Elvis Costello, irritated by biographical interpretations of his songs, once said in frustration to an interviewer something like “if Bob Dylan or I meant for you to take us literally, we’d have included a verse that said: So-and-so, my ex-wife, is a real bitch, this is where she lives, go burn down her house.”
Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” appears to fit that bill: it’s a diary entry of a song, addressed to his actual ex-girlfriend by name, detailing what his biographers have described as a devastating break-up. Hermione Farthingale wasn’t her real name (no one knows, or will disclose, the true one). Bowie met her through Lindsay Kemp, danced with her for the film The Pistol Shot and the two were a couple by the summer of 1968, living together in South Kensington, forming a folk trio. By the time the two filmed Love You Till Tuesday in early 1969, it was over (Farthingale apparently had dumped Bowie for another dancer), and Bowie and Farthingale’s last day together was on a soundstage, miming “Sell Me a Coat” and “Ching-a-Ling” for the cameras.
So we have these facts, which impress the songs that Bowie wrote about the break-up (this and “An Occasional Dream“) with the engraved stamp of truth. “Letter to Hermione” isn’t just a sad break-up song, it’s a real sad break-up song. Marc Spitz, Bowie’s latest biographer, calls the song “plaintive and literal,” Nicholas Pegg calls it “painfully intimate.” Here, at last, we believe Bowie took off the mask—here is the true Bowie, dripping out his heart accompanied by guitar, so much that the song should have been credited to David Jones.
It’s understandable, because Bowie remains such an unknowable creature that any visible crack in the wall is worth a sortie. But do we consider something like “Letter to Hermione” an essential, “painfully intimate” Bowie song mainly because we believe it to be true? Is its formal beauty—the tender melody of the verses, the sweep of Bowie’s guitar—not enough?
Because the song isn’t a raw diary spewing at all, but has as much artifice and craft as “Space Oddity”: it’s structured neatly with a mirrored guitar intro and outro which enclose three verses (the first details how desolate “Bowie” is feeling, the second notes the rumors he’s getting about how “Hermione” is faring, and the third speculates about her new lover and her happiness). In the middle of each verse, Bowie, in desperate confidence, suggests that “Hermione” misses him (“You cry a little in the dark”) answered by a short four-syllable line (“well so do I”). And as James Perone notes, as the song is a “letter” it discards typical “love song” standards, shunning, for the most part, short melodic hooks in favor of long, meandering phrases, while its rhymes are often assonant or half-rhymes (“well/girl,” “pain/same”).
The demo (called “I’m Not Quite”) furthers the sense of “reality,” with its poor, scratchy sonic quality, muffled guitar and Bowie’s tender- and awkward-sounding vocal. (The demo literally is a bedside confessional.) But as John M. Cunningham wrote, the demo’s rawness was refined away by the time Bowie recorded “Hermione” for his LP four months later. There he sings in a more mannered style, choosing a carefully forlorn and wistful tone to deliver his lines. He seems comfortable with it being a work of art, even if we aren’t.
The demo was recorded ca. mid-April 1969, likely in Bowie’s shared flat in Foxgrove Road, Beckenham; the studio cut was recorded ca. August 1969 and is on Bowie’s second LP, called David Bowie in the UK, given the woeful name Man of Words, Man of Music in the US and eventually rechristened Space Oddity by RCA.
Top: Bowie and Farthingale already heading in opposite directions, 1968.