“Now where did I put those tunes?”
He took Sly Stone’s drugs. He thought Bing looked like a little orange on a stool. He named his son Duncan and is madly in love with his wife. Stranger still, David Bowie has remembered to write some tunes for his new album.
“I’m less your corner shop, more your Woolworths,” he tells David Quantick.
Bleecker Bobs is a secondhand record shop in New Yord’s Greenwich Village. David Bowie is a frequent visitor, though it’s hard to see why.
“If you’re a singer, Bob tends to call you an asshole,” Bowie reflects, “And he’ll put on some record that’s guaranteed to embarrass you. In my case, it’s generally The Laughing Gnome or Uncle Arthur.”
When not having his back catalogue thrown in his face, Bowie is in New York to promote his new album, tediously called hours…, his first for a new label (Virgin). Where previously releases 1. Outside and Earthling were, respectively, mad art rock and drum’n’bass-influenced pop, both in the avant-Bowie tradition of Low and Heroes, hours…is almost straightforward. Despite the rock beast that is the Pretty Things Are Going To Hell (a track whose title alone refers to material on Pin-Ups, Hunky Dory and Iggy Pop’s Raw Power), acoustic semi-ballads prevail, lyrics are oddly emotive, and one song, What’s Realy Happening, has a lyric written by Alex Grant, who won an Internet contest to write the lyric to a Bowie song. Boringly, the Internet is a big Bowie interest – he even runs his own Internet provider, Bowienet, and Web site. Visitors to http://www.davidbowie.com are entertained by archive family photos, shots of Bowie in his underwear (captioned “where’s my trousers?” by Bowie himself) set lists from the ’60s (Bowie notes that his 1966 group The Buzz used to perform The Supremes’ Come See About Me. “Ooo, camp” he notes parenthetically) and answers to fans’ questions. Outstanding among the latter is a reply to Adrienne Reneea Tlapa from Illinois, who asks, “David can you recall what the writing on your Japanese cloak said?”
Bowie’s response: “It may well have said, Get your potatoes here.”
For now, Bowie is ensconced in a conference room at his record company in New York and he is in a very good mood. At 52 and a half, the former David Robert Jones appears in ripping health. He has longish ash-blond hair like a girl, and is dressed in expensive-looking smart/casual trousers and shirt. Only his wonky eye suggests that he might be from Mars. In fact, he lives in Bermuda with his lovely wife Iman and enjoys a close relationship with his son, Duncan Haywood Zowie Jones (who prefers, for some reason, to call himself Joe).
Over the course of the next hour, Bowie will do all of the following: impersonate John Peel, criticise a major British town, adopt the foetal position, try and be nice about Ricky Martin amd unfavourably compare Bing Crosby to an orange. Notorious for agreeing with anything an interviewer says, in the next 60 minutes he will say “Yeah” 12 times and “No” only once. We begin, naturally, with Croydon…
On your Web site, why is there a link to an estate agent in Croydon?
I’ve got this thing about Croydon. It was my nemesis, I hated Croydon with a real vengeance. It represented everything I didn’t want in my life, everything I wanted to get away from. I think it’s the most derogatory thing I can say about somebody or something: “God, it’s so fucking Croydon!” It was gonna be the big second city to London, but it never came to be. Bits of it they put up, these awful faceless office blocks, complete concrete hell. I suppose it looks beautiful now… I haven’t been back in a few years but I guess things take on a certain beauty if there’s distance…
A lot of songs on this new album seem to be about wrong choices and missed opportunities. How personal a record is this?
This album was me trying to capture the idea of songs for my generation. So what I had to do was sink into a situation psychologically that was less than happy with life, which in my case is not true. I had to create the situations. There’s a lot about this guy falling in and out of love and being disappointed and all that. I actually don’t have all that, but it was a good exercise in trying to capture what I see, even in my friends, the kind of half-lived lives they have, and it’s really sad and you can’t do anything about it, and they feel unfulfilled and disappointed and all that.
Is this anything to do with the song 7?
Seven days to live, seven ways to die… I’d actually reduce that further to twenty-four hours to live. I’m very happy to deal and only deal with the existing twenty-four hours I’m going through. I’m not inclined to even think too heavily about the end of the week or the week I’ve just come through. The present is really the place to be.
Is this why you keep inventing genres and moving on? Most people could have based whole careers on just one of your albums.
Even me! Ha ha ha! “Why didn’t I stay with the Young Americans sound? I could still be doing that, Ooh, I wouldn’t half be unhappy. I’d be so unhappy if I’d got myself into a… rut, as my mother used to say. My dear old mum. (Loudly) “You’re in a bit of rut , aren’t you?” She said it about herself. “I’m in a rut.” I think I probably thought then, I’m never gonna be in a rut if that’s how you turn out.
7 also mentions both your parents and your brother (Terry Jones, who spent much of his life in a mental hospital)…
They’re not necessarily my mother, father and brother, it was the nuclear unit thing. Obviously I am totally aware of how peaple read things into stuff like this. I’m quite sure that some silly cow will come along and say, (adopts silly cow voice) “Oh, that’s about Terry, his brother, and he was very disappointed about this girl back in 1969, he never he got over her…” That sort of thing comes with the territory, and because I have been an elliptical writer, I think people have – quite rightly – gotten used to interpreting the lyrics in their own way. I am only the person the greatest number of people believe that I am. So little of it has anything to do with me, so I just have to do the best I can with what I’ve got – knowing that it has a complete second life by the time it leaves me.
And then there’s The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell. That’s not a song, that’s a CV.
Ha ha! That was really dangling a carrot, wasn’t it? That’s such a fun song. It’s a good song. I like it a lot, I can’t wait to do it live.
What’s like being the only person ever to work with both Lou Reed and Lulu?
Now I am not sure if that’s – opprobrium, or if it’s my apotheosis. I like it. I believe… I’m not sure, but I believe that working with Bing (Crosby, on the unnatural Little Drummer Boy) led to Bono workng with Frank (Sinatra). I set a precedent there… I think the thing with Bing is the most ludicrous…it’s wonderful to watch. We were so totally out of touch with each other.
Can you remember what you were thinking when you did it?
Yes. I was wondering if he was still alive. He was just… not there. He was not there at all. He had the words in front of him. (Deep Bing voice) “Hi, Dave, nice to see you here…” And he looked like a little old orange sitting on a stool. “Cos he’d been made up very heavily and his skin was a bit pitted, and there was just nobody home at all, you know? It was the most bizarre experience. I didn’t know anything about him. I just knew my mother liked him. Maybe I would have known (sings) “When the mooon,,,” No… (hums) “Dadada, dadada, someone waits for me…” That’s about the only song of his I would have actually known.
What about White Christmas?
Oh yeah, of course. I forgot about that. (Kenneth Williams voice) That was his big one, wasn’t it?
Apart from Bing Crosby, you’ve always pushed your enthusiasm. What compels you to say, Go and listen to the Velvet Underground?
It’s the closet teacher in me. I love introducing people to new things. One of the major things about being a dad is when you’ve got someone the you can (laughs) inflict your passions on. Poor kid. You tend to say, “Oh, another thing,” or “You’ll love this… “Like, they’ve seen Star Trek…. “Ah but you wanna see what the Russians were doing with Solaris (unwatchably boring 1972 sci-fi flick by director Tarkovsky).” It’s just great to have people take in all this new information and then watch them go away and do something. (Deep ’50s American voice) “My work here is done!” It’s a dad thing, really. I’m not a bad dad at all. I think I’m quite a fun dad. I’m not a brother dad – you know those, “Oh, we’re like brothers, me and my son.” He’s terrific, my son.
If the Web site photos are to be believed, he looks like you.
He’s a lot bigger. He’s a rugby player and a sporty guy, weightlifter and all that.
While there have been many Bowie images, we have never had a fat Bowie.
I dunno. All that muscle – if he stopped training… My Uncle Jim used to say that. He weight-trained ’til the day he died. He’d say (teeth-clenched voice), Gotta do it, ‘cos if I stop, it’ll just turn to fat. Uncle Jim learned every single word in the Oxford Dictionary, that was his life’s work. He was an absolutely extraordinary bloke. He worked in the steel mills in Sheffield. He loved research and academia, he had a fantastic library, but he never had the chance. My mother’s family was very poor. It was a great shame he never was able to apply that mind. You could sense this frustration in him. I always thought he should have written, you know.
As the first pop singer born after the war, do you think you bridge two eras?
I’m very aware of that. I think there’s a fundamental Englishness to what I do which makes me not actually very out of the ordinary at all. You can equate some of the earlier stuff, in a way, to a kind of Jarvis… I recognise what he does as being something that I’m quite sympathetic to, but we weren’t alone. Syd Barrett had a fundamentally English thing going. You would never get a Syd Barrett in America. They would be lunatics.
Wan’t English psychedelia all Winnie the Pooh and cups of tea?
Yeah. If you look at John Peel and all that, reading Tolkien… “And then this little gnome went off, clippetty-cloppetty.” It’s fucking Listen With Mother! What’s psychedelic about this? “Are you sitting comfortably?” Ha ha! When you listen back to the stuff Peel used to do on Marc Bolan’s albums, it was potty, really, really silly. It wasn’t at all hip, although for some reason we though it was hip at the time. It’s daft, and it’s really suburban.
What about the other kind of rock? The Mick Jagger school of authentic delta blues from deepest Surrey?
Absolutely. That school of music is the antithesis of how I think about music. I admire that ability to have developed a craft, but it is like a potter who succeeds with one style of pot, and this pot is just something he could put up there against the Etruscans and it would stand there in dignity and all that.
What would your pot be?
More like something out of K-Mart! Wha ha ha ha! I don’t know. Sort of, you pays your money, you makes your choice! I’m more of a supermarket of things, rather than a craftshop. Oh, this is becoming very silly! (Peter Cook) “I’m less your corner shop, more your…
Woolworths. It’s funny, for me it’s K-Mart. But they’re American as well. I never knew, when I came over here, that Woolworth’s was American. “Oh, look, they got a Woolies” … Ha ha ha!
On the Web site – being Bowie – you recommend lots of books but surprisingly – despite being Bowie – the books you recommend are far from obscure.
Yeah. Again. I’ll read a real eclectic mix of books. I’ve read everything Stephen King’s written. I love Stephen King. Scares the shite out or me. But I really like Julian Barnes as well, which is another world. The first real one for me was Jack Kerouac, On The Road, which gave you the urge to get out of Bromley, Penge, Sidcup, and all that. Croydon… just driving through the whole of the States and going out of California and Big Sur, down to San Francisco… and thinking, God, I wanna do that, I do not wanna go down to Bromley South station and take the fucking train to Victoria station and work in a bloody advertising office again.
If you hadn’t done that, who do you think you would be now?
Ha ha! (Bowie wraps his right arm round his head and puts his left thumb in his mouth) What do you mean? An alternative life to the one I’ve led? I think probably two. One would have been a full-time painter, which I would have liked very much. And the other would have been… I’m not quite sure that “librarian” would have been quite the right word. Something where I was quite close to books and research. I love poring through books. I like the objects; as much as I like the Internet, I could never give up my library. Wife and the library, those are the two things that I probably would never give up.
Nic Roeg recently said that you were “very studious” and took a lot of books to the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth.
(Embarrassed) Oh God. But I had too many books. I took four hundred books down to that film shoot, I was knocking around with some pretty dodgy people and I didn’t want any of them nicking my books. Too many dealers, running in and out of my place…
What did you look like at the time?
Did you ever see the video where I was singing with Cher? Plastered hair… I’d got this thing in my mind that I was through with theatrical clothes and I would only wear Sears & Roebuck. Which on me looked more outlandish than anything I had made by Japanese designers. They were just like this middle America dogged provincialism. They were loud check jackets and check trousers. I looked very bad. And very ill. I looked very ill and very badly dressed.
I remember being over a dealer’s one night when Sly Stone walked in. I looked like this ultra mid-America person, but with (laughs) blond and red hair that was all stick to my scalp with “product”, they call it these days, hairspray in those days. And he walked in and looked at me and he said (ironic Sly Stone voice) “Huh! Bet he takes a lot of drugs.” I was angry, because I did take a lot of drugs! “How dare you! I’m David Bowie! I do more drugs than you’ve fucking looked at”. It was so funny, it was hysterical. We met each other a long time after that and laughed about that. But it seemed so offensive. I thought, he’s judging me by the clothes I wear! His whole thing was, who’s this straight? And I was so angry. I wanted to go (breathless Tony Hancock voice), “Let me tell you how many drugs I take!”
How many drugs have you taken in your life?
Ooh, five… six! I took everything from elephant tranquilliser back down again. But that’s such a pat story, the whole drug thing, I can’t even begin to get into that.
It’ll end up in the tabloids. “I took Sly Stone’s Drugs” “I sold Sly Stone’s drugs”, that would be the story with me. (Cockney reporter voice) Not content with Bowie bonds… sells drugs to his contemporary rock star friends….
Would you say that you were a busy man?
Yeah… I guess my addiction probably sees its way into becoming work-obsessed. But I can’t say that’s any different from what I’ve always been like. The difference now is I do have a social life as well as a work life. The early part of my life I really only had time for what I was doing and it caused me to become very reclusive. I have to admit, to be simplistic about it, the ’70s were very much like that, I started coming out of it a little bit during the late ’70s. Working with Eno in Berlin started to change my life to a degree, and I think it took me nearly all of the ’80s to work out what it was I wanted from life.
I guess the whole thing came to a wonderful conclusion when I met Iman, because it was like I’d been given a prize or something because I’d made those decisions. The decision came first and then (laughs) it was, Well, you’ve been a good boy, so this is how you’re going to spend the rest of your life. Gosh! Ha ha ha! It is a lesson. I’ve learnt nothing else, nothing. But old Bob (Dylan, we imagine) was right, I know far less now than I knew then. But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
AS OUR TIME is nearly up, we start talking about music. Bowie reveals that he was recently asked to produce both Red Hot Chili Peppers and Marilyn Manson, but he was too busy for either. He gives the impression that he was keener on the former than the latter. He mentions Asian Dub Foundation as a favourite act, but confesses that he has been a little out of touch lately. This, he claims, was a deliberate part of the process of making the album.
“I went out of my way not to listen to anything during the last eight months,” he says, adding, “Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get away from Ricky Martin. Talk about prodigious…”
He mentions you favourably in interviews.
Bowie makes a weird noise. “Arhhhh… I know! That’s why I’ll be careful here. I don’t know. I don’t really know much about him or his music, I just know I keep seeing him on the telly and he’s on the radio and stuff like that. Um. He’s not irritating in the way some people are, I’m just aware of his presence… am I getting out of this?” He throws back his head and laughs as only a man who hates Croydon can. “Ha ha ha ha!”