Like many kids of my generation, growing up in poverty-stricken war-torn damp-sooty England, I yearned for the exoticism of all things American. As the years went by, I found abundant sustenance in US comics, music, films and literature but, on first setting foot on American soil, was startlingly disappointed not only by the revolting chocolate and nondescript candy, but also by the coffee, which – far from being the nectar I’d always imagined it to be – resembled tepid maidens’ water, lacking colour, flavour and intensity.
There’s nothing more boring than someone droning on about drugs – but before I leave the subject of coffee forever, let me relate a snippet about David Bowie which sprung back into my mind as I was reading an obituary of the Italian coffee magnate Emilio Lavazza, who died recently. It’s a story which demonstrates the power wielded, often unwittingly, by the rich and famous.
In 1993, BBC Radio producer Kevin Howlett rolled me in to work on a six-part documentary series about Bowie, who agreed to spend a whole afternoon discussing his career. He and I had never met before but while Kev was setting up the recording gear we got chatting about Little Richard and Friars Club in Aylesbury and by the time we started the interview we were old mates. He’d obviously had a pretty decent bottle of wine at lunchtime and was feeling very voluble – so much so that as night fell, we were only up to Let’s Dance or somewhere round there. He had to go off and dine with someone important so we agreed to complete the interview whenever he could fit it into his schedule.
It was a hectic time for him; he’d just finished his Black Tie White Noise album and was tearing round the world making videos and preparing for a grand re-emergence after marriage and a period of seclusion. The only place he could see us was in Hollywood – so, that’s where we had to go. It’s a hard life, being a rock writer.
His record company hired a room at a swanky hotel on Sunset Strip and Kev and I got there good and early. It was one of those freaky days in Los Angeles when the heavens open and it pours monsoon rain for hours on end. Houses in Laurel Canyon were being washed away, the roads were running like rivers – but we made it through, went to reception and asked for the room key. As soon as he heard the words “David Bowie”, the duty manager shot round from behind the desk to talk to us. He was in a state of high anxiety.
“We have been everywhere trying to find Mr Bowie’s coffee but we cannot find Lavazza Black Label,” he blurted. We had no idea what he was talking about but something had definitely put a wire up his arse. He was shitting hot conkers. “We have people out looking for it, even now, but if they are unable to find it, please assure Mr Bowie that the coffee we have provided for him is of the very finest quality.”
It turned out that his record company had stipulated what food and drink should be in the room in case Mr Bowie required refreshment during the interview. No doubt aware of Honoré de Balzac’s contention that “coffee sets the blood in motion and stimulates the muscles; it gives us the capacity to engage a little longer in the exercise of our intellects,” they had asked for Lavazza, a heady espresso brew. The hotel manager had his men scurrying around the delicatessens and supermarkets of southern California in the pissing howling rain, trying to find some. Anyone would have thought his job was on the line.
Bowie turned up – obviously under pressure, a complete contrast to the relaxed and loquacious chap he’d been in London – completed the interview in a workmanlike manner and rushed off to his next appointment. Kev and I stayed behind to eat all the food and drink all the coffee. As we left, the manager approached us, perspiring like Peter Lorre and mopping his brow with a large white handkerchief. “Did Mr Bowie find the coffee satisfactory?” he asked.
“He never even looked at it,” I told him. The guy almost collapsed in sweet relief.
I told this story to Lavazza’s PR people in London and got some free coffee out of it.
Editor’s note: Pete is not plugging a family tree here. His Bowie genealogy lies unfinished, even though we prod him from time to time.