by David A. Keeps / Details
I am standing on a SoHo street corner with David Bowie and he’s looking very strangely at me. “Go ahead,” he says, pushing his sizable pink protuberance toward my hand. “Squeeze it.”
I have been staring at it and he’s clocked me, so I guess now I’m obliged. I reach over and give it a gentle tweak. It looks real, but it feels . . . spongy.
“Oh it’s amazing,” he says of the prosthetic nose that helps transform him into a dead ringer for Andy Warhol. “In this heat, I sweat so much that when I take it off it’s like Victoria Falls.”
Bowie is in New York City filming Basquiat, the biography of the late ’80s artist Jean Michel Basquiat, directed by ’80s art star Julian Schnabel. Inside his trailer, Bowie shows me a Polaroid of himself as Warhol. “This one,” he announces, “has the proper deer-caught-in-the-headlights quality.” He passes me photos of his own paintings and tells me about articles he’s written for Modern Painters. “I’m thinking in a different way now. I guess I’m not as self-judgmental. Now, whatever I paint I show, whatever I write I get published, whatever music I make I release.” Accordingly, he has embraced a sense of recklessness and danger in his artistic endeavors. “I think working with Brian Eno had a lot to do with understanding that ability. He would say, `You know, art is somewhere where you can crash your plane and walk away from it.'”
Bowie has made a new record, Outside, the first he has made with Brian Eno since 1979’s Lodger. It is a fascinating plane crash of an album, filled with noise and jazz, odd pop melodies, and a Kurt Weill-meets-William Burroughs vibe. The next day he invites me to his New York office to hear it. The rooms are done up in ’80s moderne: black leather couches and Mondrian walls. David has thoughtfully prepared notes and computer-generated album artwork for me. Outside is a concept record, the first installment of a proposed trilogy based on a short story Bowie wrote about an art-murder detective named Nathan Adler. The songs are linked with spoken interludes by different characters, all portrayed by Bowie, who uses computers to create each new voice. As the title track begins to swell, he whispers in my ear, “All mixed metaphors are strictly intentional.” He takes a seat, enjoys one Marlboro after another, closes his eyes, and taps his foot lightly to the discordant rhythms of “A Small Plot of Land.” There are some rousing moments, from the world-weary balladry of “The Motel” to the Talking Heads-style funk of “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” but Outside is a sprawling and ambitious work, with twenty selections, and hard to take in on a summer Saturday afternoon. Toward the end, my eyelids are getting heavy. I feel sleepy, very sleepy…. When it’s over, I want some elucidation.
Who is Nathan Adler?
I have no idea. You tell me. I’m sure I will have so much feedback on exactly who all these people are.
Well, that’s what people do — they interpret you, don’t they?
And I think that’s how it should be in God’s universe.
What’s the hardest thing about being David Bowie?
That’s an extraordinary question. I wouldn’t even know how to answer. How hard is it to be Connie Chung, I wonder. That’s a wonderful kitschy little question, but I’m delighted you asked so that I could explore my feelings about it.
Don’t you ever think that sometimes it’s a chore being you because of expectations that exist . . .
I don’t have any expectations.
No, I mean expectations that are placed on you.
. . . And I’m indifferent to other people’s. They droppeth away as rain off my skin, as water off a duck’s ass.
You have characterized some of your wild behavior in the ’70s as dysfunctional. Wasn’t that just a part of being young?
Without a doubt. Looking back over my quite long road, I see it as a perfectly natural function of adaptation. Some of it I now feel is not so radically damaging as one thinks. I don’t think I would’ve changed a thing in my life.
Even though there were periods where you obviously suffered?
Absolutely. I think suffering is really good for one. I see it as part of this colossal kaleidoscope of emotional characteristics that all have to be savored. There’s a clarification that only age brings. It can’t be felt and understood and it is impossible for an older guy like me, approaching fifty, to inform a younger person of what changes you go through emotionally and spiritually. And those changes are glorious. They’re helping me understand the quality of life that I want now. I try in a fairly disciplined manner to make sure that I can reach that daily zenith. I mean, if I get through a week and don’t have several interesting thoughts, then I feel as though I’ve had a bit of a failure, that there’s nothing much on the notepad.
Well, mine’s full. See that recent cover of Newsweek?
Bisexual chic — isn’t it the dick as fashion? It seems to be quite the thing. I now expect to see Extreme Olympics with skydiving, bungee jumping, and bisexuality as the three major events. How do you feel being, excuse the phrase, dragged in as a seminal force?
My God, I was paddling in that pool twenty-five years ago! It’s just silly, and I think it’s also dangerous to make fashions out of sexuality, because then there’s always an opposite swing.
When you say you were paddling in that pool, were you hoping to make a splash? I mean, the conventional wisdom now is that it was more a statement to create a sensation.
Yes, I suppose one would see it that way. When I was actually declaring my bisexual status, I realized it had a kind of weight. Now it seems almost commonplace. I think I was driven more than anything else by the idea that I didn’t want people later on in my life coming out of the woodwork saying, “Oh, you know he was a queer, don’t you?” So I thought, Well, I’ll fuck you now rather than be fucked over later.
How sincere a statement was it, though? Were you truly bisexual?
Of course. But so much was made of it, and the one thing that was really hideous was that during the late Ziggy Stardust period I was thought of as some sort of banner waver for it. I refused to be a banner waver for anything or anybody, and I did not want everything that I was doing to be purely colored by my sexuality. I was dealing in a very primitive way with a very new area of public perception. I made as many mistakes as I made positive moves, but that’s all right because that’s what I did and those were the times and that’s now the history of me. And that’s great.
What do you think you learned about men by being intimate with them?
That most of them have never read John Rechy. I thought that City of Night was one of the greatest pieces of gay literature ever written. In fact, a magazine in Britain asked me the two most influential books I read as a young guy and I cited City of Night and On the Road. On the Road instructed me that I no longer had to live in South London. City of Night told me what I’d find once I moved out.
What about queer activists who grew up with you as a role model and now feel betrayed by you?
You know something? Whatever I do, wherever I go, someone somewhere feels betrayed. I’m not singing this song, I’m not wearing these kinds of clothes, my sexuality seems to now be polarized toward heterosexuality. But it’s what I am, it’s why I am — that’s why I represent this word “chameleon.” I think we live in a fully hybridized world where there is no such thing as an absolute. I’m not somebody that you can put in a box and describe in five words. And I don’t think anybody else is, as much as they try in their Apollonian nature to identify themselves and place themselves in what they believe is their station in life. I do not and refuse to have a station in life. (laughs loudly) I go from station to station.
Perhaps that is the hardest part of being David Bowie.
No, it’s not. I enjoy every single day in my life. I have fabulous relationships, and I really feel sorry for people who have problems with me. Because I’m so easy to understand. I make my culture daily. My choices are made from the shirt that I wear — which will describe something about my fantasy of how my day will be — to the chair I sit in. (points to a hideous pink club chair) I would not pick that chair today. Why not? Because I don’t have an empathy with what it represents. I will choose a chair that maybe has a kind of a Bauhaus feel because I feel today that represents my very focused and clear perspective. I create my culture daily, we all do. That’s part of the excitement of being alive.
That’s a lovely way to look at things.
It’s the only way to look at things, and that’s an absolute.
See! And you just said that there weren’t any. So tell me, what kind of man calls his son Zowie?
David Bowie, I suspect. It was a very pop thing at the time. After Zowie, I gave him Joey because I was trying to keep him out of the glare of publicity. More recently he’s gone back to his actual Christian name, Duncan.
People seem to think you’re very domesticated these days.
What does that mean?
(sighs) He seems so very married. That’s true. I adore my marriage. I’m blissfully happy. I really want to nurture this particular relationship for the rest of my life. It’s gorgeous.
What’s it like waking up with someone who is, no offense, prettier than you?
(incredulously) Oh, really! You know something, I’ve had relationships with some extremely beautiful women, absolute corkers. Iman is indeed very beautiful, but that is not really . . . well, I don’t want to call it the bonus. It’s what she is inside that’s ultimately the most important to me.
You appeared on the cover of Architectural Digest in a sarong. Explain, please.
Which did you find more confusing, the fact that I was wearing a sarong or the fact that I was on the cover of Architectural Digest?
The sarong. Designers have tried to float those down the runway in the last few years.
Well, yes, they try and float everything down the runway at some time or another, but then I’ve usually worn it already. The sarong is just a wonderful garment. I’ve been going to Indonesia for about twelve years, and sarongs to me are almost second nature when the sun comes up.
What is the greatest headache of modern living?
People who want to plunge back into the ’50s. Like there is some kind of evolved social form that is necessary to resurrect, otherwise we will all go to hell in a handbasket. Wishing to reconstruct society in the image of extreme blacks and whites, so everything is a known quantity and it’s quite easy to divide it between what’s good and bad, right and wrong. That kind of radical authoritative thinking is very disruptive. Absolutely horrendous. It’s philistine.
Some of the ’50s cars look nice, though.
They are kind of groovy, I’ll give you that.