Portrait of David Bowie by Artur Lopes
In 1971, David Bowie returned to the studio to begin work on a follow-up to The Man Who Sold the World. While many consider that album to be a classic today, it was a commercial failure on its release, and the pressure was on to produce a hit, or at least something that would make it onto the charts. Hunky Dory's production was a fly-by-night affair, in light of the tension around Bowie's still fledgling career, as well as the singer's habit of writing lyrics only at the studio in the wee hours of the morning, after the rest of a track had been recorded. It was during one of those late night sessions that Bowie wrote what proved to be one of his densest songs, one that critics and fans would admire and puzzle over for decades: "The Bewlay Brothers."
The eagle-eyed collectors among us may recognize the name Bewlay from the historic English tobacconist and pipe marque. In fact, the song is titled after the very same House of Bewlay. In a 2008 interview with The Mail, Bowie addressed the matter, telling a reporter, "the only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay ... it was a common item in the late '60s and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen - in place of my own." While Bowie primarily smoked cigarettes, his affection for his Bewlay pipe evidently found its way into his work. In addition to the title of Hunky Dory's final track, the briar lent its name to Bowie's publishing company in the late '70s. Bewlay Bros. Music was responsible for securing the publishing rights on most of Bowie's output after 1975. The company also published songs and albums for a variety of other artists, such as Iggy Pop, whose first solo record Bowie produced, Grace Jones, and, perhaps surprisingly, Def Leppard.
"[T]he only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay"
The song's lyrics are notoriously hard to decipher, and Bowie offered no clues about their meaning at the time, saying that the song was aimed at the American public, since "the Americans always like to read things into things," and went on to say that the lyrics "make absolutely no sense." While Bowie may have been somewhat joking, he was right about the many interpretations his song received, with some critics finding themes ranging from latent homosexuality, to Bowie's relationship with his older half-brother, Terry Burns. Bowie never acknowledged the more fanciful interpretations of the song, but later confirmed that "The Bewlay Brothers" was largely autobiographical, addressing the subject in a 2008 interview, "...for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen - in place of my own. This wasn't just a song about brotherhood so I didn't want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn't know how to interpret the lyrics of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It's a palimpsest, then."
Bewlay Rusticated Billiard
The brother in question, Terry Burns, is a little-known figure in Bowie lore outside of die-hard circles. Bowie's older half-brother was perhaps the most important early influence on the future legend, taking the young David Jones along, as he was called then, to prowl the jazz clubs of London in the late '50s and early '60s. Burns' life was ultimately a tragic story as he suffered from severe schizophrenia and was institutionalized multiple times before being committed to the Cane Hill mental hospital in the mid-'70s, where he would take his own life in 1985.
As much as introducing the young Bowie to modern jazz, Beat poetry, and Buddhism, Burns' struggles with mental health would cast a long shadow over his brother's work, especially as Bowie's own condition became increasingly fraught in the late '70s. In this light, "The Bewlay Brothers" serves as a fascinating window into the relationship between Burns and Bowie, as well as the stream-of-consciousness lyrical style that Bowie had developed by the time he recorded Hunky Dory, with an improvisational, last minute method that would characterize much of his studio work.
Burns' struggles with mental health would cast a long shadow over his brother's work
The writing process behind "The Bewlay Brothers" is almost as interesting as the song itself. Discussing the event, Bowie remarked:
The circumstances of the recording barely exist in my memory. It was late, I know that. I was on my own with my producer Ken Scott; the other musicians having gone for the night. Unlike the rest of the Hunky Dory album, which I had written before the studio had been booked, this song was an unwritten piece that I felt had to be recorded instantaneously. I had a whole wad of words that I had been writing all day. I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind. It's possible that I may have smoked something in my Bewlay pipe. I distinctly remember a sense of emotional invasion. I do believe that we finished the whole thing on that one night. It's likely that I ended up drinking at the Sombrero in Kensington High Street or possibly Wardour Street's crumbling La Chasse. Cool.
Much of Bowie's most memorable work would be recorded in a similar way later on, with albums like Young Americans and Station to Station written, in large part, in the studio. Though, how much of that was a creative choice, as opposed to the effects of Bowie's cocaine addiction at the time, is a topic of much speculation. Either way, the final track on Hunky Dory marked an important step in the artist's continuously shifting journey.
While David Bowie may not be synonymous with pipe smoking, the story of "The Bewlay Brothers" and its impact on the singer's artistic and professional life is a fascinating bit of pipe history that shows how our hobby has intersected with the culture at large in sometimes surprising ways. As a Bowie fan myself, I now feel a distinct inclination to track down one of the old Bewlays to add to my pipe rack on the off chance it may inspire some great piece of writing one day.
- The Complete David Bowie (2009) by Nicholas Pegg
- Strange Fascination - David Bowie: The Definitive Story (1999) by David Buckley
- "David Bowie: I went to buy some shoes - and I came back with Life On Mars" (2008) by David Bowie
- "The moment David Bowie performed 'The Bewlay Brothers' live for the first time" (2021) by Joe Taysom