INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Musician MAY 1983 - by Timothy White
David Bowie, AKA Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Aladdin Sane, had made a career of startling and shaking people's preconceptions. Timothy White's close encounter in a Manhattan diner takes the ubiquitous Bowie from the oversell of Ziggy the dark obsessions of L.A. fame, from the musical reawakenings his Berlin years to the brand new brassy boogie of of Let's Dance.
Fat horns, strident and clipped, bray in unison against the dusk, paced by the cool crack of metallic percussion. It sounds like the opening salvo of Choo Choo Ch'Boogie, the 1946 jump blues hit by Louis Jordan, one of the founding fathers of R&B. But the honkers and shouters out jamming on this early winter evening in Manhattan are just victims of traffic gridlock outside of a truckers' diner in the lonely factory district near the Lincoln Tunnel. Behind the beanery's greasy windows, the wizened waitress tugs at her hair net and slaps several more pairs of silverware against formica as the horns subside and the hollering stops.
"I'd like a bowl of that clear soup with rice on the bottom," says a willowy, blond-haired young man as he angles himself into a snug back booth. His tone is meek, his manner demure. The waitress' mouth wrinkles in a maternal smile. The grin her customer returns is disconcerting, jagged milky teeth flashed with vampire grace. The sight is canceled so quickly one shudders, wondering whether it was ever there at all, an unwelcome glimpse at a secret best left intact. "Oh, yes," he adds, gently recapturing the woman's crimped confidence, "and I'll have one of your lovely chicken pot pies - and a glass of milk."
Turn and face the strange: thirty-six-year-old David Bowie, dressed like a librarian in crisp blue shirt, sleeveless argyle sweater and khaki slacks, his bleached hair schoolboy-short. Savouring his lunch, he enthusiastically discusses the aftermath of the Superbowl, and is coddled by the frumpy counter-lady - "Don't let your soup get cold, hon!"
When she drifts off, he blushes a waxy pink and says he's been coming to this diner for almost ten years, dating back to when hew had an apartment in the West 20s during his days Ziggy Stardust. He adds that he had bet on the Miami Dolphins even though he's a Redskins fan, and dropped ten dollars in the process. Such admissions seem suspect. One tries to envision the Magus of Glam-Rock wolfing down homey roadhouse fare, his attention glued to some American football on the tube, but memories of his spectral warpaint and sci-fi drag demeanour make it difficult.
Predictably, it all later checks out: the management of the lunch counter confirms that Bowie is indeed a semi-regular customer of long standing; and the musicians of Let's Dance, his first all-new LP in almost three years, explains that they got their boss hooked on the playoffs (and attempted to mould him into a Jets fan) while recording this winter at New York's Power Station Studios.
It's always been an entertainingly strenuous chore separating the man from the image, and there have been so many versions of the latter over the last decade that his predilection for elaborate reinvention has long surpassed mere calculation or ritual self-parody. If only by virtue of its crazy-quilt staying power, the concept of David Bowie has achieved an integrity all its own. Lon Chaney would have been envious. Kafka might've been inspired to recast Metamorphosis along rock 'n' roll lines. But not really. Art usually celebrates/imitates life, not artifice. Yet David Bowie has brought artifice within striking distance of art.
There was a time when such goals were a good deal more than Bowie, AKA David Robert Jones of Brixton, South London, could have dared hoped for.
In the beginning, glitter rock and grotesque grandstanding were not uppermost in his mind. Thinking back to before there was the swishy blunt-cut Beau Brummel on the cover of the 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World or the Veronica Lake look-alike of the 1971 Hunky Dory LP, recalling an era pre-dating pop messiah-stud Ziggy Stardust, Dada dandy Aladdin Sane and the leering Aryan dilettante the Thin White Duke, David Bowie makes a frank admission about the origins of his exhibitionism: "As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn't really have the nerve to sing my songs onstage and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn't have to actually go through the humiliation of going onstage and being myself. I continued designing characters with their own complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me! Rather than be me - which must be incredibly boring to anyone - I'd take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do."
And it nearly proved to be Bowie's undoing, as he suffered through what was essentially the drugs-assisted unravelling of a "hurt, broken mentality; a fractured person," while living in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, the period of his greatest commercial success. David says there is a history of mental illness in his family - close relations prone to sudden unexplained disappearances, aunts and cousins who have been hospitalised after been found wandering the streets. He is still haunted by the tragic passage of his stepbrother, Terry, who when in his early twenties returned from service in the Royal Air Force greatly disturbed. David, who was sixteen years old at the time, watched as the ultra-intelligent brother slowly shut out the world, eventually declining to talk. Vanishing for a few years, Terry turned up in a mental ward and had spent considerable time in institutions since then.
In the aftermath of his own L.A.-aggravated mental traumas, Bowie resettled in Berlin in 1977, renting a spartan apartment over an auto parts shop and collaborating on two raw, highly impressionistic electronic albums (Low, "Heroes") with Brian Eno while he convalesced. "Slowly gaining control over me again," as he puts it, he moved to Switzerland in 1979, where he and Eno completed their trilogy with Lodger, a tribute to human restlessness in all its forms. In 1980, Bowie dipped back into his nightmares again with Scary Monsters (And Supercreeps), but this time he appeared to rule the shadow creatures rather than the other way round.
He bowed out of music for a spell in order to act, debuting on Broadway as The Elephant Man and on television in Bertolt Brecht's Baal. He also landed leading roles in two soon to be released movies. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima (creator of the controversial 1976 erotic film, In The Realm Of The Senses), is a study of captives and captors in a Japanese P.O.W. camp in Java in 1942, with Bowie cast as a tough-willed Lieutenant-Colonel who refuses to break under torture. The Hunger has Bowie playing opposite Catherine Deneuve; she is an immortal siren who needs human blood to survive, and he is her lover of nearly three hundred years, who is abruptly - and rapidly - ageing.
Now an extended hiatus from recording has been ended with Let's Dance, a buoyantly commercial effort that heralds Bowie's signing (for a reported seventeen and a half million) with EMI, a long-term deal that presumably will also allow David to exploit his new company's extensive video and film involvements. In spirit, the new records is a distillation of the R&B craze that swept England in the early 1960s, golden years of exceptional black music that captivated David Jones and his mates. In content, Let's Dance, which was co-produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers, owed a debt to Louis Jordan and a host of other jump blues giants, but the Asbury Jukes horn section and the hard Texas blues riffing of Stevie Ray Vaughn combined with its other components to forge an original party-funk cum big bass drum sound greater than the sum of its influences.
"To tell you the truth, I was not very familiar with David's music when he asked me to play on the sessions," admits the twenty-eight-year-old Vaughn, an Austin based virtuoso whose blues group, Double Trouble, is known as one of the city's best. His 1959 Stratocaster burns with "a passion straight out of T-Bone Walker; Bowie apparently has damn good taste in guitarist," says veteran R&B producer Jerry Wexler, who arranged the Double Trouble gig at the 1981 Montreux Jazz Festival, where Vaughn and Bowie first met.
"David and I talked for hours and hours about our music, about funky Texas blues and its roots - I was amazed at how interested he was," says Vaughn (whose brother Jimmy is one of the Fabulous Thunderbirds). "At Montreux, he said something about being in touch and then tracked me down in California, months and months later, calling at 4:30 in the morning. It was get-up-and-make-sense-quick time! That's sort of the way on which the album came together, actually. It was the most fun I've had in my life. David works quickly because he knows exactly what he wants."
And what Bowie wanted was a sleek, stylish record that rocked with a soul swagger; one that rekindled the joy of R&B which had long ago helped pull a timid Brixton boy out of himself. Peter Meaden, the renowned British mod who discovers the Who and defined the natty, R&B-cum-amphetamines lifestyle of the trig London teens of the early '60s, once offered a terse description of the mod's nocturnal mission: "Becoming neat, sharp and cool; and all-white Soho negro of the night." That line fits Let's Dance and this year's David Bowie to a "T". The title track, Modern Love, and Ricochet are incendiary ballroom rave-ups, and the new version of Bowie and Giorgio Moroder's Putting Out The Fire (from the soundtrack of the 1982 film Cat People) is a sensual sizzler.
David Jones and David Bowie have finally merged, organically, admirably. But the old artifice dies hard. As with virtually all interviews Bowie has granted throughout his career, this one lasted exactly one hour - to the minute (he never even had to check his watch).
He flew into the diner with a flourish, whipping off his bulky tan raincoat and offering a hale and hearty handshake. "Let's make this as formless as possible!" he exulted. He lit a cigarette, handling it as if it were a conductor's baton. The wispy smoke and the steam from his piping hot lunch swirled around his pale face, the skin so translucent it seemed you could see the blood coursing underneath. The thin lips and pointy, vaguely vulpine teeth punctuate various jests and pronouncements with their secret smile. He was in jocund spirits; he seemed at ease. And when he'd talked enough, he withdrew with a strategic suddenness that was masterful in its deft execution.
Without a doubt, David Bowie is once again in control.
• • •
MUSICIAN: Let's Dance has a lot of interesting early R&B shadings, bits of Bill Doggett, Earl Bostic, James Brown and a helping of Louis Jordan.
BOWIE: Yeah, you can probably say that. What happened was that over the last year or so, as I've been doing filming, going to places like the South Pacific, I took tapes to listen to, not really knowing if there'd be much local radio, or indeed what the music was like over there anyway. I realised that in what I'd picked out, I'd gone back twenty or more years to stuff that meant a lot to me when I first started playing saxophone; there was a lot of Johnny Otis, Red Prysock, that organic rock 'n' roll orchestra sound. So I think there's a degree of those other influences on the new LP. It certainly doesn't sound anything like a revival record.
MUSICIAN: When you got together with Nile Rodgers, your co-producer, was it casual at first, the two of you just playing records for each other socially?
BOWIE: That's what really happened, because I had met him a few months ago in a club in New York, just after I'd come back from doing the Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence movie with Nagisa Oshima. We started talking about old blues and rhythm & blues stuff and found we'd both had the same artists as strong influences. I guess that triggered me off thinking it might be fun working with him. I admired some of his work in the areas of his bass sounds and drum ideas; he was very instrumental in pulling those sections together on the album. I felt that the kind of European influences I've has, it might be interesting to see what could result from our working together.
MUSICIAN: How do you hear the musical textures on the new LP?
BOWIE: I like the horns - but they're not an overly predominant feature on every track. It's kind of a mixed bag, really. And - not for any elitist reason - (laughter) there are no synthesizers on it. I really wanted that same positive optimistic rock 'n' roll big band sound that was very impressionistic for me back when. It's got a hard cut, very high on treble - it sears through.
MUSICIAN: You assembled an entirely new group of musicians for the record. How did you select the personnel?
BOWIE: The guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughn, denotes where I was coming from in terms of putting the band together. (drawls) He's from Austin, Texas! Plays in a blues band down thar! When I saw him a year ago or so at the Montreux Jazz Festival, his trio was the support act for somebody like Muddy Waters. Stevie is just dynamite - he thinks Jimmy Page is a modernist! Stevie's back there with Albert King. He's the wiz kid.
Also, I wanted to have a little relief from the guys that I usually work with. I wanted to try people that I'd never worked with before, so that I couldn't predict how they were going to play. They didn't have much idea of how I worked in the studio. And as I hadn't recorded in two years, it seemed perfectly natural 'round about now to try new people. Nile picked up most of the rest of the band for me: Omar Hakim from Weather Report; Carmine Rojas from Nona Hendryx's band; Stevie and Nile played guitar, and that was the nucleus.
MUSICIAN: Surprisingly, you don't play anything on the album. Not even sax.
BOWIE: I don't play a damned thing. This was a singer's album.
MUSICIAN: Since the new music marks a return to your very beginnings in rock 'n' roll, both career-wise and in terms of your earliest exposure to certain acts, lets' talk about your background. You were a well-known nightcrawler as a teenager, haunting the West End pubs. Is it true that your father owned a wrestling club?
BOWIE: Yeah, at one time. It's part of my family mythology. His father died and left him a lot of money, so he put it into a traveling theater troupe, which lost most of the money. What was left he put into a London club for wrestlers in Soho, a nightclub that was gangster and wrestler-oriented. I don't know how he got involved in that! Then he went into the army and when he came out he started working as a P.R. man for a charity organisation (Dr. Bernados's Children's Home), and stayed there for the rest of his life. He met my mother when she was working as an usherette in a cinema.
MUSICIAN: Were your parents much in evidence as a kid?
BOWIE: My father died when I was about twenty years old. He was instrumental throughout my teenage life; as I got older I got more and more support from him. My father bought me my first saxophone. I was not particularly close to my mother, but I've gotten closer to her over the years. I think the recognition of the frailty of age makes one more sympathetic to the earlier strains of the child-parent relationship. The problems are never ultimately on one side or the other - it's a shared responsibility and you get more mature about it.
MUSICIAN: Is that your mother in the Scary Monsters video?
BOWIE: (Grinning) No, that's just a mother figure. She's a well-known British actress. That was an inevitable question, and people in London ask her the same thing.
MUSICIAN: Tell me about your adolescence, your early teens.
BOWIE: I had the usual desire to break ties with home and parents, the general anger of youth. I have a half brother and a half sister, neither of whom I've been particularly close to, because they've never lived home. I was brought up ostensibly as an only child, and they put in these light weight appearances. I lost contact with my stepsister Annette when I was twelve - that was the last I saw her. She was quite a lot older than me and went to Egypt to get married. We've none of us heard a word from her since, and we've tried to trace her.
I was living up in Brixton until I was eleven years old, and that was enough to be affected by it. It left great, strong images in my mind. Because the music that was happening in my early teens was happening in Brixton, it was the place one continually had a relationship with. All the ska and bluebeat clubs were in Brixton, so one gravitated back there. Also it was one of the few places that played James Brown records, other than the two French clubs in town, La Poubelle and Le Kilt. A friend of mine, Jeff McCormack, who ended up as Warren Peace in the Diamond Dogs band, had the big ska record collection, and it just wasn't worth competing with him, so I went straight into buying Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the blues stuff.
MUSICIAN: Were white teenagers welcome at the "shebeens," as the West Indian clubs in Britain are known?
BOWIE: At that time it was cool. If you expressed an interest in the music and got off on what was happening in the clubs, it was a lot easier, I guess it is these days. Although I don't know; I haven't been to those clubs in years. I've hardly been in London in a social, living way for so long that It's almost an alien city to me now - which is unfortunate in some respects, but you lose some and gain some.
MUSICIAN: At the star of your career you spent a lot of time around the legendary Marquee Club on Wardour Street in London, which had weekly R&B nights featuring twin bills like Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds. What was that scene like in the early 1960s?
BOWIE: I got friendly with the owners; for me there were no rules at the door so I used to creep in and watch what was happening. The Marquee, The Scene, Eel Pie Island in Twickenham, they were all a circuit. At the time - sixteen years old, for me - when I was frequently in those places it was during the era of the first batch of mods. There were two batches of mods in England, the first lot being in 1962-63. The initial crop called themselves modernists, which reduced itself down to the mods. That excessively peacocky. These weren't the anorak (quilted, gabardine raincoats) mods that turned up later on motor scooters. The scooter thing wasn't quite as big with the early mods at that time; it was still trains.
But the first mods wore expensive suits; very, very dapper. And makeup was an important part of it: lipstick, blush, eyeshadow and out-and-out pancake powder - not Clearasil. It was very dandified, and they were the James Brown-lovers. Elitists. Pills always played an important part; everything was fast.
You weren't supposed to like band like The Rolling Stones, and especially The Action, The Who and all that crowd who came along later - these were the anorak boys in the later '60s - because they were real mods. I did - secretly. But I felt sad the former fashion had died out.
MUSICIAN: How would you earn money to dress up?
BOWIE: (Snickering, with a wink) You earned the money somehow or other, wheeling and dealing. Also, a popular thing was to go down to the back of Carnaby Street late at night and raid the dustbins. Because in those days if anything showed the slightest sign of deterioration, or a button was missing, or there was the least thing wrong with it, they used to throw it out, so you could pick up the most dynamite things down there! This was just as the street was becoming popular. Indeed, there were only about four shops along there that sold clothes of that nature, so it wasn't a tourist thing at the time.
Also, you could get some good suits made in Shepherd's Bush. There were good tailors there that would knock up a suit quickly and inexpensively, out of material (big grin) which you didn't ask how they could get so cheaply. So you'd get dressed, go 'round to the Marquee Club and just get looney and listen to rhythm & blues. Fundamentally it was a rhythm and blues period, which had just hit the underground in a big way.
I wasn't a hundred percent into performing music at the time of the mods, but I'd been playing saxophone since about thirteen years old, off and on. The things I'd considered doing once I left school were either to continue being a painter, start working in an advertising agency or be a musician if I could possibly get that good.
MUSICIAN: Entrepreneur Kenneth Pitt had seen you at the Marquee Club around the time you were eighteen and led the band called David Jones & The Lower Third. What kind of group was The Lower Third?
BOWIE: I guess it wanted to be a rhythm & blues band. We did a lot of stuff by John Lee Hooker, and we tried to adapt his stuff to the big beat - never terribly successfully. But that was the thing; everybody was picking a blues artist as their own. Somebody has Muddy Water, somebody had Sonny Boy Williamson. Ours was Hooker.
It also was the first band where I'd started writing songs. I think the first song I ever wrote - there might be others but this is the only one that sticks out - was called Can't Help Thinking About Me. (breaks up laughing) That's an illuminating little piece, isn't it? It was about leaving home and moving up to London. The London Boys was another one about being a mod. It was an anti-pill song; I wasn't particularly pro the thing - after a bit.
MUSICIAN: Wasn't there a point in your late teens that you were into Buddhism for a while?
BOWIE: I've always been a great fan of diversification, eh? At one period I had the whole lot going. I was a Buddhist mime songwriter and part-time sax player, or it became like that. I just couldn't see the wood for the trees. I was trying everything. I mean, my whole life is made up of experimentation, curiosity and anything that seemed at all appealing.
MUSICIAN: Was that around the time that you hooked up with Lindsay Kemp's Underground Mime troupe?
BOWIE: (Nodding as he gulps down chicken pot pie) Lindsay was the man who I ended up studying with, and working for, and living the most degenerate kind of life with. It was all wonderful, incredible. It's a great experience living with this sort of rancid Cocteau-ish theatre group in these bizarre rooms that were decorated and hand-painted with elaborate things. The whole thing was so excessively French, with Left Bank existentialism, reading Genet and listening to R&B. The perfect bohemian life.
MUSICIAN: Pitt got you your first recording contract in 1967, didn't he? You were signed to Decca for an album, The World Of David Bowie, in an era when most deals with new artists were for singles.
BOWIE: I did an album that ended up sounding like baroque Tony Newley, more than anything else. They were little vignette songs. I guess it was around the time that I was learning to formulate songs out of observed points of view and story lines, trying the bit of standing back and looking on at things. They were narrative, odd things about child abuse and dykes. That was all Lindsay's influence - that the everyday is not as interesting as the curiosities of life, and that they can eventually bring you back to the everyday again.
MUSICIAN: Had you read any Isherwood at that point in your life?
BOWIE: I think I'd read everything by the time I was eighteen or nineteen that I would read yet again, from Kerouac to Isherwood to Kafka to Marcel Duchamp. They had all passes through my life at some time or other. On the second pass I just hones in on a very few of them and sifted and filtered the stuff that was, for me, affectation rather than something that actually meant something. And indeed, that what I still do.
MUSICIAN: When Space Oddity hit England in 1969, weren't you suddenly faced with a weird juxtaposition in live performance - something that later Bowie might have conjured up - where you'd be doing Dylanesque shows in front of pissed-off skinheads?
BOWIE: It was odd. I was not prepared for that at all. It was, unfortunately, a very good song that possibly I wrote a bit too early, because I hadn't anything else substantial at the time. What I was involved in to a lesser or greater extent at that point was what were known in England as the "Arts Labs". The idea was to encourage people to locally congregate at this meeting house in Beckenham and become involved in all aspects of arts in society. To come and watch strange performances by longhaired, strange people. They started out with altruistic aims. We'd all contribute to the funding, but those things were always broke, owing money left, right and center. You'd hire Bunuel films like Un Chien Andalou for people to see and not be able to pay for rental. Then you'd have poets who'd come down from Cumberland in their transit vans to read, and so on.
In the midst of all this, I'd written this little thing about Major Tom and gotten it recorded, and I was told I had a concert tour if I wanted it! I thought haughtily, "I'll go out and sing my songs!" not knowing what audiences were like in those days. Sure enough, it was the revival of the mod thing which had since turned into skinheads. They couldn't abide me. (laughter) No! No way! The whole spitting, cigarette-flicking abuse thing by audiences started long before the punks of 1977 in my own frame of reference.
MUSICIAN: During 1969, you also made a little-known film which I've never seen, called The Virgin Soldiers. Was that your first?
BOWIE: Actually, I'm in it for about twenty seconds as an extra. I don't know how it developed into a thing I've done as an actor. I've never seen The Virgin Soldiers either so I'm not sure I'm actually even in it still. I know that I was thrown over a bar in it. That film was put together by a guy in London named Ned Sherrin who was one of the leading satirists of the time and worked on things like That Was The Week That Was.
My first true film appearance was years earlier in a movie called The Image, an underground black and white avant garde-type thing done by some guy. He wanted to make a film about a painter doing a portrait of a guy in his teens, and the portrait comes to life and, in fact, turns out to be the corpse of some bloke. I can't really remember all the ploy, if indeed id had a plot, but it was a fourteen-minute short and it was awful.
MUSICIAN: What that the first film acting you've done that you felt was worth a damn?
BOWIE: I suppose The Man Who Fell To Earth. I was more than optimistic about it, and then I really thought it was a great movie. I couldn't but think that, because everything that Nick Roeg had done up to that point I thought was great. And I think it's even better now than I did then. I think it's surely taken on other qualities over time and is a most intriguing science fiction movie - especially in relation to a lot of the stuff that's out at the moment.
MUSICIAN: The uncut version is the best.
BOWIE: Quite definitely. That's the only version we knew about in Europe. I was floored when it came out over here and twenty minutes cut out of it - hacked out of it. It brought the thing to its knees; a bad thing to do to Nick's movie. But the best thing about it is that it did achieve critical acclaim at the time. It's still often playing in places.
MUSICIAN: I've always wondered how long it took to apply the slimy body makeup for your role in The Man.
BOWIE: That was a good four or five hours, much like The Hunger , which was another four or five hours. The skin of my character in The Man Who Fell To Earth was some concoction, a spermatozoon of an alien nature that was obscene and weird-looking. I think it was put together with the whites of eggs, food colouring and flour. Nick does revolting stuff that creates such challenging vignettes! Nick's love scenes must be some of the most perverse ever filmed. There's a quality to them that is so cruel. There's something about Nick's films which is awfully worrying but I think the magnetism of his movies is the wariness and worry they create.
Incidentally, they kept putting the release of The Hunger back because they were trying to get the rating changed. Those Hollywood people, they got themselves in trouble with some sex scenes, which they were probably stupid to put in the first place.
MUSICIAN: Do you feel, in retrospect, that Tony DeFries and his MainMan organisation were helpful in your rapid rise to notoriety as Ziggy Stardust?
BOWIE: No. I think he oversold me. Looking back on it, I think he did a lot of things far too early and tried to overkill with everything.
MUSICIAN: I recall the infamously lavish and indulgent 1972 press junket, when hordes were flown over to London from New York to catch the debut of your Ziggy stage show.
BOWIE: Insane. The most ridiculously crass thing to happen. There was too much happening at once. The attitude of more is better, I quickly learned is just the wrong thing to do in music. If you think your work matters, and if you want some kind of understanding between the audience and the work, then you can't throw it away like that. All those things came to be the friction between Tony and me near the end. I wanted to approach the thing from a much lower profile than all this hyperkill.
MUSICIAN: You've said that the Ziggy character overwhelmed you personality for a while, drove you to the brink. Do you feel like you were getting out of touch with your own craft and losing control of your performing identity?
BOWIE: No. That was the thing! I was getting more in touch with it near the end, and that's why I wanted the whole MainMan thing away from me. It was circusy. I was never much of an entourage person - I hated all of that. It's a relief for all these years I've not been MainManned to be on my own, and to not have a constant stream of people following me around to the point where, when I sat down, fifteen other people sat down. It was unbearable.
I think Tony saw himself as a Svengali type, but I think I would have done okay anyway. Now, I look back on it with amusement more than anything else. Everybody was always going to get their teeth done or something, brand new people appearing in the office, having changed their appearance completely from the day before, and so forth.
MUSICIAN: When you said in July of 1973 that you had "rocked your roll" and were going to retire, did you actually feel that way?
BOWIE: Absolutely. (smiling) I do every time. Only living at that moment and thinking of that moment, and being too young to recognise anything else, it never occurred to me that there were periods when you just got tired of what you were doing and possibly took a rest. So for me it was conclusive: "It's all gone wrong; I don't like what I'm doing; I'm bored; therefore, I'll always be bored; therefore, I'll retire now - that's what I'll do! It's gone! The spark's finished!"
Nowadays, if things start getting on top of me, I just step back a few months. I would never be so foolish again. It's very important to sort out the star trip. The idea of fame was an obsession - until it happened. Since those years, it's been a redefinition of why I wanted to make music in the first place. That's the continual thing I go back to when I'm feeling a little confused about what I'm doing or why I'm doing anything.
MUSICIAN: Was the stark 1978 Station To Station album and tour the result of a re-ignited interest in the German Expressionism of the early twentieth century and the output of people like film director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, or was it merely a result of mounting disinterest in theatrical overkill?
BOWIE: The reasons for doing the show and record were many-faceted. The overriding need for me was to develop more of a European influence, having immersed myself so thoroughly in American culture. As I was personally going through a very bad time, I thought I had to get back to Europe. So it came to that.
MUSICIAN: You're referring to your notorious wig-out period, after leaving MainMan and making The Man Who Fell To Earth, while living in a house in Los Angeles around 1976-77?
BOWIE: That's right. That was the wipeout period. I was totally washed up emotionally and psychically, completely screwed up. I was fed up hallucinating twenty-four hours a day.
MUSICIAN: What's the story on that incident Cameron Crowe wrote about in 1976, in which you interrupted your interview with him to pull down a window shade, which had a star and the word "Aum" drawn on it, and light a black candle, claiming you'd just seen a body fall from the sky?
BOWIE: (Cackling laugh) That used to happen all the time. I was one of those guys that you see on the streets who suddenly stops and says, "They're coming! They're coming!" Every day of my life back then I was capable of staying up indefinitely. My chemistry must have been superhuman. I'd stay up for seven or eight days on the trot!
MUSICIAN: Keith Richards would blush.
BOWIE: (Moans) Ohhh, the Stones would be absolutely floored by it. They'd see me a few days later and find out that I hadn't been to bed! It was unreal, absolutely unreal. Of course, every day that you stay up longer - and there's things that you have to do to stay up that long - the impending tiredness and fatigue produces that hallucinogenic state quite naturally. (chuckle, wink) Well half-naturally. By the end of the week my whole life would be transformed into this bizarre nihilistic fantasy world of oncoming doom, mythological characters and imminent totalitarianism. Quite the worst.
I was living in L.A. with Egyptian decor. It was one of those rent-a-house places but it appealed to me because I had this more-than-passing interest in Egyptology, mysticism, the cabala, all this stuff that is inherently misleading in life, a hodge-podge whose crux I've forgotten. But at the time it seemed transparently obvious what the answer to life was. So the house occupied a ritualistic position in my life.
MUSICIAN: It's amazing the things David Bowie can get himself in and out of.
BOWIE: Pulling myself back out of that was not quick, it was a good two-to-three year process. There was a flashback effect. I must have put myself through the most bizarre physical ordeal, apart from anything else. For the first two or three years afterward, while I was living in Berlin, I would have days where things were moving in the room - and this was when I was totally straight. It took the first two years in Berlin to really cleanse my system. Especially psychically and emotionally. I really had to find myself again.
MUSICIAN: Did you get any psychiatric counselling?
BOWIE: I've always had an immature attitude toward mental health detectors. There was a stigma attached to the whole thing which I felt was inhuman and I just didn't want to become involved in. Also, I had a slight impression that I might go to a hospital and not get out again. I felt that imbalance at the time. This was late in 1976. Fortunately, I was able to pull out of it with the help of two or three friends who either came to Berlin with me or were in Berlin. I realised how close I was to either completely screwing myself up or just not being around anymore.
MUSICIAN: Is there something in your personality that craves change for its own sake, an obsessive side where the performer overtakes the non-performer?
BOWIE: Well, I think it's more because of the success of the early few years in the '70s. I'd always had the natural instinct to be curious about life in all its forms - the arts, whatever. But I had an increasing tendency not to recognise the future. Everything became more and more just living from day to day. Then this parallel thing happened, where as I came out of that last bad period, I grew more aware of my son's life and the responsibilities I have towards my son.
I guess it's ageing, getting older, but now have a very direct link with the future. My son, just because of his presence, keeps telling me there is a tomorrow, there is a future, and that there's no point in screwing up today; because every day that you screw up is going to have an effect, karma-wise, on the future. One just adjusts.
Without reservation, I think it's very important for youth to have anger and an awareness of now-ness. I think all those things are part and parcel of being young. But I think that's just a passing grace, and then you shift to another viewpoint in life that's tempered by experiences, and the future becomes very important. But you need all the rest, that vortex of mess and misbehaviour, to then straighten up and see where the future can go.
MUSICIAN: How old is Zowie now?
BOWIE: He's eleven years old now. He lives with me. I have complete responsibility for him. I'm a single parent with a son, and more than anything else over the last five years, that fact has honed my outlook generally, and will continue to change my approach to music and whatever else I do.
BOWIE: Well, it's 1977, and we're now in Berlin, my first year there. I'm throwing away everything in terms of what I'd done before in music, and don't give a hang if I never make another record that has any appeal to it whatsoever.
I phone Brian, who's somebody I've long been excited by in terms of his approach to music - little areas of which I'd touched on in terms of William Burroughs-inspired cut-ups - and disorienting ways of putting instruments and things together. I knew that Eno had a different approach to the studio than I'd ever had before, and I felt that this was the time to work with him - especially if I was going to start examining what I want to do and if I ever wanted to go back to America or England again. I thought: let's see why I like his music.
Brian recognised my own desperation for wanting to understand if I should go any further with music or not. It's wonderfully easy to produce a workshop atmosphere when there's nothing to lose, and nothing to gain by resting on your laurels. I didn't care if RCA sued me; just didn't care. And, indeed, they were very dissatisfied with what we produced for those three albums.
MUSICIAN: Let's speak of Low, for instance.
BOWIE: Terribly important album for me personally. And the position we adopted on Low coloured what was to happen in English music for some time. What Eno and I achieved was something that would be filled out and fleshed our over the years that followed in terms of ambience and drum sounds. That "mash" drum sound, that depressive, gorilla effect set down the studio drum fever fad for the next few years. It was something I wish we'd never created, having had to live through four years of it with other English bands, until it started changing into the "clap" sound we've got now.
You see, there was no longer an interest by myself, and certainly not with Brian, in writing anything that had anything to do with narrative, other than in setting up atmosphere completely for atmosphere's sake. That music can be used as atmosphere, and listened to in many different contexts.
MUSICIAN: What sort of an atmosphere were you attempting to create aurally, musically?
BOWIE: For me, a world of relief, a world that I would like to be in. It glowed with a pure spirituality that hadn't been present in my music for some time. Mine had in fact almost become darkly obsessed. There was a degree of the Lower Elements that it occurred to me had been in recent previous songs and in the structure of the music.
There was a cleansing for me in Low. I find it has a clean feeling as an album. That album, more than any of the others we did, was responsible for my cleaning up musically, and my driving for more positive turns of phrase, if you will, in my music. Except for a slight relapse in Scary Monsters.
MUSICIAN: On "Heroes", songs like the title track and Joe The Lion sounded like fierce, flush-the-pipes music. Yet the free-form Low sound had now been codified into more comprehensible song structures.
BOWIE: The content of the album, which was the looking at the street life in Berlin, had a lot to do with the feeling of Joe The Lion and "Heroes". It's like the street life in New York but without the emphasis on consumerism. Politically, it's a lot more radical in its expression; everybody has a very definite political view, either far right or far lest. That kind of friction produces a wonderful... they say zeitgeist. There is a zeitgeist of the future, there is a feeling of social responsibility that's overpowering. There's not the kind of lush, decadent thing that's thrown about concerning Berlin - that's entirely wrong. There's a young population there and the middle-aged and the family people have moved out into West Germany because there's no industry left.
So the people who are in Berlin are older stoics who have no intention of ever moving; or students, because there's still a great emphasis on education in Berlin. Because of that there's a serious quality to the people, a resistance to silliness. They want change to come about positively for the people.
MUSICIAN: Observers sometimes tend to interpret the German people too directly through their art and music. They see the harshness and rigidity of some of their celebrated painters, for instance, and believe that's how those artists see the world, rather than recognising that, in fact, these are anticipatory images, ones the artists are creating to alert people to impending realities that can be warded off.
BOWIE: Yes, there's very little nihilism in German art. The Expressionists cared. Even the later Expressionists like Otto Dix and George Grosz, the satirists; they possibly didn't have the same tender feelings towards life, but they damned well knew what was going on in Germany and they tried to point it out with the very aggressive little portraits they of the worst side of Berlin life, which was a small life. That worst side occupied the Kurfürstendamm and that was it.
Undivided Berlin was eight times bigger than Paris, and people here talk about one or two street that took on national prominence in the late 1930s, as if Berlin were the seat of some great decadent cabaret life. That's absolutely not true.
These days most Berliners are people who want good, strong family ties and a good strong social fabric where people care for each other. That's why I was drawn to that city after Los Angeles, which is the antithesis of that. Berlin was my clinic; it brought me back in touch with people. It got me back on the streets; not the street where everything is cold and there's drugs, but the streets where there were young, intelligent people trying to get along, and who were interested in more than how much money they were going to make a week on salary. Berliners are interested in how art means something on the streets, not just the galleries. They wonder how painting can help them in their live.
MUSICIAN: In terms of your own painterly zeitgeist, will you ever do a public show of your own paintings?
BOWIE: I'm tempted in terms of my own ego and self-flattery, because I've just seen the new exhibitions in Berlin of the new young artists, and I've suddenly become aware of how close what I started painting in Los Angeles is to their work. I was in tune! I don't know if there's any real substance in my painting, but certainly from a form standpoint I was excited to see how close I was to what's been happening in Dusseldorf and Munich, and with the new Italian Expressionists. I've seen it in New York, too, with David Salle.
That's kind of scary (nervous chuckle), because look what happened to the world the last time people felt the need to work in this kind of form, with the feeling of: "Let's strip everything away, 'cause we've got no time to muck around with decorative art, and there's just-about-enough-time-to-paint-this!" But any fool can see the two going hand-in-hand: the advent of nuclear destructiveness and that kind of art.
MUSICIAN: How did the Fame session with John Lennon for the 1975 Young Americans LP come about? I'm asking not for the sake of nostalgia in the aftermath of tragedy but because it was such an intensely solid collaboration, an amazing song.
BOWIE: After meeting in some New York club, we'd spent quite a few nights talking and getting to know each other before we'd even gotten into the studio. That period in my life is none too clear, a lot of it is really blurry, but we spent endless hours talking about fame, and what it's like not having a life of your own any more. How much you want to be known before you are, and then when you are, how much you want the reverse: "I don't want to do these interviews! I don't want to have these photographs taken!" We wondered how that slow change takes place, and why it isn't everything it should have been.
I guess it was inevitable that the subject matter of the song would be about the subject matter of those conversations. God, that session was fast. That was an evening's work! While John and Carlos Alomar were sketching out the guitar stuff in the studio, I was starting to work out the lyric in the control room. I was so excited about John, and he loved working with my band because they were playing old soul tracks and Stax things. John was so up, had so much energy; it must have been so exciting to always be around him.
MUSICIAN: Funny that such an urgent record as Fame would be so danceable too, but maybe, at the root of it, that's all of a piece.
BOWIE: (Nodding vigorously) Look at the blues! I mean, you keep having to go back to that. In our music, rock 'n' roll, the blues are our mentor, our godfather, everything. We'll never lose that, however diversified and modernistic and cliché-ridden with synthesizers it becomes. We'll never, ever be able to renounce the initial heritage.
MUSICIAN: Keith Richards has said that rock 'n' roll is about two things: sex and risk.
BOWIE: They're a foundation of it. Life is about sex and risk but that doesn't mean that's all that life is. I think he's quite right that they will always be a strong element of it, but they're merely a starting point. (chuckling) I think it can expand its horizons little more than that - but I think that a life of sex and risk can be very satisfying as well. I've had a lot of it myself. But I would add relationships to that.
MUSICIAN: Humanistic glue.
BOWIE: Yes, indeed! Humanistic glue. (Wistful smile) That reminds me of something. You know, John Lennon had such an incisive point of view and a way of capturing just what was going on around him or anybody else with five or ten words or one sharp line that was a precis that didn't need to be fleshed out. I once asked him, "What do you think of what I do? What do you think of glam-rock?" He said (imitating Lennon), "aww now, it's great you know, but it's just rock 'n' roll with lipstick on."
Nobody has ever said it better.