A Feast Unknown

by Cynthia West and Lenny Stoute / Rock Express

1987

The Bowie tour is shrouded in secrecy. A banquet of theatrical delights is promised. Was it any different?

….Sitting around wearing carpet slippers in Scotland and Switzerland reading 18 books a week – not exactly the I’mage that springs to mind when you think of David Bowie, but then again 86 was not exactly a banner year for the boy.

….His most successful project was the production job on Iggy Pops Blah Blah Blah LP. Movies that come up for air were Labyrinth, Absolute Beginners and When the Wind Blows, two featuring Bowie in fair-sized roles and all accompanied by singles which sank without trace, taking some of the masters hit-making sheen with them. By his own admission, the session and style of his upcoming LP/CD were modeled on those attendant on the Blah Blah…record. So is this man too rich to make art anymore? Too lazy? (understatement).

….David Bowie spent nearly two months in Los Angeles, making two videos for his newly-completed album, Never Let Me Down, and preparing for a grueling six-month tour of Europe, Japan and the US.

….Warily eying the Do Not Disturb Sign, we knock on the door of his hotel suite. It swings quickly open to reveal a tired but youthful-looking Bowie, “I had an horrible night last night. I didn’t get to sleep till three this morning. Must be these winds!” He’s watching a science-fiction film on the T.V. A girl in a cheerleaders outfit is being pulverized by a monster in a cops uniform. “Cant stop watching it!” grins Bowie cheerfully, pouring some much needed coffee. For a few silent moments, we sit and watch villains waste villains and some gory skyline shots of L.A. before he turns down the sound and shows me some of his original storyboard drawings for the video he’s been making downtown all week, Day In Day Out, directed by Julien Temple. “I do the main shots for every situation, and then the storyboardist puts them into sequence.

….I’ve never liked doing flash videos. I always try to make some fundamental statement, either artistic or social. I can appreciate all form and little content as an exercise, but I cant do it. This is a street video, sort of a cinema verite look. It’s dealing with the incredible homeless street people situation in L.A. This is happening in lots of other places too, but its certainly being highlighted there.

….“We hired a lot of homeless people off the streets of east L.A. who have worked as extras and crew help. One amazing group who put on plays dealing with situations confronting the homeless. I wont say its an indictment but it’s very strong meat as videos go.”

….Bowie will shoot a second video for the title song of the album, Never Let Me Down with the French director, Jean-Baptiste Mondino. “I haven’t drawn a thing for him, I’m in his hands entirely!” confesses Bowie, pulling out some more drawings and plans for the tour. “When I’m not doing the videos, I’m writing this blessed, phew!” So saying, he collapses on the sofa ready to be interviewed, his feet up on the arm, smoking occasional Marlboro and thoughtfully pulling a lock of golden hair into a V at the tip of his nose.

You’ve spent some time in L.A. now. How was it?

It’s changed a lot since I was here about 12 years ago. It works a lot harder these days. The film and music industries really got a lot of life now, I’ve quite enjoyed it. I’ve got out a lot more in different areas.

You spent much of your time downtown, preparing and making your video for your next single, Day In Day Out.

Yes. I’ve been driving around with Julien Temple, finding cafes, just soaking up the atmosphere, to get it right. The best thing about this place is that it has a real urban thing about it, but on the other hand it has a real third world feeling about it too. You could take it to be anywhere in the world, or anywhere in the Americas. Its great to find that kind of underbelly.

Would you say you’re making a political statement with this video?

I think any statement you make is a political statement, even unwittingly. I don’t think an artist can do anything without it having a political connotation. It shows what the stuff of the artist is – whatever he might do, if its a love song or if its a nauseatingly grindingly political statement. You can’t have life without politics, whatever you do in life shows where you stand on a nyissue. I feel far happier now in qualifying my work in some social context, its what I do best. I’ve not yet made a video which has tried to sell the song or put me up as a glamour puss or something…. Every video I’ve made has been some kind of statement about art or, as with Lets Dance and China girl, more of social idea, and I’m quite happy working that way. I really don’t care if its not a Flash dance sell-the-product video, it doesn’t bother me at all (laughs). I just want the video to be a body of work.

Never Let Me Down is the title of your new album. Where and how did you record it?

We recorded the album in Switzerland. I was working with Iggy there on his album. I took a four-track up there. We skiied all day and wrote in the evenings, a very comfortable way of writing! Then we went down to Montreux and recorded it there. It worked out so well that i thought I’d record my album the same way, so I wrote all the material and recorded it there, with the same combination of musicians, except for the addition of Peter Framton who is the lead guitarist on the majority of this album. Carlos Alomar is on rhythm guitar. Erdal Kizilkay, my invincible Turk, is on everything – drums, keyboards, bass, violin, trumpet, there’s nothing he can’t play – and Carmine Rojas is on bass. They’re on the tour as well. Peter Framton too. I’m happy to say, Richard Cottle will be our primary keyboard player and Alan Childs will be on drums.

….There was a certain dynamic that evolved in making Blah Blah… that made the project both intense and ordered. It showed up in the sound, and I wanted something similar in my sessions. So I went in with a stripped down band and kept Dave Richards on to co-produce.

….There’s not really a concept or even much connection between the songs. What was in my mind when I was writing the album was that I knew I was going on the road with it, so it had to have a very high energy built in. Its a rocker’s album and that was the area I felt had to be strongly defined. A lot of the subject matter deals the street and there is an attitude towards an uncaring society. I Guess that’s the dominant kind of idea.

On hearing the album, one of the things that struck me is that it’s almost a tribute to people you’ve been influenced by or worked with, people like Smokey Robinson, The Stones, even John Lenon….

Yeah, his presence is felt on two things, Zeroes and Never Let Me Down… It started off as an unconscious thing. I’m such a fan of music that I can be with someone for a week, and if I get to like them I’ll take on all their attributes until the fascination wears off a bit! I’m very sponge-like that way. In terms of rock, I’ve always collected voices and styles and whatever and they sort of hybrid themselves with my own efforts.

….I realized that was happening on this album. I just took it further than I normally would, and made the things very evident, like the Somekey Robinson tribute on Making My Love. Some are more obvious than others, but it just felt right, I’m at an age where its Important for me to know who my influences were all through what I’ve been doing. So, its a nod of my head and a tip of my hat.

One of those nods of your head goes to Iggy Pop who wrote the song Bang-Bang.

Yeah, other bands cover Chuck Berry or Elvis, I cover Iggy Pop! He’s my favorite contemporary songwriter. I think He’s one of the best around. Even though He’s starting to get through, he’s still terribly under-rated so I always try and do something of this. (Indeed. Bowie spent a lot of 86 paying off his debt to Iggy. Almost seems like he couldn’t get out from under his influence. After working with Iggy and creating Iggy-like conditions on his own album, he was an avid spectator as the Iggy Pop tour kicked into high gear, advising and supporting his ol buddy. After the L.A. show, David laid down the law on the new Iggy. “At first they wanted you to come out and cut yourself up. You could sense that exeptation. By the end, they’d been transformed. They wanted you to be destructive. You gave them strength)

What do you have planned for the tour?

Well, it’s as near as I can come to putting together all the elements from all the shows – not the Serious Moonlight tour, but a lot of my early shows which were, to say the least, in a theatrical format. I really want to amalgamate all of what I did do and make one coHe’sI’ve unit. It’ll be a revue in style, in a way, because of the songs that I’m using. They come from lots of different periods so you cant say it’s a piece written specially for stadium or arena theater, but its as near as I can come to that. It is theatrical. It’s almost what i believe a modern musical should look like. It incorporates a lot of elements. It’s about the reality and unreality of rock, and how it bears on what happens in the world and how it bears on what happens in a young man and a young woman’s life…. Does it really have any point to it any more, and if not, how can it be recaptured?….and what was exciting about rock abd social conviction anyway, in say, the ’60s or mid-’70s? So, it really is a statement about rock and it’s relation to real life – are they really connected or is this a fallacy now?

….It’s a revue. I’m using my songs to motivate the narrative along. It’s not just about a rock singer, its about rock music, so it has a lot to do with the audience and how they perceive rock, and rock figures, and all the cliches, archetypes and stereotypes, and also family relationship. I’m really attempting to do a lot of stuff! It incorporates movement, dialogue, fragments of film, projected Images, its what used to be called multi-media in the ’60s. Ultra-theatrical, a combination of music, theater, and rock. I want to do something in terms of epic theater and rock that has a presence and contemporary feel to it that isn’t about Cats and Starlight Express, but is something to do with where the musical form could move these days. Because of the influence of video, you’ve practically got to reinvent the rock show as performance art. In that respect, I quite like the idea of what the Beastie Boys are doing. I don’t like the Clokwork Orange type of violence attached to their gigs. I think that’s very frightening, but the fact that they’re bringing attention back to the stage, as opposed to video, is a very healthy thing. They’re making the idea of concert presentation and audience participation valid again, which is very refreshing.

Will you be inventing new character?

Several, as indeed will the other people I’ll be using.

Does the fact that you are now playing in such large stadiums, some holding 60,000, alter the way you stage a show?

Because of that, I’ve got to amalgamate and exaggerate things to such an extent, so that they can even be seen by an audience. It wont be an intimate little off-Broadway production. It cant be, because of the places that were playing. The difference between movement and sound is that sound can be amplified, movement cant, unless it’s up on the screen. So you’ve got to be really careful or the movement becomes diluted after the hundredth row, so at a certain point you just have to use a screen. Gestures, for example, become far more exaggerated. If you took the same thing and put it in a club performance, it would look ludicrous, but it looks quite realistic and credible in a big arena.

….The thing is, rock ‘n’ roll is a naive way of saying things. It’s a living culture, so it’s very subjective and deals in broad outlines. It has much in common with Expressionist theater, where the performers literally walk around with their hearts on their sleeves. Everything has to be stated very directly, which goes more than double when you’re playing a massive venue.

Do you find it difficult to come up with something new each time you tour?

No, because There’s about four years in between. I don’t like going out to tour every year. I think it’s creatively stagnating. You can only do so much. You often find with a lot of acts that what you saw seven years ago is exactly what They’re doing today apart from the new singles, because they don’t have time to reflect on what they’ve done. Some of them have their songs, although obviously that’s very important too. I just cant see myself included in that group. I’m not content just to play my songs. It’s not enough. I’d rather not tour and then do something really special when I tour.

When you’re not touring or making an album, you’re often acting in, or writing music for, films. Eventually, do you plan to direct?

I’m just starting to understand the Hollywood system and it makes me want to run away from it! (laughs)… It’s quite strange machinery. I’m so used to having the last word in music, about what I do, and how it works creatively. The more I see of what happens in film-making, its only the very righteous and strong-willed who are able to keep control of what They’re doing. A director friend of mine said to me, “you always think you have the final cut, but then you realize its the film review board that has the final cut.” Even when you’ve got all the artistic control from the production company you’re working with, they still have the final cut!

….I don’t have that problem, so for me, it’s a very tough thing to give up. As an actor, to get the roles I want to get, there are things that I can only work with a major movie production company on – the studios have pretty much the monopoly on some first class roles. In the status of director, I think I would probably work at creating those situations myself. Indeed, that’s what I’m doing, I’m buying up properties myself and finding the writers to work with. I’ve just bought a book which I’ve loved for years. Hopefully, two years down the line, I’ll start to see something quite substantial in terms of putting out my first independently produced film.

What about writing your own scripts?

I’ve never got past a video yet! (laughs) and believe me, that’s a big enough headache! I think that’s inevitable… I’m starting to get the idea. When I told the director, Jim Cameron, my quandary – that I didn’t really think that I could bring four minutes up to 90 minutes – he said “Just think of the 90 minutes as being a lot of four minutes bits!” I’m not sure if it works that way, or if I’ll approach it that way, but I think I’ve got to make a move some time or other to do that. (An L.A. cutting room rumor is circulating which teams Bowie and Jagger in a comedy-adventure, for which There’s already a working script. David’s only reply is a cryptic, “It’s in the air.” To defuse it further, he wonders airily just where he would ever find the time for such grandiose project, should it ever come to pass. One role he will never abandon is that of artist as media manipulator.)

Aren’t you tempted to do it earlier than two years?

It’s hard to put a production together that fast, also this year I’m totally taken up with the tour, and if I’m not careful I spread myself too thin. I have to keep reining myself in or the work suffers. I’m such a workaholic! I really am, I love it! I don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not working.

You give interviews to people like us!

About once every four years! (laughs) I’m not very good at them, I never know what to say! I’m much better in conversational situations… I keep going back to the work… I think, why am I doing these interviews? and then I think, well, It’s because I want my work known…then I think why shouldn’t the work speak for itself? and I don’t know why I end up trying to explain it because I never explain it adequately, (laughs) because you cant explain music…

So the press ends up making things up….

Well, it’s more interesting than saying, well, He’s having a very nice time at the moment and he works very hard and he lives in Switzerland and what else can we say about him? It’s not a very interesting angle. My work is certainly a far more interesting angle than the way I live, cos I just live like you. I get up, have my breakfast, do some work, go out, meet a few people, have dinner, occasionally go out to the theater or the cinema and then go to bed! (laughs) That really is BORING y’ know!

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