by David Lister / The Independent
24th September 1994
A private room above a London restaurant: the monthly meeting of the editorial board of the art magazine Modern Painters is in session. Lord Gowrie, Jeremy Isaacs and assorted fine-art intellectuals are deep in discussion about trends in contemporary art.
Among them, conspicuously tanned and goateed, is a newcomer from another world. He throws in an anecdote about a famous New York artist he was dining with the night before, and then hesitantly suggests an exhibition for review.
David Bowie, amateur painter and art collector, professional global rock superstar, has joined the cultural establishment.
And how does the cultural establishment react? Slowly and at the neck. ‘When he was first introduced to us,’ recalls one of the Modern Painters board, ‘everyone just carried on as normal, pretending it was nobody special. It wasn’t even discussed afterwards. But then at the next month’s dinner they all came wearing really trendy, snazzy ties.’
Modern Painters is a weighty tome resting on a particular manifesto: to extol the painterly virtues, expose the pretension of the contemporary, attack the supposed fraudulence of installations of, say, the school of Damien Hirst. Is this a middle-aged Bowie’s natural home on Planet Earth? Well, perhaps.
When the London gallery owner Bernard Jacobson introduced him to Modern Painters, of which he is a director, Bowie was anxious to contribute. He said he lived near the 86-year-old painter Balthus in Switzerland and might be able to persuade him to be interviewed.
Bowie told Balthus he would bring a professional writer along, but Balthus said, ‘Heavens no, please don’t bring a critic.’ So Bowie conducted and wrote the interview himself, 15,000 words of it.
‘I was petrified,’ he says. ‘Driving there, I nearly turned back three times. I kept thinking, what an impertinence.’ But the result is striking; Balthus spoke about his friends, among them Matisse, and recounted matter-of-factly how ‘Picasso defended me against the surrealists’. Bowie’s contribution – enthusiasm and lack of pretension or cynicism – makes it quite unlike any interview carried out by an art critic.
‘As with any aged gentleman that I come into contact with, my immediate need is to treat him as the grandfather I never knew or the father I needed more of.’
David Bowie is 47, somewhere in the middle of a life which he has spent inventing and reinventing himself, and almost certainly at the end of the line that led from a boyhood in suburban Bromley to rock superstardom. And he knows it. ‘In the mid-Eighties I lost the trade winds and found myself in the creative doldrums. I was still writing as much as ever, but I wasn’t happy about the quality of it. I was pandering to a certain audience.’
Nobody would argue with that. Even his more devoted followers have little idea of what he has been up to in the past decade – a tour where he seemed to function on automatic pilot, a back-to-basics collaboration with a minor rock outfit, Tin Machine. Rock ‘n’ roll suicide.
It was the end of something special. More than any of his contemporaries, Bowie stretched the limits of the popular song and the conventional concert, creating haunting images, carrying off outlandish theatrical strokes, dreaming up characters that stayed in the memory, playing sexual games of a beauty and subtlety that none of the other androgynous ones equalled, exorcising personal traumas and haunted memories.
He arrived in the public consciousness with his song ‘Space Oddity’ (‘Ground control to Major Tom’ and so on) at the end of the Sixties, and a sort of space oddity is what he very studiously attempted to stay, trading on his strangeness, inventiveness and physical grace. Where did it come from, all this stuff? From a south London boy who started out as David Jones with a band called the Lower Third, a musician who thought himself a painter, who learnt mime with Lindsay Kemp; an antic genius of the times, a boy who, it transpired later, was exorcising demons from home in the form of an adored schizophrenic brother who committed suicide and who was never spoken of, at least not publicly or in prose, but was to be sighted in songs called ‘All the Madmen’ or ‘The Bewley Brothers’.
His early Seventies albums won a teenybop following with catchy rock ‘n’ roll rhythms; a separate following which enjoyed the fantasy figures he created – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Jean Genie; and a gay following that mimicked his costumes, his make-up, his fantasies. There was a time when Bowie was all things to all men and all women.
Bowie has never lived by rock alone, not even nearly. Glamour and interest are at his very core. To see him, his arm around his wife Iman, one of the taller and more striking women on earth, is to know that the paparazzi will never lose interest.
As an over-dinner interviewee he is charming, solicitous and assiduously polite. He is living quietly in Switzerland, he says, hatching plans of new worlds to conquer: indulging his old love for painting, and drawing in charcoal, and in deep interaction with computers. For it is in this relationship that his music career lies.
No more stories, no more lyrics from an imagination on heat. Instead, computer-generated songs with video and animation attached; interactive so that the viewer/listener need never hear the same music twice. We may not be humming too many tunes in the new millennium.
This is how it goes in his studio: Bowie sings into his computer disk, which throws back the lyrics at random. Next year he releases an interactive CD-Rom, which the viewer/listener can manipulate.
Peter Gabriel and Prince have already experimented with CD-Roms, but Bowie promises that his will go much further, and be more than one-off novelties. ‘I hadn’t realised how bad the stuff out there is,’ he says. ‘They concentrate on archive material and the game aspects of Prince’s are not enough.’
But not too much detail now. ‘This is such a hot, competitive business now that it’s dangerous to say too much. But the user will create a visual experience and it will be non-repeatable. I would nervously suggest it is an art piece. I find much more fulfilment now in listening to albums of mine like Low or Heroes or Scary Monsters which have non-linear form than the autonomous narrative pieces which don’t have the sense of the ill-fitting fragments of our society.
‘I devised a program and it spat out the information back to me. A lot of it was cohesive and I would sing or scream what the information was. It’s not without a sense of irony. If William Burroughs had a computer, that’s the sort of automatic writing he would do now.’
No more songs then? ‘I’m very interested in breaking down the barriers that exist between the different art forms,’ he replies. ‘There’s a big Post-Modernist shake-up. I don’t think it is enough any more to make a record. It’s a visual society now. I think the emphasis on narrative form in song is going to disappear completely and that will be replaced by visual form. It has a lot to do with the rise of the Post-Modernist trend; but I suppose it’s a more defined version of Sartre’s existentialism. We’re detached from belief systems. The rational is probably an outmoded scale to measure our existence by. I live 90 per cent of my life within my interior.’
Next week the second string to Bowie’s renaissance, his involvement in the visual arts, will be made public. Some of his artwork, digitised video stills of charcoal and chalk drawings of minotaurs for an unwritten play, will be exhibited for the first time at a show at the Flowers East Gallery in London for the charity War Child, starting next Wednesday. It’s not actually typical of the 300 works of art that Bowie has completed since the Seventies, many of which are on large canvases in his homes in London, the United States and Switzerland.
But that’s Bowie for now.