David Bowie: Ornament – Oddity – Artist – Survivor

by Tina Clarke / Elle

May 1990

David Bowie, the decorous dandy of rock, is well into his third decade as a recording artis. More than any of his peers in the pantheon of pop music dinosaurs, Bowie has deftly mirrored the widely rapid changes in our culture, his success aided by a trend-hounds unerring instinct for making the most of appearances. In the seventies he was he was the epitome of outrageous chic. Starting the decade in glamorous dresses, he ended it as the perfectly theatrical emissary of the video age, having lighted on an amazing variety of styles in between. In the early eighties he represented a more sober type of sophistication; then, following the failure of his ostentatiously vapid Glass Spider tour in 1987-a production so adventurous, one marveled at the mind that would dream up such excess-he returned to a simpler, more direct approach, with the harsh rock of his new band, Tin Machine.

….As an adolescent, Bowie-then know as David Jones-had aspirations to become a painter, and studied art and graphic design at Bromley Technical High School in Britain. After a brief stint as a commercial artist in a London advertising agency, Bowie tried his hand at theater, training during the late sixties under expert guidance of avant-garde mime artist Lindsay Kemp. When he finally devoted his attention to rock n roll , his apprenticeship in the arts served him well: a Bowie performance smacked more of a theatrical vignette than a straight-ahead wall-of-sound concert, as the singer painted himself with a palette of fantastic costumes and created an ever-growing cast of weird, on-stage characters. Bowies influence as an artist is as great as it is varied, with ramifications not only in music but in dance, theater, and fashion.

….His critics have observed that Bowie was often not hate first to don a particular style, but they admit that he certainly knew how to make it fashionable. In the mid-seventies, soon after discarding Ziggy Stardusts glittery sci-fi androgyny, Bowie, ever the expert chameleon, made a startling change: suddenly dressed in smartly tailored suits-and known as the Thin White Duke-he became the dispassionate arbiter of a new, cooly electronic musical style. In a flash, it was hip to look aloof and refined, yet, Bowie had already stepped forward to experiment with such other guises as the clownish surrealist of the “Ashes to Ashes” video and the elegant pastel prima donna of the Serious Moonlight tour.

….In addition to his concert histrionics, Bowie pursued a parallel career in movies and plays. Although he refers to his film work derisively as “splashing in the kids pool,” Bowie gave convincing performances in such features as Nicolas Roegs The man Who Fell To Earth, Nagisa Oshimas Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and Martin Scorseses The Last Temptation Of Christ. He also starred in a BBC production of Bertolt Brechts Baal and, long before the current stampede of Broadway wanabes from the rock world, appeared in a 1980 New York production of The Elephant Man. For his next acting project, Bowie, who has always had a pronounced weakness for innovative film directors, simply says, “I’m waiting for David Lynch.”

….In the meantime Bowies schedule is characteristically hectic. He recently began a worldwide tour, aptly called Sound + Vision. Bowie promises that this tour-an end and a beginning-featuring simple Brechtian lighting and videotaped segments of the outlandish Montreal dance troupe La La La Human Steps, will be the last time he performes his seemingly endless repertoire of hit songs from the past 20 years. To coincide with this production, all of Bowies recordings from 1969s David Bowie through 1980s Scary Monsters are being re-released in compact disc format. While preparing for his global expedition with Sound + Vision, Bowie, at 43 still one of rocks most conspicuous mannequins, took time out in a New York rehearsal studio to discuss his career.

Fashion seems to have played a crucial role throughout your career, particularly during the seventies, when one could draw fairly direct parallels between the way you dressed and your music

There is a certain age when fashion is very important to you. It helps you feel that you’re establishing how you feel inside. I guess you start to learn that you don’t have to express yourself like that [with fashion] to be confident about the way that you feel. Though, in retrospect, fashion does seem to have played a role, but at the time it was simply a matter of staging the show. There was a point where it was quite fun to say, “Well, if I wear things, I suppose in the next few months well start to see a lot of these around.” In 1976, I stopped being so bothered about dressing the show. The last really dressed show was Diamond Dogs. That was good fun and dangerous, with the equipment breaking down and the bridges falling apart on stage. I kept getting stuck out over the audiences heads, on the hydraulic cherry picker, after the finish of “Space Oddity.”

Perhaps the most memorably dressed tour was Ziggy Stardust. The costumes were shockingly new, so outrageous. It was thrilling.

That was Kanzai Yamamoto. All those clothes for the original Ziggy show were designed by Kanzai, who at the time was probably regarded as Japan’s most avant-garde designer. Nobody would buy his stuff-people loved looking at it, though. His clothes were all art pieces and all his fashion were sort of like Japanese No plays. They were absolutely extraordinary, they really were. Because he was a very strong, samurai-type man, he would present his shows dressed in full samurai gear. The light was all black light and suddenly a blue shaft would come out, and then there would someone with lions red hair from the Kubuki theater shouting “Arghhhh!,” as huge great rice drums went boom, boom, boom. He would have 100 people on stage playing drums. It was absolutely spectacular. I thought it would suit exactly what we were trying to do. So I got in touch with him and he designed all the Ziggy clothes.

I hope you’ve kept all those clothes.

I’m a clotheshorse. And everything fits. We did a photo session a few weeks ago and we put on a lot of the old clothes, for laughs-the photographer had the laugh. I put them on and everything fit! It was really weird. I’ve been constantly 140 pounds for over 15 years, though I dropped a bit in the seventies [during a bout with drugs]. On tour I burn up quit a few pounds every night, but it comes back real fast the next day. Once you’ve had breakfast you get back up. But I never come off tour more then five pounds different than I started. My father was exactly the same.

Like many of your peers during the seventies you were linked to drug abuse, a seemingly necessary evil for the creative process during that period. Its a cliche, but as an artist is it necessary to suffer?

You can have real sufferings, not sufferings that are avoid of any emotional experience or any spiritual insight. That’s not suffering, that’s faking it.

Some of your recent songs, particularly those you wrote last year with Tin Machine, seem to reflect a very personal struggle.

All I can do is write about my own experiences and how I feel. Things like I Cant Read come from my own desperations, not from watching or observing other people. Crack City is because of my own very intense and dangerous liaison with cocaine in the mid-seventies. I know ups and downs of that, specifically the downs. Its not an irony that I’m writing about that particular kind of thing. Its a very important part of my life because I, like many others, was lucky enough to survive it. Looking back and seeing what it did to me physically and emotionally and spiritually had a strong enough effect to make me write about it. It may be very trite to say, but it really is dangerous. I express myself very graphically because I think that people who are really involved in it don’t want to hear much philosophizing about it. Its also very, very important to recover because I. to a certain extent, lost my son [Duncan Zowie, born in 1971, his only child from his eight-year marriage to Angela Barnet] during that period. I lost a lot in the seventies. Its only over the last 10 years that I’ve slowly been getting everything and everybody back together and feeling like a whole human being. I’m making my art serve me and not having me serve my art, which is just another way of working. People say, “Why cant he be like he used to be? Its more fun for us to watch him fucking up.” Fuck em. I’m not interested. I’m actually enjoying my life now far too much to put myself that much out there anymore. I’m not going to be Badelare, I’m not going to be Verlaine, and I don’t mean Tom. Whoops. Art joke, folks.

As an artist, what are the other sources of inspiration for your work?

I often don’t know how I’ve come up with half the things I’ve come up with. Whereas Brian Eno [with whom he collaborated on the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger] knows why he’s come out with what he comes out with. He’d say, “Yes, it is interesting and I tell you why.” He would would tell me about my own work. He’d say, “Do you know what you’ve done there?” That took half the magic out of it, but Brians great at that. Its not a putdown, because its a very contemporary thing for a lot of people in the vanguard of art. A perfect example is Julian Schnable-and I don’t mean to sound derogatory to Brian here because I don’t think it works the same way for him. But I think Schnabels talked his way to the top of the art scene because he’s so wonderfully self-analytical. He will talk you into seeing how important his works are. He can talk about his paintings in a concise and intellectual manner. I’m not a huge fan of his work, but he feels its very important for an artist to be able to explain his work. I take great pride in being totally artistically inarticulate.

Andy Warhol, whom you wrote a song about on Hunky Dory, seems to have been a big influence.

I suppose he was, but I’m not sure where. I think it was the atmosphare of Warhol rather than any one particular thing he did. I think that’s what most people glean from him. He set New York up for me, an Englishman. Having never been to America before, I wanted to see New York Andy Warhols way. Fighting that, I also wanted to see it like Hubert Selby, like Last Exit To Brooklyn. I wanted to see that side of it as well. There were all these different guys who’d written and painted New York in all these different ways and I wanted to see it from all their perspectives:

You also had a fascination with the beat poets.

That’s what made me a real nut for America. I had this whole thing about it. It was sort of my Shangri-la, the whole idea of America. It still is, to a certain extent I adore it. I think America is great. I have a great time here. Of course, theirs a lot to hate about it, but the majority I love.

Its said the English have never really gotten over losing their American colonies.

I think they’ve ever recovered from that fact. The English and their empire. Most islands races are like that. They’re quite like the Japanese in that respect. When the rugs pulled out from from under their feet, they don’t quite know how to recover. The Japanese are the same: everything is fine when its going fine, but if something goes wrong, they have no ability to cope with it.

What about your current relationship with Canadian artists and Canada?

I think there’s a lot happening in Canada. There’s a couple of very exciting bands in Montreal that Edouard Lock [La La Las choreographer and artistic director] has clued me into. Montreals got some good stuff going on. Its this terrific potpourri of ideas and nuances. Its good. Its like New Orleans without the cocke habit. That was where the first coke epidemic of the century took place, lets not forget.

Lock is choreographing the Sound + Vision tour. How would you characterize La La Las style?

You’ve never seen anything like them before. They’re probably the leading avant-garde dance troupe in North America. Louise Lecavalier, their star, is like nothing else you’ve ever seen on stage. She’s absolutely phenomenal. We’re doing some filmed clips for the video sections in the show. For one thing, the dynamics of what they do is so intense that hey couldn’t work with the kind of hours we’re doing, because we’re doing a two-and-a-half-hour show. The dance troupe is unbelievable. Its where punk and ballet clash with each other.

One might describe your own impact that way. Over the years you’ve combined so many disparte elements, you’ve evolved into a kind of mini-industry.

I had no choice. I couldn’t paint well enough.

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