by Chris Roberts / Ikon
David Bowie is enjoying another renaissance – hyperactive, philosophical, and buoyant. The century may be expiring, he figures, but his cup runneth over. Chris Roberts meets the louche legend in Los Angeles and finds him surfing on chaos.
I met him once before, four years ago, in LA, crazed sun blazing. So I’ve come, personally, to associate the David Bowie I interview, impersonally – as opposed to what David Bowie signifies to me – with rude health, cars, sumptuous hotel lobbies, pools, Sunset Boulevard. It feels great but it doesn’t feel apposite. I tell him this, after a fashion.
David Bowie lights a cigarette, which is something he does well and often, making love with his ego, always crashing in the same car. The face that launched two-decades-and-counting of imitators cracks, in its own time, into a famous English grin. “I have moved since then,” he says. “I haven’t just sat here since you left.”
White Duke, he speak the truth. Music, films, paintings and ideas in general are flying out of 49-year old David Bowie at an alarming, charming, disarming rate. I try really hard not to use the phrase ‘renaissance man’, and then I use it.
“God I’m scared of that word! Let’s just say I’m taking the bull by the horns and expressing myself – by any means necessary. I can do it, so I’m gonna flaunt it. I’m really not very self-judgmental anymore. I feel, psychologically, in a safe place. It’s publish and be damned, it really is.”
The king, the very king, of artifice and appropriation, David Bowie was Ziggy, then Aladdin, then a better soul singer than any real one, then kind of German and frosty and depressed and coked-out, then a cheery skippy Live Aid person, and then fell, finally, out of vogue. Then he did the Tin Machine thing at precisely the wrong time in precisely the wrong suits. While all this was going on he was in films ranging from sublime (The Man Who Fell To Earth) to The Linguini Incident. Now he’s releasing an album, Outside, which is, naturally, nothing like his last (the ambient The Buddha Of Suburbia), or even the one before that (the sensible poppy, Black Tie White Noise). While Suede have come and – some might say – gone, Bowie’s undertaken yet another wild mutation. Outside is provocative, creepy, nasty, irritating, and, eventually, addictive. The first in a planned series of collaborations with Brian Eno, it documents, albeit abstractly, the fictional diaries of ‘art detective’ Nathan Adler. Bowie’s also working with Nine Inch Nails soon, and if he will design wallpaper for Laura Ashley we sure as hell can’t stop him.
Early 1996 will see Build A Fort, Set It On Fire, a film by painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel about the late African-American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, in which Bowie plays Pop Art guru Andy Warhol. I’m crediting you with intelligence to keep up here. Also this year Bowie exhibited his own work (watercolours, sculptures, computer-generated prints) at the Kate Chertavian Gallery in Cork Street. I went to look at it one lunchtime with the girl who played the alien in the Loving The Alien video. A mad woman with teary eyes started shrieking at us for no reason whatsoever that we’d be sorry, very sorry, when David came along to sweep her away and make everything alright. We ran off, confused, but the mad woman chased us down the street. The best thing in the show was a picture of a star, called Star.
“I’m not content,” Bowie said in 1972, “to be a rock ‘n’ roll star all my life.” In 1995 he is almost absurdly energetic. You have to interrupt him to get a word in edgeways. We talk about art, cinema, literature, music, computers, South Africa, ageing, religion, and Boys From The Blackstuff. He’s very keen to discuss his friendships with Damien Hirst and Julian Schnabel, less keen to mull over the past. Without breaking sweat, and even while wearing a peculiar snakeskin shirt, he’ll say things like: “When you’ve developed an art form that questions its own existence you’re left only with philosophy. Heh heh heh! Or so my son tells me!”
You have healthy debates with him (Joe, formerly Zowie, now 23 and a philosophy graduate) on such topics?
“Oh boy, you try and stop us. We can shoot the breeze; we can talk so much crap all night long. But that’s one of the joys of parenthood, I’ve found.”
Joe (The Lion) has influenced his groovy dad “in an obtuse fashion, I think. “Watching him” getting into Cream and Dylan and Hendrix”, Bowie Senior realised there was no eighties music of interest. “Apart from maybe the beginnings of rap, it was all rubbish. Paula Abdul had no bearing on his life. He’d had to go back to find something with musical depth to it. It kind of gives validity to what Lennon used to say – what were his exact words?” Bowie shifts into faultless Scouse accent. “Say what you wanna say, make it rhyme, and put a backbeat to it”.
As regards your new album then, one out of three ain’t bad.
Bowie laughs uproariously. “Accessibility is not its keynote!” I am somewhat relieved.
“Pose the same question NOW to the younger generation and they I’ll say YES, there’s a lot of music we’ll take with us. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, NIN, Smashing Pumpkins.
“And in Britain, Tricky is wonderful, PJ Harvey is extraordinary. The context and atmosphere of it all is tremendous. I think rock music’s got strong legs at the moment. It’s really bloody exciting.”
Here is what I think David Bowie’s new album is about: WHAT IS ART? To someone like Bowie, or rather to someone who is Bowie, you can actually say that, say those three words with a question mark at the end, without being laughed at. He loves a lot of things but most of all he loves being taken seriously. Nobody expends this much effort on creativity, not when they’ve already scored as many been-there-done-that points as he has, without some unquenchable desire for acclaim, to defeat mortality.
How is your ego these days?
“Well, you know, I have enough vanity to be convinced that what comes out of one of my cut-up lyrics is only as good as the stuff that was put in in the beginning.”
And so when you say WHAT IS ART? to Bowie, plain as that, he’ll say, “It’s either art or murder, ha ha! The strength in MY work is when there’s as much room for multi-interpretation as possible. I’ve always had an orientation toward combining contradictory information. And just seeing what happens. Messing about with structures, taking them apart. Dismantling toys and putting the wrong bits back together. I would’ve been great in Japan making those Godzilla-type things that become tanks, I’m sure. I treat music in the same way; what happens if you put that note with that word, what effect do you get? Because of that, it has its own informational output, that’s sometimes more, sometimes less than the two components. That’s one of the fascinations of writing for me.”
I ask if he seeks to confuse as much as to enlighten, and am given possibly the longest and most articulate answer in ‘rock interview’ history.
“I don’t think so. I think that we as a culture embrace confusion. We’re happy to recombine information, we take event horizons incredibly fast. The generations – and I CAN use that plurally now – underneath me have an ability to scan information much quicker than my lot, and don’t necessarily look for the depth that maybe we would. They take what they need for their survival, and their means to adapt to this new society.
“It IS the inheritance of the Sixties, not only of what happened with the breakdown of the American Dream and the conflicts of that period, and the emerging pluralistic attitude towards society, but also of a spiritual loss. A realisation that absolutes weren’t the law, weren’t the thing that one could abide by. There’s no absolute religion, no absolute political system, no absolute art form, no absolute this no absolute that. Things weren’t black and white like we’d always been told (especially during the great stiff Fifties).
“There are so many contradictions and conflicts that when you accept them for what they are, when you accept that this IS a manifestation of the chaos theory that’s been put forward, that it really is a deconstructed society, then contradiction almost ceases to exist. Every piece of information is equally as unimportant as the next.”
Bowie glances at the TV for a second and I have to stop myself thinking I’m Nicolas Roeg.
“An OJ Simpson trial, one week’s buzzword is ‘the gloves didn’t fit’, those few words were the news on it – and, say, something from a Middle East crisis, it could be the ‘mother of all wars’ – those two pieces have EQUAL WEIGHT. There seems to be no disparity between them, it’s all relevant and all irrelevant. When you get the lack of stress upon what’s important and what isn’t, the moral high ground seems to disappear as well. You’re left with this incredibly complex network of fragments that is our existence.
“Rather than running away from it, I think the younger generation is learning to adapt to it. I’m very wary of calling them out for being – and this is so often thrown at them – indifferent or ignorant or lazy or all that. That’s bullshit, I think that actually they’re in their own nurturing stage. It’s not going to get any more clarified; it can only get more impetuously complex. There’s no point in pretending: well, if we wait long enough everything will return to what it used to be and it’ll all be saner again and we’ll understand everything and it’ll be obvious what’s wrong and what’s right. It’s NOT gonna be like that.”
Sorry what was the question?
“So. The album deals with all that to an extent. That kind of… surfing on chaos.”
Bowie gets a coffee and another Marlboro Light going, sprawls across his armchair like a confident woman or a happy cat. Some of his prints are on the wall. We’re at the Chateau Marmont, where every ten minutes someone tells you “this is where John Belushi died.” Keanu Reeves was in the lobby earlier. Later, Bowie will tell me something funny about actors, but right now the sometime editor of Modern Painters, who last year interviewed Balthus, is on paintings…
“…on the other hand, I can revel in a Romantic or Renaissance piece. I can just fall away into a sort of euphoria over a beautiful-painted landscape or a wonderfully-executed sculpture. I have needs for all those things. I don’t think one thing REPLACES the other. Consider the more positive aspects of post-modernism. I hope we get bored with the ironic stance it continually takes, because one of the better things about it is that it seems so willing to embrace ALL styles and attitudes…”
Do you feel like an elder statesman of sorts? Your hilarious press release says portentously: ‘It is only now, when he has reached his own mid-life, that Bowie can make music encompassing the point of young, middle-aged, and old.’
He creases up, for the only time today, shaking his head, speechless.
Do you feel you’ve acquired significant wisdom?
“The old sage, har har har! Ah but you see I was playing 130 at 38, or something, in The Hunger. It comes easily to me now!
“I am now old enough – hurray! – to have a body of work, which is great. It means that I can dip in and pull out symbols and atmospheres and even processes and techniques that I’ve utilise before, and re-apply them in new situations. It’s the basic maxim that if you take something out of one context and put it in another, it takes on a whole different set of meanings.
“So with Outside, placing the eerie environment of Diamond Dogs city now in the Nineties gives it an entirely different spin. It was important for this town, this locale, to have a populous, a number of characters. I tried to diversify these really eccentric types as much as possible. Overall, a long-term ambition is to make it a series of albums extending to 1999 – to try to capture, using this device, what the last five years of this millennium feel like. It’s a diary within a diary. The narrative and the stories are not the content – the content is the spaces in between the linear bits. The queasy, strange, textures.”
Bowie wants to stage all this as a piece of “epic theatre”, hopefully with Einstein on the Beach director Robert Wilson, and with “a definite sensibility shift from when you went into the theatre. It’d probably be about five hours long, so you’d have to bring sandwiches”.
The work sounds paranoid and ominous, whereas you personally, or as personally as I’m ever going to get to know you, seem exuberant…
“Oh, I’ve got the fondest hopes for the fin de siècle. I see it as a symbolic sacrificial rite. I see it as a deviance, a pagan wish to appease gods, so we can move on. There’s a real spiritual starvation out there being filled by these mutations of what are barely-remembered rites and rituals. To take the place of the void left by a non-authoritative church. We have this panic button telling us it’s gonna be a colossal madness at the end of this century. And it WON’T be. The biggest problem we’ll have will be what to call it. Twenty-O-O? Twenty-O-Zero? Two Thousand? Well we lived through it; now what shall we call it?”
David Bowie openly admits that after the success of Let’s Dance gave him a mainstream audience in the early Eighties, he hit a quandary. “I succumbed, tried to make things more accessible, took away the very strength of what I do.” The Tin Machine period he puts down to “Reeves Gabrels shaking me out of my doldrums, pointing me at some kind of light, saying: be ADVENTUROUS again.” When it’s interpreted like this, it nearly makes sense. But not quite. “It did break down all the contexts for me. By the time it was over, nobody could put the finger on what I was any more. It was: what the fuck is he DOING?! I’ve been finding my voice, and a certain authority, ever since.”
“The acting,” chuckles Bowie, who has so much pop and so much art in his blood that it must be a riot in there, “is purely decorative. It’s just fun, it really is. It’s not something I seriously entertain as an ambition.
“The few things I’ve made that were successful were because I homed in on the directors, as they had something I wanted to know about. And just… curiosity. I wonder what Scorsese’s like – well you’ll find out, he’s offered you a role. Right! With somebody like that you don’t even question the role. You say – Scorsese? Yeah, I’m doing it.
“That’s the impetus for me. Whenever I CHOOSE ROLES, it’s usually a joke. I’ve now learned that my gut instinct is right – just go because you think the guy making it is interesting. And generally then I’ll have a better time and be able to live with the end result.
“I find it really boring, actually.”
A lot of hanging around and waiting?
“Yeah, I hate all that, y’know? I run out of film talk after a bit. People sitting around talking about what films they’ve just finished or are gonna be doing – the whole thing revolves around the INDUSTRY. People don’t seem to have another life outside of it – you think: Christ, can’t we talk about anything else except movies? Zzzzz…”
Playing Warhol, who you once claimed not to be able to tell apart from a silver screen, must’ve been fun though.
“Yeah, that was great ‘cos it was just ten days. I only had 7000 words, and once I got them in the right order, it was a doddle. I mean, a most challenging role”.
Once he revs up however, he’s full of praise for superstar painter Schnabel’s directorial debut – “the first film about an American painter, and it’s a BLACK painter. Not Pollock, or Johns or de Kooning – although John Malkovich as Pollock would’ve been stunning.”
This leads to anecdotes about a recent visit to Johannesburg (“accompanying my wife on a modelling gig”) and the “fucking sensational” exhibition Africa 95, which comes to Britain soon. “I got very evangelical about it. It has no pretensions of grappling with philosophical problems. It’s: can I eat? Can I stay in this house?
“They look on Basquiat as THEIR Picasso, who made it in a white world. I’m not sure even Julian realises the reverberations of his movie. It’s an informal, poignant story of a tragic life. How by tacit agreement an artist and society endeavour to demolish the artist himself. His own addictions are so much a part of his downfall. But then that’s one of the great occurrences of the day.
“If the film cocks up in the editing, I’ll be so angry at him ‘cos it’s going so well. The performances are wonderful.”
There follows a rather darling list of how well David knew the rest of the cast. “I’ve known Hopper, Dennis, for close on 20 years. Through good times and bad! And Gary Oldman I’ve known for maybe the last eight years. Chris Walken I’ve known FOREVER. And Willem Dafoe I worked with in the Scorsese movie, when… when he was Christ! Ha! He was hung up at the time.”
You washed your hands of him.
“I did! Ha ha! Got tired of him hanging about.”
In The Diary of Nathan Adler or the Art-Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue, a text which accompanies the new album, Bowie writes: “He didn’t do much after that. I guess he read a lot. Maybe wrote a whole bunch, I suppose. You never can tell what an artist will do once he’s peaked.”
“I tend to steal from high art and demean it to street level,” he smiles, apropos of nothing. “Brian [Eno] is the professor, and hasn’t changed a bit in 20 years – he’s STILL bald. Me, I’m the old limey queen.”
We’ve done everything bar scuba-diving, so we may as well discuss books.
“I’ve always been drawn to stream-of-consciousness. Ever since I was a kid. I felt more familiar, had more empathy, with people like Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg and Farlinghetti, and then Burroughs of course in the late Sixties. There’s a resonance in people like Thomas Hardy, that I appreciate, but I still find it hard work.”
“Yeah, y’know, I understand that it’s of its times, and that there are nuances in there I should ponder over. I’m just not sure I have the time!”
Yeah, there’s a lot of trees.
“I can read a LOT, mind you. On a good week I’ll get through three or four books. We are by tradition a literary nation. As can be seen by the way we revile all visual arts! And I’ve inherited that great love of literature, I love being told a story, being shown new ideas.
“But what I like about the stream-of-consciousness writers is – it’s the same reason why I would HOPE my audience likes MY work – that they belong to me more. There’s more room for interpretation. In a Hardy book the parameters of the narrative and its sensibility are dictated by the author. You have to follow his plan and get into his world the way he wants you to. I prefer to be allowed more latitude; something I can USE.
“I don’t know why I’m picking on Hardy. Jane Austen then. Alright, even later… who’ve we got at the moment? Oh, Amis, I can – well, he’s just funny. Peter Ackroyd is great. There’s a great mysticism in his work. Now who’s somebody who’s really stiff and hard work?”
You mean, like a Booker Prize winner?
“Oh! Yeah! Of course! Oh dear. Anita Brook… Brook.”
Um, Brookner? Hotel du Lac?
“Yeah, I mean something like that I have a real problem with. It really takes the aesthetic high ground and its all up there in the rarefied stratosphere. I’m sure it’s great art, but I can’t USE it, it doesn’t apply. It just shows me that woman has a very well-honed sensibilities, and I’m very pleased for her. But I need art that actually enriches my life in a very personal way. Something that I can USE. Something that’s FUNCTIONAL. And in its own way, interpretation is a function, it’s a function of the psyche. And I kind of hope that’s what my audience finds as one of the main things they can do with my… stuff. Ha ha ha!”
Fleetingly, when you’re talking to him, or more likely listening, the shafts of sunlight shimmy a little and the eyes do something or his profile does something and you’re thrown, your breath goes: wow, it’s David Bowie, who redirected the finest minds of my generation. He’s still recommending books about Mapplethorpe and revelling as a raconteur as hints are being dropped that it’s time for him to go make videos, and records, and films, and paintings, and CD ROMs, and things happen, and whoopee.
“Or”, he adds enigmatically, “they could bury it under dust.”
We’ll interpret that David Bowie line as we wish. We always do.