The lyrics

Bowie did not often explain his lyrics. He played with phrases and structure, rearranging words to allow new meanings or cadences to emerge, and often preferred to give an impression rather than explicit interpretations. In his notes on the Hunky Dory songs, used in press adverts upon its release, he said of ‘The Bewlay Brothers’: “Another in the series of David Bowie confessions – Star Trek in a leather jacket.”

‘The Bewlay Brothers’ was one of the most abstruse of his early songs, and invited the listener to decode the dense imagery. The song evidently held personal meaning for Bowie, who named his music publishing company, founded in 1976, after it.

The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen – in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name.

Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.

The circumstances of the recording barely exist in my memory. It was late, I know that. I was on my own with my producer Ken Scott; the other musicians having gone for the night.

Unlike the rest of the Hunky Dory album, which I had written before the studio had been booked, this song was an unwritten piece that I felt had to be recorded instantaneously.

I had a whole wad of words that I had been writing all day. I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind. It’s possible that I may have smoked something in my Bewlay pipe. I distinctly remember a sense of emotional invasion.

I do believe that we finished the whole thing on that one night. It’s likely that I ended up drinking at the Sombrero in Kensington High Street or possibly Wardour Street’s crumbling La Chasse. Cool.

David Bowie, 2008
Mail Online

‘The Bewlay Brothers’ has gay imagery, slang, and characters running through it – the real cool traders; “the crutch-hungry dark… where we flayed our mark”; two men, stone and wax, “so he could scream and still relax”. There are also hints of drug abuse (“dust would flow through our veins”; “shooting up pie in the sky”) and cross-dressing (“the dress is hung, the ticket pawned, the Factor Max that proved the fact is melted down, and woven on the edging of my pillow”).

People ask me what it’s about and nobody knows. I mean, “Who are the Bewlay Brothers?” David wrote a lot of imagery stuff where nothing made sense. He liked those sorts of lyrics that he pieced together, with words that didn’t really mean anything but sounded great.
Trevor Bolder
Kooks, Queen Bitches And Andy Warhol, Ken Sharp

The brothers of the title are never identified, although there is some evidence that Bowie was thinking of his own half-brother, Terry Burns, whose mental ill-health loomed large over much of Bowie’s early Seventies works.

In 1971 Bowie was in New York, and reconnected with a cousin, Kristina Paulsen, whom he had last seen in 1957. They remained in contact and met numerous times, and on one occasion discussed ‘The Bewlay Brothers’.

I was aware of what it took to write. He said it was about Terry.
Kristina Paulsen
Alias David Bowie, Peter & Leni Gillman

Bowie confirmed the link in a 1977 interview, stating that it was “very much based on myself and my brother.” He expanded on this in a BBC interview in 2000:

It’s another vaguely anecdotal piece about my feelings about myself and my brother, or my other doppelgänger. I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me, and I think ‘Bewlay Brothers’ was really about that.