Bowie meets the press: Plastic Man or Godhead of the Seventies?

by Ben Edmonds / Circus

April 1976

After the brilliant plumage of every previous David Bowie incarnation, the stark black and white figure on the Station to Station stage might have come as a bit of a shock! The theme of the Seventies is understated elegance, then Bowie has carried it to its logical extreme once again, his dark-lit stage resembling the polished world of a Forties crooner more than the home of the self-proclaimed “King of Glitter Rock.” But Bowie is reaching out, breaking into such diverse media as films, video, and art; rock roll can no longer contain him, and glitter has long since ceased to define his essence.

Only rarely in the past five years has Bowie communicated to his audience in the verbal mode of the interview. But in Vancouver, on the eve of his current world tour, he stepped out of his masque and spoke person to person with Record World editor Ben Edmonds about his life, his art, and ultimate goals. This is what he said:

Edmonds: Looking at the many facets of what you do, it seems like I’ve never read an interview with you where you don’t propose at least two or three ideas that, a year later, have never been heard from again…

Bowie: I tend to think long-term, so my answers to those kind of questions about the future really mean the future to me. Most people tend to think in six-month periods, but I think in a three or four year span. And within that context, I’ve usually done most of the things that I intended to do when I said I’d do then. Of course not all of them; it is difficult.

1984, for instance. Mrs. Orwell refused to let us have the rights, point-blank. For a person who marred a Socialist with Communist leanings, she was the biggest upperclass snob I’ve ever met in my life. “Good heavens, put it to music!?!” I mean, it was really like that. Absolutely no way would she let me have it. To be quite honest with you, the Diamond Dogs album, the whole thing, was originally 19-bloody-84. It was the musical, and she put the clappers on it by saying no. So I, at the last minute, quickly changed it into a new concept album called Diamond Dogs. I didn’t ever want to do Diamond Dogs as a stage musical; what I wanted was 1984. So I just kind on got on with it and put the stage show for Diamond Dogs together. A little later, I think, half-heartedly. But after we finished the tour I reappraised the thing and began to see it cinematically. I thought that it would make a very good Fellini-esque type of film. Which is the way I’ll do it.

Edmonds: At the time that you were doing the 1984 album, later to become Diamond Dogs, was that an instance where you recorded the soundtrack first because you were only a rock star and didn’t have access to the film medium at that time?

Bowie: Yes, exactly. It was unfortunate.

Edmonds: Was it the same case with Ziggy Stardust and Young Americans?

Bowie: Yes. Ziggy, in fact, was conceived as a film before it became a musical album. Young Americans became a film idea during the course of making the album. Now, let’s see, what else am I going to make into a film? [Laughter] You’ve brought up the three films that I intend to do. The first one, I know, will be Ziggy Stardust. I’ll start on that one within the next 18 months. That one’s rolling, I suppose, because of the success of Tommy.

Edmonds: Do you actually consider Tommy to have been a success?

Bowie: Successful enough for directors and film companies to approach me with the idea of doing Ziggy. You know, “Hey, David, we have a great idea. Let’s make Ziggy as a film.” Wow! I never thought of that! Wunnerful, wunnerful. So I’ve been approached by a couple of companies. Of course, I hope to make enough money to be able to keep it and do it myself. Failing that I’ll go with one of these people as long as I get controlling rights to the production of it. I’ll not have them throwing the kitchen sink in. “I want mine to be uncommercial! I want mine to be avant-garde!” [Laughter] Ziggy, of course, is my most pet subject of anything that I’ve done. It’s like Ziggy’s a brother. I don’t necessarily like him very much, but he’s my brother and I love him. I want his film to be good.

Edmonds: Having started out with Ziggy first as a character in your head, and then a character that took you over eventually, what is your perspective on him going to be when you finally sit down to put him on film?

Bowie: I do have a first-class idea of how I want to do him which I’m not going to tell you because it’s such a gas, and it’s based on the life of a real person, and you can’t copyright the life of a real person.

Edmonds: What kind of long-range plans do you have for your production company, Bewlay Bros?

Bowie: I have two immediate things in mind. One is an art exhibition. The Circle art galleries are going to hold an exhibition of my paintings, sculptures, lithographs, silkscreens and whatnot. All over America, we’re going to send the exhibit around. This s being done with the cooperation of [promoter] Ron Delsener and Tom Hoving of the Metropolitan Art Museum. You see, I’m not too sure that Bewlay Bros. will be an out and-out moneymaking operation. Because with an art exhibit, for example, unless I start selling my stuff, which I’m disinclined to do at the moment…

Edmonds: Why?

Bowie: Because I like it too much; it really is as silly as that. I do like my paintings, and I don’t really want to see them on other people’s walls.

Edmonds: So until you run out of space…

Bowie: Exactly. I mean, it’d be lovely to have people go and look at them; it gives me a big head. I’d like that. It would be nice if the proceeds from records and live performances could fund projects like that. Then I could make films that I’m pretty positive are not going to make any money. One, because I’m not in them.’ And two, because I don’t know whether the subjects will be considered commercial. And the actors are probably all going to be unknown people, I think, until there are actors who have the faith in me to work under me as a director. I know one, Terence Stamp, would work for me, but I would never get him involved in a thing that would turn out to be an awful failure for him. So the first two or three crawling-step kind of films are going to be very experimental. I don’t know whether they’ll make money. And I can’t afford to make films that are not going to make money, unless I have the money. So that’s where the corporate aspect of records and tours comes in, the rest will branch out in experimentals. To be able to handle my own films, I’ve got to be able to handle myself on my own next time, which will be in The Eagle Has Landed.

Edmonds: This film will not star you?

Bowie: No. I’m doing it because Donald Sutherland’s in it. And James Caan and Michael Caine. I want to work with some people like that, just to watch them. How can you refuse that? I’ve got about a third-down role.

Edmonds: What part do you play?

Bowie: A Nazi, of course. Herr Oberst Max Radl, I play. The only unfortunate thing about it is that he’s a Nazi with a conscience, and I rather wanted him to be totally fascist and die saying “Heil Hitler!” But he doesn’t; he has second thoughts. But that’s alright, I suppose…

Edmonds: It would have been typecasting otherwise…

Bowie: Yes. [Laughter] It’s the story of the Germans being sent over to capture Winston Churchill, and it’s very exciting. It’s not a Jaws, but I presume that, with Caan and all that lot in it, it will turn out to be an enormous box-office attraction. And I’d love to be in that, because of the box-office, because of the money, and for the opportunity to work with all those people.

Edmonds: When you first undertook the MainMan project, you also took on the sponsorship of several artists. There was Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Mott the Hoople. After the MainMan thing folded, it doesn’t seem like you’ve touched on that aspect since…

Bowie: No. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, I’m something of a grasshopper, and I tend to flit from one thing to another. That’s probably one of my biggest faults; that’s something I’ve had to pull together. I’ve had to stop doing that sort of thing, because it’s not fair to the artists concerned. In Lou’s case it doesn’t matter, because Lou’s quite a survivor. But with the others…

Edmonds: You were saying something before about how you see Iggy’s greatest potential accomplishments coming as an actor…

Bowie: Yes. I think Iggy stands a very good chance of becoming one of the important young actors in America. I really do. I’ve seen it. I’ve put him in front of a camera on several occasions; I’ve got him falling around doing pretend scenes from method films, and he’s absolutely sensational. And nobody will pick him up. They’re scared stiff of somebody they consider an amateur. They don’t see what he’s got. They don’t understand that he’s not bizarre and outrageous, they can’t see that he is, in fact, the essence of the entire mid-American youth syndrome. He is very much the all-American boy.

Of course he needs experience. He needs to do a lot more public entertaining. But it’s all a part of this thing about watching the crack-up of artists, which I think is a fundamental of rock & roll. Watching artists showing themselves up; watching artists crack open a bit and seeing what they’re really like inside. That’s why rock & roll is so important. Not seeing superheroes. Watching the process of a person learning how to come to terms with what he really is. Suddenly seeing an artist recognize his own failings. The emphasis is not on watching somebody who’s invulnerable and godlike. That’s not the thing. People go to concerts to gain information, and the information they go to get is that of seeing an artist reconcile himself with his own failings, gradually, over a period of years.

Edmonds: When do you think your audience has been given the chance to see that in you?

Bowie: Oh, every year or so I suddenly come across a new aspect of myself that I wish I hadn’t seen, at first. Then I say, “Yes that’s me. I do nick a lot of things from other people. I am a plagiarist. I’m very ostentatious and incredibly pretentious at times. And, really I don’t fit in with rock & roll at all well.” Seeing that kind of thing take place is important, because the kids can relate to those kinds of things happening.

Edmonds: Except that, in terms of the isolation that’s marked your career, they only see your failings in terms of what you leave in your wake; what you’ve rejected to move on to something else.

Bowie: Yes, that’s right. That’s probably how it presents itself.

Edmonds: So in that case, do they really get that sense of failure, or only of movement?

Bowie: Movement … Oh yes, I don’t think the process is a sense of failure. I think the process is a movement, but the movement is coming across failures and coping –or just being able to cope with them. It’s change.

My whole thing, of course, has always been changes. My vehicle has been changes. I think that’s what I’m best known for, and that is what I’ve been trying to say. And over the last year, it gladdens me to think that I was right. That, no, I didn’t have a style. That my style is changes. In the middle of all this, looking around and trying on this hat and trying on that hat. And wondering “Does this suit me? Will people believe it? It is credible?” And being able to say “nah,” and then try on another one. It’s watching someone grow into or grow out of certain aspects of themselves.

I think that’s why Iggy is gonna be so enormous. He’s not hard and knowledgeable and all knowing and cynical; all of that has gotten so boring. Every artist always knows the answers of the world; it’s so tiring. It’s nice to see someone for a change who hasn’t a clue. But has insights.

Edmonds: He’s so completely vulnerable that every time you see him, you can see exactly what he’s been through, and what he’s going through, right on his face.

Bowie: Oh yeah, that’s it! That’s the charming thing about him, that you can really see the bruises on him. Everybody likes to see someone bruised. No one likes to see a star smile. No one likes to see a happy star. And they’re not likely to, either, ’cause there ain’t many of ’em.

Edmonds: We were talking about rock & roll as the new method school of acting, that rock will be the spawning ground for the next generation of actors. Does that imply that, in your eyes, film is a higher art form?

Bowie: I don’t think it’s true that … well, yes, I do think it’s true. It is a higher level of art. Only because it still has its own religio- sort of context, where music is reduced down to a socio- thing. Music is taken on a sociological level rather than the original Sixties quasimystical kind of experience. But the film is still mystical. It’s still a ceremonial rite, because you go there and be so quiet. You go and sit down and don’t say anything for two hours, and then you come out and talk about it. Whereas a rock & roll thing is like “who’s got the joint?” and all that.

Edmonds: Now that you’ve finally made the move into film, which you’ve been threatening for some time, does that mean that your continued interest in rock & roll making records and touring is strictly financial?

Bowie: No, oh no. I love rock & roll. Everything I’ve said about it in the past is all wrong. [Laughter] I love it. I love it because it’s so full of liars. I’ve never been in anything in my life where I could tell as many fibs and have so much fun with it.

Edmonds: In some ways, I can see this album and tour as just a grand promotion for The Man Who Fell to Earth film.

Bowie: No. Listen, babe, I do need the money. I’ve gotta get the money together, and that is the first thing that made me tour. But now that I’ve started working and rehearsing, I’m liking it.

Edmonds: We’ve been talking about you as an animal of constant change. As much as I like Station to Station it seems to me that it’s probably your first static album…

Bowie: Do you think so? In what way?

Edmonds: Even though it’s a synthesis of elements from your past musical incarnations and it does represent a synthesis those elements are basically all things that we’ve heard in your work before. It presents a static picture and therefore doesn’t fit in with your picture of yourself as ever-changing.

Bowie: Oh, I see. Well, I’ve learned to not change probably. You see, I can’t even answer something like that, because I don’t believe it. Wholeheartedly, I don’t. I don’t think it’s innovative, but I do believe it’s a pretty good coming together of one of the things I’ve wanted to do from the beginning, which is to combine a European style of lead melody with an R&B instrumentation. I think it works at that level. Live, I think it works very well.

Edmonds: You’ve been accused, several times over the years, of a certain coldness in your work. But in contrast to the reportage on the decadence and depravity of your audience in Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Doge, there’s a lyrical warmth to Station to Station, almost as if you’re trying to give that audience something to hold onto.

Bowie: It’s a positive album, certainly. [In German accent:] “Zere are two kinds of emotion. Zere is warm emotion unt cold emotion.” Hello Kraftwerk. Yeah, I think the previous albums were of a colder emotion, and that this is one of a warmer emotion. It’s got some kind of Godhead recognition, a feeling of empathy about it, yeah…

Edmonds: Why is this something that hasn’t manifested itself in your work before?

Bowie: Well, you must understand you do understand that a lot of the albums I’ve done in the past have been things that I haven’t necessarily agreed with. They’re not really mine because…

Edmonds: … Because they’re involved playing a character…

Bowie: Exactly. I was working more as a storyteller. It’s a very old-fashioned English thing to do, which is to be more of a minstrel. An electronic minstrel. I was concerned with telling stories, the albums that were labelled “concept albums” were just little story albums. I saw grains of truth in a lot of them, but I didn’t particularly like many of the characters. But those were the kind of stories I was writing. The last couple of albums have been more up. Young Americans started me thinking about writing my own personal thoughts for a change, which I haven’t really done in the past. Station to Station is probably the first album where I’ve gotten down to what I really think.

Edmonds: Was it just a question of you evolving to this point, or was it because you recognized a need on the part of your audience for these kinds of sentiments?

Bowie: I wanted my audience to know a little bit more about me as a person. Hence, another reason why I’m doing this interview: to make it understood that a lot of my past personae have been characters. About 100 per cent of my past personae have been characters.

Edmonds: So the character on Station to Station, is it you or is it just a different persona?

Bowie: I think it was me at the time of recording, yes, definitely, and a lot of it is carried over. TVC15 is the only piece of fiction, the rest is an emotional response to listening to my other albums. And a lot of them were very cold. Diamond Doge and The Man Who Sold the World, in particular, were exceptionally cold.

Edmonds: When you first started doing the Ziggy Stardust character, before it got to the point where you …

Bowie: … Became a little Hitler …

Edmonds: Yeah, came to believe it.

Bowie: It did snowball itself. When I wrote the thing, I was so unlike Ziggy Stardust. I was still doing Arts Laboratory type things and street theatre at the time. I was not Ziggy Stardust. He started off strictly as a fictional character. When I started dressing for the part and acting it out onstage, the edges of definition between myself and the character became blurry. Then the articles started coming out–”This Isn’t Rock & Roll. This Is Fascism” and “Bowie’s A Nazi”– and all of a sudden I was too far in.

Edmonds: I had breakfast one day last week with Paul Morrissey, and he was saying that the only thing left in rock & roll that would really affect people would be a Nazi rock & roll band.

Bowie: I’m actually of the same opinion. I think that there are two bands now who come close to a neo-Nazi kind of thing – Roxy Music and Kraftwerk. It’s not Nazism so much as nationalism. I think it may be too cliched to use the Nazi thing; it’s more nationalistic.

Edmonds: I can see it in terms of Kraftwerk. But I don’t see Roxy Music as being power-structured enough yet to…

Bowie: Not yet, no. But I’d keep an eye on them if I were you. [Laughter] Ferry is an excellent performer. The last time I saw them live was when they were supporting me at the time of their first album. Bryan’s undergone a lot of changes since then; the whole change aspect has been an integral part of Bryan’s thing as well.

Edmonds: It would seem that both you and Bryan have aspirations toward a Frank Sinatra thing…

Bowie: I can only speak for myself, but it’s probably because Sinatra is the only person we can think of that has anything to do with where we’re going. I think it’s just a return to the plastic image, wanting the plastic image. Not necessarily seen as being credible. I really think there’s a lot of strength in this school of pretensions. Pretension is one of the last vehicles for thumbing noses. It at least forces people to re-evaluate; they either love it or hate it. Everything is either welcomed with open arms or … nothing astounds.

I like to astound. That doesn’t necessarily imply sensationalism. When Picasso started drawing people from all directions simultaneously and putting their faces in the wrong place, that wasn’t sensationalism. But it did astound, because it viewed things from a different perspective. My perspective is looking at people from a plastic point of view. How does Woolworths look at people?

I don’t think I’m very credible, that’s one of the most interesting things about me. My persona, as such, is not real. He looks fabricated, and that’s the point. It’s the principle of self-invented personality.

Edmonds: And that’s the parallel between you and Bryan Ferry.

Bowie: I think it’s the same school, that an artist doesn’t have to be confined to one persona. That the future artists will maybe be enigmatic in a different way than, say, Cream, who were enigmatic but principally of one kind of person. You had a pretty good idea of what they were saying, why they were saying it, and where they came from. But the new artists have the enigma of indifference, a very casual attitude that makes them seem amateurs and playboys.

Edmonds: That gets back to what we were talking about yesterday, that artists today want to do everything. If you’re going in enough directions simultaneously at a fast enough speed, it creates the illusion that you’re going nowhere at all …

Bowie: That you’re just playing, yeah. Absolutely right; that is what happens. The new artists seem to be more diversified in their attitude toward the media. But I have to call it all media. It’s not art anymore, it’s media.

Edmonds: One of the reasons that you received a great deal of unfavourable press over here at the time of Ziggy Stardust was that, with that album, you created your own audience, and it forced media people to either accept you on your own terms and hop on the bandwagon, or steer completely clear. Were you aware at the time that you’d created your own audience composed of people who weren’t Elvis Presley or Rolling Stones leftovers?

Bowie: One of the things about that that always infuriated me was that a lot of the press over here were under the impression that an outrageous amount of money was spent to create me, which, in fact, was not so. The majority of our coverage was comment. Our publicity “machine” was the newspapers themselves. They gave us the publicity just by continually writing about us…

Edmonds: And then resented the fact that they had to write about you…

Bowie: And then they considered in retrospect that it must have been paid advertising. But of course it wasn’t; we couldn’t have afforded it.

Edmonds: Were you aware that you were creating your own audience?

Bowie: I wanted desperately to create my own audience, as I’d done in England. Yeah.

Edmonds: It was almost as if you’d been presented with a lump of clay that you could mold in any fashion. And one of the things that always made me a little uneasy about your work was that, had I been presented with that same opportunity, I don’t think I would’ve used devices like Aladdin Sane or Diamond Dogs to mold it. I probably would’ve started with something more positive like Station to Station. Because when you’re given that lump of clay, you have a responsibility to mould it in such a way as to bring out its best qualities.

Bowie: Yes, I understand. Well, one of the things that I wanted to make quite positive was that my bag is changes. That if my audience were to cling to an album or a persona, then that would be OK because when the next one came out, it would have to jolt them into reevaluating exactly what I was supposed to be doing. And say, “Well, he’s full of bullshit,” or “why is he doing this to me?” So the ones who’ve stuck with me up till now, I think, have understood that. And they’re the ones that I’ve made Station to Station for. The ones who accept me as a person who can’t make up his mind. Which is basically what I am.

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