Confession of an Elitist

by Michael Watts / Melody Maker

February 1978

For what is a man like David Bowie profited, if he shall sell the whole world and lose his own mind?

THIS interview with David Bowie was conducted at a brief intervals during four days’ filming of Just A Gigolo. The interviewer had to put up with the film crew playing trumpets and old gramophone records of German marches, as well as a film extra belting out songs at the piano. “I hate these blues sessions,” says Bowie. Once, a long time ago, however, he used to play sax behind Sonny Boy Williamson…

Haven’t talked to you since February 1973, when you were performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York. You’ve since left, amid a lot of publicity, MainMan Management and Tony DeFries. How do you feel now about DeFries?

(Long pause) Yes, that’s an interesting question. My anger was spent a good couple of years ago, and all the feelings of being used, done-out-of and whatever, I think they’ve more or less melted into the mist.

I suppose now it was all rather important in a way. I certainly would not have achieved the degree of notoriety, I think, without all that nonsense going on. If I was an egoist I guess I could say that I would’ve done because my performance was good enough, but one doesn’t know.

Without some of those initial ridiculous fusses, some the best things never come to light. It did come to light through the efforts of him and the crazies who were running around at that time, and so I guess I’m thankful for that period in one way.

But I’ll never condone completely what went on. I don’t know whether I was absolutely manipulated but I believe all my business was manipulated. I believe that a lot, of what were initially very good ideas were cheapened for the sake of getting thing out economically rather than going the whole hog and doing things properly.

Stage shows were never what they were supposed to be because suddenly the money was not there to pay for what I wanted initially. Things would always be done shoestring and I could never understand why, because apparently we were very, very popular and … “where’s the money?”

All that was involved. We have settled now. I don’t think any of it was amicable, but it’s mellowed out now. We have an understanding with each other. We have to deal with each other from time to time – but not on a personal level.

You would never go back to him?

Oh, Lord no! That’s absolutely … it couldn’t be further from my mind. I have literally no idea of what he does, where he is and what kinds of things he does any more. It was an astonishing, chaotic period. Very tumultuous.

What are your feelings now about the sex angle?

(In January 1972, at the outset of his career with MainMan, Bowie confessed to the MM that he was bisexual, the first rock star to make such a declaration. The remark had huge reverberations.)

It seems easier for people to assimilate that now than it ever was before. I’ve got two views about it. Initially, I thought it was a good polemicist’s basis; it was something to throw in people’s faces. But on the other hand it had a disastrous effect on my credibility as a composer and writer for a long, long time.

Why did you tell me?

Do you know, I’ve never really understood why. It certainly wasn’t a premeditated thing. I was starting to build Ziggy, he was starting to come together, and I was naturally falling into the role; and it was using one’s own resources, and you sort of pick up on bits of your own life when you’re putting a role together. Bang! it was suddenly there on the table. It was as simple as that.

I read that article again for the first time the other day. It’s very coy and embarrassing.

Yes, but imagine in a few years’ time, that will become an archetype interview of that period. You mustn’t feel embarrassed. No, no! I know exactly what you mean, but you wait and see. Mark my words, mark my words. It’s the old McLuhan thing about cliche, archetype.

I’m sure only a few years after he’d made them Chaplin was very, very embarrassed by his first movies – but all these years later! There was nothing like that before then, and a whole school of something or other has come from them.

And I was sort of half serious then when I said that I’d developed a school of pretension within rock and roll. I can see why I said that. I don’t necessarily agree with it now. I only said it as, again, a throwaway. But there is some strength in it, I think. Quite definitely.

I remember an interview about 18 months ago in the Village Voice with Cherry Vanilla (once Bowie’s American publicist at MainMan). It was a piece about marketing gays…

Oh God. Marketing gays.

And she said, “we peddled David’s ass like Nathan’s sells hotdogs.”

Good Lord. Chronic, isn’t it? I hope she meant it tongue-in-cheek. I know what she meant, yeah. She worked very hard at pushing that side of me, because it gave her very easy access into headlines. And all the time that that was going on, of course, I was in another country, so it was hard for me to keep any sort of control.

My compromise at the time was to live with it when I got to America and found out how I’d been set up to be over there, and I thought, “my God, I can’t fight this enormous snowball. I’ll have to work with it and gradually push it back down to something more manageable.”

But I’d just started with Ziggy, and I couldn’t suddenly drop it then. He was Ziggy, he’d been created, and that was my piece at the time, my theatre piece. I thought, “well, I’ll have to use what Ziggy’s got and be what God’s given him” (short laugh).

And so I had to work with him for a little while in those first few months in America.

You put yourself on the line, too, by involving yourself in other artists’ careers. I’ve always wondered why, considering that you’ve had such personal success, you should want to build, or re-build, others’ successes: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and now Devo.

I guess it’s because there is still a lot of fan in me. I do get impressed with new things. I can’t help but be. I like to feel that if I can’t do that myself then I’d like to be part of it and try and … Especially people who are not being noticed.

I would love to be responsible for helping somebody. I think that’s great for my ego.

They’ve not been acts of unadulterated kindness?

Oh, no, no. Good Lord, no.

But you did receive some rather horrible criticism, particularly in relationship to Lou, that you were coming up on his back.

I did read a lot of that, of course, and I never denied it because it seemed such a shallow observation of what I was doing. There are very, very few parallels between me and Lou Reed.

I think I’ve only ever written one song like his, and that was “Queen Bitch” and it was only recognised as a Lou Reed song – and I know this for a fact – because I wrote next to it “For Lou”.

“Andy Warhol” was next to it.

Oh yes, Those two together. But don’t think my career was based on those two songs, and there is very little else that I have done that is anything near approaching what Lou Reed does or has done. I find it very hard to find a comparison between me and Lou.

I’ve never written about street people of such, or the gossip of the day, walked like him, dressed like him, looked like him or even performed like him. I think that’s really shallow. We got on very well. I found him very witty, in a very New York way, And the same again, I might add, applies to young Iggy as well, ’cause I’ve also read that a coupla times.

But, you know – and I did it partly for the amusement factor – I’ve always noticed that if I put out certain names as my influences to see if people would pick up on them and then say I was definitely influenced by them, then every time I’ve done it it has always come back. Always, always, always!

I could say that my greatest influence, in fact, was Tiny Tim, and they’ll say, “ah, of course! Quite obviously David Bowie has lifted an enormous amount from Tiny Tim.” Always it works in that fashion.

I don’t blame anybody because I do it purposely – I certainly used to do those red herrings just to see how it affected people – but it amused me that they would take something like that and convolute it and make it into a statement of their own.

Let’s move from the past to the present. How do you feel about this film as compared with The Man Who Fell To Earth?

A totally different kettle of poisson. This has so far been a far more enjoyable experience. For one reason or another I’m a lot closer to David than I was with Nic (Roeg). Nic is less approachable. David is a far more generous personality.

Roeg’s an intellectual.

Yes, he has those leanings. David not so much; though, of course, he is of a sophisticated nature. Creatively, quite as extraordinary as Roeg in his way.

Do you feel that movie was a success?

I think that’s debated by everybody that’s seen it. I think there’s a lot of pro, a lot of the reverse. I still have only seen it the once – the one time that I saw it in the cinema – and I still feel that I learned more by the actual process of making it than seeing the film in a finished state.

I didn’t enjoy it as a movie to watch. It’s very tight. Like a spring that’s go into uncoil, it’s full of terrific tensions. Of course, that’s part of the so-called magic of the film; that it’s got these very inhibited feelings in it.

There’s a repressed feeling of something or other boiling under the surface all the time. It’s never allowed to come out, so it leaves you with that terrible feeling that you’ve had a restricted viewing of something.

Would you agree that it’s a film about a man who originally is pure but ends up being corrupted and disgusted with himself?

The way Nic interpreted that purity, looking at the way it’s cut, he seemed to have interpreted that purity in a perverse way. There’s something awkward about it, gawky; there’s something not right about that person’s purity. I suppose on surface value that’s the film Nic was making, yeah.

Nic had a lot of other intentions that he never confided – well, not to me, anyway. He’s a secretive man. And, indeed, at that time I was also pretty closed about talking, with anybody, really.

Yes, I want to ask you whether you saw parallels between yourself and Thomas Newton, the strange character that you played, which is why you took the role.

Oh, that’s a dangerous trap to fall in-to! Sort of, it was quite easy for me. When I did it was hook, line and sinker, I would’ve thought (Laughter). I mean, Nic exerts such a tremendous influence over one psychologically that one does carry the weight of the image around for a bit afterwards.

He was a cold, inexpressive character. This is what your image was at that point.

I think. I was very frightened of expressing any kind of emotion then, which of course, followed with the most dramatic and traumatic experiences on the Station To Station tour when I became over-emotive. I went through great waves of despondency and ecstasy… and I’d kept a lot of things pretty well repressed for a few years.

So that was a very cathartic point in your life?

Oh, Christ, yeah. I feel much more on an even keel now.

But you’re a volatile man, to say the least. It could happen again?

Yes, I get scared stiff of the idea of touring again because of all kinds of experiences that one has. Once bitten, maybe twice shy. I hope that I don’t get back into that situation again.

Do you mean drugs, and other things as well?

All the things. The testing of one’s personality to the fullest: can you cope on a tour? When you’re shouldering the responsibility of the whole thing, it’s quite easy to break up. Either way, you close up or you let loose. My tendency goes either way. God knows how it’s gonna affect me. But I’m a lot healthier and fitter beforehand this time.

You appear to be enjoying acting, anyway.

I’m finding it enthralling to be really getting into a person’s flesh this time around. I really feel very much at home – with this character, being led and shown how to do it.

But you’ve always been interested in creating personae!

Oh yeah, yes, but I’ve never approached it this way. It’s impossible to explain, really, but it’s a question of following through thoughts rather than just like a parrot reciting the words … This is wonderful! (Breaks off).

It sounds like (assumes brittle, actorish voice), “well, of course, there’s only 3,584 words in Othello. As Peter Brooks used to tell me, now you know all the words, all you have to do is get them in the right order.” (Laughter) I hate talking about acting. I don’t know enough about it.

I think you ought to tell me how you got involved in the movie about Egon Schiele.

It was originally suggested to me that I should play the part by Clive Donner, the guy who did The Caretaker and Mulberry Bush. He sent me the original script and I jumped at the idea of it, ’cause Schiele was somebody I was aware of.

Wally was one of his girlfriends – pronounced “Valley”. Wally is just a working title. I think it will be changed. It will go through the time from as he was leaving Klimt as a pupil and setting himself up as a painter, through his prison sentence and to the end of his relationship with his girlfriend, Wally.

Charlotte Rampling is on the boards to play her at the moment. I don’t have much say in the actual casting. Donner I don’t know that well, but he’s very, very intelligent. It seems that all the time I pick on the English and European directors.

The next person that I’m meeting in a couple of weeks’ time is Fassbinder, with the possibility of doing The Threepenny Opera with him, a re-make. He’s now getting into doing English language films.

I’ve seen him in Berlin a couple of times, but I’ve never been introduced to him or had a chance to chat to him. Supposedly a strange sort of guy, very weird. This is such a strange sort of movie for him.

I think it’s everybody’s efforts to pull the strange quantities together and see what comes out – an idea that I go along with completely. Planned accidents.

Whatever happened to The Eagle Has Landed and Stranger In A Strange Land?

Eagle Has Landed I was turned down for the part, and Stranger In A Strange Land I didn’t want to be involved with because I thought it would be a bit typecast (short laugh). It was also during the MainMan period. But I was violently against doing Stranger In A Strange Land, having realised it would be, you know, “get out of that one”.

I’d be alien for life. I’d just be stuck out there. All I’d be offered would be people with green skins and varying colour hair – that would be the only character change I could make, hair colour.

People do associate you with futuristic things, don’t they?

I don’t know now whether it’s so futuristic. I never thought of myself as a futurist. I always thought I was a very contemporary sort of figure, very Nowish. Rock is always ten years behind the rest of art; it picks up bits and pieces.

I mean, I only picked up Burroughs years after it all happened in literature, and actually applied it to my work. The application wasn’t made until years after it was a dead and gone style; it’d been finished in literature a long time.

And that happens with rock. It’s only just reached Dada now. So, as far as putting me as a futurist, I think the fact is I’m as contemporary as I feel I need to be, and a lot of the rest of what’s going on pays a retrospective look to what’s gone down before.

It’s work generally in an atmosphere that’s about five years behind. There’s so much of it that it seems to represent today, but it isn’t, in fact: it’s using references and feelings and emotions from a few years back.

I’ve always thought there was a lot of England 1890s about you as well. Beardsley and Wilde, etc.

Oh, yes! That was a very strong influence, the idea of the Aesthete, the elitist (laughs) – a point Which Brian (Eno) and I share. I think there’s a large snob factor in what I do.

You once said to me, “I’m an actor, not an intellectual,” and yet critics see in your records ideas rather than emotions.

I’ve decided I’m a Generalist now!

A Generalist?

Yes. I thought that just about covered all grounds. It encompasses anything I wish to do, really. I find, for instance, I really want to paint seriously now, and not toy with it, and I am painting very seriously now, every available moment.

And I’d like to be known as a painter one day when I get up the nerve to show them. But I want at the moment to be known as a Generalist rather than as a singer or a composer or an actor. I think a Generalist is a very good occupation to have.

How about this contrast of ideas and emotions. Critics do tend to find more ideas in your work than other musicians’.

Again, I think the sum total of the parts is greater than the input, very much so, and especially on the latter stuff that I’ve done. There were a considerable amount of very diverse ideas that went into the album, but the sum total of all those ideas is something extraordinarily different to that which I expected to come from the album when I made it.

For me, listening to Heroes is quite as new an experience as any other listener listening to it. They’re never what I expected them to be.

There was, apparently, a quite casual, happy atmosphere in the studio with Eno. But the music didn’t turn out that way.

No, no. I thought it was a nice, exercising process, but it turned out to be a substantial piece of work, which was very satisfying.

Low is, in fact, more bleak than Heroes, I think.

Yes, it is. But that was a come-down period, a withdrawal time.

Tony Visconti, who helped produce it, told me that you made Low because you felt you were becoming predictable.

Yes, yes – I felt I was very, predictable, and that was starting to bore me. I was entering an area of middle-of-the-road popularity which l didn’t like, with that disco soul phase, and it was all getting too successful in the wrong way. I want and need creative, artistic success.

I don’t want, need or strive for numbers. I want quality not a rock in’ roll career. My ego is such that I do wish to be recognised as offering something fairly worthwhile, and when I feel it is getting a bit ploddy it embarrasses me and I wish to move on.

Do you think there is a general theme to your records?

(Pauses, then mischievously adopts a Dr. Bronowski voice) “Is there an element of the irrational in the human spirit?!’ (Laughter) Yes, I think the irrational is very much part of it all, and the combination of the wrong elements in the wrong place at the right time.

That’s very vague.

Yes, I don’t think I would like to subject myself to complete analysis of my work, really.

With the exception of Hunky Dory and Pin Ups, there’s a very chilly, technological feel about much of It.

A bit chilly, you think? I think it’s not expressed in general, emotive terms: love or anger, or whatever the emotional scale is somewhere above top C (grins). The emotions on it are those rarely touched by writers, I think. That’s what gives it the chilly feeling.

But I don’t think they are chilly emotions – I think they are just rather surprising emotions that are lurking in one’s head somewhere that are very rarely expressed possibly because one doesn’t feel there’s an occasion to express that kind of emotion.

I still don’t know whether there is an occasion to express that emotion, but I’m expressing it on those records if anybody needs it!

Well, they obviously do because they’re buying the records. Although, without knowing their sales, I would have said that the last two albums didn’t do as well as the others.

Oh, no. of course not, no.

And that doesn’t bother you at all?

Not at all. It’s rather pleasing in a perverse kind of way.

That does smack of snobbery.

Yes, I know it does. Brian says he’s most embarrassed that Before And After Science is doing so well in New York – of course he’s lying through his teeth, he’s very pleased. But he said, “I did everything to put people off buying it. I went over there and did my utmost to dissuade people from purchasing the aforesaid article.” In fact, Before And After Science is receiving a very good reaction in the States.

But as far as you’re concerned, isn’t there a chance of you losing your audience?

Oh quite.

But it doesn’t bother you?

No. No. There comes a time when you go through the most ridiculous posture of saying, “I’d be really pleased if everybody stopped buying my records so I could go away and do something else”. There’s an ounce or lunacy at the back of one’s mind when the album comes out. “Let’s see if this one can really crash, really bomb, There’s a little bit of oneself that actually thinks it.

Because that would mean there’s now no constraint to make a record for that particular audience?

Absolutely. And then you can take the whole bull by the horns and just record something underneath a table with a cassette recorder, or whatever, and all those things one says one’s gonna do one day.

But Lou Reed tried that with Metal Machine Music, didn’t he, and it didn’t work for him?

I haven’t talked with Lou for a long time, so it’s hard to know exactly what was at the back of his mind. Of course, he promptly started producing very commercially-orientated albums after that, so I don’t quite know whether that was a ploy to lever himself off RCA.

And he went back to his basic theme, writing about that kind of netherworld.

Yes, yes. I don’t think he’s too interested in writing about anything else, though. I don’t know – I think Lou stays in New York too much. Having said that, of course, I now, hear that he’s staying in Japan, so it’s not entirely true.

Let’s talk a bit about the collaboration with Eno. What do you think you’ve taken from him?

That’s a nasty question, a nasty question. What has he injected to my music is probably the more accurate, and what he’s injected is a totally new way of looking at it, or another reason for writing. He got me off narration, which I was so intolerably bored with.

Narrating stories, or doing little vignettes of what at the time I thought was happening in America and putting it on my albums in convoluted fashion: Philadelphia, or New York or Los Angeles, “Panic In Detroit” and “Young Americans”. Singer-songwriter askew. And Brian really opened my eyes to the idea of processing, to the abstract of communication. I don’t think we agree with each other on everything. We’re certainly not that simpatico where we embrace what each other say’s with open arms.

It’s possible also that my word-manipulation in songs has slightly changed his ideas. He enjoys the way that I work with words and melodies.

How do you?

I still incorporate a lot of Burroughs ideas, and I still purposely fracture everything. Even if it’s making too much sense. I now fracture more than I would’ve done in past. But it’s still a matter of taking my three or four statements and interrelating them.

Not as literally as I used I don’t use the scissor method very much – but I’ll write a sentence and then think of a nice juxtaposition to that sentence and then do it in a methodical, longhand fashion. A lot of me goes into it now, whereas at one point it was getting very random.

It was far more random on Low. On Heroes it was a bit more thought about. I wanted a phrase to give a particular feeling. But never a song as a whole – I never had an overall idea of the feeling.

Each individual line I wanted to have a different atmosphere, so I would construct it in a Burroughs fashion. There are two or three themes in each song, but they are interlinked in such a way as to produce a different atmosphere per line, and sometimes a whole batch of lines.

But I didn’t want to restrict myself with one process, so I would use straightforward narrative for maybe two lines and then go back to disorientation. Heroes was the most narrative, about the Wall, on that album.

On Low “A New Career In A New Town”

That didn’t have any words, though. (Intrigued).

But did it give you the impression afterwards that it had?

Yes, it does, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what I mean, that the sum of all the parts produces an astonishing feeling, and that you really feel that you understood something from it.

“Be My Wife”, was quite specific. Was it genuinely anguished, or were you being tongue-in-cheek?

It was genuinely anguished, I think. It could’ve been anybody, though. But I think as a generalisation what you find on both albums is a potpourri ranging from narrative song to, I suppose, in its own way, surrealism. In fact, some of the songs are very like those I used to write a long time ago, not so very different from something like “Quicksand” which was on “Hunky Dory.”

What’s “Sound And Vision” about?

That was an ultimate retreat song; actually, the first thing that I wrote with Brian in mind when we were working at the Chateau. It was just the idea of getting out of America, that depressing era I was going through. I was going through dreadful times. It was wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows.

But I do think Brian and I are very good collaborators. I’ve never been happy collaborating with anyone before to the extent that I do with Brian. We do have such varied interests that it makes for some very interesting speculations in the studio. It’s nice to have a friend like that and to work in that relationship. I never thought I would work like that. I always felt very singular.

How did you get on with Bob?

(Long pause)

Bob Fripp.

Oh, I thought you meant Bob Dylan! Didn’t get on with him at all. I had a dreadful time with Bob Dylan. Absolutely ghastly. I talked at him for hours. I was fairly flipped out of my head, if I remember, and I just talked and talked.

The funniest part about it was that I’d been talking about his music and what he should do and what he shouldn’t and what his music did and what it didn’t, and at the end of the conversation he turned to me and – I hope it was in jest, but I have a feeling it wasn’t – he said (falling into a banal American accent), “you wait till you hear my next album”.

I thought, “oh no, not from you, please! Not that, anything but that!” I don’t know whether I was in the correct state to appreciate him, but it was the first and last time I ever met him.

He never made any other contact with me (laughs uproariously). That was in New York. I didn’t find him odd, that was the problem – there again, when people meet me they generally don’t find me as odd as they would have me be, so I guess it’s one of those things where you build up a particular picture.

I lost all that fascination for him, I must admit, quite a number of years ago, though. Once I had quite a thing about him.

Does any rock person now hold any interest for you?

I really don’t think so, I really don’t think so. At this particular stage I do feel incredibly – divorced from rock, and it’s a genuine striving to be that way. I refuse to listen to records, refuse to listen to music in general.

Not even Kraftwerk?

No … I don’t think they have found their niche – I could turn that into a pun but I don’t think I’d better! I’ve found a lot of their earlier work more invigorating than their later stuff, actually. I liked a lot of the stuff that seemed to be free-form.

That was when Neu were with them, of course, and you had two very frictional elements working against each other – Neu who were into complete volume against Florian’s very methodical planning.

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