by Jonathan Mantle / Vogue
1st September 1978
“Superlative.”… “fizzy brilliance” “metallic techno-rock”. “a terrible charm, a real spell-binder. In another context you might even say he was dangerous”.
That’s what they said about DAVID BOWIE’s recent concert tour: his performance to 18,000 ecstatic fans a night at the Earl’s Court Stadium was an extraordinary exhibition of power over audience. The fans reacted to his techno-instrumentals (like Schonberg’s or John Cage’s) as if they were rock music. JONATHAN MANTLE talked to Bowie just before the fifty-sixth concert of the tour.
A friend of David Bowie’s once said: “He is not a great musician, but he’s the greatest star.” At thirty-one, he is a unique figure in his own sphere. After five years as the archetypal star, Bowie no longer wishes to be known just as a musician, or an actor, or a painter, but rather, he says, as a “generalist”.
The ambiguity and mystery of his image have much to do with his ability to keep at least one jump ahead of his audience. One of his themes, the gradual decay of choice and freedom, explored recently in Nicholas Roeg’s film, The Man who Fell to Earth, strongly suggests Bowie’s own fear of being trapped within the constrictions of an image. Success came ready-packaged as a potential straitjacket.
Born in South London in 1947, he left Bromley Technical School at sixteen, spent the first few months as a commercial artist, formed his own band and joined Lindsay Kemp’s Mime Company. The way he moves and uses the stage are still one of the most remarkable aspects of his concert performances. Three albums and a single (Space Oddity) later, he had still made only a handful of live appearances. In 1970 his new manager, Tony DeFries, took him to the United States, building and putting on view Bowie’s flamboyant, bisexual image. The next album, Hunky Dory, was his first hit. Focusing on the new release, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, DeFries enlarged and extended the MainMan organisation that was to embody Bowie, and ultimately control him.
Ziggy Stardust was the story of a quintessential rock star who ”took it all too far, but boy! could he play guitar”. It was the start of the powerful dominance Bowie was to have over the fashion and style of his fans. The glittery, tight-rope image of Bowie and his creation Ziggy mirrored and influenced a whole generation of rock music, leading to his involvement as a producer of other acts, notably two key albums: Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes and Lou Reed’s classic Transformer. But by now the persona of Ziggy Stardust had become an albatross around his neck. His struggle to escape it and at the same time exploit it was apparent in his next album Aladdin Sane, where the narrative device he had successfully used as Ziggy became chaotic and fragmented to an almost unbearable degree. In July 1973, two months after a near-disastrous concert at Earls Court, he announced that he was killing off Ziggy Stardust, and was therefore retiring from music. However, he continued to record, releasing Pin Ups in 1973, followed by Diamond Dogs, a nightmarish futuristic parable reminiscent of Orwell and William Burroughs. David Live, recorded during his mammoth American tour, captures the strain and incipient collapse that Bowie had originally projected as a theatrical concept, but which was now threatening to engulf him.
After this tour he went into seclusion in New York, where he recorded his “plastic soul” album, Young Americans. Its clean-cut, disco style brought criticisms of blandness and creative exhaustion, but it was, as Bowie says of another album, “a good valve… it let out a lot of frustration”. Station to Station which followed in 1976, though still disco-rooted, marked the beginnings of a new phase.
His return to England the same year made it clear that his audience had not forgotten him, even though it was a new-look, austere Bowie who greeted the hordes of lookalikes and imitators that assemble wherever he is playing. The concerts were ecstatically received, with banks of brilliant neon lighting creating the harsh, cold, magnetic aura that has endured up to his most recent tour. Much was made by the press of his apparent fascist salute (his associates insist that he was simply waving to fans from a car that happened to be a black, open-topped Mercedes) and his comment in Stockholm, “What Britain needs now is another Hitler” – the ambiguity of which was conveniently ignored by the reporters.
Emerging at last from long legal wrangles, Bowie was no longer the Anglo-American of the mammoth American four and of Diamond Dogs. He was living in Berlin and had separated from his wife Angela: they have a six-year-old son, Zowie Bowie. Now he was listening to contemporary composers rather than rock, and collaborating with one of music’s more mysterious and interesting figures, Brian Eno, to make Low and Heroes, voted Melody Maker Album of ’77. It seemed that he might achieve what many rock musicians fail to do – lose part of one audience, but gain a new one.
Berlin has remained a strong creative influence. There, in late ’77, he made the film Just A Gigolo, with Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak; a film biography of the Expressionist painter Egon Schiele, directed by Clive Donner, with Bowie as Schiele, has recently begun shooting.
With Ziggy, you appealed to the devotion of a generation. Your music isn’t directed at one age-group any more, is it?
I’m getting older, so I don’t think in terms of generation as much as I used to. Before, I was trapped into the archetype of writing-for a generation, which is what I think most young rock and rollers do. I’m bored with narration. It died out of all the other arts years ago, Rock and roll follows the rest of the arts about ten years later.
The music is more ambiguous?
I don’t know if it’s as interesting to young kids, though. I’m amazed that they sit through something like Warszawa as an opening number … and Brecht’s Alabama Song it’s a pretty strident piece of music, a demanding piece of music as well.
Your lyrics don’t tell stories, they’re a bit like looking through a window…
A cracked window, which splits the face up… like Cubism. A lot of what I really feel about things goes into the input of what I write now. As a narrator you pick out sources from all over the place, whether you believe in them or not, because they are interesting and you can utilise them. But the kind of music that I’m doing is pretty subjective.
You don’t supply complete concepts any more.
I don’t think they really work.
Your band for this tour is a synthesis of different styles. You’ve got a rock and roll pianist, a synthesiser player, an electric violin and a lead guitarist.
I wanted a really strange kettle of poissons… and I think I got them! I told them, halfway through the tour, “None of you have anything in common with any other member of the band”. And they looked around, and said, ”Good God, you’re right!” They don’t have any kind of roots in common.
Is there any connection between your “Heroes” and the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes”?
Absolutely none … That was the most disastrous piece of coincidence and timing. And, of course, the film Heroes came out at exactly the same time in the United States, with Fonzie, Henry Winkler.
Do you think people still want a message from you?
Not from me necessarily. But I think they want and need art where mankind’s symbols are thrown up every now and again. I think rock does do that, more than just about any of the other arts.
Whether you’re protected, or you protect yourself deliberately now, you keep yourself cut off. Is there a danger of cutting yourself off from things you might not want to miss?
I keep myself cut off from hotels and things, out of deference to the English countryside. At the moment I’m staying way outside of Glasgow, so most of my time has been spent walking on the hills and fishing in the lakes, and running every day. I’ve been with a friend, Jimmy Osterberg, Iggy Pop. We’re from very different backgrounds, that’s why we get on really well. I’ve spent this tour in a very civilised fashion. I’ve been able to live as I do when I’m not on the road. I get up at seven or eight in the morning, and walk.
How do you meet anybody other than as David Bowie?
In England and America it’s a bit difficult, but I don’t spend much time in either country.
I was watching the Alan Yentob movie recently (the 1975 documentary called ”David Bowie, Cracked Actor”). Were you into drugs then?
My insides must have been like perished rubber! Yes, it was not a good time at all… very amusing, looking back on it… I must have been quite an extraordinarily hard person to relate to…
Why did you choose to go to Berlin?
I hold the same opinion as Gunther Grass, that Berlin is the centre of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe over the next few years. I wanted to throw myself back into Europe.
Grass calls it the city “closest to the realities of the age”.
Absolutely… I do find that, very strongly. It’s such an ambiguous place-it’s hard to distinguish between the ghosts and the living.
It’s real and unreal at the same time.
That’s an exact reason why I went there. As a city, it seemed to be a macrocosm of my own state of mind. I thought it would be a good thing to place myself in a context resembling myself and see what came of it. Two wrongs made a right in my case, because it helped me adjust to myself. Nobody gives a shit about you in Berlin. Infamy or fame, it doesn’t mean much there.
Do you also find that German clash between ego and melancholy attractive?
Oh yes! The angst! My God, there’s angst in the air! My instrumentals were written with a lot of Berlin in mind, and East Berlin and Poland. And a few experiences I had in Russia.
Egon Schiele will be the first person you’ve acted who existed in his own right. Why did you choose him?
The obvious reason is that Clive Donner invited me over to his house one evening and told me his plans for making the film, and asked whether I would like to do it. So I said yes.
What does it feel like being an actor?
God, I long to be on the other side of the camera.
Have you any plans? Are they to do with your production company, Bewlay Brothers?
Yes, I do have. But you think you’re only putting in so much, and then you find that you’ve doubled your stake, and trebled it … I’m trying to get some money together now. I have written three screenplays. I don’t want to talk about it, because it’s a damned good idea. But it has a religious aspect; it’s about a missionary, actually.
How long will you stay in Berlin?
I think I’ve finished there now. I’ve been in Japan and Thailand recently and I may go back to Japan, Somewhere round Tokyo.
Will you be performing less as you diversify more?
I think once every two years is about right. I couldn’t tour any more than that. It’s very demoralising after the second month.
Is David Bowie right now as much a persona as Ziggy ever was, with this generalist approach?
No, I think not. I think the only thing that’s false about my stage presence at the moment is an actual knowledge of stagecraft, which I do utilise… But apart from that, there’s no conscious attempt to portray anybody other than myself.