David Bowie – Shaman’s Apprentice

“If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, I’d either be in the nuthouse or in prison.”[ref]Barry Miles, David Bowie Black Book, (London: Omnibus Press, A Division of Book Sales Limited, 1980), 43.[/ref] David Bowie, 1972.

Shaman's Apprentice David Bowie 1967

David Bowie, 1967

It’s not uncommon for shaman candidates to have suffered from events or traumas like a family tragedy, accidents, illnesses, or rejection. These experiences become part of their shamanic initiation process. . .forcing them to become familiar with the spirit world. By withstanding these trials, the shaman candidate builds the strength and courage that’s necessary to be transformed into a shaman.

While on the surface it may appear that David Bowie had a happy, suburban, middle class childhood – a deeper look reveals that he experienced suffering, trauma, and alienation while growing up in post-war England.

David Jones (who changed his name to David Bowie in 1965) was born at home in January of 1947 – with his midwife purportedly announcing,  “this child has been on earth before!”[ref]David Buckley, Strange Fascination. David Bowie: The Definitive Story, (London: Virgin Books, 1999), 13.[/ref]  His parents married later that year. His father had 2 daughters from a previous marriage (although one was put up for adoption) – and, his mother already had a son, Terry, who was almost 10 years old when they married.

David grew up in Brixton, London – a poor, working-class area crowded with families whose homes had been destroyed during the London bombings of WWII. He later told an interviewer, “I never wanted and never went hungry but I saw people deprived all around and I wanted them to have better.”[ref]Miles, David Bowie Black Book, 5.[/ref]

When he was 8, he and his half-brother Terry went to live with their paternal uncle in a farmhouse in Yorkshire. The farmhouse was in the countryside surrounded by cattle and sheep – however, they were never really happy there. They returned to live with their parents who now lived in a small, but comfortable house in the suburbs of London.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]  Speaking to a journalist David commented

I’ve seen pretty well the best of both (worlds), from the terrible slum area of Brixton, with a heavy Black population, to right up in the country on the farms. I’ve been a child through both so that both halves of it really influenced me and produced a schizoid attitude in life. I think that’s what confused me.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Biographers also allude to the “sub-zero emotional climate in the Jones’ house.”[ref]Buckley, Strange Fascination, 14.[/ref] They write of “the austere, non-physical nature of his relationship with his parents” that may have left a mark on Bowie.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Evidently, Terry was forever arguing with his mother – while his dad was “often in a state of quizzical, melancholic withdrawal.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

David shared a bedroom with his teenage brother, Terry, throughout his school years and the two became very close – with Terry becoming a great influence in his life.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Terry had read Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and spent a lot of this time at late night jazz clubs. According to David, “it was Terry who really started everything for me. He was into all these different Beat writers and listening to jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.”[ref]Miles, David Bowie Black Book, 6.[/ref]

However, Terry was prone to bouts of depression and would ultimately be diagnosed with schizophrenia. “Aural and visual hallucinations, images of bright, searing lights (heavenly) and flames (hellish) would increasingly blight Terry’s life. . . He would often hear the ‘voices from God.'”[ref]Buckley, Strange Fascination, 20.[/ref] His increasingly erratic behavior “was horrifying to Bowie.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Adding to the difficult circumstances in his early life, Bowie was plagued with a score of physical injuries. He claimed to have been

Under a doctor’s care during much of my youth not because I was sickly but because I was accident prone. I broke a hand and then after it healed I broke a thumb on the same hand. . . Then I ran over myself with an automobile. I was cranking the car with it in gear and it ran against me breaking both my legs. That time I very nearly lost my masculinity entirely and to this day I have a large scar on the inner side of my leg.[ref]Miles, David Bowie Black Book, 6.[/ref]

At 14, while in high school, David had a fight with a friend over girl and that single punch nearly cost him the sight in his eye. According to David, “The pupil was paralyzed. It started bleeding. I was in hospital for months. I was very near to losing the sight in both eyes. They operated and saved my right eye but my left eye is still very dodgy.”[ref]Ibid., 5.[/ref]He was left with a paralyzed and permanently dilated pupil. Born with blue eyes, he now had one blue eye and his left eye, with the permanently enlarged pupil, appears brown or green depending on the light.[ref]Buckley, Strange Fascination, 21.[/ref]

It was while David was in the hospital recovering from eye surgery that Terry, the brother that he looked up to and adored, was committed to a mental institution. David and his family would visit him every two weeks.[ref]Miles, David Bowie Black Book, 6.[/ref] One can only imagine how this impacted David.

In fact, “the taint of ‘madness’ in the Jones’ family terrified the young Bowie – not only was Terry profoundly disturbed but many of his extended family on his mother’s side had psychological or mental problems, too.”[ref]Buckley, Strange Fascination, 19.[/ref] One aunt, a schizophrenic, died in her late 30’s after enduring electric shock treatment and internment in a mental institution. Another aunt also had schizophrenic episodes. And, a third aunt had been lobotomized in order to treat her nervous disposition. And, his grandmother also claimed to be a “madwoman.”[ref]Ibid, 20.[/ref] It’s not surprising that the young Bowie felt society’s stigma against the mentally ill all around him.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Unfortunately, in 1985, at the age of 47, Terry killed himself after lying down on the railway lines at Coulsdon South station, London. He was killed instantly by a passing train.

These dramatic experiences in David Bowie’s early life – the multiple injuries; his family’s mental illness; his brother’s descent into madness; and, the possible alienation and lack of emotional support in his family environment – all set the stage for his initiation into shamanhood. Through it all, he developed a strong connection with the spirit world – along with the strength, courage and perseverance to overcome these obstacles – ultimately laying the foundation for him becoming a true shaman.


  1. Wow! That is a strong background of pain and heartache. It just goes to show you that you can never know what someone is going through, and every one is going through something. It is good that he had an older brother to go through his childhood with. But its sad how it ended.
    Now I know what’s wrong with his eyes. You can definitely tell they look different. I never could have guessed the history behind his eyes.

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