BOWIE GOLDEN YEARS

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FROM BRIXTON TO BERLIN

Michael Watts reports from the German film set where David Bowie is making Just A Gigolo

Michael Watts | Melody Maker | February 1978

DOWNSTAIRS, in the blood-orange cavern of the Cafe Wien, David Bowie and Kim Novak are tangoing amongst bare tables.

Here, especially at this noon hour, one may usually find the old ladies and gentlemen of Berlin sitting over their black coffees and their memories; but a red plush curtain shuts out the world of the Kurfurstendamm, and the vast room echoes to the sounds of the dance floor: the ringing heels of shoes - one pair in black patent leather, the other low-cut in silver - the cavalier strains of the tango, and the coaxing voice of the dance coach.

Novak, her thick, blonde hair cut in a bob and surmounted by a large white feather, is a glittering kingfish in royal blue. Bowie, as hippy and angular as ever, looks uncannily, in his tight, black pants and waistcoat and white shirt, like the stage performer of his last tour.

Together they wheel and dip and advance with outstretched arms, their bodies cocked at each other, for this is a dance that was spawned in the brothels of Buenos Aires; and her expression, as she swings around in his arms, is rapt, although it may be that she is really concentrating on the piece of gum that has never left her mouth.

They have been at it for more than two hours, working up heat and "polishing, polishing, polishing", when the coach orders a rest; and Bowie flops at a table. "Look, maw," he announces delightedly to the few people standing around, "I kin tango at last! Kin ah go into town and git me a gal now?"

THIS is my third day of filming on Just A Gigolo but I have only just become used to the changes in David Bowie.

Initially, of course, they are physical. For the part of a Twenties gigolo, of Austro-German parentage, tie has been required to look conventionally handsome.

His once-red hair has returned to its original pale colour and is sleekly parted on the right, so that his face seems delicate, even refined, where in the past it has been provocative; and then, without that violent cockade of hair, those infamous platform boots and generally, flamboyant accoutrements, the cultivated appearance of a gentleman comes easily within his means - though he will never be a John Buchan hero; he's just a trifle too good-looking.

More fundamentally, though, he is not the David Bowie he began with five years ago, the Bowie whose charm was outrageous and excitable, who transparently calculated his effects, who vulgarised his sexuality for theatrical ends, and whose anxieties about what he was doing plainly lay not far beneath the surface.

That is a somewhat different man from this decently British, unaffected chap filming now in Berlin who every morning, in a burst of enthusiasm, brings me Polaroid snapshots of his paintings, mounted in a brown leather album.

And how can it be? For Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Cracked Actor, and other assumed roles gather dust in a closet somewhere in America, most probably Los Angeles, and David Bowie has turned 30 years of age. For 18 months now he has lived quietly in Berlin, whilst maintaining in Switzerland a house he rarely visits for Angie Bowie, the other half of his still-celebrated marriage.

He has chosen Berlin largely for its cultural reputation, and particularly for its associations with Expressionist art, a style which also establishes the mood of his own, rather impressive, paintings.

The fiercely emotional content of Expressionism - which the artist Kandinsky once described as "the element of the inner impression" - is unmistakable in his anguished portrait of Iggy Pop (who has his own apartment in Berlin), another of himself which has a distinctly predatory look, and (his own favourite) a picture of Yukio Mishima dominated by huge, unnerving eyes - in all of them the eyes are like vortices dragging one into the painter's orbit.

Furthermore, it was the severe style of the Brücke artists earlier this century as well as Man Ray, he insists - that influenced the brilliant black-and-white stage settings of his last touring show.

So, it has been Berlin and art; and next year he even intends to enrol in an art college, either in Berlin or Basle. But now, all the moments when he is not touring, making records or filming he spends painting. The day is for the culture palaces of Berlin, the evening is for paint and brushes, he says.

It is not Berlin's sybaritic reputation that impresses him. Long ago he had his fill of "decadent" Berlin - the fuck-clubs and the drag bars with their ageing queens, some of them in their sixties and seventies, who are held to be artists. To him it is not the risqué city of myth, and maybe it never was.

He has a good anecdote about his friend, Christopher Isherwood, whose literary reputation was made amongst the events of the late Twenties and Thirties, telling him that even then Berlin was quite boring. And so, according to the story, Isherwood became responsible for the whole legend in the Western world of Berlin's feverish pleasures that the movie Cabaret has reproduced as fact.

"Young Bowie," he had been succinctly informed, "people forget that I'm a very good fiction writer."

BOWIE'S own picture of his life in Berlin is normal to the point of caricature. The Germans do not pester him as he rides around, dressed in peasant's cap and olive windcheater, on his three-speed Raleigh bike.

Berliners are very sardonic, matter of fact. He has found, to his amusement, that they think the British are totally lacking in humour – a neat upending of national stereotypes.

And their own attempts at humour unfailingly delight him. "This is a German joke?" he will ask brightly, and they will flap their hands in disgust and walk away.

There is only one rule: do not speak about the War or the Wall.

Berlin is good because, although he has many German friends, he can be alone, without the pressures of rock stardom. He says hardly anyone visits him, and, since his understanding of German is slight, he keeps in touch reading the Herald International Tribune and the London Times.

It is as though his spiritual convalescence, after traumatic years in America, has actually blossomed into a new life, as he acknowledged on "Low" with "A New Career In A New Town".

Out of the painful separation from MainMan Management, which boosted him as a potent, but uneasy combination of apocalyptic visionary and teenybop star, out of the rigours of roleplaying and the blind dates with drugs, has emerged a more stable, mature person, whose desperation is now reserved for a need to be taken seriously as an artist.

The partnership with Brian Eno on "Low" and "Heroes" seems to have both steadied him and rekindled an enthusiasm for music that was finding no direction.

All his working life he has never had anyone as intelligent as himself with whom he could communicate ideas and from whom he could learn; while Eno's own keen interest in painting, his relationship with the artist Peter Schmidt, has cemented the bond.

Both men are essentially elitists working most visibly in a medium which professes communality and has a large, basically young public that is suspicious of Art, though not of fashion.

A fanatical self-improver, who once lugged trunks full of books across the USSR on the Trans-Siberian Express, Bowie is always fascinating for the ways in which he presents to this audience information from outside rock and roll.

Any moment he could land on his arse, but then his career has been motivated by self-risk as a concept, and he is still very much with us: that is a good basis for speculating that he will outlast and outshine all other contemporary rock performers.

Certainly, his music has always been remarkably receptive to new influences; hence the many changes in style, as different as is the "plastic soul" of "Station To Station" and "Young Americans" from the "new music" of "Low" and "Heroes".

But his voracity for artistic experience was bound to take him outside rock music, which he has said from the early days with MainMan would never monopolise him.

Coolly, with a hint of selfmockery, he now describes himself as a Generalist, a term that embraces all his contradictions as well as activities; as he says, it sounds better than a jack-of-all-trades.

THE film he made two years ago with Nicolas Roeg, The Man Who Fell To Earth, was really an arthouse movie, despite the commercial build-up it had in this country (where it never truly caught on).

Roeg's cold, elliptical and authoritarian direction, together with the abstracted nature of the alien being he was playing, wrung no great performance from its star; but Just A Gigolo, a wry tragi-comedy, does make definite demands of his acting ability.

The director, David Hemmings, whose role as the moddy photographer in Blow Up helped define pop culture in the Sixties just as surely as Bowie has done so in the seventies, is out to make an entertainment. He says that Bowie has caught perfectly a quality of "intelligent helplessness" that his part requires: that of a Prussian officer who returns penniless to Berlin after the First World War and eventually becomes a gigolo, though without ever quite mastering the subtler techniques.

"It's about a boy trying to find his own way in a time and situation which was changing so rapidly that no one knew what they wanted," Hemmings reflects one evening in a local bar, his voice full of those boozy, theatrical tones that increase the distinction of some British actors.

"In the end all the characters opt for the easy way out. They all sell themselves. But it's lightly ironic, tongue-in-cheek, about the period. We have brownshirts, for instance, who march out of tune. We explode the myth of Germanic organisation." The end of the film is literally a dying fall. Bowie, in a closing sequence which prefigures the rise of Hitler, is hit by a stray bullet during streetfighting between the Communists and Nazis.

Both parties try to claim the body, but the Nazis finally bury him as a hero of a cause he never espoused.

Hemmings is complimentary about Bowie. "The character he plays, Paul, makes things happen by default. His presence is always there in the action, but he never quite gets it right, he always slightly misses - a quality that David himself definitely does not have.

"On the contrary, I think David is an achiever, He chances his arm on things and succeeds in most of them. A Renaissance figure, I think." Bowie was suggested for the role by his Italian agent, whom he shares with Sydne Rome, the fawnlike American actress who was in Roman Polanski's What? Here she plays the gigolo's childhood sweetheart who gets involved in the left wing activity of the day, Hemmings went to see Bowie in Montreux and found they had "similar attitudes to things"; in fact, Hemmings, still boyish in his mid-thirties despite greying hair and a cute little paunch, has sung onstage himself, having been a boy soprano and, more recently, a performer in the ill-fated musical, Jeeves. "Yes, I was familiar with his earlier records now I like the later stuff but I don't treat him as a rock star in this film. I think of him only as an actor, and I think if he'd been asked to do more in The Man Who Fell To Earth it would have been a better film.

"What's more, he has a very great asset. The camera likes him. The camera loves him. It makes up for it even when he's not at his best."

Bowie has not lacked movie offers. He has already turned down a part from the Italian director, Lina Wertmüller, whose films, notably The Seven Beauties, have made her the rage of America and continental Europe. "Very Rightist," he explains tersely.

But he was attracted to this film by the chance of working with Hemmings, whom he considers more of an actor's director than is Roeg, and whose advice he is seeking about stage acting.

He is also enthusiastic about its evocations of the turbulent Twenties, a period in art and social history that deeply interests him, one which is referred to in his next film, Wally, about the Expressionist painter Egon Schiele.

In fact, the action of Gigolo begins in 1918, the year which saw the death of Schiele, an artist whose brief life (he died at the age of 28) was lived at a rare emotional pitch and produced work that is frequently tormented and painful.

In July, in Vienna, Bowie begins eight weeks' work on this film, called Wally after one of- Schiele's girlfriends which will be directed by Clive Donner (Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, The Caretaker, etc).

He has a financial interest in Just A Gigolo, which is budgeted for between four and a half and five million dollars, a relatively small outlay for a film which has some intriguing co-stars.

There is Hemmings, of course, who plays his wartime commanding officer and later on a moving force within the growing Nazi party; and there is Curt Jurgens and Kenneth More in a cameo.

But in Paris last December the German producer, Rolf Thiele entered into secret negotiations with Marlene Dietrich, who has not made an international, German-financed movie for more than 40 years, and whose last big role was in Judgement At Nuremberg in 1961.

Amidst great ballyhoo in the Berlin press, she signed her contract earlier this month.

She plays a Baroness who recruits her young army of gigolos for elderly ladies, and has a scene in which she sings a famous old Twenties number, "Schöner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo" ("Pretty Gigolo, Poor Gigolo"), from which the film has been developed.

AND then there is Kim Novak, sex siren of the Fifties, when all Hollywood girls were "curvaceous blonde bombshells" but were neither thought nor expected to have little going for them between the ears.

Novak, like all the other stars excepting Bowie, was suggested by the scriptwriter, an American expatriate in Europe named Joshua Sinclair.

Although in her midforties, with her most famous films, like Bell, Book And Candle, long behind her, she is still a convincing sexpot in the role of a society matron who seduces Bowie and starts him on his professional career in the taxi dance.

When I asked Hemmings if she had been signed for her associations as a sex goddess In a movie that he admits is tongue-in-cheek, he slyly smiled, 'Let's say the possible irony had not escaped my notice." It was certainly not lost on the Italian husband of Sydne Rome, a husky, amorous voiced photographer called Emilio Lari, who had taken exclusive shots of Novak in 1964 when she married actor Richard Johnson in Aspen, Colorado, "I remember paying the Daily Express photographer 1,000 pounds to lure the other photographers away, and then we shot her on this platform in the snow. She remembers it, too." Like many another man on the set of Just A Gigolo. Lari retains ripe memories of the younger Novak; and, though her jaw is now a trifle heavyset, the all-round, frank nature of her appeal is evident to anyone.

"A splendid woman," Bowie remarks one morning as he disengages himself from another Come Dancing clinch. "She oozes femininity, doesn't she? Happily married, though." To a vet, it turns out, who obviously helps her look after her many cats and dogs. She is very big on animals.

Across the set Kim is chewing on her Wrigleys and swigging from a bottle of soda pop. Now and then she breathes at her make-up girl, but there is an attitude of discreet distance about her. The Star, which she undoubtedly is, carefully maintains her aloofness.

There is a story that for one crucial scene she was .required to wear a dress that was in period but insisted on one of her own. She returned to America, slimmed off some weight, and came back with a pink chiffon affair. Very nice, but very Fifties.

Useless to deny, however, that it sets off to perfection her splendidly proportioned bosom. In the scene, where she is instructing Bowie in various social graces, she gets carried away in voluptuous ecstasies.

She trails pink gauze as she slinks across the room and her hands slide over her body, the lower half of which makes unmistakable overtones.

"Tacky," whispers someone on the set. But it was a she.

AT THE Cafe Wien (Vienna), Hemmings bounces into view, like a springy rubber ball, dressed in a cricket pullover and white cotton trousers. Bowie asks him how he feels today. "Not too shabby, not too shabby," he chirps.

I have perceived that it's one of his favourite phrases. Another, which occurs when he's pleased with a take, is: "let's commit this to celluloid before it gets any better." Arid, when annoyed by undue noise on the set, he calls out, "What we need is a couple more Trappists." Hemmings doesn't need the autocratic attitude of a Josef Von Sternberg - a fact which will surely relieve Marlene. He is firm, but pleasant and flexible; one never forgets that he is also an actor.

A sense of humour can be useful when filming, though. There is, not least of all, the question of having to get up at five and six in the morning to be ready to shoot at nine.

Today, for example, the tango scene is being filmed upstairs in the Cafe Wien, in a spacious room where palm fronds wave amongst the delicate coronations of eau de nil and eggshell blue. The extras for this scene, however, are not as flawless as their surroundings.

There are about 50 of them, and they rather resemble figures in a George Grosz drawing; as indeed they should, for this is supposed to be the place where the plain and aged ladies of society rendezvous with their young men.

Seated before gleaming cutlery and starched linen, powdered, rouged and smothered with ostrich feathers, these beldames with their high, Roman noses and crepe necks eye - the assiduous gigolos, who seem as sleek and brilliant as whippets in their tuxedos.

Music at a careful tempo is being played by a small group of old men with red and quivering Prussian faces, amongst which there is a glass eye that stares balefully over the rim of a violin.

Rarely before has a musical group been able to muster so many broken veins between them.

But now here comes Hemmings in his cricket pullover, striding through this tableau. He 'has suddenly been inspired. He has recalled a favourite shot from an old movie - a long shot of a guy walking through some cloisters - and right before him he sees … arches! He walks towards these arches, framing the angle with the fingers of both hands, steps through them, still expounding on the shot to Charlie, the German cameraman - and is pulled up short.

Sprawled asleep on an antique, salmon-pink chaise longue, hired especially for the scene and apparently so fragile and expensive that not even the stars may so much as brush it with their bottoms, is a nice, middle-aged lady in her Twenties finery who is snoring away oblivious.

Hemmings takes in this startling apparition with one long glance, and then continues his explanation. He has a good heart.

Certainly, although he shows the effects of working a 20-hour day to keep the film running on time and budget, he is calmer than the unit publicist.

This is a smartly dressed German in a camel coat who informs one that he's writing a book about Elvis Presley. Today the story has exploded that Dietrich may be in the movie; the producer, it appears, has informed some newspaper without first telling him.

Hans storms across the set, in an opposite direction to that which Hemmings has taken; and, in a windmill of furious gestures, declares to the table where I'm sitting that-he's had enough: "The press here are calling me up and saying, 'what are you? An asshole?' I say to you, and I say it to Thiele, I am a professional. I cannot work like this. Tonight I quit." And abruptly, off he walks, leaving me wondering what his book will be like. But the next day he is still there; it has all blown over. It's just one more little headache for the director.

So how do you feel, Mr Hemmings? "Not too shabby, not too shabby," is the brave reply.

IN BETWEEN takes, which are exhausting and interminable, Bowie has been doing linocuts - a much-favoured medium of Die Brücke artists - and fulfilling his usual quota of three packs of Gitanes a day.

For the film he has to do peculiar things, such as strolling around inside a nine-foot bottle advertising a drink of the period, so that all one sees are a small pair of feet inching down a road; and in another scene he has spent a whole day opening a door and letting his pushbike clatter to the floor as he returns home from the War to his poor old mother.

Mutter is played by the fine Austrian actress, Maria Schell, an adorable, birdlike woman who last year, against type, played an evil scientist from the planet Krypton in Marlon Brando's forthcoming Superman. At the same time as Just A Gigolo, she has also been filming with Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

"Sometimes, it was the one by day, the other by night," she explains gaily. "It was like having two lovers." Towards Bowie she seems genuinely maternal, solicitous as many do become who get to know him a little. As filming starts one day in a gloomy pension in an old, stone apartment block, she enters with a vast loaf of bread, which Bowie receives with fond indulgence. "Everyone wants to look after my health," he grins.

Having taken Bowie under her wing, she talks to him about acting - she who a quarter of a century ago was playing opposite Trevor Howard in The Heart Of The Matter.

Bowie remarks that he doesn't mind becoming older because of the experience it brings: "In fact, I look forward to being 40." And Schell says, "yes, you have none of the weight of success that you have when you're young." She is very struck by him as an actor. " I think he's going to be a very great actor, and you know why? Because he looks at you and he is really feeling it deep inside.

"Some actors, they are only playing for themselves." Her expression is very serious, but she is shaking with laughter when she shows Bowie her morning paper, which carries a big picture of her actor husband, Maximilian, seen in a New York club with Bianca Jagger. Bianca's lips are parted in what dangerously resembles bliss. Maria finds it monstrously funny, the wife of the Rolling Stone and "my Max." "Now they will say Max and Bianca are having an affair " Bowie joins in the laughter, and he should know about these things.

Always anxious to talk about his work, equally he bridles at the questions about his marital life so beloved of the British popular press. His personal publicist says he's a dream to work with - "he knows exactly what he wants, and he understands how to give a good quote" - but he doesn't like the Daily Mirror asking about the state of his marriage and if he's really a bisexual.

He also likes to control his publicity, and has become adroit in this. Wherever possible, he vets all his photos, and when a German TV crew shoots him unawares rehearsing the tango with Novak, he becomes icy. It is the correct, approved David Bowie that must be presented to the public.

When he toured last spring and summer with Iggy Pop, and Iggy was re-emerging after his own struggles with drugs, he was, scrupulous about not taking any of his publicity. But he must have known, because he was stage managing Iggy's return, that his own appearance would enhance interest in the tour.

Still, to make sure everything went right, he, a confirmed train buff, overcame his fear of flying. There had been talk of them all sailing to America, but there wasn't time, and eventually he'd thought, "oh, this is silly," and flown anyway.

He lost his fear so completely that in October he flew to Kenya, where he stayed at Treetops, the safari home of the Royal Family, did some big-game shooting (by photography), and visited amongst the Masai tribesmen.

He is anxious to return to Kenya, less so to England. He says there's nothing in England for him anymore, as far as he can tell from his short visits there.

But when he went back for the funeral of Marc Bolan, one of his oldest friends, he decided to take a look at Brixton, the area where he was born.

The house he had lived in as a child, in Stansfield Road, was still there, but he had not felt able to ask if he could see inside. Brixton seemed more intimidating than he had remembered it.

Only five years ago, I point out to him, he was living in Beckenham and working on his campaign to take over the world. He recoils. Horrible memories! Horrible. But the past keeps turning up. When last in London he was presented with a bill for unpaid rent by his old Beckenham landlord. No, he is unlikely to live in London again.

Occasionally, reality intrudes upon the make believe of filming. For some time the film crew had been aware of an awful smell in the apartment block where they were filming. It seemed to emanate from one particular apartment, and it began to get worse.

There was never any response from the apartment when they knocked, and the old gentleman next door, an alcoholic who lived with his two dogs, could smell nothing, he said.

Finally, a policeman got into the apartment, and a minute later rushed out again. He spent some time heaving up his breakfast.

There was a man inside who had been dead at least three weeks.

Now the fact is, according to German law, the police cannot enter the home of a suspected suicide until they can smell the body. This is a German joke, ja? But just try telling it to David Bowie.

Further reading:

CONFESSION OF AN ELITIST

BAD BOYS IN BERLIN

JUST A GIGOLO

 


1974  1975  1976  1977  1978  1979  1980 

DAVID LIVE  |  YOUNG AMERICANS  |  STATION TO STATION  |  LOW  |  HEROES  |  LODGER  |  SCARY MONSTERS

CRACKED ACTOR  |  THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH  |  JUST A GIGOLO  |  THE ELEPHANT MAN

ARTICLES  |  TV APPEARANCES