Credit: University of Michigan/Jean-Luc Ourlain

The joke David Bowie stole from John Lennon and played on his fans

The friendship shared between the Starman David Bowie and the esteemed Beatle John Lennon is well known, well publicised and well documented. As well as enjoying each other’s professional company when they joined forces to write and record the song ‘Fame’, the duo’s middle finger to middle management, the two icons of rock music were also friends off stage too. While we’re sure that Bowie and Lennon had their differences, it’s fair to say that there was one habit which the ‘Rebel Rebel’ singer had picked up from his Beatle counterpart.

Despite the singer’s growing reputation by the time he first crossed paths with the Beatle, for Bowie, Lennon was still an icon. Their introduction would come in equally glamorous fashion as Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor made the connection. Lennon’s personal life was in a precarious moment around the time that he first met Bowie in 1974, a period in which he found himself lost in a spiral of personal issues which ultimately led to his estrangement from Yoko Ono. This somewhat dark period of time that he spent getting up to debauched antics with Harry Nilsson spirits lasted around 18 months and is often described as Lennon’s ‘Lost Weekend’. Bowie, too, was in the middle of a hedonistic spree which would ultimately lead to his own personal issues. They connected instantly.

“The seductive thing about John was his sense of humour,” Bowie told Berklee College when discussing the facets of pop music in 1999. “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,” Bowie continued. “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.’”

It may have been a blunderous moment for the usually confident Bowie but the Beatle clearly took a shine to him and, as Bowie explained to the crowd at Berklee, let him in on a little joke he liked to play on his fans. “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,” recalled Bowie, noting the change of lifestyle for Lennon.

“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,’” Bowie added. It was a technique that the singer heartedly employed throughout his life.

One moment, however, saw Bowie come unstuck with his newfound fan-avoidance device: “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.”

It was the kind of jovial tone that the pair always shared with one another. While many will often point to Lennon’s criticism of glam rock as rock ‘n’ roll with lipstick on as the crux of their relationship it was, in fact, something much sweeter. The two saw in one another kindred spirits and counterpoints with which they could have expansive and educated conversations together, or to put it more simply, they found friendship.

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