In the early-mid 1970s came a chain of albums recorded in London that grabbed elements of popular music and fused them to form something unprecedented; a kind of upper-echelon rock that had no obvious direct forebear. It used some of glam-rock’s iconography, including a distinctly urban, off-hand trashiness, but without any of glam’s chintzy gaudiness. It took something of the spirit of the singer/songwriter in that its leading lights wrote their material, but it thumbed its nose at downbeat solipsism. It was rockier than pop and more theatrical than rock. It’s still never really been satisfactorily named, usually ending up filed under Glam. But it was worlds away from the resolutely straight, bricklayers-in-makeup brotherhood of Slade and the Sweet. On the contrary, its stars challenged conventional ideas about sexuality, propriety, femininity, and masculinity.
Foremost among these albums were David Bowie‘s Aladdin Sane (1973), Lou Reed‘s Transformer (1972), and Mick Ronson‘s patchy but intermittently brilliant Slaughter on 10th Avenue (1974). All three works were linked by falling under the Bowie/Ronson umbrella, appearing on RCA and being connected to Tony DeFries’ notorious MainMan management company. In another universe, the Bowie/Ronson union could have turned into a long-running, powerhouse production entity. But at this stage in his career, Bowie saw only short-term utility in his collaborators. So instead, we have just a small handful of albums — but what albums they are. Yet, there’s one that got away — and it turns out to have been one of the best.
In 1973, RCA issued the third album by British singer/songwriter Dana Gillespie. It bore the unusual, mildly provocative name of Weren’t Born a Man. On the cover, looking quite unflappable, Gillespie appeared in her underwear and a feather boa as if to illustrate the point made by the title. This ruby-hued Gered Mankowitz image served glam-rock glitz with a Moulin Rouge twist. It worked because Gillespie had chosen the presentation. She was sex-positive before we even called it that. Through the ’60s and ’70s, she paid a steep price for it.
It was rare for any review of her music in the UK press not to focus on her vital statistics or be headlined with the kind of sniggering boob jokes favoured by the more sexually repressed English journalists of the period. “Dana’s got great things ahead of her!”, “Dana’s got her knockers!” “Dana’s a bosom pal!” Amid all the tittering, her music got overlooked. Today, she might well drown in good reviews – a songwriter, vocalist, and producer of distinction who could also turn her hand to acting and had once been a junior waterskiing champion. Back then, the press only saw breasts.
Weren’t Born a Man includes some of Gillespie’s most satisfying songs. “Back a Loser” oscillates between smooth, elegant, plaintive verses and an intense, juddering chorus, assisted by a beautiful Del Newman string arrangement. “What Memories We Make” sounds like a folk-ballad from a Western soundtrack and enjoyed the distinction of being Princess Margaret’s favourite (more on that later). “Dizzy Heights” and “The Eternal Showman” are character studies of David Bowie, the latter enhanced by a prominent Rick Wakeman piano part. Throughout, her singing voice is smooth and beautifully luxuriant.
Gillespie’s sex-embracing image was in a totally different vein to Madonna’s, a decade later. It didn’t seem designed to outrage; it was more about the pursuit of fun and laughter for their own sakes – something she’d been committed to from a young age. In her new memoir, she recalls an early-morning childhood walk through a London fog with her mother:
“It was impossible to see your own hand in front of your face. As we passed Harrods, she [mother] asked, ‘Why have you let go of my hand? What are you doing?’
‘I’ve got my skirt over my head,’ I replied, ‘as one day I want to be able to say that I walked down Knightsbridge showing my knickers!’
Years later, I did much better than that by giving someone a blowjob in his white Rolls Royce while we were stuck in a traffic jam outside Harrods. This was the sixties, a time when my life was as swinging as the rest of London.”
The memoir, especially the first half and a bit, is full of such moments – Gillespie had a convivial, free-spirited youth, living life to the hilt and seeing her beauty, youth, and sexuality as gifts to be enjoyed rather than preserved. But there was at least one area in which she was deadly serious; her music. Weren’t Born A Man was recorded in fits and starts, its earliest songs dating back to 1971. Intended as a 100 percent Bowie/Ronson production, its construction was delayed by two things; Gillespie’s appearance in the first London production of Jesus Christ Superstar (as Mary Magdalene) and Bowie’s ascension to the rock ‘n’ roll firmament. In the end, the Bowie/Ronson-produced tracks were augmented by songs produced by Ronson, Gillespie, and Robin Cable.
Weren’t Born a Man doubles as the title of the memoir (Hawksmoor Publishing). Gillespie has squeezed several hundred lives into her 71 years. If you include her work on soundtracks and other special projects, she passed the milestone of 70 albums over a year ago. Weren’t Born A Man (the album) stands alone in her catalogue – she’s never made anything else quite like it – but it’s far from her only essential release. New converts could do worse than to move on to Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle (RCA, 1974) before jumping forward a few decades to her latest, Under My Bed (Ace, 2019) and then hurtling back to the beginning for her folky debut, Foolish Seasons (1967).
Interest in her work has been gathering renewed momentum. Her RCA albums, out of circulation for decades, have finally been gathered with an abundance of extras as What Memories We Make, The Complete MainMan Recordings (Cherry Red, 2019). The earlier Decca albums have been put together as London Social Degree (RPM, 2018). The timing of the memoir feels auspicious.
I first met Gillespie two years ago. I was struck by how easygoing and hospitable she is. She’s a resolutely B.S.-free showbiz veteran with a big heart and a sense of humour. Stepping into her sitting room, with its antique rugs and elaborate wall-hangings, towers of books and CDs and vintage music equipment, is like a foretaste of heaven. But for this covid-era interview, we connected by telephone.
Still living in the heart of London as she did at the outset of her life in music, she’s not someone with whom you have to break the ice, because there’s simply no ice in the first place. In addition to a number of other attributes, she possesses the quality of loyalty. There are many people I’m sure would testify to this. Take one example: Ever since the David/Angie Bowie marriage disintegrated, commentators have reduced Angie Bowie to a music-history footnote, often dismissing her as nothing more than a loud opportunist. Gillespie, who was there, tells a different story, recalling the active hand Angie had in David’s artistic development. When they split, people who were friends with both of them ended up transferring their affections to David, the one in the more powerful and influential position. Gillespie stuck by Angie, who was left in penury (or penury in rock-star spouse terms) and had her reputation dragged through the mud. They remain friends to this day.
Let’s start at the beginning. Gillespie had an idyllic childhood for which she remains grateful. The family moved from the country to South Kensington, London when she was a child. “My father was called Dr Henry Gillespie,” she tells me. “He was a radiologist with consulting rooms in Wimpole Street. My mother, Anne, came from a very old English family with Quaker roots.” The Gillespie household was sufficiently progressive that when her parents acquired new partners, they moved them in. Rather than feeling put out, Gillespie and her sister cheerfully accepted their augmented family.
“There were five floors. My father moved his mistress in. And my mother carried on living in the house, too, with a man who was like my stepfather, The Honourable Tom Hazlerigg. It was extremely liberal, all very understanding. My father was a very intelligent man and my mother was gracious and kind and they just kind of got on with it. Father had always been a bit of a babe magnet. It never bothered me at all.” Gillespie instinctively knew, however, that at school she might encounter narrower minds. “I knew to keep quiet about the home arrangement,” she confirms. “I knew that other people weren’t living like that but it seemed perfectly reasonable to me. To me, a double set of parents under one roof was both convenient and brilliant.”
Gillespie’s music began taking off when she moved into the basement of her parents’ house, which was self-contained and allowed her to make noise and host friends. “I painted it all weird colours, like a temple-cum-harem.” By 15, she was a regular at music clubs in the capital including The Marquee, The Cromwellian Club, and Blazes. “I was able to get on with quite a wild life from an early age, which was what I wanted. And my parents never stopped me from doing anything. They were wise enough to realise that I was quite headstrong and that you have to learn from your own mistakes. Learning doesn’t come from someone saying, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that’.”
One piece of advice, however, stayed with her and guided her youthful choices. “My father said, ‘Don’t get involved with alcohol. It’s boring and it’ll be the worst thing for you’. And I’ve never liked alcohol and am truly grateful. I don’t even like the taste. It breaks up families and ruins people,” she says. “I’m so pleased I had the ’60s to have fun in because I wouldn’t like to be young now,” she continues. “People were more polite and you didn’t spend all day staring at a screen. And if you had any drugs, they were better quality – not the horrors of some of the street drugs you have now.
“We were part of the early hippie movement. I remember at 13 going on a CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] march alongside Bertrand Russell. One was dressed in obligatory black because that was what one wore. There were intellectuals. People read books. But for me, music was God, my number one guiding light.”
Gillespie credits her level-headedness and stoicism to her steady, supportive home life during childhood. “I was so lucky my parents were intelligent enough never to fight. I never, ever heard them raise their voices at each other. They never fought and if you grow up in a house that’s full of love, not anger, not aggression, not drunkenness, then you are on a much better footing when you start out in life.”
In Gillespie’s teens, a pivotal figure entered her life; she met David Jones, yet to become Bowie, at The Marquee. He invited himself back to her house for the night and a fast friendship-with-benefits was formed. Around the same time, she was starting to develop a sense of her musical identity. “I was lucky to have that situation where one teacher can change the course of your life and I remember her to this day – Miss Ashby. I bought all the sheet music I could find of Dave Brubeck and asked her to teach it to me instead of classical music. And she could have said ‘no’, because the school didn’t encourage jazz and blues. But she let me do it and it was the start of my life-changing.”
Having taken on a paper-round to save up to buy a drum-kit, the enterprising Gillespie then acquired an after-school job in South Kensington record shop, Mascalls. “It stayed open until 8pm. Today, everything’s open late, but then it was really different, music being sold late at night. And when I wasn’t working there, I’d be going to the red light district in Soho every week for my drum lessons or strumming away on my guitar at home. I was involved with music the whole time. It seemed to me to be the ultimate release.”
The next logical step was songwriting. “I wrote my first song at 11. It was a piano piece, written out in notation, called “The Cuckoo Clock”. Even now, I’m mad about cuckoo clocks. I’ve got five in total. I’d have 55 if I could.
“By the time she was 15 and had moved to a stage school (Arts Ed, formerly at Hyde Park Corner but now based in Chiswick), she started writing songs with lyrics. At 16, she left education and began issuing folk singles on Pye Records, writing the b-sides herself. “I enjoyed being out in the real world trying to make a name for myself. I used to go with Bowie, still Jones then, and we’d sit in the Cafe Giaconda in Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street. Now the whole of that area’s been completely ruined by property development – it’s dreadful. But then it was marvellous.
“Soho was glorious, just fabulous. All the musicians would sit in Cafe Giaconda nursing their cups of tea, waiting for somebody from the music publishers to say, ‘we need a backing singer’ or ‘we need a bass player’. They’d go into the cafe and recruit musicians to do demos. My dream, and Bowie’s, had been to have a publishing deal because we were both songwriters. And that’s where I got my first publishing deal, with Southern Music. From then on, I used to go with Bowie on Friday evenings down to Ready, Steady, Go [1960s pop/rock show on ITV] and there you’d network and meet people from the business, and newspaper journalists. It was rather innocent in a way.”
In addition to her semi-sexual friendship with Bowie, Gillespie struck a rapport with Bob Dylan at a late-’60s record company reception at The Savoy hotel. “And that same evening, there was an even bigger one at The Dorchester, a CBS thing. I went down to that reception and he was my saviour because I could well have been thrown out. I didn’t have the right pass to get in, but he was extremely nice, gave me a hug, and looked after me. I hung out with him a lot when he was in town.”
Dana at David Bowie’s piano at the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York (Courtesy of Hawksmoor Publishing; an imprint of Bennion Kearny Ltd)
She recalls the pivotal year when he went electric. “1966 was tough for him. By then, he was playing with the Band and there were people in the audience at the Albert Hall shouting out ‘traitor!’ and ‘blasphemer!’. They thought folk singers had to be just folk singers with an acoustic guitar.” The Gillespie-Dylan friendship would pick up again when she was enlisted as the opening act of his British tour in the late 1990s.
Before turning 20, Gillespie secured the thing she most wanted: a contract to make albums. She signed with Decca (at the same time, Bowie was on Decca subsidiary, Deram) and issued two albums in quick succession. Foolish Seasons (1968) was pop and folk, mixing Gillespie’s writing with songs by Donovan and Tim Hardin. More portentous, however, was Box of Surprises (1969), written entirely by Gillespie and featuring traces of the blues influence that would become more pronounced later on. Although the albums didn’t sell in a manner commensurate with their quality, Gillespie wasn’t short of work. Not only was she travelling the length of the country to play folk clubs, but she also notched up five film and TV credits in 1968 alone, most notably in the Hammer Studios release, The Lost Continent, based on the Dennis Wheatley novel, Uncharted Seas.
In the early ’70s, the next life-changing figure came along. Tony DeFries, a Londoner with a legal background looking to make in-roads into music management, took over representation for Gillespie and Bowie simultaneously. The MainMan company was born. Soon, both artists had deals with RCA. DeFries started devising a master-plan to make them worldwide stars. Gillespie was committed to a year of Jesus Christ Superstar, so Bowie’s career was attended to first. “It was hedonistic beyond belief,” she says of the period. “Suddenly there was money, limousines, personal assistants and I was flying all over the place first class.”
By 1973, Bowie had cracked the UK and his attentions were focussed on the American market. Gillespie was relocated by MainMan to New York so that she could do the same. She moved into the Bowies’ suite at the Sherry-Netherland hotel and then an apartment formerly occupied by Iggy Pop, also a MainMan artist. “David and Angie were living in New York and we were flying along in similar lifestyles but his was more manic than mine because I think his need to be a megastar was far greater than mine.”
She attributes this drive to Bowie’s comparatively humble beginnings. “When I was 13, he’d invited me home to meet his parents in Bromley,” she recalls. She was startled by how the family sat down to fish-paste sandwiches with no conversation, no smiling, no laughter – just utter emotional impoverishment. “When the parents went out, he turned to me and said, ‘Whatever it takes, I’m gonna get out of this place.’ Whereas if you’d come to me in South Kensington, I’d have probably said, ‘Whatever it takes, I don’t ever want to leave this place.’ I’ve never had that kind of ambition where you’re willing to climb over anyone and don’t really care whose heart you break as long as you move up the ladder.”
MainMan’s American experiment, the thrust of which involved presenting their artists as ‘megastars’ before they’d actually become famous, was a strategy that worked for Bowie. MainMan tore up the old PR rulebook and instead went for a gonzo approach. It was music management as performance art. MainMan staff and artists were all issued with Polaroid cameras and encouraged to document everything – the images were so outré that they became known internally as ‘porn-a-roids’. The company deliberately courted outrage and its offices were staffed by exhibitionist stage performers rather than admin personnel.
Among its team were actors who’d appeared in Andy Warhol’s Pork, the outrageous play which Bowie, Gillespie, and DeFries had seen at The Roundhouse, London, in 1971. “It was pretty wild. It had come from New York and New York was more wild than London in those days.” Among the Pork stars who became MainMain employees was Cherry Vanilla, who would eventually land her own RCA contract at the end of the decade. “When MainMan blew into New York, they blew everyone’s brains out by being so completely different,” says Gillespie. Vanilla’s memoir, Lick Me (Chicago Review Press, 2010), in which Gillespie makes an appearance, is worth seeking out.
The Bowie-Warhol-Gillespie connection would endure. In the early ’70s, Bowie wrote “Andy Warhol” specifically for Gillespie to sing. But because Weren’t Born a Man was delayed, he ended up releasing his own version first (on Hunky Dory), consigning Gillespie’s to the status of a cover. Gillespie’s version is equal to the more famous one, but also faster, more lurid, more exciting. “I’ve never understood why he wrote the song for me,” she remarks. “He announced on the John Peel show that he’d written it for me to perform and I never bothered asking him why. We had very different styles; he wrote abstract things while I was quite emotional.”
By the time DeFries’ star-making process was underway for Gillespie, MainMan, whose operations involved an unsustainable amount of financial outlay, began collapsing. It happened just as her second RCA album, Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle, was starting to build an audience, following her residency at Reno Sweeney in Manhattan. “I had a feeling the house of cards would have to fall eventually, but far better to taste it and have it fall than never to have tasted it at all. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in American, anyway,” she reflects. “I’m very European. And in the two years when I lived in New York, never did I feel totally integrated. I always felt like an alien. I never went into the subway once because MainMan had 24/7 limos.”
Second Fiddle, recorded in London in a haze of multi-coloured pills, is more bluesy than its predecessor. Once again, Gillespie co-produced, this time with John Porter, fresh off his work with Roxy Music. A hugely entertaining account of the sessions has been written by engineer Phill Brown. It forms the most amusing part of his memoir, Are We Still Rolling? (Tape Op, 2010). Among the musicians present were Bob Weston (Fleetwood Mac), Simon Phillips on drums, and some of the exceptional singers from UK soul troupe, Kokomo. The album came decorated with an Andy Warhol screen-print made from a Terry O’Neill photograph. “There were two versions – the blue version is on the cover of the album and the yellow and pink version I have at home, wrapped up because I certainly don’t want to look at it. I’d rather sell it. I don’t want to look at my own face – I see it in the morning in the mirror when I’m waking up anyway.”
As MainMan crumbled, Bowie and DeFries went into bitter litigation. Gillespie discovered that her musical life was legally suspended. “I couldn’t record for anyone else for five years. I was caught.” In order to keep working, she looked once more to acting. “I did lots of tasteless films, usually requiring me to fall out of bits of chamois leather, chasing pterodactyls. I was quite good at playing a cave-girl because all you needed was cleavage and I’ve got plenty of that. I didn’t have to have any acting skills – I just had to remember my lines.”
Despite the way they ended, Gillespie has always regarded the MainMan years with fondness. “DeFries was very clever. He got huge advances from RCA and this financed everything. He was the best manager ever – I thought he was incredible.” The sadness for Gillespie was twofold. The MainMan party ended just as she was marking her mark. And the recriminations, both personal and legal, between Bowie and DeFries, and the winding up of the New York and London offices, felt like losing a family.
Returning to London, she became a jobbing musician and took acting work. “There were fantastic gigs you could do,” she says. “You could go up and down the country and then stop at four in the morning at The Blue Boar on the M1 where all the musicians went because it was the only place with food 24/7. Universities had money, social secretaries had a budget and there were wonderful venues in London – the Nashville Rooms, The Golden Lion, the 100 Club.”
The Andy Warhol connection asserted itself one more time. “When I did The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978), the director, who’d been mis-chosen in my opinion, was Paul Morrissey, the man behind the Andy Warhol films. The cream of British comedy cinema was in that film – Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Kenneth Williams, Terry-Thomas, Joan Greenwood, Max Wall, Denholm Elliott. But it bombed at the box office. I had a marvellous costumier, though. And my partner, my so-called lover in the film, was an old, wrinkle-nosed actor called Hugh Griffiths who was quite funny. Dudley Moore had to do a scene with his face stuck down my cleavage – the story of my life on film. But I always had fun. I’ve never not had fun.”
Nevertheless, 1975 to 1980 was hard-going after the monied years at MainMan. “I had to function differently. I flew like a bird with a broken wing to Vienna in 1980. I went there to work with a Swedish film director, Mai Zetterling [Zetterling will be familiar to mainstream filmgoers as the grandmother in the original film adaptation of The Witches, 1990]. She was directing a play by William Saroyan called Playthings, a very bizarre play. I went there so grateful that I had some work. The MainMan court case was taking so long and until DeFries and Bowie had sorted out their stuff, I couldn’t record.
‘I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend and I suddenly felt very alone. But there’s nothing better than that for feeling really inspired to write some blues, so I just carried on writing songs. That’s always been my escape territory in life, it’s got me through. When things are tough, write a song. When things are marvellous, write a song.”
To this day, there’s only been one project she regrets. “I did panto in Eastbourne. It was the lowest part of my life, when the MainMan court case was going on. I needed a job so I went and did Cinderella. I was singing ghastly songs like ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’. I hate panto and I vowed never to do it again.
“Now, I eat my words because every year I buy a ticket to see lovely Julian Clary in his panto at the London Palladium. He’s restored my faith in panto because it’s camp and he takes it to a new level. And I’ve known Julian since he was 13. He used to come to all my gigs. I think he was attracted by my glam look. He’s marvellous. Whenever I release an album, I send it to him and when he has a new book, he sends it to me.”
Clary is among those who’ve given Gillespie rapturous quotes for the back cover of the memoir. Another is Elton John. Gillespie and Sir Elton go back to the late ’60s/early ’70s when both of them worked on the budget cover albums popular at the time. To get around the expense of licensing original recordings, compilation producers would instead record copy-cat versions of current hits. Gillespie and John were frequently employed as sound-a-like singers.
“Whenever I’m in a charity shop, I see those albums going for 50 pence. I buy them but I can’t always remember which ones I’m on. Elton, who was Reg then, did more than me. I tended to be given the folky ones or the backing singing ones. Elton, David Byron who was in Uriah Heep, Madeline Bell, and me – we were all in the backing singer scene. I’ve always loved it. I consider it an honour whenever anyone asks me to do it and I wouldn’t dream of asking for money. I’m great at stacking up chorus parts. I learnt so much when I did backing singing. It’s fun. You can sing your heart out but have none of the responsibility of being out front.”
In the early ’80s, with the MainMan wrangles finally resolved, Gillespie was free. She signed with the UK’s Ace Records for an album called Blue Job, a collection of her favourite suggestive blues songs. Although she sometimes records in other genres for European labels, her relationship with Ace is ongoing to this day and has led to a series of excellent albums that merge the singer/songwriter and blues traditions.
Gillespie’s memoir, written with journalist David Shasha, explores all the newsworthy aspects of her life. It doesn’t flinch from the Dionysian frolics and the pleasure-seeking. And then there’s Mustique, the Caribbean island Gillespie first visited in 1970. Back then, it was comparatively undeveloped. Today, it’s a bling-tastic rock ‘n’ roll royalty paradise. Gillespie eventually founded the island’s blues festival and ran it for decades. But she also inadvertently triggered a long-running ’70s tabloid scandal when she introduced notorious London underworld character, John Bindon, to another of the island’s visitors, Princess Margaret.
“There was one occasion when Colin Tennant [owner of the island] said he was going to throw a lunch for ‘Ma’am-rhymes-with-spam’, down on the famous Macaroni Beach. I said, ‘Can I bring my house-guests?'” Staying with Gillespie were songwriter, Lionel Bart, and Bindon, who was part of the Chelsea set in which she sometimes mingled. Bindon, who’d arrived with insufficient clothing, grabbed one of Gillespie’s t-shirts, which bore the slogan ‘Enjoy Cocaine’ in the famous coca-cola typeface. “Today, that wouldn’t be outrageous or provocative but back then it sure was. And at this lunch I took a picture of the two of them. I won’t go into how it was taken from me, but a few days later it was on the front page of the Sunday Mirror. I felt dreadful. And I’ve always maintained that he didn’t have an affair with Princess Margaret – he was just flirty.”
Unlike pop and rock, which have a troubled relationship with the notion of ageing, the blues cherishes its performers as they get older, crediting them with wisdom and depth. Like folk, it’s a genre that cleaves to the belief that people get better with experience. Gillespie’s most recent album bears this out. Despite being celebrated for her beauty for several decades, the preservation of youth is not important to her. “I can’t understand why anybody goes in for surgical enhancement. I have seen some singers who’ve had so many facelifts, they don’t look like themselves anymore. And the thought of putting poisonous Botox in my face, no thank you.
‘I’m old-fashioned. I like to judge people on the things you can’t see, like the vibe they give off or what’s in their brain. I’ve always felt like this, even when I was younger, so I was never enticed by great-looking guys. I would have preferred a one-legged humpback if he was interesting rather than a model. A man who’s got a sense of humour can talk you into bed far better and quicker than a good-looking one who’s preoccupied with the mirror.”
Weren’t Born a Man (the memoir) has a significant dividing line that comes about two-thirds of the way through. In the first section are the rock ‘n’ roll years, the high-profile trysts (Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Keith Moon, David Bowie), the wild recording sessions, the impish, youthful antics. Then, as youth gives way to early middle-age, Gillespie discovers guru Sai Baba. The turning point came when she was visiting her father in Switzerland and asked another guest if she could borrow a book.
“The only one she had was a slim copy of something called Man of Miracles. As soon as I opened the first page, I was hooked. My heart beat faster as I turned the pages, and instead of speed-reading at my usual galloping pace, I lingered over every word and slowly read through the book that was to change my life forever. It was all about an Indian guru and spiritual leader called Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
“Now, I thought I was pretty well up on my knowledge of spiritual masters…Yogananda, Vivekananda, Meher Baba and Ramakrishna, so I was surprised to see a name I had never heard of. I didn’t know what an Avatar was, and especially not a Purna-Avatar, which is what the book said Sai Baba was. When I researched this, I found that an Avatar is an incarnation of the divine consciousness, whilst a Purna-Avatar is the highest form of Avatar, someone who has a complete, comprehensive overview of everything and everyone. I decided I must return to India as soon as possible. Something had happened to my heart. I would not be content until I had seen Sai Baba with my own eyes.”
From that point on, Gillespie began making annual pilgrimages to India and letting go of some of the excesses of the rock world. “I’m so much calmer, which is down to the teachings of Sai Baba,” she tells me. “He changed my life totally.”
The memoir has been in the works for a few years and Gillespie is relieved to have it out. Bowie biographies almost always play down her importance, relegating her to the status of a saucy afterthought or mischaracterising her. Now it’s all down on paper, in her words. She has multiple albums in the works and no intention of stopping. “The circle has been completed in my relationship with Bowie, MainMan, and Tony DeFries,” she adds. “It may be uninteresting to other people, but DeFries didn’t speak to the press for over 30 years. Now, on his podcast, you can hear him explaining everything he did to make David a star. I’ve always disliked the way people put DeFries down. They didn’t know the back-story.”
Although Gillespie got rid of a lot of her personal diaries some years ago in a kind of cleansing effort, she has managed to tell a compelling tale. “I’d always been told I should do it because I’ve got so many stories, a lot of them funny. If you put me down at a dining table, I will probably be the loudest raconteuse. A series of coincidences brought me to David Shasha, who became my co-author and put my ramblings into chronological order and found me the publisher. Even if nobody buys it, at least I’ll have got it off my 44-inch chest, as the tabloids would have said in the old days.
“A lot of the people I talk about are not alive anymore, like Bowie, but some are, like Jimmy Page. We’re all getting into our dotage. It helps that my mother’s not around because I don’t think she’d have wanted to hear about the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the ’60s and ’70s. Actually, I think she’d have liked the book, anyway. It’s not salacious and I’m not dropping people in it. I’m a nice person, generally.”