by Dylan Jones, photographs by Craig McDean / GQ (UK Edition)
The Beckham locks have gone (thankfully). As have the attempts to reinvent himself as a junglist. This time around, GQ’s Most Stylish Man (2000 vintage) has fallen to earth as a long-haired crooner. David Bowie, is if you will, the new Frank Sinatra.
Bowie is back, big time. Not because he’s producing his best records in years, not because he’s managed to flout convention and define the Zeitgeist like he used to in the old days and not because of any bond issue or Internet nonsense. No, Bowie’s back because he’s turned into a monstrously important live attraction. Bowie shoes these days are nothing less than events. His appearance on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury this year was a monumental return to form, comparable with Elvis’ 1968 TV comeback. Performing a minutely calibrated greatest-hits set that included “Under Pressure”, “Golden Years”, “The Man Who Sold The World”, “All The Young Dudes” and “Rebel Rebel”, Bowie played his first Glastonbury since 1971 with the air of a star in his prime.
“I was quite overwhelmed to see so many people singing the songs,” he says. “And they were such a young crowd, younger than most of my fans. Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the Nineties generation, but then they don’t know the early stuff. I think it’s a surprise when they hear them all at once and think, ‘Did he write that?’ I know that because, in America especially, when I do ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ the amount of kids that come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!'”
There can be only so many Bowie concerts left and he wants to make them all nights to remember. When the Rolling Stones turn into a global jukebox every few years it is a perfunctory exercise for band and audience alike. With Bowie you get the feeling you’re watching the new Sinatra. Harry Connick Jnr, eat your heart out.
While Sinatra didn’t make a classic record for the last 20 years of his life, his concerts were like religious conventions, loaded with memories. Elvis Presley was on his way to assuming Sinatra’s mantle but he made the mistake of not only becoming embroiled in cabaret, but also he then went and died. Bowie has done neither and it’s a short-odds bet that his records will be better than either Sinatra or Presley’s were in their dotage.
Of course, Bowie has none of Sinatra’s bar-room swagger. He is a reformed alcoholic so he won’t be accompanied on stage by a tumbler of bourbon, although his cigarette consumption has earned him the nickname “Ciggie Stardust”. The fags have certainly helped his vocal cords. His singing voice gets better all the time, and has become so deep and honeyed that Bowie is turning into something of a full-blown crooner. In many ways he has hidden behind his singing technique for years and now that technique – the rich baritone he used on “Wild Is The Wind”, “Heroes” and “Absolute Beginners”, compounded by the mockney lilt that insists on swapping vowels (“day” for “die” etc) – has become his calling card.
“I think I’ve got more control over my voice these days,” he says. “For years I felt that I was lucky to be able to carry a tune and it was a useful device to make those records, but I never thought of myself as a singer. But I’m actually thinking about what it is I’d like to do as a singer. I’ve not reached any conclusion yet. I think the album I’m going to be doing late this year is going to be a vehicle for my voice.”
His influence can still be seen and heard in the most unlikely places. He was the basis of Harland Miller’s recent novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick To Thirty, but Bowie found it particularly hard going. “I kind of quite like the idea, though I’m not sure he’s a very good writer,” he says.
He’s still and influential clotheshorse, too, which is why GQ readers have voted him the Most Stylish Man Of The Year.
“The question I always ask is: would I have been given this award if I didn’t do the interview and photo session?” he says quizzically. “I’m not one for awards at all. Most of the music awards are on the basis of, if you turn up, you’ll get it. And I say, fine, I don’t want it. If you want me to have it, give it to me and I might surprise you and turn up. Otherwise, fuck off! But if your readers have chosen me… then I feel privileged, it’s pretty marvellous.”
He actually seems more pleased about Paul Smith being knighted. “It’s fantastic news. He’s a one-man industry and he has brought so much money to Britain. I guess those kinds of awards should be about the industrialists of Britain. He’s definitely worth the honour. Paul is one of my favourite guys and I’ll go out of my way to try and wear his things because it’s such a great advert for Britain. There’s a certain sharpness and irony about his clothes and I’ve never had a Paul Smith suit fall apart on me. British clothes are so well made. It’s like Brit art and British music: strange stuff but it’s actually very well made.”
The most significant event in his life this year has been the arrival of the new Bowie offspring. So giddy with excitement is he that he intends to move his family back to Britain. “There is no way I’m bringing up my child in America. No way. We’ll be back over to London, without a doubt. ‘Right, darlin’, we better look around for the English House!'”
The rest of the year is frantic. First he’s recording his own version of Pin Ups, reclaiming around a dozen of his very obscure, very old and, in some cases, really very naff songs and re-recording them. The highlights include a new version of the first single he ever released as David Bowie – “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”, from 1965 – as well as “I Dig Everything” and “The London Boys” from the same period. “A lot of them were so cheesy,” he says. “I said to Goldie we should do a drum’n’bass version of ‘The Laughing Gnome’ but he didn’t seem up for it.” After that comes Bowie At The Beeb, a double CD of the material he recorded for the BBC between 1967 and 1972. The album will be accompanied by a DVD featuring the showcase he gave at the BBC’s Portland Place studio this summer.
After this it’s time for Ziggy again, and Bowie’s much-rumoured return to the glory days of the Spiders From Mars. When he refused to allow the producers of Velvet Goldmine to use any of his Ziggy-period songs he said he was preparing his own glam-rock extravaganza, and this is it. He won’t, however, be donning the catsuits and platform boots. “I won’t be in it, let’s make that clear. Not me, mate! I won’t even be Ziggy’s dad!”
So, this won’t be Ziggy Stardust And The Last Crusade? “Yes! Indiana Stardust! But unfortunately, no.”
Nor is Bowie writing new songs for the Ziggy project. “I’ve pulled out a good deal of scraps that were never used at the time. Some of them are only 30 seconds long, but I’m extending those. I thought, ‘OK, is this crap and is that the reason why it never appeared on the first one or is it OK and should I try and do things with it?’ So I’ve taken those six tracks and thrashed them out and made them into songs that will support the original. One’s called the ‘Black Hole Kids’ which is fascinating.”
Bowie found all this stuff languishing in one of the many boxes of archive material he keeps at his home in Switzerland. He has over 800 cassettes of recordings, including dozens of conversations with Incredibly Famous People, hundreds of concert recordings (“I found virtually the whole of the soundboard tapes for the ’74, ’76, ’78 tours. Every fucking one!”), superstar jams with the Stooges and the Stones and some other stuff he would prefer we didn’t go into (including a visit to see Iggy Pop in hospital in LA). Most of it was recorded during Bowie’s infamous “Warholian” period, when he would record and Polaroid everything that happened to him, including, it’s alleged, the odd sex session. One of the funniest recordings involves Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood visiting Bowie in LA. The duo are sitting in the den, idly playing “Golden Years” while, every so often, Ronnie stops to hoover up huge lines of Gianluca. “It’s hysterical,” says Bowie. “Very rock’n’roll.”
Ciggy Stardust keeps quieter counsel these days, his only addiction being his beloved Marlboros. The older he gets the more dignified he becomes, even if he refuses to see it himself. “My career has benefited so much more from the mistakes than from the things I’ve got right,” he says. “I can always learn something from the cock-ups! I see myself as something of a blunderer. I get carried along on tides of enthusiasm. My whole life has been like that. If I’m introduced to something that fascinates me, within three hours I’m the world expert.”
How does he feel about the “new Sinatra” tag? Can he easily hang it on himself? “Oh, he would not be happy with that! Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy, once stupidly suggested that I play hi min a movie. God he hated that. ‘I don’t want a fag playing me!’ He was absolutely terrified that I might be taken seriously. He hated long hair, hated anything limey! I do relate to Sinatra in that my tours are getting fewer and fewer. I don’t tour just for the sake of touring any more. If you see me live these days you know I want to be doing it. I don’t need to tour for money. And I know that people feel like that when they go and see me. They may not even like the material but they’ll say, ‘Fuck me. He’s prancing about, isn’t he?’ Because I am. I love it.
“There’s an awful lot of luggage that comes with them for both the audience and myself. Ten years ago I said I didn’t want to sing my big hits again, but I’m 53 now and I’m different. I’ve never been the kind of person who’s wanted to walk through anything I do, whether it’s a relationship or a stage show. And if there’s no real enthusiasm I tend to walk away from it. I walked away form my older songs for years because I’d been doing them for so long, there was no resonance in them for me any more. But I’ve changed. I went to see Wire the other week and they didn’t sing one song of theirs that I like! Not one! If I’d paid money I’d have been really pissed off!
“I started feeding old songs back into the show around ’97 when we were doing the festival circuit. With festivals you have to presume not everyone’s there for you. You have to think, ‘Fuck me, I’d better give them something they know!’ Then I’d play a few songs from Scary Monsters, Low and Heroes and throw in things like ‘Fame’ and ‘Under Pressure’, which is an irresistible festival song because of the association with Freddie [Mercury]. Knowing this year that I had Glastonbury, I thought, ‘I’ll just go for it. I’ve got nothing to sell, no album out there. I’ll just give them what they want.’ Although there are still things like ‘Young Americans’ and ‘Space Oddity’ that I won’t do. When I feel I’ve left those songs for enough, maybe I’ll sing them again.”
So, David Bowie: GQ’s Most Stylish Man Of The Year as well as the new Sinatra. Let’s just hope he doesn’t start wearing that bloody trilby.