David Bowie: An In-Depth Look At The Illusion

by Lisa Robinson / Hit Parader

August 1976

“Bowie’s back, David’s great, the show is just a straight rock and roll show, he’s in such good health, my interview with David was fabulous. All this and more I heard prior to departing for LA and Phoenix where I was to talk to Bowie for the first time in nearly five years, and to see his current stage show. It had been arranged for me to 1) watch him tape the Dinah Shore TV show; 2) catch his final sold out show at the LA Forum; and 3) Interview the Artiste in Phoenix several days later. I went with mixed feelings, no illusions, few expectations. I was amused that he was showing “Un Chien Andalou” before his concert, how naive, in a way. David would later agree with me that he is naive, and proud of it. If one views the journalistic / reportage process as confrontation. We perhaps came out even. There is an honesty about David these days even though it really can’t be described as refreshing. It is as carefully acted out as anything he’s ever done, and as such, the face of David Bowie presented to me that week was who David Bowie decided to be, February 1976. He’s clever, totally aware of his persona, and there’s a very determined gleam in his eyes these days.

The Dinah Shore Show audience was a mixed lot. Housewives with blue-hair who wait in line to be a part, somehow, of Hollywood “show business”. More teenagers than usual, no doubt because of David’s presence as well as that of Henry “Fonzie” Winkler – star sensation of TV series “Happy Days”. The warmup man comes out in bright orange turtleneck sweater and beige polyester leisure suit, hits us with raps like “We get some nutty audiences on this show folks … we want you to scream, applaud, just do your own thing … just got back from Lost Wages … yuk, yuk, yuk… ”

“Didja see Day-veee?,” shrieks a maniac blond groupie who has followed him everywhere. “Angela wanted to be here,” whispered the publicist, “but she’s home cooking for a dinner party they’re having later with Alice Cooper and Ray Bradbury.” Dinah comes out, is introduced to the audience, she’s a total pro. The show starts … “and here’s someone considered by many to be one of the most influential people in the rock spectrum!!” Pix of Bowie flash on the screen; the Ziggy patterned jumpsuit, the long striped sock, the pink jockstrap, the white suit … about fifty teenagers in the audience scream as a screen is raised and There He Is. Standing on (what else?) a pedestal, dressed simply in black baggy trousers, blue velour pullover. Shock of orange, slick backed hair (sort of like Bryan Ferry, circa 1973). His band stands behind him, Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, George Murray, Stacey Heydon & Tony Kaye on keyboards (a dead ringer for Rodney Bingenheimer). David gings “Stay”, and out of camera range co-hosts Nancy Walker (who resembles an older Bette Midler and is beloved here as “Rhoda” TV mother) and “Fonzie” Winkler tap their toes. Actually, The Fonz is really getting into it, doing sort of funky chicken things with his head. Dave does little disco steps, he looks great.

The song over, he sits down with Dinah to “rap”.

Dinah: How do you feel when you hear those screams?

Dave: It’s my drummer, actually…

Dinah: You give so much of yourself…

Dave: Well no, actually I always think I should do it again. (They would have to repeat the first number again at the end of the show in fact, due to some technical problem.)

More photos of our boy flash on the screen, big white suit, red suspenders, blue and white polka dot sweater. Dinah elicits remarks from David: “Oh that one, I was living in New York at the time and was influenced by a lot of Puerto Rican clothing… ” then (GASP) “I steal from everybody, you know,” he admits.

David is in total control, still fey, the poseur, affected … but nevertheless, in control. A far cry from the heavy sniffing and mumbled, rambling answers a la his last memorable TV appearance – Dick Cavett.

Dinah presses further re influences: “Well,” says David, “one of my favorite English bands at the moment is Roxy Music … Bryan Ferry”…

Commercial break, switch to Bowie on the couch sipping tea with Dinah, Nancy and Fonzie. “I have never seen David perform before,” Nancy Walker says earnestly, “he’s beautiful. But you know I was brought up on Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart… ” “Hoagy Carmichael,” David offers. “David, you’re a puzzle to many people,” says Dinah, “there are a lot of David Bowies, but is there really only one David Bowie?’

“Well, I started as a painter,” Bowie replies,” but I was a natural ham. Rock and roll is a superb way of releasing that. I still act the songs rather than sing them. If the French can get away with it, I figure so can I.”

“It’s the policy of the self-invented man,” he continues. -You strip down all the things you don’t like about yourself. One thing I didn’t like was being very shy. So if I gave myself an alarming reputation, then I’d be faced to defend it.”

Fonzie plugs a T-shirt he’s had made with his likeness, brags that he has only 1200 of them. “I’d rather have a T-shirt that six million people would wear, wouldn’t you really?” David asks.

Dinah: “You know David, we all often do interviews and put people on, but I read where you said – and now I’ve met your lovely wife Angela – you said ‘I’ve never been in love, thank God… ‘”

David: “I have a vast capacity to love, but he one time I found myself failing in love it was obsessive in a way. The thing about putting a person on a pedestal, it’s like what people search for in God.”

Dinah: “Don’t you miss the passions of being in love.”

David: “I think there are passions of loving someone.”

This sort of scintillating conversation continued, I mean it’s all very well and good for straight, middle American afternoon TV audiences, but wasn’t giving me a clue as to where David’s head was at all except, (and this is important) he was trying terribly hard to be professional, polite, and proper. I’ll bet they still thought he was a freak. An endless discussion continued as to whether Being In Love Is More Meaningful Than Loving Someone (and having to say you’re sorry … )

“You’ve said,” Dinah continued, “that if you were an original thinker, you would’ not be in rock and roll.” “Oh yes,” smiles David. “But rock and roll has been very good to you,” she says. “I’ve been good for rock and roll,” he says.

At the end of the show David sang “Five Years” straight into the camera, tight closeup on his face. That same song, the same face that was in closeup about five years ago when he was on BBC-TV’s “Old Grey Whistle Test”. It was riveting, knocked me out then, and it did now. Perfect, I thought, he’s finally gotten around to stealing from himself

“I think with this stage show,” David would tell me later, “I’ve put myself in a position of being more like the real David Bowie the audience has wanted. This show is more bisexual, more theatrical than anything I’ve ever done, I think. Ostensibly because it’s the most real show I’ve done. Now I can start work.”

Elton John swept into the Forum backstage area dressed in brown. He’s taken a few hours out of rest and hiding in LA to pay his respects, but he doesn’t stay long at the concert when his presence begins to attract too much audience attention. In the audience are Linda (it wouldn’t be a rock concert without) Blair, David Hockney (who’s had a busy week, attending parties for the Spinners, and the Pretty Things), Christopher Isherwood (“Can you imagine??” Angela Bowie gasped after the show, “CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD! My idol!!”) and Henry “Fonzie” Winkler.

The taped music of Kraftwerk can be heard over the loudspeaker. “Radioactivity for you and me,” croons writer Cameron Crowe. What a camp David is, I think. Fashionable fascism. Then, right before the screening of “Un Chien Andalou” Carole King treks up the aisle with new hippie boyfriend in tow. “You wouldn’t believe how crazy it is down there,” she shrieks to a friend in her very best Brooklyn yenta voice. I cannot believe how, with all her money, she is wearing a three dollar Indian shmatah. Cameron Crowe cannot believe I say this. She does however, seem very young, and glowingly in love.

And so, David screens “Un Chien Andalou” for all his 17-year-old fans who have not had the opportunity to study the surrealist classic film in college yet. The eye-cutting scene goes over big, but the rest of the twenty minutes causes the crowd to become mighty restless. And so at last, when Bowie comes onstage casually, singing “Station to Station”, there is a huge roar, and everyone stands up.

As the show has been reviewed in these pages at length by Ben Edmonds, I’ll just add these observations: I didn’t much care for the band; too loud, too funky, too much bottom. My seat was reverberating throughout the entire show, and it was not a pleasant sensation. “Waiting for the Man” doesn’t really work; trying to sing it as a sultry, nightclubby kind of number isn’t right. Perhaps only a few who have really been there can sing Lou Reed’s lyrics; even if he wouldn’t agree with me, Patti Smith can. But David’s new show – with the stark, spare stage lit by hot, white neon lights is theatrical. Perhaps more theatrical than any that have preceded it, because he is creating the illusion that it is real -just A Man and His Music. But make no mistake, this is a show, not a concert. Just because he’s wearing a simple white shirt, black vest, black baggy trousers, instead of a long striped sock or a pink jockstrap doesn’t make it any less of a stage act.

Bowie moves onstage like an actor, a film actor who knows that standing still in front of a camera often commands more attention. The entire production from the Kraftwerk, to “Un Chien Andalou”, to the black and white, is all sort of like a film David’s directed himself. It’s focused, and the focus is definitely on the Star. No more cute guitarists to go down on, no more shoving the band to the side of the stage in an attempt to be visually rid of them (that just pointed out there was a problem with them in the first place). This band stands behind Bowie but could just as easily be behind a curtain. It’s fine to hire “excellent musicians”, but conceptually, visually, these people have nothing at all to do with Bowie. (“Do you consider this to be your band?” I would ask him later. “Oh no … they’ll all probably wander off after the tour and go back to James Brown or wherever they came from,” he replied. “I really don’t know them … I mean I know Carlos… “) One thing I do love in the show is when David stands to the side of the stage during the instrumental solos, nodding his head as if he’s digging them. Aside from admiring such fine acting, it makes one long for the star’s speedy return to center stage. Don’t think David doesn’t know that.

But I’m a sucker for the more familiar, rock and roll numbers like “Suffragette City”, “Jean Genie”, “Changes”, “Rebel Rebel”, so for me, they are the most successful songs in the show. Strangely enough, he’s left out “Young Americans” and “Golden Years” but mercifully has perhaps put “Space Oddity” to rest forever.

(At this point Carole King gets hassled by the usher … he tried to get her out of her seat and she has to sit on her boyfriend’s lap. They leave soon thereafter and I notice that he is wearing a fur purse tied on a leather string around his hips.)

David added Diamond Dogs to the shows in LA; he had forgotten the words but Cameron Crowe found them for him and he learned it in time. The show lasts about one and a half hours, which is fine, and after much cheering and lighting of matches (can you imagine going to a concert anymore and not have that happen? It’s such rote, fascism indeed… ) he returns to say, “We’re touring the world, and I won’t see you for … oh … a year, so we’ll leave you with this” – a great Rebel, Rebel”

In the dressing room after the show David chats quietly with Hockney and Isherwood. Upstairs in a “press” room, Linda Blair, Mark Volman, Henry “Fonzie” Winkler, John Baldry – all wait for an appearance David never makes. Eric Barrett is complimented on his lighting: “Well,” he smiled,” we never had the money to do it properly before.”

The Interview

It is perhaps important here to note that I hadn’t spoken (and that might be with a capital H, capital S) to Bowie in nearly five years. While I had never been threatened with receiving a block of cement a la Nick Kent, there was some hostility and there were definite Problems Between Us. Partially encouraged by a variety of music business entanglements and certainly led on, to some degree by various elements of the Main Man Organization, it was felt that I ‘didn’t understand” his true genius, that I dished him, as it Were.

Whatever, I was by now sufficiently intrigued with Bowie as master illusionist – I mean he had managed to work within the context of rock star successfully for six years now, proving that Fooling Some of the People Some of the Time was all right, and I had many questions to ask.

Wouldn’t you know it would be a full moon in Phoenix, and when I arrived in Bowie’s suite (a reasonable facsimile of a suite, as much as one could expect in the Double Tree Inn, in Phoenix, Arizona … town where Alice Cooper and the Tubes went to high school together.) – omigod, Iggy was in the room. Bright white hair, red jumpsuit, and the same lovable, crooked grin. A perfect surrealist setting guaranteed to throw me off guard. David, in Real Life, looks like something that just stepped out of a movie, that is if one calls an interview situation real life. He is wearing blue jeans, a blue plaid shirt, and looks stunning.

While there are only three or four people “around” him now, Bowie still manages to illicit from them the same kind of whispered over – protectiveness that he used to get from some twenty Main Man employees. (This happens often, usually it is the star that wants it that way, but some do manage to have more easygoing people working for them. Alice Cooper, for one, is always treated as a human being, there is an easy air around him. Mick Jagger attempts to have people work for him who will not treat him like Prince Charles. Jimmy Page has some staffers who treat him gingerly, others are not above throwing a pie in his face. People tiptoe around Keith Richard, he hardly seems aware of it. Carole King and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young Do Not Do Interviews. John Lennon can be a regular guy. And so on.) With Bowie and me, there was an Air of Tension to be broken; the presence of the publicist throughout our encounter did not help me to relax much.

And so, David, are you enjoying this tour now that you’re doing it, are you interested in the process of appearing before 18,000 people on a stage?? “No, I’m a little bored now,” David admits. “I guess I’ll have to change the show around, maybe just the order of songs. I definitely left some numbers out like ‘Time’, ‘Space Oddity’, precisely for the reason that I’d rather the energy level come from the eye line, rather than an association with any particular piece of theater. I’m doing a lot of unknown songs, which is hard for the audience, so I’ve compromised and put a few of the more familiar ones in.”

“No, I’m not interested in … good lord, of course, I’m doing it for the money. I’m only really playing to about three thousand people. I wouldn’t know if the rest of the place was empty. I mean it sounds loud, but I can only see about three thousand people. It would have been nice to do it at the Tower (in Philadelphia) and places like that, but then I wouldn’t have made any money.”

I ask about R & B, of all people. How did he become involved with it in his music: “Well if you played my records to somebody who was brought up on R & B they’d laugh in your face.” (I didn’t say it was good R & B, mind you … also, “TVC 15” sounds a lot like Otis Redding’s “Hucklebuck”.) “Really?” – eyes wide. “It sounds more like Elvis’ ‘Girl Went Walking’ to me. I know the ‘Hucklebuck’, intimately … that’s why I know that the music I play is nothing like R & B… ”

“As for this album, it’s a good album, I like it. I wish I’d done it differently though. I compromised in the mixing; I wanted to do a dead mix. It should have been a dry mix. All the way through, no echo. All the way through the making of the album I was telling myself I’d do a dry mix. And I gave in, I gave in and added that extra commercial touch. I wish, I wish … I wish I hadn’t.”

You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself a musician… “No one else would deny that,” he laughed. But you’ve managed to write at least one great rock and roll song every year for the past six years … “Incredible sort of luck and very sort of shrewd mercenary attitude got me that far.” Isn’t it hard to write a good rock and roll song? “Not if you’re desperate enough. And not if you passionately want to be a rock and roll star and be lionized and have eulogies written about yourself. Then you write a bloody good song. And if you don’t, then you’re not going to be a rock and roll star.”

“I never said I was a rock star. At any time. If I’m a rock star, then I’m a rock star despite myself. I just wanted to be good old David Bowie.”

“I’m not in rock and roll, I never thought of this as a career, it’s my own field. Not in rock and roll, never have been, refuse to be dragged into it. It’s been an enlightenment, and every enjoyable to do, but now I’m wondering what to do.”

When did you first realize that you had a voice … “Well,” he laughs, “a voice, yes … and hope you could get away with it and when it becomes sort of established as an archetypal voice, of that particular type, then it’s considered that you have a voice. I sort of did it all hopping on one foot, hoping that I’d get by.”

Now really, all this wide eyed innocence, all this chance stuff doesn’t convince me one bit … I mean you always were at least a half step ahead of many others, you wore what felt right at the time. I remind David that when I saw him in February, 1971, at his birthday party and he made an entrance wearing the gray patterned Ziggy jumpsuit and red vinyl boots, he said then that he hadn’t seen “Clockwork Orange”. Yet, he looked the way that felt … “Well, I knew that everybody had seen “Jason and the Argonauts”, and knew about the Harpies, and that was the most outstanding hairstyle I had every seen. I suppose I followed my own indulgences to such an extent that it created a field of its own.

“I feel thoroughly responsible for the state of rock and roll … As Mick once said, the grandfather … of glitter king rock,” he laughs. (A laugh, by the way, is a performance. The eyes flash, the head is artfully tossed back, the grin is lovely. It is then that I notice the teeth. Nice new ones? “What? These? They’re my same old fangs.” I thought everyone at Main Man had new teeth … “I was never at Main Man,” David replies with a wicked gleam in his eye as the publicist holds her breath, “and I couldn’t afford new teeth, I was so busy paying for everybody else’s.” Everyone breaks up, this perhaps, has broken the ice at last. “No … they’re the same old corroded ones… “)

Continuing the other train of thought, David says, “I was never the glitter king. I just sort of opened up … it was a breaking down of structures. Not very drastically, but it was some sort of token acknowledgment to the avant garde. And it went along from there.”

“I would hate to be considered that I was put up against other people in rock, goods heavens, no. If I was in it for that kind of reason then I’ve failed dismally. But to be able to do it for this long, to preserve and enjoy it, I think is wonderful fun, and I think it’s hard. The biggest joy in rock and roll is sort of to be able to acknowledge everybody else’s talent and be a fan and get by and make a living at the same time … It’s terrific.”

Are you a fan? “Well, the people in it, not it. The personas. It’ll do until I can start directing films. I wish I could direct a show. My perfect gig would be to take all the people I like and drag them onstage. I’d like to direct their shows. I can’t do that, so I do mine. But if I could, I’d do what I’d tell them to do … My albums … most of them I think are too naive. I even thought so at the time. That’s one of the most amazing things about rock and roll, apart from any message or statement or whatever, the thing that people really, really have empathy with is the naivete. And that’s why I feel so at home with it. In art generally, the most loving factor of any art form is the naivete. It’s nice to know that behind the callous, cold, iceman cometh Bowie that really he’s probably pretty uncertain about what he’s doing. I think that is poignant, and very tender.”

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