Terry O’Neill’s numerous pictures of the late rock star have been assembled into an impressive book, writes Richard Purden.
Terry O’Neill studied to be a priest before a cleric took him aside and said: “Terry, I don’t think you would make a good priest. You have too many questions.”
Unperturbed the East End boy with a Cork heritage turned his attention to jazz drumming in London clubs from the age of 14. “I wanted to go to New York, all the jazz guys had to get a job on the boats to get to America. I heard about musicians getting jobs as stewards with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) and thought ‘I can have a three-day layover in New York and then come back to London’. They gave me a job in the photographic unit and suddenly I’m a photographer.”
O’Neill, now 81, had an eventful childhood born in London to Irish parents. “I was conceived in Ireland, my father was from Cork and my mother was from Waterford.” O’Neill’s last major exhibition in Ireland was on Leeside in 2013.
He knew families that were killed during World War Two by Nazi buzz bombs flying over his London home. Just before a first big assignment, he lost his mother at the age of 24.
O’Neill was very much in the right place at the right time to be taking pictures in London at the start of the Swinging Sixties.
It wasn’t long before movie studios hired O’ Neill for legendary shoots with the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner. The latter wrote him a letter of recommendation to Frank Sinatra.
“When I told her I was going to be taking pictures of her ex she said: ‘I’ll write you a letter’. When I gave it to Frank he said to everyone around him: ‘Right, this guy’s with me’, and I sort of was for the next 30 years. He gave me all sorts of access and never questioned anything, it was incredible.”
O’Neill’s most creative partnership began just as David Bowie killed off his much loved alter ego Ziggy Stardust at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973. Ziggy was granted a final swan-song when Bowie snuffed the character out by letting him erupt for one final performance. It was his most outrageous expression yet.
“I went to the Marquee Club in Soho,” says O’Neill.
Freddie Buretti’s ‘Angel of Death’ red vinyl costume with black feathers from ‘The 1980 Floor Show’ performance still had the power to startle 40 years later at the Bowie’s V&A exhibition in London. “He shocked people when he came on stage, that was when he looked his most androgynous,” says O’Neill. “The place was rocking.”
O’Neill was now the snapper on hand to capture Bowie’s imperial phase morphing from Ziggy into Halloween Jack through to The Gouster and the Thin White Duke. A month later he was invited to Bowie’s London home to document a meeting with William Burroughs for Rolling Stone magazine.
“David was a great poser but Burroughs was even better, he took over the session. There was great chemistry and a lot of mutual admiration.”
Inspired by Nova Express, Bowie would adopt the cut-up method Burroughs deployed for the novel when writing his next album Diamond Dogs. Once again it was O’Neill called in to help develop the artwork. Bowie had become alien-like for the cover of his previous long-player Aladdin Sane but the sleeve for Diamond Dogs would remain his most uncanny. Appearing as half-man and half-dog alongside two creatures based on “freak show” performers, O’Neill’s images were used by artist Guy Peellaert to create the arresting image.
“I got to do all the pictures for the album cover, a dog was brought in and David copied what the dog was doing which I photographed and Guy turned it into that fantastic cover art. I also did a shot with David and another dog jumping up at the strobe light going off. Bowie didn’t turn a hair; I’m not sure what he was on at the time but he was so cool. He was the coolest guy you could ever meet.”
The assignments continued when Bowie relocated to America and began to absorb black experience, language, fashion and culture before recording ‘Young Americans’.
The cocaine he had dabbled with what was now becoming an addiction. O’Neill remembers an exhausted Bowie styling himself before another memorable shoot.
O’ Neill’s comments chime with the American chat show host Dick Cavett who told Bowie around the same time that he resembled “a working actor”.
O’Neill suggests it didn’t come as a surprise when Bowie was invited to play the lead in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) under the direction of his friend Nicolas Roeg. The photographer was involved with a previous invitation from Elizabeth Taylor who wanted Bowie to star in The Blue Bird (1976).
After arriving four hours late, tardiness probably cost him the role but it also helped Bowie dodge a bullet as the film flopped.
O’Neill didn’t waste the opportunity. “The light goes in LA at about 6 o’clock so I had about five minutes to work with and grab those pictures of David and Liz. I just worked away and used about three rolls of film. Liz just lead the whole thing — she was such a pro. I don’t think David knew what hit him, he was like a lost boy at one point; maybe she knew he was on drugs because she was more hip to all that than me.”
Bowie was healthier-looking in shots taken later that year at the 50th birthday party of Peter Sellers, in his role in The Man Who Fell To Earth and in 1976 touring Station To Station.
Reflecting on this clutch of Bowie photographs O’Neill says: “I took pictures of The Beatles, The Stones, Elton and Clapton but there was no one like him. Apart from being such a creative man he was a good guy and one of the most charming and nicest people I ever met in my life.”
- Bowie by O’Neill: The Definitive Collection with Unseen Images, Cassell Illustrated, octopusbooks.co.uk