Maker, 8 March 1975

In January 1975, shortly before the ‘Fame’ session, John Lennon, his girlfriend May Pang, and Paul and Linda McCartney visited David Bowie at the Sheraton Netherlands hotel.

Bowie, then in the throes of an escalating cocaine habit, insisting on repeatedly playing his guests an acetate of Young Americans, and was upset when they requested a change of record.

John and I had seen him a couple of times before our Christmas holiday and he had always insisted upon playing us the tracks of his new album. That night he played the album for Paul and Linda, even though John and I had heard it many times before. When it was over he played it again. I could see Paul getting restless. ‘Can we hear a different album?’ he asked. David ignored him and when he began to play it a third time John said, ‘It’s great. Do you have any other albums that might be of interest?’ For a moment Bowie seemed startled by John’s request and then he smiled and told me to pick another record. I selected an Aretha Franklin album and put it on the turntable and then David said, ‘Excuse me for a second.’ He marched out of the room. ‘I think you hurt Bowie’s feelings,’ I told John.
May Pang
Loving John

Lennon and Pang left soon after, and returned to her apartment on 52nd Street. Shortly after they arrived the telephone rang; it was Bowie, still stung by Lennon’s behaviour, but the pair managed to patch up their differences.

As soon as we got home that night David called John. They talked quietly for a while, and when John got off the phone, he told me, ‘David really did feel hurt when I asked him to change the record. He was very upset. I kept tellin’ him I didn’t mean it that way.’ John was very distressed by David’s reaction.

‘When David looks at you, his eyes are always filled with admiration,’ I told him. ‘You’ve got to be especially careful when you’re around people like that, because every little word and gesture means something special to them. Whether you like it or not, you’ve just got to be a little more thoughtful.’

May Pang
Loving John

During the Lost Weekend, Lennon partied hard with musicians including Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper, and Phil Spector. Bowie, whose tastes were more for cocaine than alcohol, was outside of this circle, but he and Lennon nevertheless became good friends.

I seem to be the guy in New York that all the Englishmen say hi to. No, it is good, the mix in town, halls in town. Anybody comes, I love it. All the rockers come and say, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’. I’m supposed to show them what’s happening. Or they already know – most of them anyway.

I got to know David through Mick [Jagger], really, although I’d met him once before. And the next minute he says: ‘Hello John, I’m doing ‘Across The Universe’, do you wanna come on down?’ So I said all right, you know, I live here. I popped down and played rhythm.

And then he had this lick, you know, we’d finished ‘Across The Universe’ and this guitarist had a lick. So we sort of wrote this song. It was no big deal, we just sort of – oh, boom, boom, boom – like that. It wasn’t like sitting down to write a song. So we made this lick into a song is what happened. And that’s how it happened and there it is.

John Lennon, 1975
The Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC

In March 1975 Bowie, Lennon and Yoko Ono were photographed backstage at the Grammy Awards in New York City, along with stars including Roberta Flack and Simon and Garfunkel.

Embed from Getty Images

Bowie always greatly admired the former Beatle. He had mentioned him on ‘Life On Mars?’, which coincidentally, foreshadowed their later collaboration: “Now the workers have struck for fame/’Cause Lennon’s on sale again.”

You know, John Lennon had such an incisive point of view and a way of capturing just what was going on around him or anybody else with five or ten words or one sharp line that was a precis that didn’t need to be fleshed out. I once asked him, “What do you think of what I do? What do you think of glam-rock?” He said (imitating Lennon), “aww now, it’s great you know, but it’s just rock ‘n’ roll with lipstick on.”

Nobody has ever said it better.

David Bowie
Musician magazine, May 1983

The song ‘Young Americans’ included the line “I heard the news today, oh boy” – a paraphrase from the Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’. But Bowie’s admiration went back way further. His early band Feathers had played a version of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and in 1968 Bowie performed a cabaret show which featured ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’.

The Spiders From Mars occasionally performed the Beatles’ 1963 b-side ‘This Boy’ on tour in 1972. A forerunner of the Spiders, the Hype, had performed Lennon’s ‘Instant Karma!’ two years previously. The Hype’s bass guitarist, Tony Visconti, later married Lennon’s former girlfriend May Pang.

On 8 December 1983, Bowie sang ‘Imagine’ on the final date of the Serious Moonlight tour, which was also the third anniversary of Lennon’s death.

He also covered Lennon’s song ‘Working Class Hero’ on the Tin Machine album, and in 1998 sang ‘Mother’ for inclusion on an unreleased tribute album. The song leaked online in 2006, and was given a posthumous release in January 2021.

On 8 May 1999, Bowie gave a speech to the Berklee College of Music’s Class of 1999, in which he spoke extensively about Lennon.

It’s impossible for me to talk about popular music without mentioning probably my greatest mentor, John Lennon . I guess he defined for me, at any rate, how one could twist and turn the fabric of pop and imbue it with elements from other artforms, often producing something extremely beautiful, very powerful and imbued with strangeness. Also, uninvited, John would wax on endlessly about any topic under the sun and was over-endowed with opinions. I immediately felt empathy with that. Whenever the two of us got together it started to resemble Beavis and Butthead on “Crossfire.”

The seductive thing about John was his sense of humor. Surrealistically enough, we were first introduced in about 1974 by Elizabeth Taylor. Miss Taylor had been trying to get me to make a movie with her. It involved going to Russia and wearing something red, gold and diaphanous. Not terribly encouraging, really. I can’t remember what it was called — it wasn’t On the Waterfront, anyway, I know that.

We were in LA, and one night she had a party to which both John and I had been invited. I think we were polite with each other, in that kind of older-younger way. Although there were only a few years between us, in rock and roll that’s a generation, you know? Oh boy, is it ever.

So John was sort of [in Liverpool accent] “Oh, here comes another new one.” And I was sort of, “It’s John Lennon ! I don’t know what to say. Don’t mention the Beatles, you’ll look really stupid.”

And he said, “Hello, Dave.” And I said, “I’ve got everything you’ve made – except The Beatles.”

A couple of nights later we found ourselves backstage at The GRAMMYs where I had to present “the thing” to Aretha Franklin. Before the show I’d been telling John that I didn’t think America really got what I did, that I was misunderstood. Remember that I was in my 20s and out of my head.

So the big moment came and I ripped open the envelope and announced, “The winner is Aretha Franklin.” Aretha steps forward, and with not so much as a glance in my direction, snatches the trophy out of my hands and says, “Thank you everybody. I’m so happy I could even kiss David Bowie.” Which she didn’t! And she promptly spun around swanned off stage right. So I slunk off stage left.

And John bounds over and gives me a theatrical kiss and a hug and says “See, Dave. America loves ya.”

We pretty much got on like a house on fire after that.

He once famously described glam rock as just rock and roll with lipstick on. He was wrong of course, but it was very funny.

Towards the end of the 70s, a group of us went off to Hong Kong on a holiday and John was in, sort of, house-husband mode and wanted to show Sean the world. And during one of our expeditions on the back streets a kid comes running up to him and says, “Are you John Lennon ?” And he said, “No but I wish I had his money.” Which I promptly stole for myself.

[imitating a fan] “Are you David Bowie?”

No, but I wish I had his money.

It’s brilliant. It was such a wonderful thing to say. The kid said, “Oh, sorry. Of course you aren’t,” and ran off. I thought, “This is the most effective device I’ve heard.”

I was back in New York a couple of months later in Soho, downtown, and a voice pipes up in my ear, “Are you David Bowie?” And I said, “No, but I wish I had his money.”

“You lying bastard. You wish you had my money.” It was John Lennon.

David Bowie, 8 May 1999
Commencement address at Berklee College of Music
Published: |