by David Cavanagh / Q Magazine
Fifty years on earth. Thirty-three years in showbusiness. Approximately 25 of them “any good”. He’s had his highs. He had his lows. And he’s certainly had his share of rum haircuts. He is David “Dave” Bowie. In this exclusive birthday interview, he tells a delving David “Dave” Cavanagh, “I love being excited by what I do…”
Planet Earth is blue and on January 8 David Bowie will have been living on it for 5O years. Tributes and accolades arrived early. In the first two months of 1996, Bowie was inducted by David Byrne into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in New York. Then, he received the Outstanding Contribution To British Music award at the Brits in London. By November, he had completed work on his 21st studio album, Earthling. This year, David Bowie will become the first rock star to sell himself off on the Stock Market in a Bowie Bond issue scheme to be worth £30-50 million.
The day after his birthday, Bowie will give a charity concert at Madison Square Garden, where his four-piece band will be augmented by special guests including Lou Reed, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Robert Smith of The Cure. In the coming weeks Bowie also plans to read two recently published biographies of himself, Loving The Alien by Christopher Sangfroid and Living On The Brink by George Tremlett.
A particularly galvanized demicenturion, Bowie has put a great jolt of energy into the Earthling album, which comes out in February. Combining jungle and rock in often startling ways, Earthling has a non-concessionary stance the at takes several listens to become acclimatized to. And Bowie’s on-line fans are already deep in discussion on the official web site.
“Dear Mr. Bowie” wrote a woman called Crystal on December 2.”I wish to thank you for the imaginative ride through your music and thoughts. It has been both thought-provoking and a pleasure. PS, At one time I fancied changing my name to Crystal Japan.” An immediate response followed from someone claiming to be David Bowie: “Hallo darling. I think Crystal Clit would be a better choice, you icy bitch, Now bend over and prepare to be cornholed by a thin white duke with a thick white dong.”
“Oh, he’s back is he?” the real Bowie groans later that day “No, I usually post anonymously to get a better dialogue going.”
A better dialogue than that? Is there any? Anyway, however Bowie spends his 50th birthday (he spent his 40th ski-ing and can’t remember further back than that), he does not intend to monitor Earthling’s sales figures from the comfort of his Swiss home. Instead he is going to tour the hell out of it, hopping aboard the European festival circuit this summer, just like he did last summer. Bowie’s delight with the album – and with the musicians in his band – is so infectious that even his 25-year-old son Joe has remarked on it.
“He says, ‘God, you really like what you do, don’t you?”‘ Bowie reports with the laugh of a lifelong smoker. “But it does really give me a buzz – I love being excited by what I do. I’m still playing Earthling every day. I’ve not stopped enjoying it.”
IT IS EARLY SEPTEMBER, 1996 – A NEW York afternoon, and avid Bowie is at Looking Glass Studios on the ninth floor of a building on Broadway, where he and his new/old band are two-thirds of the way into the recording of this surprising Earthling thing.
There are four musicians in the band: drummer Zachary Alford, who’s previously worked with Bruce Springsteen and The B-52’s (he’s in the Love Shack video); bassist Gail Ann Dorsey; guitarist Reeves Gabrels who has played with Bowie since 1988; and keyboard genius Mike Garson, who looks a bit like Robert Morley and who recorded and toured with Bowie between 1972 and 1975.
They are taking a break and Garson is showing his bandmates some old photos of the mid-’70s Bowie line-up. There’s one of Garson with an afro. There’s one of Bowie at Radio City, New York, in November 1974, looking gaunt arid seasick. There’s one of the whole band together.
“Look at Luther!” Bowie laughs, spotting his former BVs bloke Vandross “Carlos Alomar. And who is this guy? I don’t remember him.”Garson names him as Emir Ksasan, the bass player who preceded George Murray. As Dorsey and Gabrels crane to see, Bowie recognizes guitarist Earl Slick (whom he calls Frank), David Sanborn and Warren Peace. Then his eyes darken as he notices the imprint of his old management company at the bottom of the photo. “MainMan,” he sighs. “Fucking MainMan.”
He brings out a slide which he is considering using for artwork on the new album. It was taken in 1974 at UCLA with a Kirlian camera, which photographs energy fields. The left half of the slide shows the circumference of Bowie’s forefinger immediately before taking cocaine. The, other half of the photo was taken 30 minutes later. (In fact, he has written helpfully on the back: “Just before doing coke” and “30 mins later”). In the “before” photo, Bowie’s finger is a neat circle with a little outer rim of darkness. In the: “after” photo, however, his finger has an angry, frazzled halo, as thick as a washer. This was clearly no average line of cocaine.
“Not in 1974 it wouldn’t have been, no,” Bowie admits. “Highly dangerous camera it was, too. It would regularly explode. Nick Roeg wanted to use some examples of it in Man Who Fell To Earth, but it wouldn’t film well enough.”
So saying, Bowie snaps out of the mid-’70s, leaps to his feet and takes Q into the next-door studio to hear some rough mixes of new tracks. While the songs play, he’s constantly out of his seat, explaining how certain of the effects were generated (“no samplers”), or where a solo will go. He points at the speakers whenever there’s a good bit coming. Seven Years In Tibet is his current favourite: it has pile driving drums, an itchy saxophone sound, and it has just been added to the live set.
It was while enjoying himself on the festival roundabout last summer that Bowie decided to keep the momentum going. As soon as the tour elided, he and the band immediately hit the studio, This week they’re back on the road, playing a four-date tour of small clubs which sold out instantly. Meanwhile, Bowie, is back to an album a year, and proud of it. “It’s funny, you know, when I was a kid, we would do two albums a year,” he recalls. “Two albums a year! And I loved it.”
Bowie now believes that he is the only 50 year-old in British rock whose music really challenges the listener. While his superstar profile might seeing to align him with cosy old Rod Stewart and the grand old Rolling Stones, he describes his current attitude as that of a “a not terribly retrospective person, who is really enthusiastic about life and really keen to be different from everybody”.
Musically, his tastes are in jungle, in nerve shredding guitar, in computer cut-up lyrics and, of course the avant-garde In this sense, at least, he is the same David Bowie who made Lodger and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Those songs from his illustrious past which he sees fit to play live – which include “Heroes”, The Man Who Sold The World, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) and All the Young Dudes – are often rearranged so violently they defy recognition until he starts the vocal.
“It’s unfortunate when musicians qualify their work with, Now that I’m married, now that I’ve got kids, I’ve got to be more creatively pedestrian,” he muses. “Whereas there’s people like myself, Neil Young and Scott Walker who move with the way life flows.”
For Bowie, this has resulted in the following developments: a warn embracing of jungle and drum ‘n’ bass; forming a touring band of very dissimilar musicians and personalities, whose common thread is that they each “excite” their leader; taking a more active role on the youngsters’ gig circuit (for example, playing the Phoenix Festival as opposed to Wembley Stadium); and not really bothering about how many old-style fans he might lose on the way. Convinced that his current band out-hammers even The Prodigy, be is now talking of playing raves in Europe this year.
“I know what happens when I play the classics,” he sneers, a little impatiently, “I know the outcome. So why would I want to do it again? Other than for financial remuneration, which frankly I don’t need. There’s a few of us now reaching our fifties and sixties, and I don’t want to throw my chance to experiment away, You see, once you’ve gone so far, you can’t turn back. And I’ve come that far. I’m there. I’m in my land, I’m doing it.” He catches himself up with a laugh.
“In ten years time, when I’m playing to halls with no audience whatsoever, my contemporaries can turn round and say, Well, that’s the reason we didn’t do what you did. But we’ll see. At least I’ll have the chance to see how far you can go in this life.”
It’s the following night, Bowie’s tour bus is heading back to New York from Boston, where he and the band have just played the penultimate date of their club tour.
The show was a strange affair. Loud and punishing in places, it focused heavily on 1. Outside and new songs. The crowd, with an average age of perhaps 28, was visibly much hotter for songs like Breaking Glass and Moonage Daydream. Under Pressure, played faithfully like the record (with Dorsey doing the Freddie Mercury bits), received the loudest ovation. Meanwhile, one girl held aloft a bouquet of flowers for 20 minutes continuously, until Bowie finally acknowledged her in Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps): “What a beautiful flower garden… lavvly blossoms”
While still a terrific singer, on stage Bowie mover, with a gaucheness that ill-fits the metallic pulse of the music. There’s a bit of mime, a few hand-claps at waist level… ooh, dear. In the quincunx din of his all-devouring band, he somehow seems a spare part, a piggy in the middle, draped in a hugely garish Union Jack frock-coat when, for all its relevance to the music, he might as well be sporting a Stove-pipe hat. It’s strange: fronting his own group, singing his own songs, the legendary David Bowie is the one person on stage who looks at odds.
But, on his coach home, Bowie is very pleased with the audiences response, particularly to Seven Years In Tibet. He comes forward to the front lounge of the bus for a chat, He is wearing only a white terry bath robe and his voice is hoarse. Corinne “Coco” Schwab, his PA-cum manageress and close friend for 20 years, tells him that tomorrow nights show in New York will be the first anniversary of the start of the tour, They’ve been on the road for a year. Excited, Bowie tells her he wants to play at a Techno club immediately after the gig, (Tonight, he has inexhaustible stamina. Tomorrow common sense will prevail. There will be no techno club).
Does he feel that the new album is as adventurous and ground-breaking as albums like Low, “Heroes” and Lodger?
“I don’t know if, it feels like that,” he ponders. “But it feels really good-hearted and uplifting.” It’s hardly comforting, though. “No? Blimey, I get all happy when I hear it, How do you hear it?” A pounding, shrieking, relentless sort of sound. “Golly” He thinks. “It’s not difficult music, it really isn’t – If the audiences can just open their minds to it.”
What are the songs about?
“I guess the common ground with all the songs is this abiding need in me to vacillate, between atheism or a kind of gnosticism,” he explains, slowly. “I keep going backwards and forwards between the two things, because they mean a lot in my life. I mean, the church doesn’t enter into my writing, or my thoughts; I have no empathy with any organized religions. What I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with the way I live and my demise. And that period of time from today until my demise – is the, only thing that fascinates me.”
You’re already thinking about your death?
“I don’t think there’s been a time when I haven’t” he laughs blithely. “It was ennobled with a romantic, cavalier attitude when I was much younger, but it was still there. Now it’s measured with rationality. I know that this life is finite and I have to accept that.”
What’s stopping you from believing in an afterlife?
“I didn’t say I didn’t,” he says quickly. “I believe in a continuation, kind of a dream-state without the dreams. Oh, I don’t know. I’ll come back and tell you.”
DID THE YEARS WHEN YOU TOOK A lot of drugs do any lasting damage?
“I’ve been a really lucky sod,” he admits, shaking his head,” I’m extremely fit. But then I’ve never had a brain scan. I remember reading about the effects of vast amounts of amphetamines and cocaine, and the holes they leave in your brain. They specified the amounts you had to take to produce, Sizable holes, amounts I far exceeded. I thought, Oh God, what the hell’s going on up there?”
Listening to the albums you made in the early ’70s, it seemed that you didn’t think there would be a 1996 or a 1997.
“Oh didn’t I? When did I stop thinking that, then?”
It was all very apocalyptic.
“Oh really?” he chuckles. “Well, I know what you mean. But a lot of the negativity when I first started was about myself. I was convinced I wasn’t worth very much. I had enormous self-image, problems and very low self-esteem, which I hid behind obsessive writing and performing. It’s exactly what I do now except I enjoy it now. I’m not driven like I was in my twenties. I was driven to get through life very quickly.”
Did there come a realisation in middle age that you weren’t the most important person on the planet?
“No, it was, in fact the antithesis of that. I thought I didn’t need to exist. I really felt so utterly inadequate. I thought the work was the only thing of value. Now I’m starting to quite like me. You know, we really should continue this conversation with… people who talk about that stuff, I don’t really…”
Did you know, growing up, that you shared a birthday with Elvis Presley?
“I was absolutely mesmerized by it,” he grins. “I couldn’t believe it. He was a major hero of mine. And I was probably stupid enough to believe that having the same birthday as him actually meant something.”
You saw him play in New York in 1971.
“I did. I came over for a long weekend. I remember coming straight from the airport and walking into Madison Square Garden very late. I was wearing all my clobber from the Ziggy period and I had great seats near the front. The whole place just turned to look at me and I felt like a right cunt. I had brilliant red hair, some huge padded space suit and those red boots with big black soles. I wished I’d gone for something quiet, because I must have registered with him. He was well into his set.”
DO YOU REMEMBER WHERE THE FIRST British date of the Ziggy Stardust tour was?
“Ooh… my God. I really don’t know. Aylesbury?”
It was at The Toby Jug in Tolworth, between Surbiton and Cheam.
“Ha ha haaa! Oh, that’s perfect. Ziggy at the Toby. It was probably a pub. Things moved quite fast in those days, but Ziggy was a case of small beginnings. I remember when we had no more than twenty or thirty fans at the most. They’d be down at the front and the rest of the audience was indifferent. And it feels so special, because you and the audience kid yourselves that you’re in on this big secret. It’s that English elitism and you feel kind of cool. It all gets so dissipated when you get bigger.
Which of your old albums do you listen to?
“Not Ziggy,” he laughs. “Actually, I started listening to Low again which I heard Trent Reznor was a big fan of it. I went back to it to find out why and I started to hear the breaking down of the drum sounds and obvious signposts to the way he writes. It was fairly instructive. And what a damn good album it was. I also think Station To Station is great. I’ve listened to it a few times”
Exactly how true is the story that you can’t remember making Station To Station?
“Very true. I would say a lot of the time I spent in America in the ’70s is really hard to remember, (sighs) in a way that I’ve not seen happen to too many other artists. I was flying out there – really in a bad way. So I listen to Station To Station as a piece of work by an entirely different person. Firstly, there’s the content, which nobody’s actually been terribly clear about. The Station To Station track itself is very much concerned with the stations of the cross, All the references within the piece are to do with the Kabbala (a set of mystical instructions supposedly given to Moses on Mount Sinai and often said to have links with ritual magik). It’s the nearest album to a magik treatise that I’ve written. I’ve never read a review that really sussed it. It’s all extremely dark album. Miserable time to live through, I must say.”
What would have happened if one of your unsuccessful singles in the mid-’60s, such as Rubber Band or You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving, had been a huge hit?
“Ha! I’d probably be in Les Miserables now. I would have been doing stage musicals I could almost guarantee it. Oh, I’m sure I would have been a right little trouper on the West End stage. (Laughing) I’d have written ten Laughing Gnomes, not just one.”
He pauses to tuck into a sandwich. In the rear lounge of the bus sits a group that includes Schwab, Dorsey, Alford and Garson. The latter is a phenomenal keyboard player who brings a strong visual presence to the show. He’d not seen Bowie for 18 years until he was summoned to play on the 1993 album Black Tie White Noise and The Buddha Of Suburbia.
“We used to call him Garson The Parson in the Spiders, poor love,” Bowie grins, “When he was into Scientology. But it did cause us one or two problems. I was thinking about having him back in the band and the thing that really clinched it was hearing that he was no longer a Scientologist.”
Garson is steeped in classical and jazz music (he’s made 10 solo albums) and tends to stay out of the jungle area on Bowie’s new songs. At soundchecks he executes astonishing flourishes of concert piano without even looking at the keyboard. He is enjoying working with his old boss again.
“I felt that spiritually he had advanced,” he notes of meeting Bowie again after so many years. “He was much more calm and stable to work with on a daily basis. His actions were a lot more sane and rational, But the essence of who he was, as in artist was exactly the same.”
Is the new music completely different to play compared to the 1974 stuff?
“Well, David’s music still has the essence of rock but it’s actually rather more advanced. There’s a lot of layers and complexity on both 1. Outside and the new album. Reeves you know, views guitar playing almost like a reinventor of the instrument.”
Reeves Gabrels, a guitarist whose squealing style antagonizes as many people as it pleases, is arguably the most important musical influence on Bowie over the last 10 years. And he’s probably the most controversial musician ever to play in a Bowie band. It was Gabrels who urged him in 1987 to rethink his direction entirely.
“He knew that it had gone wrong after Let’s Dance,” claims Gabrels, who met Bowie through his wife, Sarah, a publicist on the Glass Spider tour. Gabrels was a virtuoso guitarist from Boston whose love of Bowie’s music had been curdled (as had most people’s) by the poor quality of Tonight and Never Let Me Down. Bowie, too, was bored rigid by these albums.
“I was something I never wanted to be,” Bowie admits. “l was a well-accepted artist. I had started appealing to people who bought Phil Collins, albums. I like Phil Collins as a bloke, believe me, but he’s not on my turntable twenty four hours a day. I suddenly didn’t know my audience and, worse, I didn’t care about them:”
Full of doubt and loathing for his increasingly bland music, Bowie scarcely bothered turning up to the recording sessions for Never Let Me Down.
“I was letting the guys arrange it, and I’d come in and do a vocal,” he recalls, ” and then I’d bugger off and pick up some bird.”
Privately, he saw only one escape route: retirement. This became his intention.
“More than anything else, I thought that I should make as much money as I could, and quit, “he, confesses. “I didn’t think there was any alternative, I thought I was obviously just an empty vessel and would end up like everyone else, doing these stupid fucking shows, singing Rebel Rebel until I fall over and bleed.”
NO WONDER HE’S SO GRATEFUL TO the dry-witted 39-year old Gabrels. The guitarist told Bowie that the answer lay in reinvention. Bowie,who had reinvented himself between five and seven times in the 1970s alone, installed Gabrels as his new lead guitarist and first performed publicly with him in April 1988 at a benefit gig at the ICA in London. Within a year they had formed Tin Machine, a vilified and soon abandoned quartet which blew a lot of Bowie’s cobwebs away and cheered him up considerably.
Nine years later, it is still Gabrels’s guitar playing that sorts out the men from the boys in a David Bowie audience. Some, of what he plays sounds downright horrible. Or is it genius? Or is it both at once? And couldn’t he just put a sock in it occasionally? As knowledgeable and enthusiastic discussing techno as he is Aerosmith, Gabrels is part-intellectual and part-madman.
A few weeks ago he went to collect Bowie at his hotel. Nothing unusual there, except that Gabrels was wearing a full size Tigger (out of Winnie The Pooh) suit at the time. Bowie came out of the lift and laughed so much he walked into a wall. He is enchanted by Gabrels.
“I like players who don’t try and prove what great guitarists they are, but try and show you who they are as people,” drools Bowie. “Maybe give you a little clue to the cracks in their psyche. And Reeves is a good man, he really is, I just feel happy with him.”
“You gotta make your choice,” Gabrels will declare. “Commercial survival is Rod Stewart.
Artistic survival is reinvention. Do you play Las Vegas or do you want to do something vital?
‘That’s what I think. But then, I’m a bad influence.”
“HAVE YOU MET LULU?, ASKS GARSON, who toured with her after her 1974 hit version of Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World. “She’s a sweetheart.”
The Bowie bus is two hours from New York. Garson soon falls asleep, while the rest of the party, including Bowie, watch a video of All You Need Is Cash, a TV documentary about the financial affairs of The Beatles. It’s fairly critical of John Lennon, Bowie’s old friend John Lennon, which doesn’t impress him. He keeps tutting and shaking his head. And when biographer Philip Norman makes a glib comment about Lennon’s relationship with Yoko Ono, Bowie turns indignant:
“Shaaaatup! Who the fuck are you?”
But Bowie is a happy man. He’s got his band together, all in the same room on the one bus and he loves them. There isn’t a single group world wide that he fears. While he can still talk respectfully – and does – of his classic rhythm sections of the 1970s, or the wonderful bass playing of Herbie Flowers, or the entertaining stories of Rick Wakeman (whom he now hears is a very good friend of Norman Wisdom), you can tell that these people rarely figure in his thoughts. He loves his new band too much.
“I care about People now,” he concludes. “I never used to, probably because I never cared about myself. But I really think I care about people now – about whether they’re in pain or whether they’re alright.”
At last, the bus pulls up outside the Essex House Hotel in New York, where Bowie and his band are staying.
Some disembark, but not David Bowie or Reeves Gabrels. Still glowing a faint orange in their stage make-up from the Boston gig, they insert a Prodigy cassette into the tape machine. And with the after hours Central Park traffic drifting past their drawn curtains, they get the all-night rave underway.