Not content with being the world’s coolest rock star, David Bowie was also the world’s coolest dad – or at least that’s how it seemed to me when I first heard this song.
Here was the singer self-deprecatingly begging the indulgence of his newborn son for his ‘kooky’ parents (‘Will you stay in our lovers’ story?’), treating him as an equal, and most importantly assuring him that ‘we believe in you’. Who wouldn’t like a dad who promised that ‘if the homework brings you down/ Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown’? I had no clear idea where ‘downtown’ might be (although it seemed there was a fair chance you might bump into Petula Clark there) but back in 1971 this sounded like the epitome of freedom, especially on a school night.
Actually, that should be 1972 – like many people I discovered Hunky Dory, the album containing Kooks, only after the sensational success of Ziggy Stardust several months later. And it’s a song that finds Bowie on the cusp of his transformation from serially underachieving wannabe pop star – in this case a fey long-haired folkie – into the alien superstar of legend.
Bowie debuted Kooks in a BBC concert on July 3 1971, just four days after his wife Angie had given birth to their son, Zowie. Introducing the song, Bowie said he had been listening to a Neil Young album (After The Goldrush) when he received the call that Angie had given birth (this was in the days before a father’s attendance at the birth of his child was seen as anything but a nuisance). Till the Morning Comes appears to be the track that stuck in his mind.
However, the song, with its references to ‘a trumpet you can blow’ and ‘the bullies and the cads’, owes at least as much to the twee English whimsicality of Bowie’s curious first album from 1967 – see Rubber Band in which Bowie chirrups about a ‘little chappie’, ‘scones’ and ‘my cup of tea’, for example. Its closest relative on Hunky Dory, which contains the kaleidoscopic Life On Mars, the glam-sleazy Queen Bitch and the Nietzschean-esoteric Oh You Pretty Things, is Biff Rose’s breezy Fill Your Heart.
Lyrically, it’s one of the most straightforward, and straightforwardly autobiographical, of Bowie’s songs. ‘And if you ever have to go to school/ Remember how they messed up this old fool,' sings the old fool aged 24 at the time. It’s the voice of the counterculture gently proclaiming a future in which all you need is love, and doing so at a time when society seemed to be making a new, unconventional kind of family possible.
It’s an optimistic song – the album version is supported by Mick Ronson’s judicious string arrangement and some perky tinkling from Rick Wakeman’s piano – and one strong enough to survive a cover version by Robbie Williams.
Angie and David’s lovers’ story didn’t last. They divorced, bitterly, in 1980 and contact between mother and son pretty much ended. Despite the song’s hippie idealism, Bowie sent his son to Gordonstoun, the notoriously spartan Scottish boarding school much favoured by the Duke of Edinburgh. Prince Charles called it ‘Colditz in kilts’.
Over time Bowie’s son shed the Zowie name, becoming first Joe and ultimately Duncan Jones, film director and – six months after his own father’s death – dad. But regardless of how real life played out, Kooks remains as a sweet expression of hope, parental pride and the possibility of being different.
Chris Taylor is the author of The Beautiful Game: A Journey Through Latin American Football and The Black Carib Wars: Freedom, Survival and the Making of the Garifuna. He lives in New York where he works for the Guardian US. He occasionally tweets as @bocay88