Still Bowie after all these years

by Rod Usher / TIME Magazine

10th February 1997

The omens for rock ‘n’ roll fame were less than propitious: his surname was Jones and his suburb Brixton, one of London’s least privileged. The day of his birth, January 8, had already been booked by history: Elvis beat him to it by a dozen years. He was insecure, thin as a 45 r.p.m. record and, though this might be more help than hindrance in the world of rock music, there was a lode of insanity running through his family.
When he was 12, fate took another swipe when young Jones tried to charm the girlfriend of a schoolmate. His friend, George, found out and smacked him in the left eye, leaving its pupil enormously dilated and its vision permanently reduced. But those mismatched eyes, a more cutting surname, an inimitable voice and lyrics from the heart’s outer space enabled David Bowie to overcome the omens. On the way to turning 50 last month–an event marked by a concert at Madison Square Garden, with schoolmate George among the 20,000 in attendance–he has also survived the white heat of drug addiction and a creative black hole.

The latest of Bowie’s more than 30 albums, Earthling, was released in Europe last week and is out this week in the U.S. It will again have rock’s cognoscenti arguing from the two poles of Bowie-watching/listening: he’s a phony cross-dresser who cultivated identity crises into a cash crop; or, half a century and half a dozen personalities away from Brixton, he is again at the edge that separates cereal rock from cerebral rock.

At the Manhattan recording studio where he’s at work on the sound track for a TV film of the Madison Square Garden gig, Bowie’s must-be-graying hair is colored the carrot red of some of the creatures he has inhabited, their names part of his lore: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane (a lad insane), the Thin White Duke, etc. He is affable, articulate and voluble. When he gets going on a subject that interests him you begin to believe of his best-known song, Space Oddity, that, yes, Major Tom could hear him, he just couldn’t get a word in. Journalists, however, can cause him to purse those expressive lips. Some of his fellow Englishmen enjoy stripping Bowie’s paint. The singer listens in silence to some examples from one of them, Ian Penman, writing in the British daily Guardian: “[Bowie is] a man who, having run out of quick-change Mr. Mad roles, falls back on the detritus of his accumulated simulations … For all his cultivated image over the years of itchy schizy fragmentation [Bowie] is at heart a singular kind of control freak, as anyone who has been allowed to interview him will testify.” Sucking in some more Marlboro Light, Bowie replies: “Good job Mr. Penman doesn’t know me, or he’d be really hostile.” His face loosens. “I’ve had an extraordinary life, coming from my background. I’ve got nothing but thanks for everything I’ve been allowed to do, got away with, survived. Right now I’m probably more satisfied with day-to-day life than at any time. Having a press is a small price to pay.”

Reeves Gabrels, Bowie’s lead guitarist and collaborator for the past 10 years, dismisses the idea of a spent, control-freak singer. It was Gabrels who probably saved him from the former claim, and Bowie says of him, for once awkward with words: “He definitely is probably my best buddy,” adding that they like to go around galleries together “talking…all day long about painting.” Gabrels modestly says it is overstatement to suggest he rescued his friend’s declining career. But Bowie says it. The need arose because of the subtle rule of art that nothing exceeds like success. Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance was a huge hit, his biggest, but with it the edgy cult performer began to flounder in the mainstream. Crowds at his concerts soared towards 100,000. A 1987 tour drew audiences totaling well over two million, and what they wanted was repetition of his easy hits, not mind-stretching new songs. Bowie’s muse wilted under the commercial heat of stardom, and he says of that period: “I was ready to quit. I was becoming a jukebox.”

At that time, Gabrels was playing with small-time American bands influenced by the Bowie of the 1970s. “Reeves was looking at me and thinking, ‘What has he done to himself?'” says Bowie. “So he chanced his arm, told me I was really screwing up. And for this old chap, that was like a kick up the backside. I thought, he’s right. I don’t have to retire, I can go back to doing what I actually enjoy. And I did!”

What Bowie enjoys doing might be called surrock, a style that bravely risks sliding into schlock. He welds surreal, almost random, lyrics to muscular music that has recently picked up rock’s jungle, techno and industrial trends, the last being the co-opting of “music” made by machinery. (Gabrels tells of hearing some street music from a distance in New York; when he found the source of the “band” it turned out to be the malfunctioning motor of a parked refrigerated truck, plus the “metronomic” sound of a builder’s lift carrying material up some scaffolding.)

Prominent among Bowie’s own influences are James Joyce and William Burroughs, who, as he puts it, proved “the image and the sound of a word hold as much inherent information as its dictionary meaning.” He explains how he writes many of his songs: “I’ll shuffle two or three pieces of information, say straightforward descriptive paragraphs about something that interests me, a poem, some sentences cut from a magazine article. I retype it all into a computer, and let it have its way. It chews them up into two or three-word segments, reunites them and spits them out again. There are no rules about what I do then. You are fairly rational about the subject matter, then it goes into the world of the ethereal, you get lost. You’re back in the Minotaur’s cave, and you’ve got to find the thread and get out of there.”

On Earthling, the thread connecting image, sound and meaning at times appears tenuous. On one song, Looking for Satellites, Bowie chants a chorus of apparently isolated words–nowhere, shampoo, TV, comeback, Boyzone–but its theme of “where-do-we-go-from-here?” is more haunting with each hearing. On another track, Little Wonder, he and his computer make a self-mocking reference to his brief stumble along Buddhism’s path: “Sit on my karma, Dame Meditation.” Bowie describes his work as “a strange manipulation of the threads of musical culture. It might be the perennial magpie approach, but it’s what I do, and I enjoy it. I’m not Elton John. I’m not Neil Young.”

One glittering thought the magpie pinched for Earthling is Bertrand Russell’s argument that humans are ridiculously obsessed with wanting certainty rather than knowledge. “He was right, mean old bastard that he was,” says Bowie. “As you get older, you become more desperate for certainty. Or, you relax your hold on the idea of ever acquiring it and enjoy the process of gaining information. I’m quite happy with the latter. What-is-my-purpose? doesn’t hang so heavy in my sky.”

What remains a weight, though no longer an unbearable one, is the mental illness that tore at the fabric of his family. Bowie’s older half-brother Terry, a schizophrenic, killed himself in 1985, a short time after Bowie had begun talking to doctors about ways that might enable him to live outside a mental hospital. Apart from the “if-only” and “what-if” guilt about his brother’s death, Bowie was dogged by the fear that his own hold on sanity might be slight. “It doesn’t pain me too much to talk about my family now,” he says quietly. “I just have to face up to the fact that we’re all pretty fragile on my mother’s side. We’re a funny lot.”

Was there a turning point from that fear? “Well it helped an awful lot when I stopped doing drugs. If I was in the line of fire in the first place, they probably increased the number of bullets passing me by. When I was about 35, I realized I had to begin a disciplined retreat from the idea of falling into a mental abyss, that I actually had to pull myself away from that kind of negativity.” Today, Bowie doesn’t do any drugs, not even alcohol, getting high enough on his artistic life and that shared with his second wife, Somalian former model Iman.

Bowie is also optimistic about a group he has observed carefully during decades of performance: young people. His own son, Joe, wisely shed the name his parents lumbered him with–Zowie. He’s also heeded the lyrics of Kooks, an embarrassingly bad song his father sang a few days after his birth: “If you stay with us you’ll grow up pretty kooky, too.” Joe, now 25 and taking a doctorate in philosophy at an American university, helped out his dad as a cameraman among the crowd at the Madison Square Garden concert. Says prodigal father Bowie of Joe’s generation: “I get the feeling they will go carefully with what we’ve left them, that they see our rubble as building bricks. There’s something quite creative in their approach. It’s not as ideal-ridden as ours. Mind you, young people have made a huge movement towards the green element in politics. I think they maybe got hip to McLuhan without reading him, and are saying, we’ve seen the planet, we want to keep it and make it better. I think they’ve dug that.”

Of his own future, Bowie hasn’t a clue what he’ll be doing at 60. But it’s safe to bet it will be in his own stream, not the main one. Asked about sales of Outside, he says: “Oh, my regular 45 to 47 copies…that’s not including family and friends! Michael Jackson can definitely rest easy.” Pressed, he says over the years his records tend to average a million copies, “a distinction I seem to share with Bob Dylan. I honestly don’t know who my audience is. Maybe there’s this very rich man who just buys them all?”

Bowie’s minders interrupt to whisk him back into the editing studio. He politely goes off to join Gabrels and the technicians tinkering with the tape of his birthday concert. As though giving himself a 50th present, at Madison Square Garden he did seven unheard songs from Earthling, an artistic daring increased by the fact that one of them is called I’m Afraid of Americans. Outside, it’s dark and about -10C on the streets of New York City, reducing thought to fragments that might have been spat out by a computer. Out pops a neon billboard for Bowie: “A Star is Unborn.”

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