Bowie Holds Court

by Gordon Burn / Sunday Times Magazine

30th November 1980

We had seen the dress rehearsals of The Elephant Man and The Elephant Man itself. We had played our complementary copies of Scary Monsters, David’s new record, paying particular attention to the words (‘Put a bullet in my brain/And it makes all the papers’ – not many of us had missed that). We’d digested our press kits and our photocopy raves of David’s Broadway debut – ‘shockingly good’ (New York Post), ‘preternaturally wise’ (New York Times), ‘piercing and haunted’ (Daily News) and been suitably impressed.

We’d put our hands up and received handsomely packed pictures of David’s paintings, and we’d watched the videos where we’d seen David playing Glenda Jackson playing Stevie Smith singing a song called ‘Boys keep swinging’ (‘Men you’re a boy, you can wear a uniform/When you’re a boy, other boys check you out.’) We’d turned up to interview David on Tuesday only to be told he was indisposed until Thursday.

We’d come back on Thursday and now here he was. Here, too, was the PR person from his record company; Mr and Mrs de Witt, who handle his personal PR; his personal make-up lady and personal photographer plus assistant, and a technical adviser whose job it also was to pun the plugs on any crew overrunning their allotted 15 minutes.

Not that anybody would get a chance to overrun their allotted 15 minutes with Mr and Mrs de Witt around. There were five TV interviews to do for five European stations whose separate camera setups around the hall – a studio, in fact, in the RCA building on Sixth Avenue – made it look like the Electrical and Allied Trades Exhibition.

Like clockwork, one crew was ushered in by Mr de Witt as his wife hustled the previous one out and David had the perspiration blotted away. This was the schedule before lunch. ‘Printed media’ he’d take on after. In the evening, he’d be bundled through the police barriers and uniformed security at the Booth Theatre to change into a nappy and play the Elephant Man.

In the course of their briefing, each country had been handed a chart and invited to choose a colour for the ‘No-seam’ stiffened paper the interview would take place in front of. France, who were second in after the Italians, had opted for the black, a choice that wasn’t lost on David. This is so Left Bank. And theirs was so Milan,’ he said, while the camera was being reloaded. ‘What’s Germany got?’

The French interviewer had kicked off with the question everybody would kick off with – ‘Why do you play ze Elephant Man on Broadway?’ – and he’d got the stock answer: (a) ‘because somebody asked me to go “legit” and I’d always been meaning to try it, and (b) ‘because I’ve always had a thing about freaks and isolationists and alienated people’. Then, very quickly, the Frenchman had got metaphysical. ‘Are you the last rock star?’ Panicky looks from the de Witts.

‘In my family, certainly.’

Laughter. Relief. But the Frenchman was pressing on, regardless. “What is your idea on ze beauty?’

This was more up David’s street. He looked eager, the way contestants often do on quiz shows when they think they’ve got the answer: ‘I think it was Dame Edith Evans when she went to Los Angeles for the first time. She went to the observatory, to the same one that was in Rebel Without a Cause as a matter of fact, where she was taken into the depths, led along these dark, doomy corridors by the curator. At last they stopped in front of a refrigerator and from it the curator removed two pieces of glass between which was a snowflake. “This snowflake,” he said, “fell on Los Angeles in 1935.” I think that’s beauty.’

David was wearing a cowl-neck sweater, possibly a lady’s, jeans and brown leather shoes with odd little zips up the front. Nothing fancy. And yet, even without any of the props he has used in the past to ‘reinvent’ himself, he was effortlessly and unsettlingly androgynous, suggesting both Lauren Bacall, say, and Johan Cruyff, caught in a sort of flicker-frame. Sworn off the drugs he feels nearly did for him in California in the early seventies when he reached what he calls ‘the low-point of a tormented lifestyle’, he chain-smoked Marlboros and, to start with at least, seemed very nervous. By the time the Austrians were wheeled in, though, he had found his stride.

He crouched in the chair with both feet under him, in his padded- cell pose, one of his favourites, and faced the long-haired young man from AMM Music who wanted to know all about the flirtation with Nazi ideology – ‘infantile,’ admitted David. That was quickly blown away by meeting members of the far Left while I was living in Berlin’ – and whether he still intended playing Egon Schiele in a film. He also wanted to draw him out on why being just a rock star had obviously proved in the end to be so frustrating.

‘Being a paragon of rock-and-roll intensity proved to be not quite as fulfilling as one might have hoped,’ David set off, ploughing a familiar furrow. ‘I make a point now of going for the most unlikely things that come along. If I know the vocabulary of what I’m doing too well, I … The camera had started to make belching noises and it was distracting him. He called a halt until it was corrected. The de Witts fiddled with their watches.

‘I’ve just had the most coruscating interview with a woman from Stern. All she did was attack me about my “decadent” audiences.’ It was after lunch and David had been transported to a hotel suite uptown full of artistically arranged rent-a-blooms. This was no less a set than the ‘No-seam’ had been. The impression that we were on stage was reinforced by the knowledge that there were people lurking in the ‘wings’. The de Witts were hovering in the bathroom, and the makeup girl must have been on the scene somewhere because, although the armpits of David’s sweater were dark with perspiration, his forehead was freshly powdered and dry. He was on his third packet of Marlboros.

After all the exhaustive priming and the morning’s mini-marathon there seemed only one question left to ask him: ‘Why?’ Why, after years of relative seclusion, had he suddenly been made so available? Two answers, of course, had already suggested themselves. David Lynch’s film version of The Elephant Man, the by now well-known story of a Victorian freak, John Merrick, sometimes said to have been the ugliest man ever, was opening that week in Manhattan, and the Bowie blitz would minimise the effectiveness of all their ‘promo’. Second, after a string of albums that had had him experimenting with electronics and ‘difficult’ neumusik, Scary Monsters was regarded by RCA records as a return to the mainstream and they were going to milk it for all it was worth.

‘I keep telling myself every time I finish one of these forays into the public eye, never again. Because I feel fettered by cliche all the time, and become quite parrot-like. I don’t help myself at all.’

His manner, as it had been in one or two of the television interviews, is flirtatious. He breaks out of ‘character’ all the time to crack a smile that is amused but rather chilling. His eyes are what he gives as his distinguishing feature, but he’s wrong. His mouth is. He has eye-teeth like fangs.

‘Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming’ is the slogan David coined to promote one of his albums, and nobody has ever been able to accuse him of not keeping his ear to the ground. His problem, however, is that he has always wanted to have a genius for more than just keeping one step ahead. He has always wanted to be part of the international avant-garde. Coming from Beckenham is, as he is the first to acknowledge, what goes on keeping him out. He has talked in the past about ‘the bau-and-chain of middle-classness’ that he is doomed to trail around, and agrees now, although it at first raises a giggle, that a good word to describe him might be ‘sensible’. Even while discussing the reasons why he’ll never be what he would most like to be, which is another Duchamp, most modem of the modems, who chose to produce nothing in his last forty years, David’s background – or maybe just his Englishness – trips him up. ‘I could never play chess like Duchamp, so that rules me out.’ Said with all the conviction of a guest at one of Robert Robinson’s excruciating dinner parties without dinner on Radio 4.

‘Oh I know. I know. Don’t tell me. That always happens to me in conversation.’ Again he’s laughing, but it’s possible that it has struck a nerve. ‘I have so many streaks of sensibleness that it’s frightening. I keep getting drawn back to such a logical, conservative me, but it wears me out trying to fight it. And fighting it used to lead me into that very rough, drug-oriented, forceful kind of lifestyle which makes one on edge all the time. Now, having beaten that back, I’m confronted with the basic facts of where I came from and who I am. I’m not playing a part constantly any more, the way I used to. I used to be very protective – very protective – of what I considered to be my “real” self. I would dress it up or disguise it to the point where I was beginning to lose it myself. At the minute I’m trying to deal as best I can with that and present my awkward perception of the small part of the world that I know. But I am still, as you can see, fighting.’

David is far too big these days for London, where he still has ‘that peculiar sort of following one gets in those kinds of cities’, meaning the acolytes now half his age who, brought up on the sexual ambiguity and Weimar ‘camp’ he pioneered, mobilize themselves into an entourage that he can’t shake off. In America, of course, he is no less a celebrity, as the ‘A list’ turnout – Isherwood, Hockney, Radziwill, Warhol, Aaron Copland, Diana Vreeland, etc. – for his first night of The Elephant Man had proved. The difference is that, in America, he is nobody’s patron saint.

Even so, after a hundred performances of The Elephant Man and three months in New York, he’d be off, to the Far East again, or Africa, anywhere where he can be ‘an anonymous presence’. He has no permanent address and keeps on the move so that he never again becomes cocooned -‘what happens when a rock star gets surrounded by that particular killing kind of sycophancy’ – the way he once was in Los Angeles.

But Tim Rice and the BBC, who were next on, were waiting. Twice Mrs de Witt had approached purposefully from the bathroom, and twice David had prevailed on her for a few minutes more. This time, though, Mr de Witt appeared simultaneously from the bedroom. This time they meant business. Mrs de Witt broke into the conversation as elegantly as possible; her husband led me firmly by the elbow to the door. A backward glance seemed to confirm that people were coming out of the woodwork now, seeing to it that David got through this very busy day.

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