Soon after returning from Spain in the summer of 1972, David was launched by his dad on an intensive programme of self-improvement.
Through home study and with the help of local private tutors, he set about making up for the fact that he’d left school at 16 with only two General Certificate of Education passes to his name, where a respectable amount would be no less than five.
He took Karate classes at the Judokan in Hammersmith, and among his fellow students were hard-looking young men – some of them flaunting classic ’70s feather cuts – who may have been led to the dojo by the prevailing fashion for all things Eastern, such as the films of Bruce Lee, and the “Kung Fu” television series.
There were swimming lessons at the Walton Swimming Pool, where he fell hard for a beautiful elfin girl with a close crop hairstyle which made her look a little like a skinhead girl. She beckoned to him once to come and be with her, but he just stood there as if frozen to the spot. His heart wasn’t in the swimming though, and this soon became clear to one of the teachers, who once told him with devastating frankness:
“I don’t know why you bother even turning up.”
Music did interest him though, and although he was an idle slacker, he was yet successfully initiated into the basics of the Rock guitar solo by shy guitar teacher Gerry Firth, who taught from a tiny little abode down an alley in nearby Walton-on-Thames, and whose middle aged appearance belied a deep love of the rebel music of Rock and Roll.
On one occasion, David tried to persuade him of the superior merit of Classical music on the basis that it’s “well-played”, which Gerry countered with:
“Well, isn’t Rock Music well played?”
David was baffled by his argument, because despite his own preference for Rock, he had no great belief in its artistic merits.
Another thing that bewildered him about Gerry Firth was his admiration for teen idol Marc Bolan, a man he had always despised as much for his girlish appearance as his simplistic three-chord Rock.
“Don’t you find him effeminate?” David once asked him disgustedly, fully expecting Gerry to express due horror at Bolan’s startling pretty boy looks, while expressing admiration for his catchy tunes; but Gerry trumped him with an answer that caused his jaw to drop:
“Not as excitingly so as Mike Jagger!”
“Mick Jagger”, said David, correcting the older man.
“Mick Jagger”, Gerry conceded, but he’d made a sixteen year old boy look old, which was quite a feat for a man who favoured sleeveless sweaters and Oxford bags.
Late in the summer, David signed up for five years service with the London Division of the Royal Naval Reserve based on HMS President on the Embankment of the Thames, and not long afterwards, it became clear to him he’d been singled out by some of the older ratings for his own burgeoning pretty boy looks.
He was flattered rather than offended by the revelation, as if it had implanted a seed of narcissism within him. To a degree then, it was a case of an ugly duckling suddenly finding himself to be a swan, and enjoying the resultant notoriety, such as that latterly conferred on the young Spaniard of the Bar Castilla.
It’s not that he wasn’t aware of being good-looking before ’72, but, having always been a typical feisty ruffian of a boy, it had never really registered. Having said that, he had always been a dreamer, and had never gone through a phase of detesting girls, as so many boys do. What’s more, he’d nurtured a sentimental streak all throughout his teens that placed him somewhat at odds with his peers.
While still only about fifteen and pretty thuggish for the most part, he was yet susceptible to notorious tear-jerkers such as “South Pacific”…whose movie version he saw at the flicks at the tender age of 15.
British director John Schlesinger’s screen adaptation of the uber-romantic Thomas Hardy novel, “Far from the Madding Crowd”, was another film that affected him very deeply indeed…too deeply perhaps for an adolescent boy, and it may have been partly responsible for an obsession with lost love and high romantic tragedy that was to become a defining feature of his life.
But the softening process that took place in the closing months of 1972 was inexplicable in its sheer intensity nonetheless.
It received a further boost when, towards the new year, he saw former Bubblegum band, the Sweet, on a long-forgotten teenage Pop programme called “Lift off with Ayesha”. They’d once incarnated everything he detested, yet, watching them prance around in high heels and make up, pouting and preening like a quartet of hysterical transvestites, he underwent what was little short of an epiphany.
Then, several months later, Pop veteran David Bowie appeared on the chat show Russell Harty Plus with his eyebrows shaved off and sporting a glittering chandelier earring, and so David’s devotion to Glam became total. Even David’s mother Miss Ann Watt was charmed by him, when, towards the end of the interview, after Harty had asked him an absurd question about his shoes, he referred to the chat show host as “silly”, before flashing an impossibly radiant smile:
“Aww, he’s sweet,”Miss Ann Watt emoted, who was also enchanted by Elton John; but when she caught sight of the cover of the New York Dolls first album, which David had ordered by post through his usual outlet, she told him that apart from the hardest pornography, she couldn’t imagine anything quite so offensive to the senses.
Bowie’s sphinx-like charisma was so potent that even some of the most unreconstructed of macho men were drawn, irresistibly, to his art, which combined the most infectious Pop melodies with complex, deeply literate lyrics, and yet it was one purveyed by a man who would once have moved those same men to thoughts of violence…and still almost certainly did. But the zeitgeist of the nation was changing.
The cult of androgyny was a powerful force in Britain in 1973, having been earlier incubated by both Mod and Hippie culture, and musical acts as diverse as the Stones, the Kinks, Alice Cooper, the Stooges and T.Rex.
Furthermore, it was reinforced in the cinema by several movies featuring angelically beautiful men. And yet, you still took your life into your own hands if you chose to parade around like a Glam Rock star in the mean streets of London or any other major British city – to say nothing of the countryside – and therefore few did.
David fantasised about fame and adulation as a Rock and Roll or movie star as never before throughout the Glam era, and built an image based on David Bowie, spiking his hair like him, and even peroxiding it at some point. Not surprisingly then, he didn’t really fit in in Molesey, unlike his brother who wasted little time in becoming part of a local youth scene centred mainly around football, traditional sport of the British working classes.
As to David, he came into his own in La Ribera, and it was towards the end of the summer of ’73 that he finally started being noticed in a big way by the local youth, most of whom were from either Murcia or Madrid. He’d croon for crowds of La Riberan boys and girls, who’d make requests for their favourites:
“Oye, David, canta la de Gilbert O’Sulliban!”
“Conoces Cat Estebens?”
“Canta como Sinatra!”
An ever-evolving group forged an incredible closeness that summer that lasted for a full four years, and oh what magical summers they were for both Dane and David. They’d never forget them, nor be able to fully recapture the purity of the joy they knew in the still so innocent Spain of the immediate pre-Franco years.
Even later in ’73, the minesweeper HMS Thames set out for Bordeaux in Gironde in the south west of France. It was David’s first voyage as an Ordinary Deckhand with the RNR, and he was just seventeen years old.
He struck up a friendship with the most unlikely pair of bosom buddies he ever came across in the RNR or anywhere else. .
One half was Micky, a tough-talking working class ladies’ man of about 23, who was rumoured to be a permanent year long resident of HMS Thames. The other, an older man, possibly in his mid thirties, but just as much of a lad as Mick, even though he boasted the patrician manner of a City of London stockbroker or merchant banker.
Mick took David under his wing with a certain intimidating affection:
“We’ll make a ruffy tuffy sailor of you yet,” he once promised him, even both men knew he’d never be anything other than the most useless mariner in the civilised world.
To make it clear just how much of a lubber David was, there was one occasion when, during some kind of conference being held below deck, he was asked by an officer what he thought of minesweeping, and he replied:
“It’s a gas!”
On another, after the ship had been prepared for a major manoeuvre, and every hand was in their respective allotted position, he was found wandering about on deck in a daze, and when asked what he thought he was doing, he casually told them:
“Just taking a stroll…”
Incidents like these made him the object of good-humoured banter onboard the Thames, where he served as a kind of latter-day Billy Budd, but without the seamanship.
Its crew spent its final night in a club in the southern port of Portsmouth , though it might just as easily have been Plymouth. The main event was a hyperactive drag artiste who tried desperately to keep them entertained with cabaret style numbers sung in a high woman’s voice, and bawdy jokes told in a deep manly baritone, but he was way out of his depth, and the boys of the Thames subjected him to a savage barrage of heckling. At one point – perhaps in the hope of seeing a friendly face – he turned towards David, and excitedly trilled:
“Ooh…you look pretty, what’s your name?”
“Skin!” the sailors bellowed back, as in “a nice bit of skin”, Navy slang for a desirable youth.
A little while later, the tar with the beard who’d been sitting next to David all night asked him to hold the mike for him while he performed Rossini’s “William Tell Overture “on his facial cheeks. He ended up passed out on the table in front of him after having collapsed face down with an almighty CRASH!
But he wasn’t the only one to suffer such an undignified fate that bacchanalian night.
Back onshore, and David resumed his growing passion for all that was louche, bizarre and decadent in music, art and culture.
However, increasingly from ’74 onwards, he turned away from what he now saw as the old hat tackiness of Glam Rock, convinced that Modernist outrage had nowhere left to go. Instead, his devotion started to centre on the more refined corruption of the golden age of Modernism of ca. 1890-1930, and especially its leading cities, in terms of their being beacons of revolutionary art, and of e, luxury and dissolution. They included the London of the Yellow Decade, Belle Époque Paris, Jazz Age New York, and most of all, Weimar Republic Berlin.
At some point in ’74, he started using hair cream to slick his hair back in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, sometimes parting it in the centre just as his idol had done, and to build up a new retro wardrobe.
These went on to include a Gatsby style tab collar, which he wore either with striped collegiate tie, or cravat or neck scarf. Over this, he might wear a short-sleeved Fair Isle sweater, a navy blue blazer from Meakers, and a belted fawn raincoat straight out of a forties film noir. His grey flannel trousers from Simpsons of Piccadilly typically flopped over a pair of two-tone correspondent shoes.
There were those cutting edge artists who appeared to share his love affair with the languid cafe and cabaret culture of the continent’s immediate past. Among these were established acts, such as David Bowie and Roxy Music, and newer stars such as Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel, and Ron and Russell Mael from L.A band Sparks, who’d recently come to Britain in search of Glam Rock glory. Some of Roxy’s followers even went so far as to sport the kind of nostalgic apparel favoured by Ferry himself, but they were rare creatures indeed in mid-seventies London.
As for David, he wore his bizarre outdated costumes in arrogant defiance of the continuing ubiquity of shoulder-length hair and flared denim jeans. In 1975, he even had the gall to go to a concert at West London’s Queen’s Park football stadium dressed in striped boating blazer and white trousers, only to find himself surrounded by hirsute Rock fans. The headliners were his one-time favourites Yes, whose “Relayer” album he’d bought the year before; but his passion for Progressive Rock was a thing of the past. He’d moved on since ’71, towards a far deeper love of darkness and loss of innocence.
But there was nothing even remotely dark about the time he fell in love with a Dutch girl while sitting Spanish “O” level in June 1974 in Gower Street, Central London. She didn’t look Dutch; in fact, with her tanned complexion and long dark brown hair, she was Mediterranean in appearance, and even had the name to match: Maria.
It was probably she who approached David, because he was so unconfident around girls in those days that he’d have never made the first move, and in all the time he knew her, he didn’t have the guts to tell her how he felt. So, once they’d completed their final paper, he allowed her to walk away from him forever with a casual “I might see you around”, or some other cliché of that kind.
For about a week, he took the train into London and spent the days wandering around the city centre in the truly desperate hope of bumping into her. One time he could have sworn he saw her staring coolly back at him from an underground train, possibly at South Kensington or Notting Hill Gate, just as the doors were closing. Typically though, he was powerless to act, and simply stood there like a lovesick fool as the train drew away from the station.
In time, his infatuation faded, but even into his fifties, certain songs – such as “I Just Don’t Want to be Lonely” by The Main Ingredient, and “Natural High” by Bloodstone – would recall for him those few weeks in the summer of ’74 which he spent in hopeless pursuit of a woman of whom he knew quite literally nothing.
Later on in the year, and fully recovered from this absurd unspoken passion, he found himself once again in the beautiful little former fishing village of Santiago de la Ribera.
The summer of ’74 was one of the most blissful he ever spent there, and there were a good few of those. Each afternoon, he’d meet up with friends both male and female on the jetty facing his apartment on the Mar Menor, which was more or less deserted after lunch, where they’d listen to Bowie on cassette, or Donny keening “Puppy Love” on a portable phonograph, and generally enjoy being young and carefree in a decade of endless possibilities.
To some youthful Spanish eyes back in ’74-’76, David was an almost impossibly exotic figure from what was then the most radical and daring city in Europe, and he played his image up to the hilt. In truth, though, he was barely less sheltered and innocent than they, and how wonderful it felt for him to bask in their soft Mediterranean loveliness for a few brief seasons.
However, there was a change that came over Spain with Franco’s passing, and the birth of the so-called “Movida“, which could be said to be the Spanish equivalent of London’s Swinging Sixties revolution. Perhaps it didn’t happen right away, but by David’s last vacation in La Ribera in the summer of ’84, it was he who was in awe of the local youth rather than the other way around. They seemed so cool to him, dancing their strange jerky chicken wing dance to the latest New Pop hits from Britain. By then, of course, most of his old friends had vanished into their young adult lives, and his time as the undisputed English prince of La Ribera, had long passed.
He returned to London in late summer ’74 with a deep tan and his long hair bleached bright yellow by the sun.
Only days afterwards, he found himself on HMS President, moored then as today on the Embankment near Temple station. This involved his passing through Waterloo mainline station, which wasn’t tourist-friendly as it is today, with its cafes and baguette bars, but a dingy intimidating place complete with pub and old-style barber. There, he was approached by an old sailor who kept going on about how good looking he was; but he was no predator, just a sweet lonely old Scotsman who wanted someone to talk to for a few minutes, and David was happy to oblige:
“I love ye, Davy, he kept saying, I love ye…”
He even went so far as to agree to a meeting with him the same time the following week, but he had no intention of keeping it. Besides, it wasn’t long before HMS Thames was on its way to Hamburg, second largest city of Germany and its principle port.
Once they’d arrived, one of the CPOs warned David not to wander around Hamburg alone, for fear he might end up being ravaged and dumped in some back alley, or worse:
“You’ll end up raped,” he muttered darkly.
He duly joined up with a group of about three or four other ratings on his first night ashore, and they headed straight for the Reeperbahn in the bewitchingly vicious St Pauli red light district, where there were the obligatory streets lined with working girls and bars with the most explicit movies projected onto its walls…all in such stark contrast to the leafy outer suburbs, where David found himself, possibly a day or so later, through a specially organised coach trip.
A gang of them ended up in a park where David had his picture taken on a bridge by a reporter for the Surrey Comet, before a group of breathless tittering schoolgirls asked him to join them in some photos, and he of course obliged, flattered by their attentions.
On the way back to the ship, one of the sailors announced he’d been quite a hit with the Hamburg teenyboppers, while another wryly opined:
“It’s cos ‘e’s blond, innit…”
Whatever the truth, their simple unaffected joy of life must have seemed so touching to David, especially in the light of what girls barely older than they were subjecting themselves to a mere few miles away.
Sometime in 1975, David became a student at Brooklands Technical College which lay, then as now, on the fringes of Weybridge, an affluent outer suburb of south west London.
In semi-pastoral Brooklands, as in his beloved La Ribera, he learned to be a social being after years of near-seclusion, first at Pangbourne and then as a home student. So, attention came to be a potent narcotic for him in the mid 1970s. However, despite constant displays of flamboyant self-confidence, those who tried to get to know to know me on an intimate level found themselves confronted with a paradoxically diffident and inhibited individual.
The regular Brooklands Disco was a special event for David. On one occasion early on in a Disco night, he got up in front of what seemed like the whole college and delivered a solo dance performance, possibly with white silk scarf flailing in the air, to a fiery Glam tune by Bebop Deluxe, and just blew everyone away, if their frenzied cheers and applause was anything to go by.
On another, a trio of roughs who may have gate crashed the Disco only to see in David the worst possible example of the feckless wastrel student strutting and posturing in unmanly white, took him aside at the end of the night, doubtless intent on a touch of the old ultra-violence:
“Oy you, we bin watchin’ you, you’re a poof, ain’tcha…”
But David stood his ground, insisting that despite what they may have thought about him, he was just as straight as they. Apparently convinced of this, they vanished into the departing crowds after muttering a few dark threats, leaving his cherubic face intact.
’75 again, and David’s music, swimming and Martial Arts sessions were no more, but the private lessons continued, mainly with a young academic called Mark, who lived alone but for several black cats in long time Rock star haven Richmond-on-Thames. He was a quiet slim young man with long darkish curly hair who, as well as being a private tutor, was a successful session musician.
Mark, who specialised in the French Symbolist poets, exerted a strong influence on David in terms of his growing passion for European literature and Modernist culture. However, it was the less known literature of Spain that they studied together, from the anonymous picaresque novel “Lazarillo de Tormes” – which was written around 1554 – onwards, and embracing Quevedo, Galdos, Machado, Dario and Lorca.
He was also an early encourager of David’s writing, a lifelong passion that was ultimately to degenerate into a chronic case of cacoethes scribendi, or the irresistible compulsion to write. As a result of this, he became incapable of finishing a single cohesive piece of writing until well into the eighties when he managed to complete a short story and a novel, both of which he went on to destroy but for a few fragments.
It was largely through Mark that David came under the spell of the Berlin of the Weimar Republic of 1919 to 1933:
After he’d expressed interest in a copy of one of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels, “Mr Norris Changes Trains”, conspicuously placed in front of him on his desk, Mark told him in animated tones that it had inspired the 1972 movie version of the Kander and Ebb musical, “Cabaret”. In fact, while a work of art in its own right written for the screen by Jay Allen, and directed by former dancer Bob Fosse, “Cabaret” had been largely informed by Isherwood’s only other Berlin story, “Goodbye to Berlin”.
Seeing “Cabaret” later on that year was a life-transforming experience for David, one of only a handful in his life brought about by a film, and the beginning of a near-obsessive preoccupation with the Berlin of the Weimar era of 192
So much that has become familiar to the West and beyond in the last half-century, from the deconstructive philosophies that dominate our academia, to the theatre of outrage that is the essence of Rock music, pre-existed in some form in the Berlin of the Golden Twenties, during which she existed as the undisputed world epicentre of the Modern impulse.
Under her auspices, great artistic freedom thrived in the shape of the painters of the New Objectivity movement, such as Beckmann, Dix and Grosz, the staccato cabaret-style music of Kurt Weill, Fritz Lang’s dystopian “Metropolis”, and the provocative dancing of Cabaret Queen Anita Berber, and her epicene companion, Sebastian Droste. And then there’s the notorious sexual liberalism, which, as depicted in pictorial depictions of her cabarets and night clubs, has carried a power to shock even as far as the jaded 21st Century.
But beneath the glittering carapace, she bore within her the seeds of her own ruin, for despite the genius that flourished alongside the licentiousness, she was operating largely in defiance of the Judaeo-Christian moral values that have long formed the basis of Western society. Given that several other European and American cities were hardly less hysterically dissolute than Berlin, it’s little wonder that the key Modernist decade of the twenties has been described by some critics as the beginning of the end of Western civilisation.
In its wake came the Great Depression, the unspeakable horrors of the Second World War, and the collapse of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, all of which were succeeded in turn by the dawning of the Rock and Roll era, and its quasi-religious exaltation of youth, which some critics see as the very triumph of Western decadence.
Decadence…that loaded word had a very special meaning and power for David Cristiansen in the mid 1970s…ever since his mother had used it, in fact, in reference to a series of photos of Germany’s Weimar era featured in an edition of the Sunday Times magazine:
“Why do people want to be decadent?” She’d asked, as if genuinely concerned for those featured, which of course she was, having been raised in a Salvationist home in the idyllic Vancouver of the 1920s, and therefore imbued for life despite herself with a Christian worldview. But to David Cristiansen, the answer was obvious, because in his Rock and Roll eyes, decadence was so heavy with the mysteries of the most forbidden sins that he could scarcely wait to become its incarnation; and while he would fall far, far short of his goal, he’d almost die trying to attain it.