Let’s Talk

by Charles Shaar Murray / Rolling Stone

October 1984

AT THREE O’CLOCK ON A BLAZING-HOT August afternoon, a blue Mercedes pulled up in front of London’s elegant Savoy Hotel, and out stepped David Bowie. He looked unseasonably cool in black slacks, blue shoes and a white shirt webbed with a spidery black Picasso print, worn open at the neck to reveal a small crucifix on a chain around his neck. With the brisk decisiveness of the veteran rock star who knows better than to linger long anywhere in public, Bowie strode through the Savoy’s dark, marbled foyer and into the hotel tearoom, where a journalist waited at a table tucked away to one side of a staircase.

….After a year of major media hoopla and a worldwide Serious Moonlight tour in support of Let’s Dance, the biggest-selling album of his twenty-year recording career, Bowie had decided to maintain a relatively low profile in connection with his latest LP, Tonight. This seemed appropriate; of the album’s nine tracks, Bowie had written only two by himself – the irreligious “Loving The Alien” and the first single, “Blue Jean.” Two covers were also included – a croony version of the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit, “God Only Knows” and a solid remake of the 1962 Chuck Jackson nugget, “I Keep Forgetting‘ ” – but the rest of the songs seemed designed to spotlight the lyrical talents of Iggy Pop, ne’ James Osterberg (or “Jimmy”), Bowie’s long-time protege and coauthor of his 1983 hit, “China Girl.” “Neighborhood Threat” and the radically revamped “Tonight” had originally been cowrirten by David and Iggy for Pop’s 1977 LP, Lust for Life (which, like its predecessor, The Idiot, Bowie produced); “Don’t Look Down” was a song from Pop’s 1979 album, New Values; “Tumble And Twirl” recounted Bowie and Pop’s peregrinations through the Indonesian islands of Bali and Java after the Serious Moonlight tour; and “Dancing With The Big Boys” was an even more recent collaboration by the duo and Bowie’s guitarist, Carlos Alomar. As Bowie albums go, Tonight – recorded in Canada by Bowie, Police producer Hugh Padgham and Derek Bramble, bassist for the late British pop-soul band Heatwave – seemed more of a stopgap than a startling new burst of creativity from rock’s longest-running stylistic innovator.

….Accordingly, Bowie had decided to do only one extensive interview for the album – with veteran English music writer Charles Shaar Murray, who awaited him in the Savoy. He had also done two promotional videos for “Blue Jean.” One, a “live” run-through of the song taped at London’s trendy Wag Club, was created especially for the first annual MTV Video Music Awards ceremony in New York City on September 14th. The other, an elaborate twenty-minute collaboration with Julien Temple, director of the semi-infamous Sex Pistols film, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, was more of a minifilm than a standard music video, and it reflected Bowie’s ongoing interest in making actual movies. He starred in two last year – Tony Scott’s The Hunger and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – and he has since turned down an offer to play a villain in the next James Bond opus and the chance to score the film version of George Orwefl’s 1984.

….Although sneezing occasionally from a summer cold caught during the Wag Club taping the week before, Bowie appeared otherwise fit. Alert and amiable, very much the new, “normal” Bowie introduced with Let’s Dance, he ordered a sandwich and a pot of decaffeinated coffee, split open a fresh pack of Marlboros and got right down to business.

After all the exertions of 1983, why did you even bother to release an album this year?

I wanted to keep my hand in, so to speak. I suppose the most obvious thing about this album is that there’s not the usual amount of new writing on it from me. I didn’t really feel I had enough new things of my own because of the tour. I can’t write on tour, and there wasn’t enough time afterward to write anything that I felt was really worth putting down. I didn’t want to put out things that “would do’, so there are two or three that I felt were good, and the other stuff…

….What I suppose I really wanted to do was to work with Iggy again; that’s something I’ve not done for a long time. And Iggy wanted us to do something together. We’re ultimately leading up, I hope, to my producing his next album. We’ve been talking about it for a year or so, and we’ve got him off the road now, and he won’t be going back for a while. I don’t think touring was having a good effect on him, particularly on his writing – he wasn’t getting any done. He’s always had an incredibly loyal following, but that’s not really enough. Living continually from one gig to the next just made him feel that he was falling out of time, because he had no time to write. I think [the royalties froml “China Girl” helped him out a lot that way, and now he’s writing quite prolifically. We should be able to mldl through about thirty or forty songs by the time we go to record.

How do your songwriting collaborations work?

More than anything else, I wrote the musical side of the new songs. We worked very much the way we did on Lust for Life and The Idiot. I would give him a few anchor images that I wanted him to play off, and he would take them away and start free-associating. I would then put down together in a way that I could sing. Rather than write straightforward songs, he would do collective imagery, and we’d rearrange things from there.

So Iggy’s not just your lyricist?

No, not at all. The lyrics worked out about fifty-fifty on most of the songs. Jimmy’s work stands out most obviously on “Tumble And Twirl.’ That’s his line of humor – the T-shirts and the part about the sewage floating down the hill. We had a holiday after the tour, and Jimmy and his girlfriend, Suchi, and I went to Bali and Java. And in Java, particularly, the very rich oil magnates have these incredible colonial-style houses with sewage floating down the hills into the jungle. That stayed with me. And watching films projected on sheets out in the garden – it felt so bizarre to sit there in the jungle watching images of Brooke Shields at the end of the garden through monsoon weather, with rain pouring down. It was quite absurd.

So you’re not being ironic when, in ‘Tumble And Twirl,” you sing, “I like the free world’?

I guess those circumstances make one quite fond of the “free world” because a country like Java or Singapore is most definitely not free. There’ s an extraordinary split between one class and another, far more exaggerated than any class system in the West. If I had the choice between Singapore and Java – I’d pick England! That’s what I meant by that line. But when put in a musical structure, these things take on a life of their own – as we know from past experiences!

Two of the songs on the album, “Tonight” and “Don’t Look Down,” receive reggae treatments, which is surprising. Your only previous reggae experiment was with ‘Yassassin” on the ‘Lodger‘album, and at that time you said you intended to leave reggae alone. What changed your mind?

I think it was the drum machine! I was trying to rearrange “Don’t Look Down,” and it wouldn’t work. I tried it every which way. I tried it jazz-rock, I tried it as a march, and then I just fit on an old ska-sounding beat, and it picked up life. Taking energy away from the musical side reinforced the lyrics and gave them their own energy. I think working with Derek Bramble helped because he played proper reggae bass lines.

How did you come to work with him?

I always like taking someone new into the studio, often someone I’ve never worked with before and have little in common with. Heatwave’s singer, Johnnie Wilder, had had the most catastrophic accident, wich left him almost completely paralyzed and brought about the demise of the band. Derek and Rod Temperton, who’s written a lot of things for Michael Jackson, were the two anchor writers in the band. Then Bernard [Doherty, Bowie’s London publicistj sent me some things Derek had been doing with David Grant [formerly of Linx], and I was impressed with the sound that he got, and also with his musicianship. We met in London and talked, and I realized that he hadn’t had much in the way of experience in the studio. So I got Hugh Padgham whom I wanted to work with mainly on the strength of hisdrum sound.

On ‘Tonight,” the album’s other reggae transtmutation, you eliminated Iggy’s original introduction, which had established that the song was being sung to a lover in the throes of a heroin overdose. Why?

That was such an idiosyncratic thing of Jimmy’s that it seemed not part of my vocabulary. Also, I was doing it with Tina Turner – she’s dthe other voice on it – and I didnt want to inflict it on her, either. It’s not necessarily something that she would agree to sing or be part of. I guess we changed the whole sentiment around. It still has that same barren feeling, but it’s out of that specific area that I’m not at home in.

Did you actually play anything on this album?

No, I didn’t. Not at all. I very much left everybody else to it, I must say. I just came in with the songs and the ideas and how they should be played, and then watched them put it all together. It was great! I didn’t work very hard in those terms – I feel very guiiv about it! I did five or six pieces of writing, and I sing a lot, and Padgham and Derek put the sound together between them. It was nice not to be involved that way.

Quite a change from that period, from ‘Low‘ to ‘Scary Monsters.’

Yes. I couldn’t have been more dictatorial about it then. I feel that period coming on again, now that I’ve had a refreshig bash with other people’s songs and other people playing the way they want to play. I really want to do something with no more than myself and two other people, and build up tapes again. I haven’t done that for such a long time. But I have got to a point with this album that I really wanted to get to, where it’s really an organic sound, and it’s mainly saxophones. It’s really got the band sound that I wanted, the horn sound.

….But there’s a particular sound I’m after that I haven’t really got yet; I’ll either crack it on the next album or retire from it. I think I got quite close to it on “Dancing With The Big Boys.” That was quite an adventurous bit of writing in the sense that. Iggy and I didn’t look for any standards I got very musical over the last couple of years – trying to write musically and develop things the way people used to write in the Fiffies. I stayed, away from experimentation. Now, I think I should be a bit more adventurous. And in “Big Boys” Iggy and I broke away from all that for one track, and it came nearer to the sound I was looking for than anything else. I’d like to try maybe one more set of pieces like that. But I have as little idea as anybody about what comes next. I’m terribly intuitive. I always thought I was intellectual about what I do, but I’ve come to the realization that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing half the time; that the majority of the stuff I do is totally intuitive.

What about taking it out on the road? Your Serious Moonlight tour attracted several different Bowie audiences from over the years, and the result of this cumulative popularity was that you wound up playing a lot of huge, outdoor stadium gigs.

Yes, I found that rather nonplusing, as well. It made me sit back on my bottom and think about things. We started out booking all indoor gigs. Then they asked me if I would be op-posed to doing the odd outdoor gig, and I said, “No, I did one in Auckland, and it was quite nice.” Then they kept replacing the indoor gigs with outdoor gigs, and I got quite scared. But after doing the first one or two, and realizing that people enjoyed them, I wasn’t opposed to it at all. I quite liked it. It was a lot of fun. But it’s a whole different way of working. I wasn’t quite sure who I was working to. I felt distanced from the band. It was very lonely! And I couldn’t feel my audience.

Still, you projected more warmth than ever before on that tour, and there was none of the aloofness that used to be your hallmark.

Yes, but how can you make something like the Us Festival an intimate situation? Do you come out in a bathrobe? I don’t know what they represent, these stadium gigs. Someone like Mick Jagger has so much more experience with the stadium thing and understands it so much better than I do. I don’t think you can take it much further than just singing the songs; and that, for me – as usual – isn’t enough. I always thought that someone who could be incredibly successful in stadiums is Laurie Anderson. She could put on something that would be quite spellbinding.

It’s interesting that you should say that, because the ah-ah-ah backing vocals on “Loving The Alien” are reminiscent of Anderson’s “O Superman.’

No, that’s Philip Glass, actually – more reminiscent of Eeinstein on the Beach. But maybe Laurie was thinking also of something from that.

In any case, ‘Alien,” which deals with religion and history, is a totally different sort of song from your other solo composition on the album, the single-oriented “Blue Jean.”

Yes, “Alien” really doesn’t fit in there, does it? That was the most personafied bit of writing on the album for me – not to say that the others were written from a distance, but they’re a lot lighter in tone. That one was me in there dwelling on the idea of the awful shit that we’ve had to put up with because of the church. That’s how it started out: for some reason, I was very angry.

That’s an odd thing to hear from someone wearing a crucifix.

I know. This crucifix is strictly symbolic of a terrible, nagging superstition that if I didn’t have it on, I’d have bad luck. It isn’t even religious to me – I’ve hardly thought of it, as a crucifix, probably because it’s so little. “Alien” came about because of my feeling that so much history is wrong – asls being rediscovered all the time – and that we base so much on the wrong knowledge that we’ve gleaned. Now some historian is putting forward the notion that the whole idea of Israel is wrong, and that, in fact, it was in Saudi Arabia and not in Palestine. It’s extraordinary, considering all the mistranslations in the Bible, that our lives are being run by this information, and that so many people have died because of it. The crunching thing about the church is that it has always had so much power. It was always more of a power tool than anything else, which was not very apparent to the majority of us.

It’s interesting that in the last few years, you’ve exhibited increasing concern with the state of the world – the world in which your son, Joey, is growing up. Yet, aside from that one charity show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon last year, which raised 90,000 pounds for the connnunity association in your hometown of Brixton, you’ve mostly communicated your political concerns via the visual imagery in your ‘Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” videos, not more explicitly in your song lyrics.

Charity work is very interesting, because you do things quietly and low profile, rather than doing something excessive in your own writing. I’m terrified of popular musical writing just getting crunched within days of release in terms of political significance or social statement. It just becomes a T-shirt too fast. I often adore and appreciate the sentiment, but I’m never sure how much real manifest good it can do. Whereas I know that if I do this for such-and-such a charity, then that’s a physical accomplishment that can do something mandest In songwnting, I feel all at sea with that. I’m not sure where my place is. My writing for so long has been to do with the surreal that I don’t even know whether I could take myse seriously as a writer of didactic statements. I’m not sure that as a writer I’m succinct enough to give it a wholeness.

At the other extreme from the social concerns of a song like “Loving The Alien,” though, you’re still capable of doing something as light as “Blue Jean.”

That reminds me of Eddie Cochran. It was inspired by that Eddie Cochran feeling – which is very Troggs, as well. I don’t know . . . this album is quite eclectic, I suppose. What of mine isn’t? Somebody once said – who was it? – that Harry Langdon, the silent comedian, cannot be taken on his own; you have to put him alongside what went on around him, like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. He can only be seen by reference. And somebody said that about me, which is probably very true. I quite like that, actually: that you can’t take me on my own; you can only use me as a form of reference! [He bursts out Lughing.] Don’t ask me! The older I get, the less I know about what I’m doing!

….Recently, I’ve used an “accepted vocabulary,” as Eno would say. I think it’s because I was starting to feel sure of myself in terms of my life, my state of health and my being. I have relapses, as we all do, but I feel on the whole fairly happy about my state of mind and my physical being, and I guess I wanted to put my musical being in a similarly healthy area. But I’m not sure that that was a very wise thing to do.

What about films? There was talk of you composing the score for the forthcoming adaptation of George Orwell’s ‘1984,’ which stars John Hurt and the late Richard Burton.

No, I’m not doing that. There was talk of me doing it, but I don’t have enough time. I’ve seen bits of it, and I it’s a fabulous movie – really, really good.

What about that villain’s role you were offered in the next James Bond movie – a part reportedly first declined by Sting?

Absolutely out of the question. Yes, I was offered that. After Sting? I rather think it was the other way around. I think for an actor it’s probably an interesting thing to do, but for somebody from rock, it’s more of a clown performance. And I didn’t want to spend five months watching my double fall off mountains

As a veteran trendsetter, what’s your opinion of the current London fashion scene?

I think it’s silly. But it looks like fun. I can see that they derive an awful lot of pleasure from it, but I can’t take it seriously. I don’t it expresses very much.

You mean like those big white Frankie Goes to Hollywood T-shirts with the messages written on them?

God, I hate those damn things. I really hate them. That’s why I had my Ernie character in ‘Blue Jean” wearing a “Relax” T-shirt.

So you think pop is at its best when it’s subversive and dangerous, unlike such harmless consumer items of today?

It’s very interesting to hear Julien Temple talking about “the old days” when he thinks back to the Sex Pistols. You mention 1977, and he says, “Oh, in those days, it was so dangerous then’ Well, 1977s not so far off, is it? If things are as cyclic as they’re supposed to be, then it’s bound to come round again. I didn’t get the full brunt of all that, because it was the period when I was settling in Berlin and it came from a different direction there, and it didn’t have the full wrath and anger of what happened in England. For me, it’s all just footage, and I can’t feel the same thing. I really regret missing out on that. I wonder how I would have received it. I’d love to have seen the dialogue on television and the feel of the clubs at that time. Of course, that’s much a healthier climate. Of course, it is.

Could you see yourself contributing to another upset?

In rock, I think it’s very hard … after the initial point of view that you’ve put forward. Unless you’re capable of adopting more than that initial statement, it’s hard to come up with another that has the same kind of force that the first one did. For me, the early-sevnties period was the thing that gave me my opening. I don’t think I could ever contribute so aggressively again. But the interesting thing about rock is that you never think that it’s going to go on for much longer. I’m thirty-seven going on thirty-eight, and I find myself thinking, “I’m still doing it!” So you’re redefining it all the time. The whole animal of rock keeps changing itself so fast and so furiously that you just can’t plan ahead. I’ve got two or three anchors: to do some more work with Iggy and to try to write something myself that is extraordinary and adventurous. Those are the only things in music that I know I’ll be doing in the future. Apart from that, I don’t know. I never bloody know.

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