"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Time JULY 18, 1983 - by Jay Cocks
DAVID BOWIE ROCKETS ONWARD
A mercurial superstar tours in triumph
Hey, great news: David Bowie's back, and blooming.
Good question: Which one?
There are so many to choose from. It has been a long professional life by rock-'n'-roll standards, and a diverse one by any other. In a hurricane-force career that has swept over a decade, lost force sometimes but never blown out to sea, David Bowie has tried on almost as many private roles and public personas as he has written songs. In the '60s there was the strutting London mod. Then the sensitive singer-songwriter. Then in 1972 Bowie became the hero of his own concept album, Ziggy Stardust, playing the part in concert and, increasingly, letting it play out in life.
He led the Glitter Rock movement, turned himself into music's most exquisite artefact, then turned away. Subsumed in his own myth, Bowie became a zombie, sending back musical dispatches from the dead zone. He was a casualty, but he endured. He was a recluse, but he kept making records ("pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to read, nothing to say"), strange albums full of pity and doubt. He was a soul, not lost but stranded, who willed himself into a survivor.
That incarnation, the current one, resplendently straight and sincere, is riding the high crest of a huge success and a resurgent career, bringing a lot of history to new songs with lines like "I'm lying in the rain / But I never wave bye-bye." So hello, David Bowie. All of you. At thirty-six, the oldest fresh force in rock, this new Bowie seems to share few qualities with old Ziggy, the polymorphous camp extravaganza, the most gilded lily of rock's gaudiest age. What binds these identities together is a gift that is cerebral and carnal, frequently danceable and always entertaining. His former crony Lou Reed has sung about it. Deep down inside, Bowie has a rock-'n'-roll heart.
Bowie's first album in three years, Let's Dance, a record of shrewd and unsentimental dynamism, could be his biggest. It has sold more than one million copies, fielded one hit single and two excellent Bowie videos that are holding down heavy air space on MTV. The album and its gold-record title track are also buttressing Bowie's current tour, a blitzkrieg that has sold out stadiums all over Europe; in Gothenburg, Sweden, Edinburgh and Paris, he beat last year's Rolling Stones' attendance records. For a charity concert in London, scalpers got a hundred and fifty dollars a seat.
Bowie arrives in North America this week. First stop, Canada. Then, in mid-July, on to the States. Tickets for the two Los Angeles concerts sold out in ninety minutes. In New York, you have a better chance of hailing a cab driver who looks like Ziggy Stardust than getting two seats at Madison Square Garden for the original's own gigs on July 25, 26 and 27.
Yes, Michael Jackson may have sold more records, and yes, The Police can sell out Shea Stadium. But Bowie, in many ways, can meet them and match them both, and offer something else too. A Bowie concert, shorn of excessive theatrics, is a raved-up tutorial in rock-'n'-roll survival, a history lesson with a horn section and one of the best bands this side of E Street. This show is about the fall and rise of David Bowie. A little regeneration and a little dancing in the aisles, a touch of optimism and a double dose of rhythm and blues and, as the man himself once said, wham bam, thank you, ma'am.
New music and old, all sound on this concert tour compact and soul heavy, spirited but not demented. Bowie and band locomote through a decade's worth of favourites, from Ziggy Stardust through Young Americans, "Heroes", and beyond, with an all-pro fervour that is deep into funk and goes very light indeed on the old druggy dolour. Bowie's voice is like pulverised gravel. It can give a strong foundation to a desperate love song like "Heroes", or lead straight and true to the tough core of Fame, with its nervy, insolent last line: "What's your name?" Onstage, he seems taller than his five-feet-ten-inches because he uses his body like a precision instrument, posing, preening, driving the song along not just with an inflection of voice but with an indentation of hip, an undulation of hand. The artificiality of some of his stagecraft is a deliberate distancing device. He must be the only rock superstar who wears a wristwatch onstage.
Musically, however, Bowie always seems to know what time it is; no need for verification. His new material is unabashedly commercial, melodically alliterative and lyrically smart at the same time. Bowie made some of the most adventurous rock of the past decade. When it did not work, it sounded trendy or tuned out. But when it did hit, which was most of the time, it laid down rules and set new marks for others to follow. Bowie kept the cutting edge keen. There are few punks or New Wavers or art rockers or New Dancers dancing to New Music who do not owe him an abiding debt. Everyone from Gary Numan to Talking Heads and Human League and Culture Club ought to make a deep bow in his direction. If the success of his new album and the galvanic concert tour are any indication, then Bowie is setting the direction once again.
Movies. Records. Mime. Broadway stage. Video. Painting. Bowie has done them all, spinning off in so many directions that he looks like a loose compass searching for magnetic north. The striking thing is how often he finds it, and how, when the needle settles, so many diverse directions have been blended into one. His rock videos are state of the art, partly because Bowie has always been a witty accomplice in his artifice. "David's a real living Renaissance figure," says Nicolas Roeg, who directed Bowie in the formidable 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth. "That's what makes him spectacular. He goes away and re-emerges bigger than before. He doesn't have a fashion, he's just constantly expanding. It's the world that has to stop occasionally and say, 'My God, he's still going on.'"
Detractors think of him as a particularly shrewd trendy, but the reason Bowie may so often be in the right place at the right time is that the audience looks for him to be there. He is the perpetual Next Big Thing. The feeling seems to be, if David's into it, then let's get on with it. He has two of the prime qualities every highflying avatar needs: a restless imagination and a roving eye. "Never wear a new pair of shoes in front of him," his friend Mick Jagger once joked. People or music, the pattern is the same. Says his old crony and frequent producer Tony Visconti: "David will spend a very passionate, intense time with someone he loves, and he'll take notes. When he has what he wants and things have reached the point of stagnation, he goes on."
He may have heard it coming or guessed or lucked out, but whatever, the freewheeling, free-form sound that critics are calling the New Music slips neatly into Bowie's own new groove. If it is casual and a little cool, a little anonymous and a touch technocratic, then it must be New Music and Let's Dance. Talking about the album, Bowie can sound almost evangelistic, like Billy Graham on a crusade. He speaks of "positive music, something that has an inward glow to it, something that still has something to say but is more than the general kind of nihilistic thing I and some of my peers have been associated with." Instead, he aims to "swim against the tide of lethargy and nihilism" - this from the same man who swam upstream in those very waters not seven years ago, spawning madly. Now what he wants is "a sound which says, 'This is what emotion feels like.'"
He found it close to home. By the late '70s, Bowie had worked with synthesizers and what he calls the "Euro-techo sound": lots of strange, synthesised instruments serenading one another like computer banks pitching woo. On Let's Dance, he wedded those sounds to old rhythm and blues undercurrents and an idle jazz strain - as he says, "everything from Little Richard to John Coltrane." The result, modelled on "music that used to lift me up and make me feel really happy," was less a return to basics than a reappraisal of them.
The new album's wonderful opening, Modern Love, which becomes the climactic clincher of the concert, ticks off the failing solaces of contemporary life, such as love and religion, while a bouncy chorus invokes "God and man" as if they were the co-owners of the corner candy store. Let's Dance, a love song rilled with the promise of passion and the threat of impermanence under "this serious moonlight," has one of those weird, hypnotic choruses that uses the colours and objects of dreams like surrealistic talismans: "Let's dance / Put on your red shoes and dance the blues."
If there is a contagious sense of release, almost of giddiness, in Bowie's music, that is because he has laid his ghosts well. Lodger, released in 1979, was a purging and a burial. As he had on two previous albums, Bowie worked with the intense Art Rock Composer Brian Eno (Ambient 1: Music For Airports). Boys Keep Swinging mixed Bowie's band with instruments they did not normally play. Guitarist Carlos Alomar, for example, found himself playing drums. Bowie then took the chord changes from Boys Keep Swinging, played them at nearly half speed and came up with a romantic ballad, Fantastic Voyage. Bowie's classic raver for Mott The Hoople, All The Young Dudes, was played backward and turned into Move On.
It was art, but you could not dance to it. Let's Dance gets its licks in with a simplicity that may be deceptively easy to grasp. Its chief architect counsels caution. "Finding my style is real difficult," he says. "It's something real different for me. It's like... I don't want to say rebirth. But it's something like that."
There was an intervening album between Lodger and Let's Dance, 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), on which could be heard the figurative sound of Bowie picking up the pieces. They didn't quite fit yet, although the title track and Ashes To Ashes were two of his best songs. Let's Dance has all the consolidation and much of the restless peace that Bowie has been searching for. Says Japan's Nagisa Oshima, who directed Bowie in his upcoming film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence: "Let's Dance gives the impression that David really is free." This kind of freedom carries certain risks of its own, such as looking like a bisected square. "It's hard to say, 'Hey, you can be a nice guy without being a wimp,'" Bowie says. "It's hard to make people believe you don't have to be a tooth-gnashing, vampiric drug creature of the night to say something important. That same attitude, that same image, has been coming from one particular area of rock for the last fifteen years, but it hasn't done anything except produce casualties."
Bowie ought to know that area the way an old sea hand knows his charts. He navigated it and narrowly missed racking up. Even now, hymning health and positivism, Bowie is doing a delicate balancing act. Spectators who recall his previous incarnations may be pardoned for wondering if this is not another disguise.
No rocker has ever fused stage and private personalities with such dedication and calculation as David Bowie. The painted perversity of Ziggy Stardust spearheaded Glitter Rock and Glam Rock back in the early '70s. But as the centrepiece and major instigator of all this, Bowie was after something more than a shock and a trend. He wanted a confrontation with the innate theatricality of rock. In 1972, when he first hit the stage as Ziggy, decked out in makeup, dye job and psychedelic costume, the rock world was ready. Too much karma, too much good vibes, too much hippy dippy: audiences wanted decadence with a difference. Bowie was there.
There was general outrage, of course, and he kept the fires of publicity burning bright. He had already appeared on an early British album cover, The Man Who Sold The World, blond hair bouncing about his shoulders, wearing a dress. ("They were men's dresses," he explained later. "They didn't have big boobs or anything.") Now he boasted to the music press about being gay and claimed that he first met his wife, an aspiring fashion model from America named Angela Barnett, "when we were both laying the same bloke." Whether it was true did not matter. It was the image that mattered, and the impact that counted.
What began as fury and inspiration quickly became fashion. By 1973 rock audiences were all glammed up, while the music, by Bowie and fellow glitterbugs like Elton John and T.Rex, tried to keep going on the momentum of its own outrage. His concerts took on the dimensions of a Max Reinhardt extravaganza, with some added stage business that would have got Max busted back in old Berlin. Bowie would kneel in front of his lead guitarist Mick Ronson, clutch Mick's butt and apply his lips and tongue to the extremities of Ronson's Les Paul Custom.
Calculated outrage like this burns out fast, and Bowie was in danger of doing just that. Pale under all his stage makeup and already well into the high life, he was held together only by the weight of his old dreams. Born in Brixton, one of London's toughest neighbourhoods, Bowie originally dreamed of being a painter. He describes his father Hayward Jones as "a gambler and drinker and layabout for most of his life. I have one brother and one sister that I know about." His mother Margaret Mary Burns was a movie usher when she met Hayward, who eventually settled down doing publicity for a children's home. He brought eleven-year-old Davey some Little Richard 45s and, two years later, had to shell out for a saxophone. "I thought, 'This is the pliable stuff that I can use,'" Bowie recalls. "'This is my paint and canvas, and I think I can be quite good at it.'" His older half brother Terry had passed along a copy of On The Road, and Jack Kerouac's hipster visions flowed nicely into the first rushes of swinging London.
But nothing came easily. In 1969 Bowie had his first English hit single, Space Oddity, a chilling five-minute movie of alienation starring an astronaut. He had already been on the fringes of the music business for five years, changing his name from Jones to Bowie to avoid confusion with a member of The Monkees. He also flirted with imitating everyone from Anthony Newley to Bob Dylan, and spent three years on and off studying with the mime troupe of Lindsay Kemp, who has been described by rock historian Nicholas Schaffner as "Scotland's ultra-camp answer to Marcel Marceau." "Lindsay taught me more about what one can do with a stage than anyone," Bowie remarks now. "Just one small movement can do a lot."
Before Space Oddity became a hit, Bowie could be seen at various venues throughout Britain, performing a mime inspired by the Chinese invasion of Tibet. (Please, do not rush to the exits. Proceed in an orderly fashion.) After two more years and yet another record company (his sixth), Bowie produced his first important album. Hunky Dory was a hothouse of lush rock that contained such Bowie perennials as Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things and the enigmatic The Bewlay Brothers. That song may have been an oblique allegory of David and Terry Jones, who has spent much of his adult life in a mental institution and whose illness has long haunted his half-brother. Six months after Hunky Dory was released, Ziggy Stardust appeared, and Bowie ceased to be a simple star, or even a force. He became a movement all by himself.
It did not take long for the imitators and disciples to rev up, but Bowie held on to his commanding lead. Although he had by now married Angela and had a son Zowie, Mom and Dad both made it clear they were not domesticated. "How does it feel," a combative reporter asked Angie, "to be married to the man who everybody thinks is the world's king faggot?" "I think it's great," she replied. "I love it. It all depends on your knowledge of gay culture, of which I can happily say I'm a member."
Bowie, who speaks frequently if not persuasively of his shyness, says he created characters to mask his own feelings of inadequacy. "I really didn't feel back then I had too much to show," he says. "What would I do up on a stage? The only thing was to try and conjure up a figure to do the performance for me because I felt I was much safer playing roles. I was writing plays for these people, mini-musicals." This, in turn, took on its own dark corollaries, with some assistance from various controlled substances. "I found," Bowie says, "that I was adopting the characters offstage. And then I found that I was living like the character, that the character was slowly evolving and taking over."
Bowie had taken his name, he once told the novelist William S. Burroughs, because "I wanted a truism about cutting through lies." Not even Jim Bowie's renowned blade could have cut through the craziness that was surrounding Bowie now or even the tales that had been building up around him. As early as 1969, according to Tony Visconti, who lived outside London with David and Angie, life was like a lysergic version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. "Thursday night was gay night. David would go to a gay club, Angie to a lesbian club, and they would both bring home people they found. We had to lock our bedroom door because in the middle of the night these people they brought back home with them would come climbing into new beds, looking for fresh blood."
The anecdote bears a more than passing resemblance to The Hunger, a current high-gloss horror epic in which Bowie appears, memorably, as a kinky vampire who becomes suddenly susceptible to the ravages of old age and bad living. This may be a case of a movie feeding off an old myth, or a fresh myth being created to help a new movie; in any case, Bowie's musical excursions into sexual exotica, like John, I'm Only Dancing, have always seemed more like exercises in style than specific autobiography. His gay following was strongest, not surprisingly, in the Ziggy days, even though Bowie now claims that all the camp panoply was just "an image."
What does not seem to have been greatly embellished is Bowie's own narrative of his meandering into overindulgence. He evolved a new character called the Thin White Duke. He released David Live in 1974 with a cadaverous cover that prompted the subject himself to remark, "That record should have been called David Bowie Is Alive And Living Only In Theory." An album of original songs, Diamond Dogs, with lyrics patched up from fragments à la Burroughs, gave early warning of disaster: "When they pulled you out of the oxygen tent you asked for the latest parties." "I was living these songs," Bowie says now. "I didn't really have to make me like that. I was like that."
Bowie's musical skills remained sharp, his sense of musical direction undiverted. Fame, from 1975's Young Americans, was co-written with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar; the result, besides being Bowie's biggest single up till then, has a good claim to being the first breakthrough disco song. By 1975 he was living in Los Angeles, in a vast rented house in Bel Air, keeping company with dabblers in black magic and refusing to see his old friends. One of them, who managed to penetrate his defences, recalls watching Bowie work his way through a long night of coke madness, then say, almost to himself, "I'll probably end up like Terry."
"I was somewhere else," he says now. "The songs were taking me over in the end. It may seem like three or four stages, but for me it was one continuous grinding journey. It led me just as near to insanity as I ever hope to get." An album recorded at this time, Station to Station, has all the scary strength of a first-draft suicide note. "Really horrendous" is the way Bowie describes the title track now, "just dreadful. It was a joyful anthem to nihilism." He had also become nuttily enamoured of the "mythology" of fascism and would allow in interviews that he would make "an excellent dictator." At the end of a 1976 concert tour, he finally crashed, appropriately in Berlin, feeling "empty, drained and rotting inside."
He looked like some horrifying Polaroid, a rock-'n'-roll Dorian Gray, "positively skeletal," as he remembers, "and mentally about the same." He took a small apartment in the Kreuzberg section, a neighbourhood that was "nice, tough and working class," and set about the serious business of cleaning up, recovering a certain kind of anonymity ("Berlin's absolutely the opposite of Los Angeles - star status doesn't mean anything") and starting over. Music was his only continuity. It was a lifeline. "Brian Eno came to my rescue in a way," he says now. "He came along and said, 'Hey, I have a whole new way of listening to music.' Everything about him was brand new." Bowie says the three albums they made together (Low, "Heroes", Lodger) "hurt. Those songs came from a very aching source. My whole cleaning-up period came through that trilogy. And I think I was successful at dropping my personas completely." Perhaps; or, anyway, dropping them as much as a showman-savant like Bowie ever can. Some lines from Ashes To Ashes come to mind: "I've never done good things/ I've never done bad things/ I've never done anything out of the blue."
During this period, he also reunited with Zowie, now answering to Joey - David and Angie divorced in 1980 - who lived with him and went to school in Berlin. "Joey definitely influences the work I do," Bowie says. "Just knowing he's there has left an impact on my music, and he's more influential than anything else in making me try to cut a path through the crap."
Joey, now twelve, has been with his father on several legs of the European tour, and will join him in America. They live, with decided privacy and some semblance of serenity, in a house overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland. There are certainly rock stars who are richer, but no tears of sympathy should be shed over the Bowie savings account. His new record company, EMI America, paid him between ten million and seventeen million dollars to sign on for five albums. Exact figures are hard to come by - no record company wants its other clients to renegotiate for what the star attraction is getting - but it is a rich deal at either end of the spectrum. Bowie's impact and influence have always charted higher than his actual record sales. In a decade on RCA in the U.S., his nineteen albums sold a combined ten million copies, while sales of singles added up to three million. Until the Let's Dance smash, this would have meant that EMI was making a heavy investment in prestige. Now it looks as if they may have lucked out.
Bowie - who has undertaken boxing and martial arts instruction to let off steam and claims to sooth nerves and ears listening to Polish and "Chinese Communist music" - is still bedevilled by those old interviews in which he rushed giddily out of the closet. He speaks of them now as the major miscalculation of his career, claiming he was never gay, bisexual, a transvestite or any selection of the above. Says he: "I was so young then. I was experimenting." He may be more at peace now, but no one is suggesting that complete equanimity comes from perfect equilibrium. Thoroughly tanked one night in Berlin last year, Bowie extinguished a lit cigarette in a fan's ear and woke up the next afternoon in a hippie crash pad.
"There is no definitive David Bowie," he once remarked. Ziggy and the Duke have been slithered out of, like shucked snakeskins, but their creator remains a well-nurtured enigma. Perhaps by design: in concert or in conversation, he always seems like a scrupulous creation. The body, even relaxed, seems conscious of pose. The face - Leslie Howard sketched by George Grosz - can be nearly beautiful, but the mouth splits its sculpted lines when it turns up into a toothy, gratified grin, like Chaplin's as he watched a fat man fall. Bowie's eyes, always appraising, seem to look straight down to his centre. Each is different, the right blue, the left grey, and only one pupil works. Hit hard during a teen-age fight, the grey pupil is permanently dilated, fixed forever, like a frozen camera shutter, for permanent depth of field.
No wonder that the camera is so kind. The eyes have always had it, and Bowie has always been as successful with a lens as a microphone. His appearance in The Man Who Fell To Earth was both a dissection of the Bowie mythology to that point and a portent of the bleak direction it was about to take. Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, to be released in America in the fall, casts Bowie for the first time in a heroic mold, as a neurotic but noble British P.O.W. in Java during World War II. Bowie is graceful and compelling in the part, with enough residual mystique to transform what is basically a supporting role into a star turn.
The rise of rock video and MTV plays perfectly into Bowie's plans, as well as his mystique. Eno's new ways of listening to music in 1976 are by 1983 new ways of watching it. No one looks better on rock video, or makes better tapes. Like some stalwart stepchild of Roeg and Oshima, Bowie works hard on his video outings. He sketches out each shot, consults with the director on everything before stepping in front of the camera. The results, startling and often funny, are more than musical presentations. They are essential refractions of the songs. Concert personas are thus definitely superfluous. Bowie can become a new character, fixed with the permanence of tape and film, with each new song.
It seems finally to be what he always wanted. The form remains flexible, a regulated extravaganza of mixed media, but the music, mutable in its style, comes always from the same fixed source. From deep beneath a troubled heart, and from right between the eyes.