by Tony Parson / Arena
Completely open. Endlessly curious. As happy to talk about white powders and black magic as “Black Tie White Noise“, the new album. A tall, thin, gracious man with a great haircut. Immaculately dressed whether in company at the recording studio or alone in his hotel room. He is the only musician I ever saw wear a suit to the studio. The only musician who ever helped me into my coat. The only person I ever felt nervous about meeting. But david Bowie does not disappoint.
….Like any major artist – Picasso, Dylan, Scorcese – he has seen lesser talents carve entire careers out of his passing phases. He has been more inventive, more consistently on the money, than any other musician of the last 20 years. For my generation – and the one that came after us – nobody comes close to Bowie. Nobody ever will. He laughs a lot. He smokes constantly, though he wishes he didn’t. Above all he is – of course – the grand master of the totally unexpected.
TONY PARSONS: Why did you say the Lord’s Prayer at the Freddie Mercury tribute?
DAVID BOWIE: I decided to do it about five minutes before I went on stage. Coco [Schwab, Bowie’s long-term personal assistant] and I had a friend called Craig who was dying of AIDS. He was just dropping into a coma that day. And just before I went on stage something just told me to say the Lord’s Prayer. The great irony is that he died two days after the show.
….In rock music, especially in the performance arena, there is no room for prayer, but I think that so many of the songs people write are prayers. A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself. On a personal level, I have an undying belief in God’s existence. For me it is unquestionable.
….Looking at what I have done in my life, in retrospect so much of what I thought was adventurism was searching for my tenuous connection with God. I was always investigating, always looking into why religions worked and what it was people found in them. And I was always fluctuating from one set of beliefs to another until a very low point in the mid-Seventies where I developed a fascination with black magic.
….And although I’m sure there was a satanic lead pulling me towards it, it wastft a search for evil. It was in the hope that the signs might lead me somewhere. There seemed to be a path inherent in cabbalistic religion. There seemed to be a path that one could follow. And of course it helped greatly that it was all so drug-induced. That really helped to blur the sense of reality of what I was getting involved in.
The Seventies were much wilder than the Sixties. In the Sixties it was just a two guys off the Kings Road getting stoned. In the Seventies it was everyone…
At first it was the lighter drugs, pills maybe, during the London period in the Sixties. Then it was cocaine in a very serious manner around 1974. The Sixties didn’t have the hostility and violence – spiritual violence, emotional violence – that was part and parcel of the Seventies.
….It was a nightmare time because cocaine is a very spiteful bedfellow. And it really takes it out of you. If you really want to lose all your friends and all of the relationships that you ever held dear, that’s the drug to do it with. Cocaine severs any link you have with another human being. And that’s the one thing ihat really came home to me in the mid-Seventies – what I was doing to all my relationships. I didnt have anyone left who could get anywhere near me.
But you maintained..
Maintaining is the problem. You retain a superficial hold on reality so that you can get through the things that you know are absolutely necessary for your survival. But when that starts to break up, which inevitably it does – around late 1975 everythingwas starting to break up – I would work at songs for hours and hours and days and days and then realize after a few days that I had done absolutely nothing.
….I thought I had been working and working, but I had only been rewriting the first four bars or something. And I haddn’t got anywhere. I coulddt believe it! I had been working on it for a week! I haddt got past four bars! And I would realize that I had been changing those four bars around, doing them backwards, splitting them up and doing the end first. An obsession with detail had taken over.
They call it punding.
That’s right! Punding! Going back to the start, over and over again, like these poor rats that get fucked up in experiments. I saw something on CNN – which is my companion when I’m moving around a lot, the only constant thing you can get anywhere in the world – where they showed the effects of cocaine on the human brain. The great physical holes that cocaine puts in the brain. It just looks like Swiss cheese. And I have been tempted to go and have my brain looked at to see how many holes I have. Because they are there for life.
So you think that the Seventies left you with permanentphysical damage?
Oh definitely! I have huge mental blocks and lapses about things that have happened in my past.
I find that my right nostril is pretty much useless.
Funnily enough, so is mine. The right nostril. But then I have a friend who is a lawyer who has exactly the same problem because he had his nose broken playing rugby. So you can actually get that way without ever taking drugs.
But then I have a friend who is a lawyer who has exactly the same problem because he had his nose broken playing rugby. So you can actually get that way without ever taking drugs.
If only I’d have known! I would have played rugby instead! But it was’t only the drugs. It was also because of my spiritual state of mind. I had never been so near an abyss of total abandonment. When they say that one felt like a shell, an empty shell, I can really understand that. I felt that any of life’s intrusions would crush that shell very easily. I felt totally, absolutely alone. And I probably was alone because I pretty much had abandoned God.
One of your oldest friends, Geoff MacCormack, told me that he felt your refusal to fly in the Seventies kept you alive, because you were forced to have a lot of down time in trains, boats and cars.
Taking trains rooted me. Having to cope with the general public. Especially in Russia. I can remember taking the Trans-Siberian express, reading about Goebbels. I thought I wanted to make that book into a movie (laughter).
….Goebbels intrigued me more than any of the other Nazis because of the way he used the media. He was an extraordinary guy. He used the media the way nobody used it. It was at his instigation that Hitler flew everywhere – it had never been done before.
….Goebbels had a club foot. There were rumours that he had a Jewish heritage. It made him an intriguing specimen. This was 1975 ‘ I’also took along a book on the cabbala. All this stuff was going on at once.
….And my other fascination with the Nazis was their search for the Holy Grail. There was this theory that they had come to England at some point before the war to Glastonbury Tor to try to find the Holy Grail. It was this Arthurian need, this search for a mythological link with God.
….But somewhere along the line it was perverted by what I was reading and what I was drawn to. And it was nobodys fault but my own. I was never turned by some satanist. It all happened in LA. There was something horrible permeating the air in LA in those days. The stench of Manson and the Sharon Tate murders.
Is that why you moved to Berlin from LA?
I had certainly collected a motley crew of people who would keep turning up at the house. A lot of dealers. Real scum. And I knew I had to change the environment and be in a place where I wasn’t considered a rock star.
….And also I wanted to get away from this whole magic and cabbala thing that I was into. I was just looking for some answers. Some secret. Some life force. I had this religious fervour. The search for the Holy Grail. That was my real fascination with the Nazis. The whole thing that in the Thirties they had come over to Glastonbury Tor. And naively, politically, I didnt even think about what they had done.
….Politically, I equated Fascism with Communism, or rather Stalinism. On my trips through Russia I thought, well, this is what Fascism must have felt like. They marched like them. They saluted like them. Both had centralized governments.
….It’s hard to see that you could get involved with all that and not see the implications of what you were getting into. But at the time I was obsessed with the idea that the Nazis were looking for the Holy Grail.
….The monumentalism of Albert Speer I found fascinating. And I was interested in the symbols of the Nazis. I think they are the most powerful set of symbols that have ever been invoked in terms of political history. The swastika. They took a Buddhist symbol, the Eastern symbol of the sun, and turned it around so it became a symbol of the dark. That intrigued me about the Nazis. Who was the magus? Who was the black magician?
….And so I wanted to leave all that behind. And Berlin appealed to me because of German Expressionism. It was the artistic and cultural gateway of Europe in the Twenties and virtually anything important that happened in the arts happened there. And I wanted to plug into that instead of LA and their seedy magic shops.
….So I moved to Berlin, having no idea it was the heroin capital of Europe. It was quite crushing to get there and find all these young kids hanging out at Zoo Bahnhof, all these rent boys and prostitutes, 13-and 14-year-olds, getting their smack money.
….But what I did like about Berlin is that there were a lot of students there and quite an excitement. There were a lot of young people and a lot of old people and nobody in the middle area. And you didn’t see much of the old people so it was a young people’s town. I was 30. just over the hill. A very small hill.
….Berlin was big on rock and clubs and going out, the neo-Expressionists were just starting to paint. And there was the poignant side of it, the Turkish quarter, where they were all herded into the poor area. You could feel the ghetto being built. But I didn’t feel the rise of the neo-Nazis until just before I moved out, and then it started to get quite nasty. They were very vocal, very visible. They used to wear these long green coats, crew cuts and march along the streets in Dr Marten’s. You just crossed the street when you saw them coming. just before I left, the coffee bar below my apartment was smashed up by Nazis and the people were pulled out and beaten up. I went down there and they were quite distressed. I think I gave them something for their window. And I thought – this is not a place for Joe to be growing up. This could get worse.
Is that when your relationship with Joe, your son, really started to develop?
I didn’t give him enough time until about 1975. Then I took over from that point as father and parent. Up until that point his nanny had been his mother. His real mother was in and out of his life. And it was a pretty rotten childhood, I think. Probably one of the major regrets of my life is that I didn’t spend enough time with him when he was really young. But hopefully I have been making up for that over the last ten years or so.
….My son was definitely a major catalyst in making me stop and evaluate what I was trying to do with my life. Because I had given my life away – to work, to extremism, to jumping into taboos. All I was getting was mental exhaustion and pain. It might have added some kind of superficial dressing to my writing because I was exploring areas that the rest of society wasn’t prepared to deal with themselves.
….But I thought – am I doing it for me? Or am I just being the clown for society? And I knew I didn’t want to do it anymore.
….I knew that if I was going to retain my sanity then I had to build up a character within myself My own character. And try to pull back what had become fragments.
….I am happy that Joe seems to have been protected from much of the dreadful psychological repercussions. After Berlin we went off to New York. That was 1979-1980, about the time when I was in the play of The Elephant Man. We moved to Switzerland about 1981. And from then on our life in Switzerland has been very constant.
What was the emotional genais of Ziggy Stardust
There was a theory that one creates a doppelginger and then imbues that with all your faults and guilts and fears and then eventually you destroy him, hopefully destroying all your guilt, fear and paranoia. And I often feel that I was doing that unwittingly, creating an alternative ego that would take on everything that I was insecure about.
….Ziggy served my purpose because I found it easier to function through him, although I probably put myself on a path of pure psychological damage by doing what I did. But it felt like it was going to be easier living through an alternative self.
….Of course the major problem was that I was blurring the lines between sanity and an insane figure, and finally did break the lines down in the mid-Seventies where I really couldn’t perceive the difference between the stage persona and myself.
You once said.- “People say, ‘Oh my family are absolutely mad,’but with my family they really were. “
And I was always very ambiguous about it. It scared me that my own sanity was in question at times, but on the other hand I found it fascinating that my family had this streak of insanity – more than a streak.
….Several of my mother’s sisters committed suicide or were manic depressives or schizophrenics, and my half-brother Terry was both – he was manic depressive and schizophrenic.
….I often wondered at the time how near the line I was going and how far I should push myself. I thought that I would be serving my mental health better if I was always aware that insanity was a real possibility in my life.
….It was a dangerous game because I was putting myself in an area where insanity is seen as just some kind of personality trait – a characteristic of a person that was to be applauded, almost. The Iggy Pops of the world. And I was drawn to those people, I immediately felt an empathy and an attraction. I was perhaps using these people to create doppelgangers. Especially a character called Vince Taylor.
….I met Vince Taylor at the Giaconda on Tottenham Court Road, which was my general hang-out in the mid-Sixties. Everybody would be there – would-bes, had-beens and gonna-bes.
….Vince Taylor was a has-been in England already. He had come over from America because he wasn’t making it there and did a series of British TV shows as one of the variations of Elvis. Of all the Elvis imitators he was the most authentic because he was American. He wasn’t very good though. He was very charismatic but his music was dreadful.
….He had this endless stream of parties that would go on at his house for days and days. One day, on Tottenham Court Road in the middle of the rush hour, he took out a map of the world and put it on the pavement. All these people were walking past us and he was showing me where the alictis were keeping their arms and encampments. Vince Taylor went to France and became big there. And then one night he went out on stage in white robes, sacked his band and proclaimed himself the son of God. It was all part of the stew for the Ziggy character.
Did you feel a kinship with the other people who started to get recognition in the early Seventies?
Only the ones who had the stance of it being some kind of breakdown between high and low art – there were only a few of us. [David) Johannson was very good, he was part of a Warhol crowd and he knew exactly what they were doing. I’m not sure Marc [Bolan] ever did – he just wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star. Johnny Thunders was into the Keith Richards archetype. Myself and Roxy Music were very aware of what we were doing.
Bryan Ferry had studied with Richard Hamilton.
Absolutely. And Eno of course was very aware of what they were doing, breaking down the barriers between high and low art. I cant speak for either Brians, but I don’t think that any of us felt there was a movement or any unified culture. Because all that had fragmented by the time the Seventies began. Perhaps because we were at the start of a decade. Let’s see – 1993 – who have we got at the moment? There’s this cyclical thing with Suede. They are very referential, although I think they are doing more than just imitating.
And funnily enough Brett Anderson of Suede has just given his “I am bisexual” statement in Melody Maker, almost exactly 20 years afteryou did.
That’s extraordinary. I won’t say I knew that because I didn’t. But there’s something in the writing; I felt that he understood very deeply the ambiguity of sexuality.
….He said, ‘I see myself as a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience. That’s the way I approach my songwriting. If you are asking am I insincere to pose as a sodomite when I’ve never had someones cock up my arse, then no, I’m not. The sexuality you express is not limited to the things you’ve experienced. I mean, if you’re a virgin, does that make you asexual?” He’s been accused of hijacking gay imagery. Blurring the borders to make things more interestingfor everybody.
….It amuses me that gays are often so protective about being gay. It has got to be black or white. There is often a limited response among gays to people who have ambiguities about their own sexuality. You have to come out and be one thing or the other.
….The Brett quote came in a debate about sex in music. Funnily enough, your name came up quite a bit. Boy George was there and he said that in the early Seventies you gave him something to hope for, you showed him that there were other people like him in the world. But George also said that he always thought you were more gay than you actually were. And then later, when it became clear how much youliked women, he was disappointed in you. You were not the gay Elvis after all.
….Yeah, with gays it is very much us and them. That’s unfortunate. In the States, towards the end of the Seventies, I think the gay body was pretty hostile towards me because I didn’t seem to be supporting the gay movement in. any kind of way. And I was sad about that. Because I had come to the realization that I was pretty much heterosexual. Now I even have a problem relating to my life and my sexuality in the early Seventies.
….But it annoys me when people say, oh, but you were gay, like it was something bad to have been. And I say – well, what’s wrong with that? Although I no longer consider myself gay or even bisexual it should@t be assumed that therefore I have decided that heterosexual is correct and gay is wrong. That is the furthest thing from my mind. It is just that psychologically it was a decision that was made for me, in my head somewhere. There was never the thought, oh well, I’ll be straight now. Because life isn’t like that. And gays will tell you that. They didnt wake up one day and make a decision to be gay. They are gay. It just happens to be the reverse for me.
….I was exploratory and there was so much that fascinated me. I guess it came from my own ambivalence about what my sexuality was when I was young. And then I remember reading – sometime in the late Sixties – City Of Night by John Rechy. A gay novel. A stunning piece of writing. I found out later that it was a bible among gay America but I didnt know it at the time.
….There was something in the book akin to my feelings of loneliness. I thought this is a lifestyle I really have to explore because I recognize things in this book that are really how I feel. And that led me a merry dance in the early Seventies, when gay clubs really became my lifestyle and all my friends were gay.
….I really opted to drown in the euphoria of this new experience which was a real taboo with society. And I must admit I loved that aspect of it. But as the years went on it became a thing where, sexually, I was pretty much with women the majority of the time. But I still had a lot of the trappings of gay society about me. In terms of the way I would parade or costume myself or my attitudes in some of the interviews I did. I remember doing the Russell Harty show – and I was definitely doing my gay bit on that show.
I remember that, you were really camping it up.
Yeah, in a really decisive way, to make a point. It seemed to be the one taboo that everyone was too afraid to break. I thought – well, if there’s one thing that’s going to put me on the edge, this is it. Long hair didn’t mean much any more. So I thought – right. Let’s really go into the gay lifestyle and see what that’s about and see how people relate to me. If they can.
What excited you as a child?
The most exciting thing was the remnants of the Teddy Boys. It was exciting seeing them still on the streets. And I remember seeing two of them having a fight. I was on the other side of the road and it was really exciting. And I felt quite scared because I was near them. I was only about ten or II and I couldn’t take my eyes off them. And they had chains. Bicycle chains. I didn’t run away, I wanted to watch them beating the shit out of each other.
Has your accent changed since you were a kid?
No, not at all.
Your eyes are different colours because of a famous teenage fight that damaged the sphincter muscles of your left eye so that the pupil remains permanently open. Did getting your eye mashed up affect your vision?
Dramatically. I was very worried about it. It was very bad in the early days. It’s got a little better but not much. The further away I get everything’s just brown. Everything’s blurry with the left eye. That was quite a shock for both George [George Underwood, Bowie’s lifelong friend, who punched him in the eye] and I.
….I was shocked that anyone could be that angry. It was over this girl that we were both going out with. George is the kind of guy who would probably remember her name. It was my fault. I knew he was going out with her. And I decided that I wanted to go out with her as well. Then he came at me! One lunch hour! And whacked me so hard in the eye…
….I thought I had learned my lesson. I had a black eye. And then a couple of days later the eye just exploded. My dad rushed me to the London Eye Hospital and I had an emergency operation on it. The only other person I’ve ever seen with eyes like this is Little Richard.
The new album, Black Tie White Noise, sounds like Heroes in love. Or a black Kraftwerk.
With this album I feel that it’s going to get a really good reaction among my hard-core fans. But how much of an audience something gets is really down to the singles these days and I really dont know what they would release as a single.
Your great gift is to slip in and out of the mainstream. Low was a retreatjrom the mainstream. Let’s Dance was slipping back into it.
God, was that slipping into the mainstream! The success of Let’s Dance was very disconcerting. It was terribly rewarding financially and it was rewarding seeing so many people going back to my old albums. To see relatively young kids come up with things that I’d done maybe ten years previously. But I’d become used to being a cult artist. And that’s where I had grown to be comfortable. So suddenly being on television all the time and a stadium act – it was very odd. It was very strange for me and it really put me off balance.
….I was not in great shape to accept success at any level. So it could not have come at a worse time for me. I was still fighting desperately to stop the drug thing, which was intermittent by then, but kept coming back. I told everyone that I was no longer an addict – including myself – because it was only occasional. But of course those occasions got closer and closer together. I would have a great spree for a few weeks, then stop and turn back to alcohol. It’s an absurd situation because you say, oh, I’ve kicked everything – but yotire a virtual alcoholic.
….Drink is the most depressing of all addictions because it takes you so far up and throws you back down. And so as a writer and an artist I really didn’t have much to hang on to any more. And it has been a very, very slow process of coming back again. And I dare say it isn’t over. I dare say that none of our searches are really over.
Your work often seems to hold up a mirror to itself.
I think I have a certain vocabulary that, however much I change stylistically, there is a real core of imagery. I don’t see any abrupt changes in what I’ve done. To a symbolist, which is what I am, characters and situations are manifestations of things that he cant explain.
….But what often amuses me is the reaction to a song like “Loving The Alien” – where so many reviewers said, oh, Bowie out in space again. And the alien in this case was Muslim, which is prophetic because here I am married to one. I was talking about people being aliens to each other.
I get the feeling that you didn’t think you would get married again. Do you find it difficult to combine sex and romance?
All sex and no romance was the problem. Or there were a number of platonic friendships, which I still have. The human bond was rarely there – another drugs spin-off. Sex becomes a release of energy. All that energy just ends up as sex.
….When I was trying to straighten everything out in my life I met Melissa [the young dancer Bowie was engaged to in the late Eighties], who is such a wonderful, lovely, vibrant girl. I was immediately drawn to her exuberance and natural curiosity about life. And I guess it became one of those older man-younger girl situations where I had the joy of taking her around the world and showing her things. But it became quite obvious to me that it just wasn’t going to work out as a relationship – and for that she would thank me one of these days. So I broke off the engagement.
….That was three years – a big part of my life. I was depressed. It was like starting out all over. And I really wasnt looking for another relationship. But then over dinner I met Iman.
….We were brought together by a mutual friend who thought we would get on very well. We were wary of each other but the attraction was mutual right from the beginning. She had also gone through a broken marriage and wasn’t looking for a permanent relationship.
….But so much of what we shared was similar. We had both achieved success. We knew the same people throughout the world. We both had children. A year and a half later we got married.
Have you become more capable of loving someone? 0r is she the right woman at the right time?
I hope I have become more capable of loving someone without being possessive of them. And wanting to control them. It’s knowing how to lei go of the other person and let them be who they are. A major character fault of mine is that I do try to control people.
….But my wife has a very strong sense of who she is. She comes from a strong clan system in Somalia. Her family go back many generations. And that’s probably what I need in my life – someone who doesnt have a fractured personality, very down to earth, not flippant.
….Life has become more precious to me. For a long time I felt that I was treading water. I kept looking at my watch – well, life should be over pretty soon, I’ll soon be out of here. I was totally nihilistic. It wouldn’t have bothered me if I had died tomorrow. But I have retrieved my passion for life. But death wodt come as a shock when it happens. I have been too near to it.
What do we tell our sons about sex and drugs?
Not all experiments end up in a discovery. Some of the drugs we were playing around with were a cul-de-sac. So many of us have been casualties and some of us have been fortunate enough to come back. But we shouldn’t be afraid to experiment.
….Experimentation is about pushing the parameters of our knowledge. It is the spirit of Dionysus – the energy that makes us what we are.
….What scares me at the moment is that we are becoming narrower and shallower. There’s a loutish consensus that seems to be sweeping the Western world and reducing us to Philistines – which is quite hard on the Philistines. We are becoming cultural thugs.
….AIDS is being used as a manipulative device to keep people in their place. That’s the one thing that really scares me. Even when it began to dawn on me that my orientation was heterosexual, I was still experimenting and playing around in gay and bisexual areas. I needed to feel comfortable within my own sexuality. What really worries me about young people today is that they are going to be screwed up by their own orientation.
….We are aware that for the first time in our history that the sexual act can bring about death. But we must not let AIDS become a banner that can be waved by right-wing elements to herald some new morality. AIDS is being used as a reason why nobody must experiment. But we have to be aware that everybody must feel comfortable in their sexuality.
….I feel that a lot of what happened in the early Seventies was good – it brought sexuality into the open and people didnt have to feel like a prisoner or a victim or outsider. But whatever was discovered then has been receding over the last few years. We cant allow society to make us sexually impotent, which is what it is trying to do. We shouldn’t shun that curious investigative spirit. It’s the greatest gift we have.