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The incredible influence of David Bowie's brother, Terry Burns

When we talk about David Bowie, we often discuss just how ephemeral each of his early guises was. That his stunning presentation was rigorous and poised, or the fact that as an artist, he was possibly the most chameleonic musician to have ever graced the planet and he rarely restricted himself to such a categorisation. Never one to remain rooted to a particular motion or notion, Bowie’s persistence to demand more from pop culture was as infectious as it was inspiring.

A fascinating character who led a glamorous life, there will never be anyone quite like David Bowie. Without his bold and pioneering steps within music — both sonically and aesthetically — we would not have the likes of Björk, Charli XCX and the late icon, SOPHIE. He was acutely aware of the fact that in music, there are no definite rules and that it is a fluid discipline and one where the results of artistry are very much in the eye of the beholder.

One of the most captivating elements of Bowie’s career is that every classic album he made had a story to tell, setting him out from the majority of his peers. The lines were blurred between Bowie’s life and his career, creating a mythic edge to it that has rarely been surpassed, save for the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Like his glamorous contemporaries, Bowie’s life is screaming to be serialised into a biopic.

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A crucial part of his career and the development of his artistic ideas was his half brother, Terry Burns. Bound by his mother, Burns was ten years older than Bowie and operated as a crucial figure in his life despite their apparent distance. He is credited with introducing the young Bowie, then known plainly as David Jones, to modern jazz, Buddhism, Beat poetry of William S. Burroughs and even the occult. The exposure to these elements was nothing short of transformative for the young star in waiting.

Bowie acknowledged Terry’s influence, saying that from him, he got “the greatest serviceable education that I could have had. He just introduced me to the outside things,” he said, adding: “I saw the magic, and I caught the enthusiasm for it because of his enthusiasm for it. And I kinda wanted to be like him.”

The strange thing about Burns and Bowie’s relationship was that Burns was also a movable presence in Bowie’s early life. Alternately, he lived between Bowie’s family home and in psychiatric wards, as he suffered from crippling schizophrenia and seizures. However, as Bowie reached adulthood, over the late 1960s and early ’70s Burns, Bowie and his first wife, Angie, would become very close.

By the late mid-1970s, though, Burns had stopped taking his medication, and his mental state declined. Before too long, he was readmitted to a South London mental hospital where he would spend the rest of his days. The last time Bowie saw Burns was in 1981. Tragically, he took his own life after escaping from the Cane Hill mental institution in 1985. A contentious subject for the family, we digress slightly. Burns had a significant impact on Bowie’s career. Not only did he introduce Bowie to some of the most essential artistic points that would influence his career, but Burns’ experiences with mental health issues would become an ever-present theme within Bowie’s work.

In addition to the suffering Burns went through, many members of Bowie’s family, on his mother’s side, also suffered from schizophrenia spectrum disorders, and they were so severe that his mother’s sister was even sent for a lobotomy. Understandably, these factors greatly impacted Bowie, as he told Rolling Stone in 1975: “Everyone says, ‘oh yes, my family is quite mad’. Mine really is”.

Works from across his career were coloured by the theme of schizophrenia, be it the song ‘All The Madmen’, ‘The Prisoner’ or even his record Aladdin Sane. Additionally, the recurring feeling he had was that he too would succumb to mental illness was one he struggled to deal with. In 1983, Bowie’s Aunt Pat said: “David has said that visiting Terry frightens him because he fears insanity in himself”.

It’s a little known fact that Bowie’s half-brother had a considerable impact on his career. Like with every other iconic artist, their inspiration and influences come from anywhere. In Bowie’s case, though, without the relationship he had with Terry and the “education” he gave him, it’s likely that David Bowie the artist never would have existed. Let the implications of that sink in. David’s career was littered with references to Terry, both explicitly and implicitly. Your task is to now find them. 

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