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Music

The story of how David Bowie first met his "greatest mentor" John Lennon

David Bowie was one of the most influential artists of all time. Iconoclastic and fluid, he showed that image could be whatever you want it to be, and musically, his almost constant experimentation created extraordinary fusions that helped the proliferation of a variety of genres ranging from glam rock to industrial and electronic. 

In many ways, Bowie was the post-modern spirit embodied, and his work galvanised a generation. Without him, there would be no Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell and Shirley Manson, and when you look back on the most prominent rock artists of the 1990s, they owed a lot to Brixton’s favourite son. There was no chance that the decade could have been so experimental and eclectic without his influence as the overarching factor.

Given that Bowie was such an important figure, it was only fitting that other stars were acutely aware of his brilliance. Notably, he worked with a whole host of legends across his career, from Tony Visconti to Mick Ronson and Nile Rodgers. Nevertheless, undoubtedly the most famous is the former Beatles frontman John Lennon, with whom he collaborated on the hit single ‘Fame’ in 1975.  

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Like everyone he came across, Lennon left an indelible impression on Bowie. “Uninvited, John would wax on endlessly about any topic under the sun and was over-endowed with opinions. I immediately felt empathy with that,” Bowie told Berklee College of Music in 1999. “Whenever the two of us got together, it started to resemble Beavis and Butthead on ‘Crossfire.'”

The two would hit it off so profoundly that in the years following Lennon’s death in 1980, Bowie would regard the ‘Imagine’ mastermind as “probably (his) greatest mentor”. However, it wasn’t always fireworks between the two. It transpires that their first meeting was actually rather awkward. This couldn’t get any more bizarre in terms of a peculiar setting to meet your idol. 

It was in 1974 when Bowie met Lennon, and it was at a party hosted by none other than silver screen icon Elizabeth Taylor. During his Berklee address, he recalled that fateful moment. “I think we were polite with each other, in that kind of older-younger way,” Bowie expressed. “So John was sort of [imitating Lennon’s accent], ‘Oh, here comes another new [rocker].’ 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.'” 

Unsurprisingly, Bowie couldn’t help but mention the Fab Four, but this didn’t ruin things. In the not too distant future, they recorded ‘Fame’ and a Bowie’s cover of Lennon’s ‘Across the Universe’, but it wasn’t until afterwards and their subsequent encounter that the pair’s friendship was crystallised forever.

Fast forward a year to 1975 and to the 17th edition of the Grammys. That night, Bowie presented an award to the soul heroine, Aretha Franklin, who told the audience, “I’m so happy I could even kiss David Bowie”, which is a moment that Bowie always treasured. Before heading onstage to present the award, though, Bowie had been lamenting to Lennon about how America didn’t get him, and when Franklin came off stage and didn’t kiss him, Bowie felt this even more. 

“So I slunk off stage left,” Bowie recalled during his Berklee speech. “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.”

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