A conversation with musician David Bowie

Charlie Rose

31st March 1998

Broadcast 3/31/98 12:00 am PST Show opens with speaker introducing: A Conversation with David Bowie on Charlie Rose David Bowie: innovator in music, art, film and now publishing!

….Show’s focus is about David Bowie’s new publishing venture, the magazine “21” and the world of modern art.

….Bowie appears, reserved and smoking, in a nice brown tweed jacket, a black shirt with white dots and round sunglasses. Looking slightly older around the mouth. His eyes are covered throughout the interview, and his hair, fully grown out, is light brown with a soft greying streak above the right temple. Charlie Rose has a nice, gentle demeanor in an attempt to make Bowie comfortable. He describes David’s career as having been one of “30 plus years of challenging the limits of artistic expression,” now going on with the creation of a Publishing House, 21. Opens with asking David about what have some of his influences been over the years?

….David replies that his interest in art stemmed in art school in the late ’60’s; namely the visual arts, painting and commercial art. Said he didn’t like design. Later he became interested in playing the sax, and found that more appealing than the commercialism that was involved with art. From there, found his interests were more swayed by the activities of Elvis Presley and Little Richard, whom he’s always loved since he was 8 years old. As he went into his 20’s, found that the Velvet Underground was a huge influence, both personally and artistically; but has always had a great appreciation for the schools in England, the movements that were happening there in the ’60’s… These schools were also influential with many other rock stars of our time, especially the ones from Britian. Vaudeville and the avant-garde were also cited as major influences. Says he went through the usual changes of what it means to be starting out in a rock band; from playing an instrument to stepping in for a singer to “getting beat-up and tossed out of the group”.

….Bowie said that he’s always enjoyed “synthesis”, and the approach of drawing from blends of opera, visual arts and the underground in order to create a cultural spin. “And that’s wot it’s all a-bowt!” he sings in mock-Cockney.

….Rose wants to know why is innovation so important? “I can’t take my eyes off it!” Bowie’s explanation shifts to a high-pitch in his voice. Says he is “obsessed with the new”; that music and painting are a way of expression that he doesn’t take very seriously; he’s just into it because “I have the attention-span of a grasshopper”.

….“I’m a Jack of All Trades,” he continues in mock-Cockney – – that is, until it comes to monogamy! “I know a good thing when I see it,” he says, giggling! (He’s referring to his marriage to supermodel, Iman.) He and Charlie Rose compare suits, poking fun at each other. SO… Is it true then, that David Bowie is worth $900 million???

….David becomes very sober and says that he’s still waiting for the check. He says he doesn’t know who started the rumor in the last year, but he’s suddenly met a lot of new friends. And that – “it’s ABSOLUTE hogwash”. He doesn’t think of himself as an actor, but was recently invited by Goldie to appear in an independent film “Everybody Loves Sunshine”, about gang life in Liverpool. Said he just wants to do things (like acting in certain kinds of projects) “because I feel a strong empathy with it”.

….Rose asks Bowie about what he would have liked to have done, if he was able to choose an alternative career. David becomes rather sheepish behind his glasses, and says gently: “I would have liked to been like Sting… A teacher.” Bowie smiles a lot, but it’s hard to read his expression with the sunglasses, and you don’t know how sincere he is. But he goes on to express that he loves introducing new subjects to young people – and has always been thrilled to expose his own son to the arts, theatre, museums, dance clubs, etc. “I remember when people did that for me, and have always felt it [teaching] was the greatest gift that anyone could ever give, especially, of themself.” Goes on to mention his website, bowieart.com, where artists will be able to share their work and be given the opportunity to “interact” and play with one another’s artwork. (This information is available in the 21 Magazine, Modern Painters.)

….Yes, he replies, he DOES interview artists and will continue doing this for the magazine; especially enjoys interviewing people he’s curious about. As far as his own work is concerned, started painting at the age of 8, and to take it seriously around the age of 18-19. Feels that when his musical energy is declining, the painting takes over, and that he needs that balance. Says he used to work through musical problems by painting, but that process has died off over the years, and he’s “lost that ability”. Here, several pieces of his artwork are shown.

….The first is a portrait of Iggy Pop turning blue; from their years together in Berlin, mid-’70’s. Next, a self-portrait of “me turning into the Lion King… I was very impressed with that movie!” (Mock-Cockney.) Explains that his style ranges from minimalist to modern and “painterly”. What prompts him to paint in this way?

….Tremendously irritated and fidgiting in his chair, David bites his fingers and pulls on his hair and twists around in his coat. “I just NEED to get through it!!!” He’s exasperated. Painting and music, both, are for him: “violatile; emotive; angry! Not pleasant or enjoyable at all – not like sex. Now SEX – THAT I CAN ENJOY!!!” (sigh!)

CR: Let me point out your family history –

David immediately turns his back to Charlie Rose and begins to crouch in his chair and squeem behind his glasses; lights a cigarette.

You’ve always resisted… Now David! Turn around here! David! Turn around here and look at me! Look me right in the face, c’mon now!

David turns around and rests resolutely, cigarette in hand, with hand over his mouth. Still hiding behind the glasses.

You’ve always resisted any notion that this creativity comes from any dysfunction or madness…

David SLOWLY replies that any kind of artist is going to be coping with some kind of SOCIAL dysfunction, at least. And that it’s a LOONY dysfunction. Culture, he empahsises, is an “extra outside of one’s basic needs…” The need to have shelter, the need to hold down a job, etc.

….The next slide is an acrilic/computerization of a bloated face (which I think looks like Tren Reznor). Bad painting, David murmurs almost apologetically… Like this next slide of the “trucker with a bad under-hang… Well, I guess you would call that an under-hang?” (The viewer is left staring at a red-faced character with a very gnarly looking and huge lower-lip. This viewer thinks DB’s self-portraits are actually prettier in comparison…)

….Next, lovely “tribal” paintings done on vacation in Africa with Iman… David explains that he loved the myths he heard about the ancestral ghosts with the very white skin; thus, these paintings “remind me of, and were made to look like Ziggy Stardust, with his red hair”.

….“And this ashtray,” David concludes, holding up a cute little tin star on the table. “This is one of a limited collection! We had these pressed for the tour!!!” The Bill Jones litho is the last to be viewed, and this brings Rose to the topic of – the Let’s Dance Era. How does David feel about that?

….Let’s Dance? David is shy and saddened. There was an extraordinary acceptance from the public for the very first time, and it was difficult to get used to, because he’s always loved the freedom of being a “cult figure”… But it became a hindrance because it put him in the position of wondering what the expectations were of his audience… Which, he says, is a stupid thing to do, and that he looks for more equilibrium with his audience now.

….What about the 50th Birthday? “NO – 51 NOW, CHARLIE!” David bursts out gruffly laughing. He says his 40’s were actually the most difficult period of his life; an “awful” time; “everything was wrong, and was CRAP in l987! I realized that I needed to stop the self-pity and start CHANGING EVERYTHING – everything in my life!” Family, marriage, relationships, especially the one with his son, have the utmost priority, and “I must always have my relationships on the front burner,” he concludes sheepishly.

Charlie Rose introduces David Bowie’s colleages in the 21 Publishing Venture. They are: Matthew Collings, author of the first book published by 21 – “Blimey!”; Karen Wright, editor of the Art Journal of Modern Painters, and Bernard Jacobson, London Gallery owner.

….Jacobson explains how 21 came together. Says that he and Karen Wright have been friends for 25 years, and then they became friends with David Bowie about 5 years ago. “We love David”, “I love David” “Everybody loves David” the three of them reverberate with enthusiasim. David sits coquettishly perched in his chair. (You know that look; but it’s a hard one to read if you don’t know him. He’s hiding behind round sunglasses.) He is very sober and respectful; a sign that he’s honored by what they’re expressing… At the same time, he looks like a cocky and Hunky-Dory, like a rock star or something.

….Some of the subject titles are read from the 21 Modern Painters magazine. Bowie cracks a joke about how it’s nothing “controversial”; but controversy in the art world is their complete aim. In this respect, David Bowie is a good representative for their “dream”.

….David interjects that opinions are valuable, and don’t need to fall into the art world to be about art. The group is definately interested in generating opinions and interviews of the postive, creative type; asserting that they want voices and images on art that are outside of criticism.

….“I’m fanlike,” David speaks softly, perching on the table with his elbows and cigaratte. It’s like he’s about to confide a very private secret; at the same time, his eyes are hidden as he continues, “I’ve learned a lot from my fans. They love to pull me apart. It’s because they want to know about me. Not fauning over me, but because they are REALLY interested. They want to know how I tick; and that’s how I feel about my favorite artists! I really want to know wot makes them tick!”

….“Cynicism” he continues, “makes a lot more money, unfortunately. It’s a lucritive career opportunity.” He sits back and asserts firmly: “It’s passe’. We’re going back into an era of romanticism: WATCH!” He interjects into the camera with his forefinger and sets his mouth very firmly and hard.

….The group believes that books are an extension of magazines; and again, these goals are set from their own “dreams”. They want products and people who are “vibrant, with resonance”. “Blimey!”, Collings explains, is about the current art scene in London, and going back to the ’50’s. “To be pronounced as Dick Van Dyke would do it!” David cries out! “BLY-MEE!!!” Everyone at the table echoes with a unanimous smirk! Then, shyly, they cuddle up to the table like soulful-grinning preschoolers.

….“Blimey!” covers some of the scene with Francis Bacon and Dameon Hirsch; it is part biography with big events in the arts; a mixture of theatre and academics. Here, Jacobson expresses that modern art, after the time of Cezanne, has become somewhat “showbiz” in nature; that he is the “traditionalist” in the group. He questions the staying-power of such artists as Picasso, Matisse and Pollack. (I was severely disappointed that Dali’s name wasn’t mentioned.) Jacobson says that Bowie’s connection to modern artists actually helps him appreciate the movement; that he sees himself as being biased and not “of the television age”. There was some talk of Frank Stella and John Koons’ work as being too “showbiz”. Here, Bowie assertained that showbiz, actually, “has become a shelter FOR modern art and the old avant-garde”.

….What are the breaks between old art and modern art, asks Rose. To name a few names: Cezanne, Jasper Johns – and definately Andy Warhol. Bowie (chewing his fingernails maniacally) says that Andy’s later work is not as good as the earlier. Collings asserts that it is “foundations” that define greatness and lasting-power. Julian Schnabel, an American, and the Dameon Hirsch generation, says Bowie “think I know nothing of what I was talking about, the last time I did this show.” (He is good natured about it.) David feels that American artists have a hard time believing anything of quality can be produced out of Britian. The group goes on to elaborate that the British are infamous for their “realism, black humor, vivid, strong pop-art and grit”.

….Jacobson says that the end of the centery will be the real test; will anyone care about Jeff Koons in 2050? Bowie asserts that “threads of history tend to detangle themselves with each new generation”, and that quantifying “great” is almost nonsensical because art is periodical. What’s with this need to quantify art, Bowie argues. “Is this some kind of Olympics-thing? Is it about who will be there at the end of the game? OR, is it actually useful?” The rest of the trio chime in: What is art for, especially today? Corporations and collectors do not necessarily buy art these days; who will tell us about these mysteries?

….Jacobson says that artists tend to work in a “white heat”; that in the focus of looking at modern art, he wants energy; he wants excitement. What will art be like even, in the year 2020? Will it be interesting? Exciting? Important?

….Bowie says that computers will continue to be a large part of the medium; Collings finds that “spooky”. With great desire he says almost wishfully that painting will never go away… That it must not; that there must always be paint and paintbrushes. But Jacobson asks – what about in the year 2050? There may be actual problems getting supplies of such things as paint and paintbrushes. And what about the actual rendering of a final product? What would those images be, say for instance: could one at that time even be ABLE to render a painting of say, a tree? Dead silence.

….“As long as there’s a Glascow, there’ll always be a painter,” mimicks a mock-Cockney voice. Everyone groans and shakes their head at David.

And that’s the end of the show!

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