David R. Jones, the cult science fiction author who spent decades in seclusion after a brief career as a novelty singer in the late ’60s using the stage name David Bowie, died today of liver cancer in his native London. He was 70.
Jones was born in Brixton in 1947, the son of a waitress and a charity officer. At a young age he became enraptured by the pulp science fiction of the era. In particular, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1953 juvenile Starman Jones was a favorite; in a 1997 interview with the underground fanzine Circuit’s Dead—one of just a handful of interviews he granted after the ’70s—Jones explained how that admittedly rudimentary space-adventure novel captured his imagination at the age of seven. “It wasn’t so much the plot of [Starman Jones], which was as thin as the paper it was printed on, that gripped me,” Jones remarked. “It was the lure of the beyond. Of the infinite. That’s how outer space struck me as a lad. I always felt a little, well, alien myself, you know? A bit apart and alone. Then I had a fight with my old friend George when I was fifteen, and that messed up my eyes. One pupil normal, the other pried wide open. Made them look they were two different colors. From then on, no one ever looked at me the same. And if people were going to look at me as if I were some kind of an alien, well, I was going to give them an alien.
“And, you know, at the risk of sounding grandiose,” he continued, “something about the vastness and emptiness of space hit me right in the heart. If I’m being painfully honest, it also had something to with the fact that Heinlein’s book was titled Starman Jones. I mean, when you’re seven, you think you’re the center of the universe. I thought Heinlein’s character could be me, that someday I might become some kind of Starman Jones. That Heinlein—and I can laugh about it now!—was prophesizing my arrival or something.”
Jones did arrive, in a less auspicious way, in 1967. After a few years of dead-end gigs as a member of various rock ’n’ roll bands, Jones went solo and released a single called “The Laughing Gnome.” Rather than use his real name, he concocted the pseudonym David Bowie. This was the year The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn distorted and reinvented pop music. Childlike oddness and a neo-Victorian whimsy were suddenly in vogue in England’s rock scene, and “The Laughing Gnome” felt right at home. With his voice sped up to a high pitch to resemble the song’s titular creature, Jones sang a strange tale of a pun-wielding gnome (hailing from “gnome-man’s land”; the reader is free to groan) who bemuses an ordinary man walking down the street one morning. As peculiar as the song was, it reflected Jones’ very serious love of speculative fiction—and his ardent desire to translate that weirdness into song.
“The Laughing Gnome” flopped, but it did draw attention within the music industry—although not the kind of attention Jones wished. Rather than being treated as an emerging young star, he became pigeonholed as a novelty singer. As if to spite his critics, he recorded two far less frivolous songs that were strongly influenced by fantasy and science fiction in the following months—including “Karma Man,” heavily informed by Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story collection The Illustrated Man, right down to its tattooed protagonist who has “fairytale skin, depicting scenes from human zoos,” and “We Are Hungry Men,” a chilling, dystopian account of an oppressive regime in the near future. Still, the novelty tag hung like an albatross around Jones’ neck.
In 1968, though, Jones had an epiphany—and that epiphany was called 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the 1951 short story by Arthur C. Clarke—another of Jones’ beloved science fiction authors—drew Jones like a moth, and he spent untold hours in the cinemas of London, watching 2001’s epic, graceful, metaphysical scenes of outer space over and over. At the same time, the highly publicized Apollo missions were gearing up for their imminent mission to land a human being on the Moon. With all this dancing in his head, he recorded his first demo of an ambitious new song. It would become the peak and the downfall of the would-be pop star named David Bowie. In homage to A Space Odyssey, he gave it the title “Space Oddity.”
“This is Ground Control to Major Tom,” goes the song, and even that seemingly innocuous sentence reverberates with coded dread—encapsulating the distance and desperation of humanity forced to confront the void of space. Reading the lyrics off the page, it’s the tale of an astronaut who experiences a mechanical malfunction while in his spaceship; he must then make peace with his fate as he drifts deeper into nothingness. Even if the horrific events of July 20, 1969, had never taken place, once could imagine that “Space Oddity” would still be a haunting piece of music.
But happen they did. As the doomed American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon, he came face to face with the unimaginable. “That’s one small step for man,” he announced, his static-shrouded voice echoing down to Earth via radio and television, “one giant leap—”
Those steps, those words, were his last.
To this day, the mystery remains. We still don’t know exactly what erupted out of the Moon’s arid soil, in one-sixth the gravity of Earth, to snatch Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and the Lunar Module named Eagle and then drag them, in the blink of an eye, below the surface. All these decades of analysis later, that last flicker of footage is still inconclusive. The glimpses remain painful to watch—not just because of the overwhelming tragedy, but because the creature (or machine or god or who knows what( that is clearly swallowing two-thirds of the Apollo mission doesn’t appear to exist within the framework of reality as we know them. It pulses. It seethes. Its flesh, if it can be called flesh, boils like lava in and around a spider-webbed membrane whose shape seems uncertain of itself. Its limbs—myriad, distended, telescopic—splay in impossible geometries. Filmed in grainy black and white, those images of something so blasphemous to the very sense of sight were seared into the minds of humanity.
And what song was playing while all this happened? In England, it was “Space Oddity.” The BBC—hearing of a new, astronaut-themed single that had been released on July 11, nine days before the Moon landing—asked Jones’s record label if the song might be broadcast as Armstrong took his historic step on another world. Naturally, Jones leapt at the chance. That kind of exposure were a godsend for a struggling young artist like him. But far more than that, Jones felt honored to have his music—and in particular, his tribute to Arthur C. Clarke and the science fiction he so loved—used as the soundtrack to the greatest moment of human achievement in history.
That association, however, proved less than positive. In a puff of moon dust, “Space Oddity” became inextricably linked to the most traumatic collective vision the human race had ever beheld. In the weeks following July 20, thousands of people were hospitalized for nausea, anxiety attacks, aural hallucinations, and palpitations of the heart whenever the radio played “Space Oddity.” Which wasn’t for long. As public antipathy mounted, the song was first pulled from playlists, then the single was yanked from shelves.
A chain reaction against Bowie ensued. The BBC was criticized for playing the song in the first place, as Jones’ lyrics aren’t exactly triumphant in nature. Why, people asked, would anyone want to hear such a bleak, pessimistic song about an astronaut’s hopeless purgatory in space while the Apollo landing was occurring? The resulting inquiry determined that the BBC’s programmers simply hadn’t listened to “Space Oddity” in full before deciding to broadcast it on July 20, 1969. They’d skimmed the press release, heard the buzz that it was about a man in outer space, and made the snap decision to use it. Remarked Jones in an interview with Performing Songwriter in 2003, “[‘Major Tom’] was picked up by British television and used as the background music for the landing itself. I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyrics at all. It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. [...] Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.’ ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.’ Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that.”
Like that, Jones’s career as David Bowie was effectively dead. He soldiered on for a while, trying his best to get a band together and write another record. Demos of two aborted projects from the early ’70s, titled The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, have circulated widely as bootlegs ever since. Hitching his star to science fiction had dragged Jones to ruin, but as if committing some noble act of rock ’n’ roll suicide, he refused to abandon it.
The rest of the world wanted nothing to do with him or his songs about aliens and space. Life—was it life?—had been discovered on the Moon, and instead of giving Homo sapiens a new existential perspective, it simply shut the species down. The world started to look up at the night sky not with wonder, as it had for eons, but with dread. Then it stopped looking up at all.
What had happened on the Moon? Was the entity that consumed Armstrong and Aldrin capable of traveling to Earth? Did it perhaps observe Michael Collins, the third and only surviving Apollo 11 astronaut, as he piloted the orbital Command Module back home? Had he, Armstrong, and Aldrin awakened something humanity was never meant to encounter in the first place? Record labels, let alone audiences, simply did not want to hear Jones songs like Hunky Dory’s soaring, sumptuous “Life in Mars?”—even though the song wasn’t really a work of science fiction at all, using Mars only as a metaphor for the alienation Jones had always felt, although never as profoundly as now.
The once flamboyant Jones began his slow estrangement from society. In 1972, undeterred but addicted to heroin and increasingly impoverished, he poured all his effort into a science fiction opus with the admittedly clumsy working title The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. “It is to be the saga of an alien who hasn’t come to destroy us, but to liberate us—and, in a way, to liberate himself,” Jones told Circuit’s Dead. Then he took a turn toward the contemptuous. “If people are afraid of outer space, well, I’ll give them an overdose of the stuff.”
It was a self-sabotaging move, one made even less marketable by Jones’ assumption of yet another pseudonym. Not only was Ziggy Stardust the hero of his album-in-progress, he insisted that he himself was Ziggy Stardust, come to Earth like Valentine Michael Smith, the protagonist of another of Bowie’s beloved Heinlein novel’s 1961’s Stranger in a Strange Land. That title certainly fit. Jones was Bowie, and now Bowie was Ziggy. But who was real? These nested identities, exacerbated by narcotics, fueled a nervous breakdown in 1974. He retreated to his widowed mother’s house, whose mortgage he’d paid off with the meager royalties from his ’60s work, and took up the far more terrestrial pastime of gardening.
There, out of the public eye, he turned to a form of expression that required no music industry, bandmates, or studio resources to complete: writing fiction. He cobbled together his lyrics and concept notes from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and, with passion renewed, radically reworked them. After a tremendous and heroic effort, secreted away from the public eye, this manuscript became his debut novel, Starman. Named after one of the songs planned for the Ziggy Stardust album, the book was published in 1974.
Few paid attention to it at first. But over the course of the next few years, its simultaneously hopeful, profane, spiritual, and apocalyptic depiction of first contact with an alien race became a bona fide cult classic. It was hailed by William S. Burroughs, one of Jones’ literary heroes, as “the kind of science fiction that would dismantle the world”—which, knowing Burroughs’ transgressive bent, was high praise indeed.
From there, Jones threw himself into prose. He never attended public readings or signings, preferring instead to devote all his time to his admittedly erratic output of science fiction. Even as the space programs of the United States and the USSR gradually shriveled up and fell by the wayside due to neglect and a denial of funding, his stories set in the outer reaches of consciousness and the cosmos took hold. Throughout the rest of the ’70s and into the ’80s, they came in random bursts, with little advance fanfare. Suddenly, one would hear whispers of a new David R. Jones novel, at which point it became incumbent on the Jones cultist to track down a copy of said novel in some dusty shop at the end of an empty street, usually the kind where occult curios, anarchist tracts, and such were sold.
Jones’ final live performance took place in 1984, when he made a surprise appearance at the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, in Los Angeles. With an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder and his face streaked diagonally with a lightning bolt of makeup, he quietly entered a circle of filk singers—musicians who perform science fiction- and fantasy-based songs, usually at genre-fiction conventions. When his turn came, he placed his guitar on his lap and played a song he introduced as, aptly enough, “1984.”
“This is based on the George Orwell novel that has failed and succeeded at envisioning our petrified present,” he can be heard whispering by way of introduction in a snippet of video footage that survives on YouTube. The song itself, even all these years later, sounds ominous, sung in a shadowy baritone and accompanied by urgently strummed chords.
After playing “1984” to the stunned circle of filkers who had begun to suspect with whom they were dealing, Jones exited the convention as furtively as he’d entered. Curiously, earlier that year he’d been nominated for a Hugo Award—science fiction’s highest honor, the winners of which are announced each year at Worldcon—for his 1983 novel Ashes to Ashes. The book, a sequel of sorts to “Space Oddity,” picks up the tragic story of Major Tom where the song had left him hanging, alone and in space, fourteen years prior. The astronaut who had personified the unthinkable ended up nothing more than a numb, space-addled junkie, although it’s never clear exactly what he’s become addicted to. Synthesized drugs? Narcissistic lust? Or the isolation of eternal orbit itself?
Ashes to Ashes failed to win the Hugo for Best Novel that year, not that Jones stuck around at Worldcon long enough to see the winner announced. But he didn’t need to wait for long for that honor to fall upon him. In 1999, thirty years after “Space Oddity” provided the soundtrack to the most horrendous disaster in human history, Jones won a Hugo Award for his eighth novel. It’s the eons-spanning saga of an extraterrestrial observer who visits Earth at various points in our timeline, from the age of the Knights Templar to our modern world full of religious strife, clashing worldviews, and rampant xenophobia. Jones titled it, in a tone some perceived as a wry mingling of cruelty and hope, Loving the Alien.
After his impromptu 1984 performance, Jones was never seen in public. Every two or three years, however, a finished manuscript—printed and mailed via the post, never transmitted electronically—would show up on some publisher’s desk or other. Never at a major New York publisher, but always at a small press based in some less glamorous corner of the world, a press specializing in the more arcane fringes of science fiction and fantasy. Jones mostly faded from pop-culture consciousness. Occasionally, he’d be mentioned in an article about rock’s unsung cult heroes or unsolved mysteries. Almost always, those articles failed to fully convey how important and influential Jones had become as a science fiction author, as compared to his fleeting infamy as the novelty singer named David Bowie. Mostly they focused on his unenviable place in history, and on his reclusion, playing up the irony of a gardener who once wrote about alien worlds. Some even went so far as to psychoanalyze Jones, saying he dug in the dirt in his mother’s backyard as some way of transferring his bone-deep desire to know what had erupted out of the lunar soil that day in 1969.
Those few people who remained close to Jones, however, refuted reports of his reclusive reputation. “He’s actually quite happy, in his own way,” said his longtime friend Syd Barrett, leader of Pink Floyd, speaking to Rolling Stone in 2012. Barrett had battled his own demons and substance abuse issues in the ’60s and ’70s to emerge as one of the most celebrated and successful singer-songwriters of all time—a stark contrast to Jones’ more troubled career arc. In that interview Barrett added, “What can I tell you? David writes his science fiction tales, simple as that. You know, I used to dabble in a sci-fi song or two myself, back in the mid-’60s at the UFO Club in London, when Jones used to come see Pink Floyd. UFO Club—funny when you think about it, right? Anyway, he lives in his mom’s old house and putters about with a watering can and a pail of fertilizer, and he’s very happy. Or at least he’s very much not unhappy. He has friends. A lover from time to time, not that you’ll catch me naming names! He has a life, much like anyone’s. He just doesn’t feel the need to entertain every journo or opportunistic promoter or curiosity seeker who washes up in his doorstep. If that makes him a recluse, well, I supposed the definition of ‘recluse’ is a bit twisted.
“He has his small legion of devoted fans,” Barrett went on, “and he’s made his mark in the world with this fiction, with the worlds he’s created on the page. Have you ever read him? Most journos who write about him don’t even bother. Mad worlds, strange worlds, brave worlds, David creates. Worlds that make us question who we are in the universe, and where we might be going, and how we might think and create and fuck and fuck up once we get there. We all still look up at night with ghosts in our eyes, don’t we? Only we don’t like to talk about that. But someday, we’ll have to get back out there. Back up there. David never stopped believing that. Not after ’69. Not ever. He’s stayed true. And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Some artists are chameleons, always changing in order to startle their audience or appease some inner self. David is just... David. And that’s enough sound, enough vision, for anyone.”
Upon hearing of Jones’ death earlier today, Pink Floyd issued an emotional statement on their website, in part, that their highly anticipated new album—loosely planned for a 2018 release—will feature a Barrett-penned tribute to Jones tentatively titled “Shine on You Crazy Starman.”