An interview with David Bowie’s best friend, George Underwood
The pair met at Cubs
George Underwood met David Bowie when they were nine years old, and both enrolling for the Bromley Cubs and Scouts. This friendship was full of small, personal, memorable moments, and one large one that later became subsumed into Bowie’s mythology: the fight that resulted in his iconic “alien eye”.
“I had a 15th birthday party,” Underwood recalls. “One of the reasons I had the party was because both of us fancied this girl. It was a ploy to talk to her. Before she left I asked if I could meet her at her youth club on the Wednesday at 7pm.
“Just before I was about to meet her, David phoned me and said she didn’t want to meet me, she wanted to go out with him – which was a lie. I went down to the youth club later and her friends said she’d been waiting the whole hour for me!
“I was a bit annoyed about that,” he says. “I wasn’t really a fighter when I was younger but I literally just went up to him and hit him. Probably also to prove to my friends that I was capable of getting my own back.”
“Funnily enough he did say I did him a favour, later on. I’m not exactly proud of it, but no one knew that was going to happen. I just wanted to give him a black eye because of the girl, that was about it – I didn’t think it was going to be a lasting mark.”
It was, and it became the constant feature of Bowie’s otherwise chameleonic image. And Underwood’s influence extended further: the pair ended up at the same secondary school, Bromley Technical College, and sat next to each other in Art, where they realised they had a shared interest in music.
“Our first conversations were basically about music,” Underwood says. “That was our centre of gravity, really. We came together talking about music – as well as all sorts of things, but music was the common denominator.”
Their friendship continued throughout their teenage years and into their adult lives. After school, George and Bowie embarked on separate careers – George an artist and Bowie as Bowie – but they stayed close friends. And later, George worked with Bowie, producing artwork for some of his most famous album covers like Space Oddity, and collaborated with friend Terry Pastor on Bowie’s Hunky Dory album. Underwood’s artwork was also used on album covers for acts including T-Rex, Mott The Hoople, Gentle Giant and All The Young Dudes.
He also joined Bowie for his 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour across the United States and worked behind the scenes on publicity whilst David performed his shows.
What does he remember? “There is one particular moment,” he says. “We were going down for dinner, on the QE2 and David decided to put on one of his Ziggy Stardust outfits – it was a big white one with big wings on the shoulders.
“When we sat down, people were spilling their soup all over them, looking up, open-mouthed [and] gawking at him,” he says. “That was the last time he came down for dinner – he stayed in bed most of the rest of the journey. He said, ‘people keep staring at me’ so I replied, ‘ well what do you expect when you’re wearing stuff like that!'”
They remained close friends, even in Bowie’s later years. “I started painting angels when David died,” Underwood says. “I had some sculptures I had done of angels a few years ago and I sent photos of them to David. It was when [Bowie’s friend] Mick Ronson died, and he said they made him cry. I thought, if I could do that in sculpture or by painting, that’s quite something.”
“I don’t think of him as dead. He’s still alive in my spirit. I can’t talk of him in the past tense as he was such an instrumental person in my life. He touched people’s lives in such a way that he left a mark. He had that infectious quality. There’s no doubt that he had an influence on my work and on my outlook. He was good at telling me not to get stuck in one place, to move on. To keep moving around and looking for new inspiration.”
Bowie was also inspired by his close friend. In 2014, he spoke of his work. “It’s uncanny how [his] images inhabit their own world so completely,” he said. “George breathes an icy life force into them. They do not move, they are at permanent attention, as though on parade, as though subjecting themselves to our scrutiny. I’ve always loved George’s work. He may well have unconsciously tipped me towards music.”
Bowie’s death in January left Underwood unable to work for a while. Now, he feels able to host an exhibition at Imagine Gallery in Suffolk, his first since he lost his close friend. The exhibition will run from Sunday 3rd April until Saturday May 7th, showcasing a variety of his works.
“I think there’s seven or eight unseen works, “George said, “and there will be some painting I’ve done over the last three or four years. They are all a mix through different periods, there are a couple of angels there if people want to come and have a look.”