The Man Who Fell to Los Angeles: David Bowie's Lost L.A. Year

A color version of the cover from David Bowie's Station to Station, based on a photo from Nicolas Roeg's film, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
A color version of the cover from David Bowie's Station to Station, based on a photo from Nicolas Roeg's film, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Rykodisc

I was chatting with a friend about the death of David Bowie and I mentioned that Bowie briefly lived in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s.

“I know,” said my friend. “That’s where he did so much cocaine that he ended up living in a dark house on Doheny like a vampire, eating only peppers and drinking milk, and saving up his semen and nail clippings so that black magic witches could not create a Satanic [version of him], Rosemary’s Baby-style. Also, he exorcised a swimming pool."

“I was going to say, ‘Here’s where he recorded Station to Station, my favorite Bowie album,” I replied. “And it’s also where he first tried to become a movie star by getting involved in Nicolas Roeg’s amazing The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

The thing is, we were both right.

Actually, I was more factually right than my friend, in the sense that, while by all accounts (including the artist’s himself) Bowie was consuming enormous amounts of cocaine and descending into a vortex of occult paranoia, the specifics of the bottles of semen and the Satan-possessed pool are a little harder to document.

So, what happened to Bowie in Los Angeles in 1975? And why did the memory of that personally scarring but artistically fruitful period linger for decades?

Here’s what Bowie himself had to say in 1999 about what he called “singularly the darkest days of my life”:

Even though the experience loomed very large (and traumatically) in his personal mythology, Bowie’s Los Angeles period was only about 10 months long, minus the 11 weeks he spent in New Mexico shooting The Man Who Fell to Earth.

According to the helpful chronology on the fan site BowieGoldenYears.com, Bowie relocated to Los Angeles from New York around late March or early April 1975. Some 10 months later — during his successful 1976 world tour, right after his Los Angeles shows Feb. 8-11, 1976 — he returned to the home he had rented for a few months on Stone Canyon Road in Bel-Air to pack up his belongings and move to Switzerland, where he settled in a quaint cottage near Charlie Chaplin’s home and took up skiing.

So, what actually happened in Los Angeles during those 10 months? Actually, quite a lot. Once you look past the "Hollywood vampire” mythology, the complex relationships with multiple girlfriends (mostly strong black women, like costume designer Ola Hudson, the mother of Slash), the wacky, unverifiable drug stories, and colorful accounts by lovers and associates with autobiographies to sell, what you find is a more familiar story: David Bowie came to Los Angeles to get involved in the movie business, and things didn’t work out the way he expected.

In the process, though, he made one of his best albums and gave a definitive performance in what became an unquestionable movie masterpiece.

Bowie relocated to L.A. mainly because his new managers — movie world people, as opposed to his former music management, whom he was then in the process of suing — had made a deal for him to star in and provide the soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth.

When he spoke to Tina Brown for a cover story in England's Sunday Times Magazine during his first weeks in Los Angeles, Bowie expressed the customary feelings of new Los Angeles transplants: He was dazzled by the movie business and overwhelmed trying to navigate this complex city that looked nothing like London or New York. He was also determined, as so many L.A. newcomers are, to reinvent himself.

"Me and rock-and-roll have parted company," he told Brown. "Don't worry, I'll still make albums with love and with fun, but my effect is finished. I'm very pleased. I think I've caused quite enough rumpus for someone who's not even convinced he's a good musician. Now I'm going to be a film director.”

Brown described a conversation with Bowie's lawyer, Mike Lippmann, who claimed his client had "completed nine film scripts this year and plans to direct Terence Stamp." "I've always been a screen writer,” an overexcited, coke-confident Bowie added. "My songs have just been practice for scripts."

The other reason Bowie had relocated to the West Coast was that, much like John Lennon before him, he was trying to escape his wife. He was also, much like almost every Brit who has made some money in showbiz, looking to have some fun in the sun with other debauched expats.

When Brown asked him about his much-publicized bisexuality and his marriage, Bowie paused, then told her, "I s'pose I do fancy blokes quite a bit but I spend more time with chicks, particularly black chicks. The only type of chicks I can't stand are New York feminists. Get them into bed, and after five minutes they want you to do something funny with a light bulb. It's all so academic. And anyway, I love my wife.”

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Brown noted, perceptively, that “his relationship with Angela [his wife] seems to be more that of a brother these days than a husband." 

"I'm not worried that Bo will fall in love with someone else while we're apart,” a resigned Angela Bowie told Brown in London. "He's incapable of loving anything except his work. I'm his security and anyone else is just a one night stand."

"How was I to know that L.A. would be so full of black chicks?” Bowie asked Brown, in defense of his philandering.

Still, even at this point, Bowie expressed negative feelings towards America, which quite clearly would inform his performance a few weeks later as the displaced space alien Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. "America is a myth land to me now,” he said to Brown. "I hated it when I came."

His portrait of alienation in the film he shot (made by another hard-working, hard-partying Brit in Hollywood, the brilliant Nicolas Roeg) is equal parts European repulsion and a deadpan, childlike wonder he developed by carefully studying Buster Keaton.

Between June and August 1975, Bowie was mostly away from Los Angeles shooting The Man Who Fell to Earth. During that time he was also hard at work on the soundtrack for the film, which he conceived as a major work and a total change of direction in his career. His deadline was February 1976 and, according to the agent who put the deal together, he was getting paid as much for the soundtrack as for the performance ($75,000 for each job).

The rush of success and cocaine convinced Bowie, in the splendid solitude of his New Mexico trailer, that he could be a movie star! A musician! A composer! A writer! (Bowie’s idol, Bob Dylan, went through a similar manic trip right before his infamous motorcycle crash in 1966). “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” which ended up as a single, myth-making verse in the song “Station to Station,” started out as the title of an ambitious, coke-fueled novel or autobiography or possibly film script or possibly all three. Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe, who as a cub reporter for Rolling Stone and Playboy was shadowing Bowie at the time, even got an excerpt of this magnum opus out of him.

When the movie wrapped in August, Bowie came back to Los Angeles and rented a secluded house at 1349 Stone Canyon Road in Bel-Air, way up by the Stone Canyon Reservoir. The book never happened. The movie soundtrack never happened either, though Bowie played some instrumental tracks for Roeg.

Instead, when the rush of being writer/film composer/movie star wore off, Bowie got back to what he did best. In September, he booked time at the then-state-of-the-art Cherokee Studios (on Fairfax, north of Melrose) and made Station to Station in less than two months.

David Bowie circa 1976
David Bowie circa 1976
Photo by Andrew Kent, courtesy Rykodisc

People who don’t listen very carefully call Station to Station “a cocaine record,” mostly on the strength of a couple of verses on the title song ("It's not the side-effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love”) and Bowie’s own consistently depressing accounts of this period. A better description for it would be that it’s “a Los Angeles record,” and one of the greatest.

Sure, cocaine is part of it. But there's also dime-store occultism, paperback philosophizing, Manson Family vibes, the idea of melodramatic redemption (what’s more Hollywood than his rendition of “Wild Is the Wind”?), the glittery promises of sci-fi and tech devolving into television garbage (“TVC15,” which perfectly captures that iconic Man Who Fell to Earth scene of the alien hypnotized and horrified by the cacophony of a wall of TV sets). Station to Station is the very original soundtrack to a film Bowie never made, but instead lived, called The Man Who Fell to Los Angeles.

By November, with his new album in the can, Bowie had had enough of Hollywood. RCA released “Golden Years” as a single — a good choice, as it was the transitional track between the new, harsher sounds and the plastic soul discotheque sounds of his previous album, Young Americans. Bowie demanded a satellite hookup with a popular U.K. show, and headed to Burbank to announce a world tour for early 1976.

By February, when he packed up his Bel-Air home of a few months, Bowie had blown The Man Who Fell to Earth soundtrack deadline. (Roeg tried giving the job to Papa John Phillips, another debauched workaholic, but the ambient music for the film that replaced Bowie’s intriguing demo instrumentals ultimately came from the enormously underrated Japanese genius Stomu Yamashta). He was out on the road through America and then off to Europe.

He never lived in Los Angeles again. 


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