by Tricia Jones / I-D CONFi-DE
At 40 years of age, David Bowie is still regarded as one of contemporary music’s demigods. In a career that spans over 20 years of massive achievements, dismal failures, records, movies and marriages of one kind or another, Bowie still has an unearthly aura about him. Chopping and changing is second nature to the man, and though his projects have sometimes fallen flat, he is always given the chance to bounce back with another image. But although he has wardrobes of charisma, when the real David Bowie stands up, are we going to be interested?
At 40 years of age – the point at which celebrities traditionally announce that the best years of their life are about to commence – David Bowie is embarking on another world tour. One of the most influential figures in the history of rock music, Bowie has recently released a critically savaged album ‘Never Let Me Down’ (on the cover of which the arch imagist appears as Mick Hucknall revisited), and has had to let Pepsi sponsor the accompanying tour.
As maturity sets in, Bowie seems ever more sane, reasonable and at peace with himself. Yet the more personal stability he achieves, the more control he seems to gain over his life, the less interesting his music becomes. He may well have been on the commercial ball with ‘Let’s Dance’, but we have to go twice as far back to find his last pioneering album, ‘Lodger’ (1979). With great tunes, rough sounds and innovative arrangements, ‘Lodger’ predicted the resurgence of three-minute pop, and it’s explicit adoption of African and Middle Eastern music vastly predates the ethnic explorations of Byrne, Eno or McLaren.
In contrast, this decade’s cinematic diversions have been patchy (‘Labyrinth’ and ‘When The Wind Blows’, were whimsical meanderings; ‘Absolute Beginners’ was a misguided attempt at pushing him as a character actor), and Bowie’s new-found inner calm has resulted in albums which cause less excitement with every release. But he still pulls a cracker out of the barrel every so often: the theme song from ‘Absolute Beginners’ was a 24 carat vintage Bowie offering, a diamond in the rough; and last year Bowie made his best move in a while, producing and co-writing parts of Iggy Pop’s superb comeback LP ‘Blah Blah Blah’ (including the classic cool anthem ‘Shades’).
The tour? Well, the ‘Glass Spider’ tour looks like Bowie’s final attempt at 1987 redemption, since ‘Never Let Me Down’ and it’s singles have been universally panned. “It’s the most theatrical thing I’ve ever done”, he says. The tour will probably finish with some sort of Tina Turner tie-in, the result of the Pepsi liaison which also demands television advertising from the man who says of the drink, “It’s all right – well, it’s better than a lot of other products around today.”
So why is David Bowie still making music? He has already experienced and created enough to ensure himself a prime position in an annals of rock history, and can hardly expect to regain or surpass his former influence on contemporary music. He can hardly be wanting for money and, despite being one of the most skilful interviewees ever, claims not to enjoy the attentions of the media. Is David Bowie a workaholic who can’t let go with dignity, or has he still got something to say through music? And is he tiring of the fame game or scared of leaving the limelight? i-D travelled to Amsterdam to investigate the middle-aged megastar’s state of mind.
iD: Could you have become David Bowie famous rock star, at the beginning without the different characters – or were you too shy?
DAVID BOWIE: That’s probably as near to the truth as one could get from looking back this far, and it’s looking back a long way. No I don’t think I really would have had the strength of mind at the time to have wanted to go out and just sing my songs – straight off – for me it’s always been about developing some kind of character that would be interesting. But it’s not true so much now.
Are you a person who needs other people a lot, or do you need space and time to yourself?
Other people a lot? No more than anybody else, it’s nice to have neighbours and friends. I’m quite self contained when I want to be. I like to get away from it all occasionally but I like a social life and I have a good one, so I’d miss that if I didn’t have it. The people I see aren’t usually involved in my particular career. They’re not usually musicians – there’s a few contemporaries, I guess, that I’m friendly with like Iggy, naturally, and Mick Jagger and everybody else is sort of on a hello basis. I occasionally run into some of the newer guys. I got to know Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon from Duran because we were in the same part of America together earlier this year, and I really quite like them, they’re nice lads.
Do you still enjoy fame – is the price ever too high?
Oh gawd! It’s how you deal with it, I think. Touch wood I deal with it in a way that affords me as little stress as possible, in that I don’t put myself in the situations that you would expect to screw you up. I mean I don’t live in Hollywood. I live in the quietest of countries. I still have established friends in London that I can creep out and see. I mean I’m in London a lot more than people would know, because I’m quite capable of creeping in and out – I’ve always believed that thing that if you want to be known and want to be seen you go out clubbing a lot with some bird on your arm so that you get cameras and you do things to attract attention to yourself. I mean, the most I get when I’m going out is “Oh, hello David, I didn’t expect to see you here”. So it’s at that level, it’s really easy to get about. I think it becomes a problem when you live the kind of existence that Michael Jackson lives. I mean I’m presuming, I really don’t know but from what one gathers, Jackson is incredibly isolated from things. I fell into that, back in the Seventies and I know what it’s like – it’s a horror, something that you wouldn’t really want to go through again… not ever. I’m too old a hand to let that happen to met again.
What are the compensations of getting older?
That I can say what the fuck I want really! (Laughs) I think when you’re young you think that every day to day thing you do and say is sacred and important, and when you get older, you realise that one’s actions in the scheme of things are virtually undetectable. I think in my case, hopefully there’s a certain amount of self seriousness that sort of evaporates with time and you put yourself in perspective again – which is a lot easier and less stressful.
Are you in complete control of the David Bowie machine?
Oh there’s no machine. It’s just me.
You never feel manipulated, you never feel you have to do things because other people want you to?
Occasionally I’ve done things for the wrong reasons but I would never blame anybody for manipulating me. I would never say I’ve been manipulated over the last ten years. I’ve made some gross mistakes, but fortunately they’re all on my shoulders, so I’ve had nobody to blame but myself. I mean I stopped having management and managers and all that kind of thing around 1977.
Would it be presumptuous to ask what the gross mistakes were?
A couple of things. I think making the wrong kinds of movies, although I don’t see them as a big problem, all I see them as is bad movies… and rushing an album or two that I really should never have done. I was pressured by a record company, but not manipulated.
Which one do you regret?
‘Tonight’ specifically, only because taken individually the tracks are quite good but it doesn’t stand up as a cohesive album. That was my fault because I didn’t think about it before I went into the studio.
And what about the movies?
‘Just A Gigolo’… I think we have to look back on that with a certain amount of irony. I had a wonderful time making that movie because by about the second week we looked around at each other and said “this is a pile of shit so let’s have a good time!” So we had a good time… but it was an atrocious movie; but there again all it was was an atrocious movie, I mean it’s not the end of the world or anything like that. When one starts out one’s career with ‘Laughing Gnome’ it’s very easy to just put things down to experience.
Who are your heroes?
I don’t have any heroes, none. I can’t think of one human being who I could describe as a hero… There are people I admire… right now the person I admire ambivalently is Gorbachev, who I think is a possible nomination for man of the year, because of what he’s trying to do. And if one can be less cynical about his ulterior motives, I really feel there is a man there who foresees the inadmissible introduction of a nuclear catastrophe and is not willing to let it happen. I really sincerely feel that he is not willing to let it happen, and one has to believe that’s how he feels. Because if you don’t feel that, then you’ve got two of them out there playing that game, which I think is just absolutely terrifying. But one feels that he is part of a new regime in Russia, the like of which they’ve never seen before, and I think it’s knocking everything sideways. If he survives I think he’ll bring about some very interesting changes to that country.
What would a favourite non-working day be?
A non working day? Well it depends on the time of year!
Yeah! Exactly! If it’s anywhere between February and April then that’s exactly what I’d be doing. Er, other times of the year, frankly I work. I don’t think I spend a day without jotting something down. Even if it’s one sentence. If I go through a week and haven’t written a good paragraph or two of ideas I feel as though I’ve been really lazy.
Do you keep your notebooks?
Oh yeah! But I can’t understand a word. I write in a shorthand which means it’s okay for a week or two, but then I forget what it means, so it’s completely indecipherable. But I guess if I studied and thought back I could understand it.
How has having a son changed your attitude to life?
Immeasurably. But it grew slowly. I had the usual father’s thing – what’s this funny little creature, wandering around, sort of gurgling. It wasn’t until he started toddling that I realised what a ray of sunshine had come into my life. You must understand that my ex-wife and I actually lived together for only two years even though we were married for such a long time. One day I suddenly realised that something seriously had to be done about Joe’s life, because he wasn’t being looked after in the way he should have been. I decided to take the reigns, and so I fought and won for the custody. As you probably know it’s a very unusual thing for a father to be given custody of his child, especially in Switzerland. Which, without having to say anymore indicates how the maternal side of his life was going. It was tragic. So I took full reign and ever since that time I’ve had to grow up with him, which has been delightful and a source of reserve and discipline and energy. If my eyes are streaming, it’s because I’ve been sitting in this fucking smoke all day long. It’s awful down there, the smoke’s made out of some sort of petroleum stuff. It’s really hurting. (Bowie is in between takes of a commercial he is shooting for Pepsi.) Have you got a light?
Have I got a light? No, sorry, I haven’t. I’m a ‘reformed’.
Are you? And quite right too! Yes everybody’s on at me to kick this last thing. “David – you’ve got to get this one out the way, you’ve kicked them all”.
(Finds lighter and lights cigarette)
What would be your most important message for life to Joe (aka Zowie) and kids his age?
Never ever consider becoming involved with drugs. Something I could never underestimate the importance of. It’s absolutely tragic, what it can do to you, and how it can screw you up. That would be the primary piece of advice I could give on a general basis. Yeah (laughs) and drugs includes alcohol, folks! And cigarettes…
If you had to re-run your life, what are the bits you’d edit?
The bits I’d edit out? I can’t think like that. I mean I’ve made an awful lot of mistakes, and I’ve done some good things as well. But I can’t think in terms of editing it. It’s just a bunch of stuff I did and that’s me. That’s what I’ve done, all the goonisms as well as the nice bits. It’s hard for me to say. I guess, for my own absolution I would edit out me starting to take drugs – again it comes back to that, because so many bad things happened because of it. If I could have edited out that period an awful lot of my life would have been absolutely different, and the next six years of putting it back together again would have changed. That’s the other thing people don’t realise – it’s very hard to just give up. You go through a lot of dreadful things giving up. A lot of depressions, a lot of switching addictions. In my case I switched to alcohol. And it took an awful long time to shake that one off. It just goes on and on and it’s really hard because your metabolism changes and it’s been proven fairly well now that if you are addicted to any one thing, transference to another is quite easy. It’s pointless to try to switch people from a heroin to a methadone treatment, because methadone is just as addictive as heroin. My problem was cocaine, and then I went from cocaine to alcohol, which is a natural course of events. You have to be lucky enough to have friends around you who want you to succeed, but you also have to want to stop yourself. You have to know in your own mind that you don’t want to go on like that. That’s the biggest hurdle. And if you can overcome that, then you’re OK. Cos once you’re addicted, you’re addicted for life. Your metabolism has changed like an alcoholic. It just takes one drink and he’s gone again. He’s out on a binge. For the rest of the weekend, bye bye Bert. And he comes back on Monday full of remorse and guilt and everything. It’s dreadful. You cannot take one drink.
Are you materialistic?
I was never actually a material person. Ideas always meant a lot more to me than that… I mean I never bought a big car. The company bought a big car for me to drive around in once. I had a limo in ’73 and ’74, but I’m not a limo person. And I’m not a sports car person. Those kinds of things really aren’t something I work for. And I don’t get them as a result! Seeing people is lovely. An unexpected person turning up. Somebody out of the blue that I really used to like who I thought has disappeared off the face of the earth. And then you run into them and things are just like they used to be. I mean, that’s a great thing to happen.
Why did you get involved with Pepsi, couldn’t you afford to tour on your own?
Yes, I could have afforded to tour on my own, but I couldn’t have afforded to tour in quite such an elaborate way. What they paid for is a third stage. I’ve had three stages built which means we can leapfrog! Being with Pepsi means that we can take in more countries than we were going to before. So when they made that offer, they made an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was only too happy for them to pay for my stage, I thought that was great. It now means that we can definitely do South America and probably Russia without losing money. If I didn’t have backing I would have to take just a backing band to Russia instead of a full theatrical show.
Weren’t you angry when they banned the video for ‘Day In Day Out’?
Well I’ve seen such a lot of banning going on and it’s coming up with quite puritanical face at the moment. I was pissed off because it was for the wrong reasons. Can you tell me if Madonna is being played on TV?
Yes she is.
It’s a mesmerising video but basically seems to be about Madonna having an affair with Jesus – with churches and crucifixes and all that stuff. That video is being played on Top Of The Pops. Well, I don’t understand how she can run her fingers over her pussy and in the next shot be clutching a crucifix… and then you see a shot of Jesus Christ on the street, and a church and an altar, and I don’t know what… I find that has something a lot more perverse about it than anything in my video. Mine was very straight ahead street violence and it was quite obvious… there was nothing titillating about what was happening on that screen. It certainly wasn’t done for it’s sexual overtones, so I think that they have a morality problem at the BBC but it’s nothing new, is it, and I’m not really up in arms about it.
Are you ever embarrassed about some of things you’ve done in the past?
Not really. Only the drug thing. I think that’s the most horrendous; things that I’ve been involved with that don’t really embarrass me now, so much as worry me that other people might be at all influenced by them.
Were you dismayed by the critic’s rejection of your new LP? Some were pretty nasty.
Not at all. I got my first real hatchet job on ‘Aladdin Sane’ in 1973 and it’s been continuing ever since. So I’ve not really expected much else. I’m delighted if anybody ever says anything nice about my stuff, I mean… fortunately the Americans think completely the other way.
The new LP is your most ‘normal’ to date – why?
Again I knew that I wanted something I could tour with on a very ground roots level. I wanted something that would work well with a small band, because I wanted a lot of performers on stage other than just the band. So it had to logistically be a five piece band kind of music. I wrote small but energetically.
There was a time when you avoided the mainstream. But now you seem to want to embrace it.
I don’t think that I’ve actually strayed any closer to the mainstream, I just think that nowadays my music is the mainstream; it has become the mainstream. I’d like to think of it that way. The stuff that I’m doing on the new album isn’t so very different melodically, or musically inherently from ‘Aladdin Sane’ or the harder rocking stuff on the ‘Heroes’ album or ‘Scary Monsters’ so it just seems as though music has changed into the kind of thing I was doing. I’m just doing the same kind of thing, really. I think ‘Let’s Dance’ was probably the most commercial. But I don’t think this one was intended to be inherently commercial. Otherwise I’d have been doing another ‘Let’s Dance’.
Apart from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ single you haven’t had a major hit for over three years. Doesn’t this worry you?
No, not really, because I haven’t put out any singles in Britain other than ‘Day In Day Out’. Hits are not something I’ve gone for either. Dylan, The Rolling Stones, myself, John Lennon, none of us really sold albums, far fewer albums than people would imagine. The big sellers were always bands like Foreigner, Heart, the kinds of bands you couldn’t put a face to – they always sold masses and masses. There’s a lot of us out there, who were sort of maybe musically pretty important, but actually didn’t sell vast amounts of albums. I was always quite happy with the amount that I sold up until ‘Let’s Dance’, and when ‘Let’s Dance’ happened I was delighted to say the least. That was the watershed. I think I have something quite important to say musically and theatrically, and as long as I keep doing that then I’m quite happy.
How do you feel that your career as an actor has succeeded?
I don’t know if I do have a career as an actor. I do some acting jobs occasionally, but I don’t really think it’s a career. It’s something that I get offered every now and again and if it seems witty or silly or something that I might enjoy doing, then I do it. But it’s not like a second career or anything.
How much do you monitor what’s happening in fashion
Not at all. I’ve got no idea. I haven’t got a clue about fashion.
How many of the clothes that you wear on stage and at photo sessions are your own? Do you use a stylist for everything?
I choose them. I certainly take the advice of others but then I’m presented with a lot of ideas and carted around a bunch of shops, and usually, luckily enough, with someone who knows what they are talking about. But I choose eventually what I’m going to wear. But if I buy for myself I buy rubbish. (laughs) I’m a terrible buyer!
What sort of clothes are you happiest in?
Black cords and denim shirts.
Is the way you look as important to you now as it was 15 years ago?
It depends what I’m doing. If it’s for a character then it’s very important that it must be right and if I’m on stage then it obviously has to suit the atmosphere of the show. It’s terribly important, as important as anything else I do. But I look a wreck when I’m not working. I mean you wouldn’t look twice thank God, as it helps me get through life!
Is it more important to try for eternal youth… or to grow old gracefully?
OOOHhhh!!!! I think the most important thing is to actually try and grow old… meaningfully (laughs).
And how would you like to be remembered?
I don’t give a fuck. I really don’t. It doesn’t even occur to me… It’s nice to have got through it all.