The Big Issue
8th December 1997
David Bowie has given up every vice in his life – except fags. So, does the drug still work? – Asks Jarvis Cocker.
Jarvis Cocker: I asked Damien why he wanted me to talk to you about smoking, and it seemed to be that you’d given up every other vice in your life, but you hadn’t given up smoking and he wondered why that was?
David Bowie: Oh, I see. Well I think I still do a lot of drugs, you know: caffeine and smoking, and I’m probably addicted to television and certain kinds of newspapers and art. Addiction comes in all sorts of forms, but the ones that were physically damaging, not so much to me but to the people around me, they had to go firstly. Then there’s cigarettes. Once Iman and I start having children I think they will have to go too. Do you really stand by the idea of living for a long time or do you instead want to fill a shorter life with maybe more interesting things? One makes a compromise between the two actually.
JC: I remember when I was growing up and my mother smoked and she used to say to me: “Go to the corner shop and buy me some cigs.”
DB: Yeah, I had exactly the same.
JC: And I used to say: “You know Mum, you’re killing yourself”. I really was against it, so it’s quite ironic that I’ve ended up smoking.
DB: Mine was a house of smokers as well, both parents a considerable number of cigarettes. I think it was Senior Service and then when my father had a better job it became Weights. And I’d steal his. I think it was the rite of passage through to adulthood that appealed to me, that was the thing about it.
JC: I’d like to ask you some specific questions about cigarettes. So I came up with 20.
DB: Oh my God…
JC: Well, I thought that was appropriate – there’s 20 cigarettes in a packet.
DB: Oh that’s very good – that’s a very nice way to conduct this. Are you smoking at the moment, by the way?
JC: No, but I’ve got a packet just in case I feel the urge.
DB: Well, I’ve got one on so…
JC: OK, I’ll join you then. So, can you remember the first brand, would that be Weights?
DB: Yes it was, but my father realised I was stealing his so I moved on to Dominos, I think they were called. You could buy them in one’s or two’s from the newsagents just down the road from the school and we all went down there to buy them. I also specifically remember trying the first menthol cigarettes, which was dread – I’ve never touched them again – on top of the number 410 green bus going to school one day. I did half a packet of them real fast. It was a long ride, about 20 or 30 minutes to get to school, and they made me sick as a dog. I was throwing up all morning. I’ve never touched them again.
JC: That’s quite weird, the first cigarette I ever had was a Consulate menthol cigarette. Maybe it’s because I thought they weren’t a real cigarette because they had a minty taste, so it was almost like a sweet or something.
DB: So what did you hope to get from it though? What do you really expect to get from cigarettes before you smoke?
JC: Well, this is it. You know, I never thought I’d end up smoking. I used to really give my mother a hard time about it and then it wasn’t until I got to the age of 20, 21.
DB: It was that late? Wow.
JC: Oh yeah, I was going out with a girl. We were out one night and we’d got to that stage that we were a bit bored of each other and so we were kind of wandering the streets wondering what to do. I suddenly thought it would be a really inappropriate thing to do to start smoking. So I went into a shop and bought a packet of Consulate and that’s it, that’s what started it.
DB: Smoking just to be boring. Well that’s interesting because I guess that’s one of the hundreds of reasons why one does smoke. You get the idea that it dulls anxiety if you’re going through anxious periods. You can also do it to stave off hunger and I think you also do them if you think it’s relaxing. You kind of think that you’ll become relaxed once you smoke it or that you’re in such a great kind of lazy mood that a cigarette would be just right now with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or whatever.
JC: Yeah, the hardest one to stop having is the one after you’ve just eaten.
DB: When you’re a kid it’s really a kind of perverse need to try something that’s risky, because it’s frowned upon by older people. Also because you know it’s inherently bad for you.
JC: I remember when I first started that I couldn’t believe it made me go dizzy and really light-headed.
DB: Yeah – I never understood why you just grit your teeth and carry on smoking just so you can get it right because it makes you so sick and feel so awful. It has to be what it symbolises and what it gives you of that “I’m old enough to have attitude”. With you it was different ‘cos you were 21, but I was still very gawky and awkward and wanting to find my attitude. Cigarettes sort of supplied it quite easily.
JC: So it was like a social movement?
DB: Yeah, very much. A fair amount of peer pressure. The guys that I hung around with and liked all smoked and I wanted to be in there.
JC: So, when you wake up in the morning, are you one of these people that reaches straight for the bedside table and lights up, or do you try to stave it off for as long as possible?
DB: I’ll stave it off until breakfast. At the end of breakfast when I’m having a cup of coffee I’ll have a cigarette. So it’s from pretty early on in the morning. In a general day I get through about 40 Marlboro Lights – which is a cut down from what I used to smoke, believe me. When I’m on the road I tend to drop down to about 20.
JC: I was going to ask you that – do they affect your voice?
DB: I think probably that I’d sing much better if I didn’t smoke. I’m sure of that actually. I’ve lost loads of notes from the top register with the years of smoking, but then someone suggested that smoking will often help people presume that they could be greater if they didn’t smoke. Which I kinda like – “well you know if I didn’t smoke of course I could get those top C’s”.
JC: I’ll quote some lyrics to you. “Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth” – am I getting this right? – “You pull on your finger and then a cigarette.”
DB: That was a sort of plagiarised line from Baudelaire which was something to the effect of life is a cigarette, smoke it in a hurry or savour it.
JC: I’ve heard Damien say that every time he has a cigarette he thinks about death. Do you go along with that?
DB: I can’t think of a time that I didn’t think about death. There again, I’ve been smoking all my life so it’s hard to not equate the two together. You know, I’m fairly easy-going about the length of life in a way – it’ll sort of happen when it happens. It sounds good anyway. But will Damien still smoke around his child?
JC: Eh, I don’t know actually. I’ll have to ask.
DB: That’s an interesting thing because that’s the area that worries me. That’s the area where I get a little righteous and moral about it because, over the past at least 10 or 15 years, it’s really come home to me what impact one’s own vices can have on other people and that really determines how I mistreat my own body. I try not to smoke around Iman that much but I’m not very good at that.
JC: Have you read ‘Smoking Is Sublime’? I’ve got a few quotes here: “They are sublime because they involve a confrontation with mortality.”
DB: Ah, that’s the thinking-of-death-as-you-smoke number.
JC: Mmm, that’s it, isn’t it? What about this one – Oscar Wilde: “A cigarette is the perfect type of the perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied, what more can one want? Each cigarette is an absolute failure, never providing the imagined fulfilment.”
DB: But I think you can apply that to nearly any of life’s pleasures. They all leave you unsatisfied because you try to reach that high every time. You always have to go back.
JC: You have to keep trying.
DB: You have to keep trying. You keep going for it. Not just to get the high but you’re hoping in desperation that one day the high that you do achieve will stay with you. But of course it never does, so in its own way it’s an avenue to insanity. It produces a rat syndrome, you know, where you just go round and round and round. Circularity.
JC: No one can ever accept the fact that life consists of a series of highlights and you can never really keep those highlights going.
DB: It’s plate-spinning.
JC: That’s the thing that makes them a pleasure.
DB: It’s wise not to get too euphoric or too melancholic. A balance in-between for me has always given me a much wider and easier passage through life. I find it’s such a disillusionment to get incredibly excited and happy about things, and that will not maintain. Also it’s quite psychotic to become like that. I mean it’s really depressed schizophrenia, when you go from those incredible heights to lows. I’ve done all of those and it really serves one badly.
JC: It’s like the Prozac argument, that the drug will level people out so they will never feel things very extremely at all.
DB: Right, but the other side of that is that it also reduces your ability to have emotional contact. People will not really pay quite such close attention to what their children are going through, or their wives or husbands, or whatever. They exist in a kind of Stepford Wife world, so there’s two sides. There’s two sides to everything, though, Jarvis. Don’t you feel that honestly in your system?
DB: Are we giving Damien what he wants, do you think?
JC: Oh God, I don’t know, and I don’t know what he wants. I don’t think he knows what he wants. So these are the last two questions I’ve got here.
JC: These are going back to a more basic level really. Which cigarette of the day would you say you enjoy most?
DB: Well, I have the workman-like habit of Marlboro Lights now, but in my past Gitanes were the ones that really I thought had it all. When I was working as an illustrator in advertising I went through four or five different kinds of exotic brands at that stage, trying to find the right brand to put me away from what other people smoked. But then when I went to France for the first time I found Gitanes and I liked them more than anything else because the illustrator was actually named on the packet. I think it was M Giout if I’m not mistaken, and that particular packet, the Gitanes packet, took me all through the Seventies. But they were so strong.
JC: Oh I know, I tried those and they’re not good.
DB: Yeah I know, you really had to try to work at it to get to enjoy it, but they get to become really addictive and it took me a long time. But then I went from those to Marlboro Reds. I went through the Eighties on those and around the time I started Tin Machine, around 1988, I realised I wasn’t getting the high notes at all, so I dropped down to Marlboro Lights. And I’ve stuck with them ever since actually. I should go even lighter, I suppose, because I know I’m going to have to give up sooner or later when the kid comes.
JC: You could try that Silk Cut white-packet stuff.
DB: Oh God, I’ve tried all that stuff and it just hasn’t got the kick, you know.
JC: Well, the thing that you find with those is they’ve got perforations in the filter and you unconsciously start putting your fingers over the perforations to kind of block the holes so you just get a little bit more.
DB: There was a brand that I tried in Russia when I first went over there on the Trans-Siberia called Sputnik, and they had a wonderful illustration on the thing. Illustrations really move me into buying cigarettes more than anything else. That was before I went on to good old fundamental Marlboro.
JC: I was put off Marlboro when somebody once had a conspiracy theory that they were…
DB: Oh, the KKK thing. Well the very easy thing about Marlboro is that they are actually available everywhere. There’s no way to avoid them, so once you are into a brand when you travel like we do, you kind of want one that you can get anywhere from Russia back to America to England, you know. Even though they’re made by the individual countries that package them, you just feel comfortable if you’ve got that one. You develop a certain kind of brand loyalty.
JC: In America, there are loads of no-smoking buildings and no-smoking bars and you often stand shivering outside on the streets in the middle of winter.
DB: Well yes – we think of ourselves as sometimes approaching a nanny state but I think it’s far more prevalent in the States. It’s been part of their history since prohibition onwards – the idea of telling people what they should be doing. Their assumption is that they know best. Within a rational, straightforward way they’re probably right, but I think you must have the choice to screw yourself. On the other hand, I do appreciate it is quite nice sometimes to have a meal without people smoking around you.
JC: But it’s going to make it more attractive to people.
DB: Oh yeah, absolutely. It will become a right little renegade thing to do. Although I must say at the moment smoking in LA I feel positively grimy, I no longer feel rebellious because I know it’s just outright hostility to me when I light up a cigarette. Especially when I’m in a house with people I know and respect and I light up a cigarette and they look at me as though I’m dirt. You think, God, it really has come home, this thing about not smoking, I feel like the lowest of the low with this damn thing.
JC: But do you resent that you’re made to feel that way?
DB: Yeah, I resent that my freedoms have been inhibited in that way, but on the other hand I am aware that it’s bad for other people.
JC: It seems to be a kind of contentious point about secondary smoking or passive smoking.
DB: Yeah, and I do understand, but there again have you ever tried to conduct a relationship on cocaine? I mean, what you do to the person is absolutely foul. It really is beyond tolerance, it’s dreadful. So few drugs don’t have an effect on the other person. Coffee so far seems to be OK.
JC: Yeah, you can still keep a relationship together then?
DB: I think you can get a bit irritable if you’ve had too much, but I think the sort of by-product of it isn’t ruined lives. I’ve not heard of many couples that were split apart by one’s addiction to coffee.
JC: It probably will happen if cigarettes get ground out of the way. So, my final question is: do you light your cigarettes with matches or a lighter?
DB: Wow. I used to light them with matches because it had a more theatrical effect, I think. But as my awareness that the cigarette doesn’t represent any particular attitude any more, it doesn’t have the potency of a symbol it used to have. I saw it once as a prop on stage, now I smoke on stage just because I need one. So now I’m quite happy with a Bic, which is pretty sort of fundamental. But I was aware of ritual and routine and theatricality with a cigarette when I was younger. I knew exactly what I was doing around the stage and the cigarette became symbolic of a certain kind of removed identity kind of thing, you know – that I don’t have to be singing these songs, I’m just doing you a favour. I think the symbolic cigarette has dropped way behind now. It’s just another bloody thing that I do.
JC: Well, you know, don’t worry about it.
DB: No, I must say I don’t. I’m not losing sleep.
JC: Right, well, that’s it.
DB: Well it’s really nice to talk with you, Jarvis.
JC: You know it’s for this Big Issue thing, don’t you?
JC: Thank you very much.
DB: And I hope I bump into you when I come back to England again.
JC: I’m sure we will do.
JC: Alright then.
JC: Bye bye.
DB: Bye bye.