Me and Mr Jones by Suzi Ronson review – Stardust memories of David Bowie’s hairdresser

<span>Ziggy pop: David Bowie, Mick Ronson and Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey of the Spiders from Mars perform on ITV’s Lift Off With Ayshea show in 1972.</span><span>Photograph: ITV/Rex Features</span>
Ziggy pop: David Bowie, Mick Ronson and Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey of the Spiders from Mars perform on ITV’s Lift Off With Ayshea show in 1972.Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

This honest and troubled memoir belongs to a genre one may shorthand as I-was-Sinatra’s-valet: how an ordinary day jobber encountered a star and found life glitteringly transformed. Here it’s a 21-year-old hairdresser, Suzi Fussey, living at home with her parents in Bromley, south-east London, and working at a salon in neighbouring (“posher”) Beckenham. One day in 1970 a customer, Mrs Jones, mentions her “artistic” son, David, who plays in a band; the following week, she brings in David’s wife, Angie, who wants a haircut – “something outrageous”. Angie is so delighted with the result that Suzi is summoned to their home to meet David himself, a pale and epicene young man now going under the name of David Bowie. She styles his “mousy” hair into a spiky red feather cut, which he loves, and the look of Ziggy Stardust is born.

Her infatuation with the couple is instant and irrevocable. Their flat at Haddon Hall is for her a Xanadu of chic, of scented candles and foreign magazines and strange sleeping arrangements. It’s also an escape from an unhappy home. She shrinks from the glum suburban routines of her mum and dad and yet – in an almost parenthetical aside – we learn that they too once knew glamour and danger. It was the war: her dad drove tanks in occupied France (and won medals); mum drove pilots to their planes at Biggin Hill airport. Scratch the surface and lives poignantly begin to look less ordinary.

Her chores include dyeing his jockstrap red and ironing the sweat out of his stage costume

Armed with her scissors and tongs, Suzi becomes hair’n’makeup mascot to David and his blokeish bandmates from Hull, Trevor and Woody, and a handsome guitar god named Mick Ronson. The girl is shocked nonetheless by the laissez-faire atmosphere – open marriages, men kissing one another – and gets the jitters when David invites her back, solo, for a night in his bed. Angie has her own lovers, but she’s sure to hear about this brief encounter. “I hope I get a good report.” For weeks she frets about being kept on at Haddon Hall – she doesn’t want to go back to “roll up some old girls’ hair” at Evelyn Paget College of Hair and Beauty – and we feel her relief when Bowie’s manager Tony Defries offers her £20 a week to go on the road with David and the Spiders from Mars. Here is the book’s selling point, an eyewitness to Bowie just on the verge of superstardom, hastened by his and Mick’s momentous performance of Starman on Top of the Pops. The ch-ch-changes are rung on the day Suzi begins a West End shopping spree at Selfridges, Liberty and Mr Fish and ends in Penge “to buy cat litter and milk for the house”.

“David” remains an elusive presence here, intensely focused on his music but quite detached from the people around him. Might that be a prerequisite of genius? Interestingly, he never travels with the band: the Starman had a mortal fear of flying. As his dresser, Suzi gets as close to him as anyone – her chores include dyeing his jockstrap red “on the top of Mum’s gas stove” and ironing the sweat out of his stage costume – but just as no man is a hero to his valet, no incipient superstar can fool his adoring PA for ever. On tour in the US, her duties include picking out girls David fancies in the audience and then dealing with the outraged mother whose 16-year-old daughter has been spotted disappearing into his bedroom. Nor is his reputation as an employer much enhanced. His surprise farewell to Ziggy at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 gets five stars for drama but a sympathetic grimace for Woody and Trevor, who hadn’t been informed – and are now humiliated as well as unemployed. (This might have been Bowie’s revenge on them for previous complaints about money.) Mick doesn’t fare much better, hired by David to co-produce Lou Reed’s Transformer – he played piano on Perfect Day – and receiving neither a fee nor royalties.

With the dissolution of the Spiders and Bowie’s removal to LA, some of the heat goes out of the book. Suzi and Mick are by now an item, and such is her devotion that she frequently forgives his waywardness (he has a problem with gambling and alcohol). A school gardener before Bowie sought him out, he cuts an innocent and likable figure, though possibly not the most charismatic. When they decamp to New York and find themselves at a club where Dylan is playing, she encourages Mick to introduce himself, and his guitar chops duly earn him a gig on the Rolling Thunder Revue. She wants to join him, but his hesitation with an invite dismays her: “I’m now the pathetic girlfriend, clinging on to my man.” Her peripheral involvement is bad enough and gets worse when she discovers Mick with a groupie. There follow fleeting glimpses of Dylan, a nice friendship with Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople and an ambiguous flirtation with David Cassidy in Colorado. But these feel like bonus tracks after the main event. The book slides to a halt around 1977, with Suzi now a wife and mother.

Me and Mr Jones offers a good snapshot of the time. It’s not quite a cautionary tale, for the author lived the madness and emerged on the other side. Alas, she’s a longtime widow: Ronson died of liver cancer at the age of 46. It was the same disease that finished Bowie on 10 January 2016, a day she recalls in the book’s coda. She wonders if he thought of Mick during his illness. It comes as a shock to learn that she hadn’t seen David or Angie since that farewell night in Hammersmith. The loss resonates. “I had thought we were closer than that. I really had.”

• Me and Mr Jones: My Life With David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars by Suzi Ronson is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply