Me and Mr Jones: My Life with David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars by Suzi Ronson - review by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy

Lady Stardust

Me and Mr Jones: My Life with David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars

By

 

Earth was dying. We had five years left to live. Ziggy Stardust, the bisexual alien rock star, was sent from another planet to grey, binary 1970s Britain to give us a message of hope. I’m not sure about the hope part of the message, but he really turned us on. 

Apparently, Ziggy was a fictional character. We knew that, but we didn’t want to know it. It’s not like we were in the mood for critical thinking as we set about freeing our secret freakish selves. Bowie understood the power and point of enigma, right to the end of his life. Narrative needs to be porous so that we can fill it with our own yearnings, desires, imaginations. It’s still hard to accept that Ziggy didn’t fall from the stars in full makeup to blow our minds. Yes, other people helped create him. One of them was Suzi Ronson (born Fussey), a young, sparky hairstylist from Bromley, who has now written an entertaining book about the part she played in crafting the Ziggy persona.

Suzi leaves school for good at fifteen. Her mum says she must learn a trade: it’s either secretarial college or hairdressing. She enrols on a course at Evelyn Paget College of Hair and Beauty on Bromley High Street. The other students include Colin the Mod and Peter the Rocker. They all listen to pirate radio and talk toner rather than fight on the beaches of Brighton. It’s the end of the Sixties and Suzi is transferred to a high street salon in Beckenham, which, she wryly tells us, has middle-class status because there’s no Wimpy Bar. Wimpy, by the way, was Britain’s first American-style fast-food joint and the purveyor of a meaty frankfurter called a bender. 

Ronson is skilled at conjuring up the postwar Britain of her youth. Her mother was a driver at Biggin Hill RAF station during the war: ‘Her job was to ferry silent pilots to their planes. As the sun went down, she would watch them take off for France, never knowing if they would come back. The waiting was endless, the thrill of their return monumental.’ Now her mother lives in a suburban semi, bored and unhappily married. Although respectful of her hard-working parents, Suzi wants another sort of life. How is she going to make it happen? It turns out that Mrs Jones is going to help her. 

Mrs Jones walks into the salon for a shampoo and set. While her hair is being rolled up, she talks about David, her artistic son. Suzi wants to go home early and isn’t really listening until Mrs Jones tells her he has a song in the top ten. Suzi discovers that song is ‘Space Oddity’. Soon after, David Bowie is spotted walking down the high street pushing a pram with Angie, his wife. He’s wearing a gold midi dress. Angie comes into the salon with Mrs Jones and dares Suzi to do something outrageous with her hair. Suzi obliges, and she’s invited to bring her scissors with her to meet David in their home, Haddon Hall, ‘one of those old mansions families used to live in during the olden days’. 

David, who has long mousy hair, shows her a photograph of a model styled in clothes designed by Kansai Yamamoto, and points to the model’s short red spiky haircut. ‘Can you do that?’ Yes, she can. We’re totally with Suzi as she sets the scene. She’s young and plucky. That ‘yes’ is the moment that will lift her in to another sort of life. Paper is laid on the floor, the cutting takes thirty minutes, but his hair flops to the side. It won’t stand up. They are all panicking. Suzi saves the day when she dyes it Schwarzkopf Red Hot Red and then makes it spiky with the anti-dandruff product from Germany she uses to set the hair of ‘the old girls’ in the salon. There are not many styling products in the early 1970s, but this one ‘sets hair like stone’. Suzi has created Ziggy Stardust’s iconic extraterrestrial mullet. ‘David dances around the room, posing, shaking his head, loving it.’

Still living at home with her parents and brother, Ronson is drawn into Bowie’s countercultural circle of arty people. She will become his stylist and assistant, give up her regular work in the salon and join the global tour of the Spiders from Mars. (The band came from Hull, where the poet Philip Larkin – ‘Something, like nothing, happens anywhere’ – never gave up his regular work as librarian at the university.) Suzi styles their hair, too, and will eventually marry the ethereally beautiful Mick Ronson with his muscled arms and lightly mascaraed lashes. She will be back stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 for the ultimate rock’n’roll suicide, the night that Bowie retires Ziggy. Ronson sets up the drama of this self-assassination with perfect pitch and tension. If lapsed Catholics are forever haunted by the spectre of their doomed soul, I am forever haunted by the spectre of Ziggy Stardust with his crooked British teeth. 

On the road with Mick Ronson in America, she hangs out with Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Allen Ginsberg. Obviously, she also meets Bob Dylan when Mick tours with him. Me and Mr Jones is at its most dynamic in the first half, set in the suburbs of 1970s London. I guess that’s because Suzi Ronson, the glam-rock girl who styled our favourite alien’s hair, was making herself up too.

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