"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New York Times FEBRUARY 20, 1997 - by Neil Strauss
DAVID BOWIE'S GOLDEN YEARS
Ask almost any rock musicians under thirty-five where they'd like to be at fifty, and they'll point to David Bowie as a role model. Mr. Bowie, who turned fifty last month, may not sell as many records as he used to, but unlike most other English pop stars of his generation, he has managed to retain his reputation as a creative, experimental, thinking artist bent on trying new things, even if it means hurting his career. His moves remain multifarious and unpredictable. One day he's declaring his loyalty to art over commerce. The next he's putting himself for sale on the financial market, selling some fifty-five million dollars in bonds with his back-catalogue royalties as collateral.
Mr. Bowie does have his detractors, who say he has survived so long by simply stealing cutting-edge ideas on the margins of popularity and associating himself with the reigning young musicians of the moment. On his last album, Outside, Mr. Bowie stole from himself, beginning a trilogy with Brian Eno in the style of the pair's twenty-year-old Low, "Heroes" and Lodger albums. On his new record, Earthling, Mr. Bowie looks to the frenetic cut-and-paste drumbeats of England's jungle, or drum-and-bass, dance music to fuel the first album in well over a decade to strike the right balance between his experimental and pop inclinations.
Speaking from Hollywood on the way back from the Walk Of Fame, which he described as "a silly and rather campy" tourist attraction that his name has just been added to, Mr. Bowie talked about his latest projects and the secrets of his longevity.
NEIL STRAUSS: Every album you put out seems to give rise to some kind of controversy or debate...
DAVID BOWIE: Yeah, I know. [He laughs.]
NEIL STRAUSS: And on Earthling, the debate, which is probably a familiar one to you, is whether you're making your own music or just stealing things from young people?
DAVID BOWIE: It's stealing things from black people, actually. But it's difficult to answer this. It wasn't noted upon when I did the same thing in I'm Deranged on the Outside album, presumably because nobody had ever heard drum-and-bass. The music came from the Caribbean into London. Within a year or two a lot of white kids jumped onto it. Is it their right to do that? Does a rhythm belong to anybody? I don't know. When I started playing rhythm-and-blues in the early '60s as a white kid from South London, I don't think that gave me a priority to steal the black music that was coming out of Chicago. It's all just what you choose to paint with.
NEIL STRAUSS: Do you think that as a musician you have anything in common with an A&R talent scout, that you have your sensors out for what is new and viable and current?
DAVID BOWIE: I always have. Ever since I was a kid, I was overly enthusiastic. I'm a real fan. I love new music. I've always been delighted when I've heard sounds I've never heard before. And I just want in. It's kind of childlike, but it's how I work. And that's cool. What I'm trying to do is to move along with rock itself. I work in a fairly old-fashioned melodic way, and one of the things I'm trying to do on Earthling is to amalgamate a really hard-edged rock sound with a dance vocabulary and fairly melodic hooks. Actually, I don't know where I am at the moment. It's not rock. And it's not dance. I'm not quite sure if it has an audience at all.
NEIL STRAUSS: What's happening with your trilogy with Brian Eno?
DAVID BOWIE: Brian has pulled up his roots in London, and he and his wife and children have moved to St. Petersburg in Russia. The exercise we've given ourselves for the second album is that we're not going to meet. We're just going to send the tapes to each other. And it will just be Brian and myself. No other musicians. I guess it'll be made in the air space probably above Belgium. It's called Contamination, and it will be out later this year.
I can tell already if it's just me and Brian it will probably be so esoteric that I'm thinking of making the trilogy an Internet release only from now on. So much of it has to do with story line and graphics and photographs. There's also a temptation to ask people to actually add and change what we put on the Net, so the story evolves through people's participation in it. Q. How dependent do you think musical innovation is on new technology?
DAVID BOWIE: Interestingly enough, I think - immodestly - that a lot of the new processes are known to Brian and me because they're not dissimilar to the way we were working in the late 70's. The fragmentation and cutting up of ideas and creating an irrational, illogical form out of severely rational ideas is something Brian and I always found fascinating. It's a very Dada thing. The technology now just makes it more sophisticated than it ever was. A friend in San Francisco developed a program for me to cut up lyrics based on the old William Burroughs method, which means I can put in much more information and randomize a whole lot faster.
I went to a studio the other night, though, and did it the old-fashioned way. Reeves Gabrels is making an album at the moment, and he had Dave Grohl and Frank Black working with him. They got a tune together, and inevitably asked if I'd knock out some lyrics for them. I didn't have my computer with me, so I had to use the old scissors method. It took me so long.
NEIL STRAUSS: What did you end up cutting up?
DAVID BOWIE: Let me see. I took some words from the Hugo Boss Prize, which I'd just seen at the Guggenheim in New York; Jerzy Kosinski's Cockpit, and four or five lines I'd written myself. Oh, and a bit of Spy magazine got in there.
NEIL STRAUSS: What do you think people mean when they point to you as an example of aging gracefully as a pop musician?
DAVID BOWIE: I must say it never occurred to me. I think forty was much worse for me. It really was a period where it was a struggle to let go of what I thought was imperative about being youthful. And it's not a coincidence that it came at the same time as my great depression about my writing, in 1987. That whole period for me was extremely difficult. But after getting through that and relaxing into a new plateau of age, all I can say is it's quite possible to be just as happy, content and satisfied with one's life style at this age as ever it was in the young twenties. In fact, for me in particular, I'm a lot happier now than I was then.