A Word on David Bowie, Lori Mattix, and the Speed of Information
Four months ago, on January 10 of this year, music icon David Robert Jones — better known by his stage name, David Bowie — passed away at the age of 69 from cancer.
On January 11, the website Thrillist republished an interview with former rock groupie Lori Mattix (sometimes anglicized to Maddox or Madox). In that interview, she stated that she lost her virginity to David Bowie in 1973. At the age of fifteen.
Mattix claimed in that interview that it was a positive experience, but that in no way changes the fact that a 26 year old having sex with a 15 year old is statutory rape. He was an adult; she was barely a teenager. Whatever consent she may have given would be seriously, if not fatally, compromised by that simple fact.
In the wake of the global, public mourning of Bowie’s death, Mattix’s story went viral. This in turn launched countless thinkpieces on rape culture, drug culture, the rapidly-evolving sexual mores of the 70s, and the limits of consent in the face of massive power differentials. What it did not launch, however, was a factual examination of Mattix’s claim.
There are, of course, a number of very good reasons Mattix’s story was treated as credible, despite the fact that Thrillist — a self-described “leading men’s digital lifestyle brand, providing all that’s new, unknown or underappreciated in food, drink, entertainment, nightlife, gadgets and gear” — isn’t exactly a serious journalistic enterprise. In a society that so often assumes, without justification, that women are lying about their experiences with sex in general and sexual assault in particular, it is critically important to give women the benefit of the doubt unless and until there is a very good reason to do otherwise.
Moreover, the “baby groupie” scene was undoubtedly real, and there’s no question that, for instance, Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler and the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman repeatedly committed statutory rape with underage groupies. The fact that an underage Mattix had an ongoing relationship with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is also undisputed; it is heavily corroborated and well-documented, and pictures of them together are widely available. Rock stars in the ’70s were notoriously shameless about their underage targets.
But the question is not whether classic rock had a statutory rape problem. That much is not in dispute, and the fact that we now by and large consider it unacceptable shows that, while we have a long way to go, changing the standards by which our culture operates can and does work. We don’t have any obligation to give powerful men impunity with respect to their personal lives on the basis of their artistic contributions; if anything, our cultural idols need to be held to a higher standard of behavior, not a lower one. The question here, though, is whether the claims about Bowie *in particular* withstand a fact-check.
One problem is that despite the fact that Mattix — who, in addition to Bowie and Page, claims to have had affairs with Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood, Mickey Finn, Angela Bowie, Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer, and Jimmy Bain —asserts that she encountered Bowie multiple times over a period spanning ten years, there appear to be neither photos of them together nor any contemporaneous materials corroborating a sexual encounter between them. That seems especially strange given that — in no small part due to his publicly proclaimed bisexuality — Bowie’s sex life was, if anything, subject to more scrutiny and intrigue than the average rocker’s, not less. Bowie would have had to go to far greater lengths than the average rock star to hide affairs with underage girls; meanwhile, same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults was also illegal in California at the time (and remained so until 1975), and he took no small amount of pride in openly flouting those laws.
Another reason to raise an eyebrow at the claims regarding Bowie is not the lack of corroboration, or of photographic evidence in the notoriously paparazzi-prone Sunset Strip groupie scene, but Mattix’s own accounts. While this may not be every account she’s given, there is enough to be deeply concerning:
- For many years, she maintained that she had her first time with Jimmy Page during the Zeppelin 1972 tour. For instance, she stated in an in-depth 1985 interview with music journalist Stephen Davis that Page had her brought to his hotel room in 1972, that he insisted on keeping her locked up in his room when he first began seeing her, and that he would not “let me go anywhere because I was so underage.” She then explained that after about one year together, Page was willing to be seen in public with her: “After that first year, Jimmy took me along to all the shows. Sometimes they would dedicate a show to me! And if I wasn’t with him, he would call me every day from wherever he was. Especially at the time he was in his prime, ’73 to ’75, that was the prime of Zeppelin.” This, indeed, lines up with the fact that there are numerous pictures of them together beginning in 1973.
- She later started to claim that she had sex with David Bowie before becoming involved with Page. One significant issue with this claim is that Zeppelin’s ’72 tour took place over the summer of 1972, well before the first Ziggy Stardust tour (“Ziggy I”) came to California in late October 1972.
- The story was further muddied when Mattix gave an interview to Peter Gillman in 1986. In that interview, she said that she had been getting dinner at the Rainbow Bar in March 1973 (during the second Ziggy Stardust tour, or “Ziggy II”), and that Bowie — who also happened to be at the restaurant — first spotted her from across the room. According to her, he sent his bodyguard over to ask if she would like to join him in his suite that night. She said she accepted, and that fellow teenage groupie Sable Starr (who was sitting with her) insisted on joining them. Mattix then said that she had sex with Bowie that same night for “five or six hours,” that Starr was waiting jealously the whole time, and that Mattix — feeling guilty about leaving her friend in the sitting room — convinced a reluctant Bowie to have sex with Starr in order to humor her. She then said all three of them fell asleep, and that she and Starr frantically snuck out the next day, before Bowie’s wife Angie was set to arrive at the hotel.
- Mattix gave another interview (made available online in 2009) in which she said that she was a virgin when she met Page. This lines up with her first story listed here, but contradicts later accounts.
- Mattix also gave an interview to Paul Trynka with a completely different version of her encounter with Bowie. There, she said that she and Sable Starr actually made their way over to the Beverly Hilton in October 1972 (Ziggy I), found out which room Bowie was in, and snuck in. She said that when they managed to get into his room, he was “tired” and hesitant to have sex with them at first, but that they eventually convinced him before sneaking out of his room, unseen.
- Mattix later gave the account that’s being circulated in the Thrillist piece. There she claimed that she had actually been propositioned by Bowie back in October 1972, but rejected him; that he called her and took her to dinner when he was back in town in March 1973; that John Lennon and Yoko Ono joined them while they were sitting together prior to heading to Bowie’s suite at the Beverly Hilton; that she had a threesome with Bowie and Starr; and that Angie had actually walked in on them the next morning. In addition to contradicting her prior accounts in just about every particular, it is worth noting that this version contains at least one significant, confirmed factual error: Bowie and Lennon didn’t even meet until September 1974 — they were introduced by, of all people, Elizabeth Taylor at a party she was hosting.
(Other errors — such as the fact that David Bowie stayed at the Hyatt in March of ’73 rather than the Hilton as Mattix insists, and the fact that he didn’t depilate his eyebrows until after the Ziggy I tour had left California, are less serious.)
- It’s also worth noting that, in that same Thrillist interview, Mattix claims to have attended a recording session in 1975 (now age 17) featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and several other musicians including Mick Jagger, and then had sex with Mick Jagger immediately after. There are two major factual issues here: (i) the only post-Beatles jam session between Lennon and McCartney happened a year earlier, in March 1974 (check out “A Toot and a Snore in ‘74”); and (ii) there’s nothing to suggest that Mick Jagger was anywhere near that recording session.
None of this, of course, definitively disproves that something happened between Bowie and Mattix and/or Starr — or Mattix and Jagger, for that matter — but taken together, this all has to raise some doubts. Some inconsistencies are to be expected even in truthful accounts, but it’s the number and the seriousness of the errors and inconsistencies in this particular tale, in combination with the lack of corroboration, that make Mattix’s account at least somewhat questionable. There is a genuine issue of fact here, and it would be irresponsible to ignore it.
ETA: Since publishing this piece, it has come to my attention that Pamela Des Barres’ celebrated memoir, I’m With the Band, also places Ms. Mattix in a relationship with Jimmy Page well before Mattix claims to have lost her virginity to Bowie.