THE FUTURE ISN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE
David Bowie talks about loneliness, insecurity, and
myth. And the dangers of messing with Major Tom.
Angus MacKinnon | NME | September 1980
Only its pretentious facade and brash neon hoardings
distinguish the otherwise nondescript exterior of Blackstone Theatre
from its surroundings in downtown Chicago. Its mirrored foyer gives
access to a surprisingly spacious and comfortable auditorium that
faces a wide, deep stage.
Walls and ceiling are in a restrained neo-classical
style, and only the chill rush of air-conditioning reminds you that
this is not the West End - that and the fact London audiences are
extremely unlikely to see the performance the Blackstone is currently
hosting: David Bowie starring in the American National Theatre and
Academy production of New York-born and bred playwright Bernard
Pomerance's The Elephant Man.
The Elephant Man was premiered in London at the Hampstead
Theatre in 1977, has won several awards, played both on and off
Broadway and recently enjoyed another London run with Paul Scofield
in the leading role of John Merrick, the grotesquely deformed so-called
Elephant Man from Leicester who was rescued from a sad and sorry
life as a Victorian freakshow attraction by the eminent surgeon
Frederick Trevers and who was subsequently lodged at the London
Hospital in Whitechapel from 1886 until his death at the age of
27 in 1890.
Merrick's physical abnormalities were extensive.
His head was huge, egg-shaped and some 36" in diameter, his face
terribly distended and dominated by a gaping salivating maw of a
mouth, his body draped with pendulous folds of skin that were themselves
covered in foul-smelling, cauliflower-like fungoid growths, his
right hand and arm a useless, unwieldy lump; only his left arm,
its almost feminine hand and his sexual organs were left unscathed.
As a result it would be impractical if not impossible
for the actor playing Merrick to hobble about the stage for some
two hours encased in some sort of second skin that realistically
depicted such ravages, and so Pomerance resorts to dramatic artifice.
The audience is soon made aware of Merrick's disabilities by the
device of having Treves show a series of slides taken of the Elephant
Man when he was first admitted to the London.
At this point in the play a curtain is pulled back
to reveal a spotlit Bowie wearing nothing but a loincloth and standing
with his legs apart and arms outstretched. As Treves dispassionately
enumerates Merrick's afflictions, so Bowie amplifies the gist of
the surgeon's lecture by gradually straining himself into the crumpled
stance he will, one short scene expected, adopt for the remainder
of the play. This brief sequence of mime is astonishing enough,
but there's better to come.
As well as having to adopt the Elephant Man's crippled
gait, Bowie is obliged to speak in an odd, high, fluted voice out
of the side of his mouth, which in turn he has to violently contort.
The character is also denied any degree of facial mobility since
Merrick's own face was rendered effectively static by its peculiar
bone structure, and so Bowie must rely on eye and head movements
to express emotion, something he manages with unsettling conviction.
Bowie succeeds in extracting a dramatic maximum out
of the part and more significantly perhaps, he appears to have won
the confidence and support of what is a very distinguished professional
cast, one that he will leave behind him when he re-opens the play
on Broadway in September. I can only add that I found Bowie's performance
Merrick (whose real name was Joseph not John; Treves
himself made the mistake) was by all accounts a remarkable man who
possessed great intelligence and sensibility beneath his horrifying
exterior. Both these faculties blossomed after he was taken into
the London, and are dwelt on in some depth by the play. To be able
to portray the first outward stirrings of this unusual mind encased
in its shell of literally rotting flesh is no mean task in itself,
made doubly difficult since The Elephant Man depends entirely on
the ability of the actor playing Merrick to constantly project the
man's awareness of his own predicament or, as Bowie puts it, his
"newness" of mind and "physical vulnerability".
That Bowie manages as much and more in what is his
first 'legitimate' role in the Theatre is, to say the least, impressive
- especially in the light of his last, excruciatingly hammy appearance
on screen in Just A Gigolo. Time and again The Elephant Man hovers
precariously between drama and melodrama, between tenderness and
mawkishness, but Bowie's evidently absolute immersion in the part
of Merrick enables him to express every nuance that Pomerance intended.
As Dan, a hip black Bowiephile from New York who's passing through
Chicago on business, remarks to me after Thursday's show, "the play's
the thing. It really doesn't matter who is Merrick as long as he's
good - and yes, Bowie is very, very good."
Despite long distance interference from Barbara De
Witt, who is nominally in charge of Bowie's press worldwide and
who calls from Los Angeles to tell me that I will find myself in
"a one-hour situation with David", and despite the incompetence
of RCA's Chicago office, who can only play me five tracks of "Scary
Monsters" and who drone on imbecilicly about Bowie's "incredible
creative input", photographer Anton Corbijn and I arrive at the
Blackstone early Thursday evening. We have both met Bowie briefly
after the play the previous night, but our impressions were at best
We go backstage and are again ushered into Bowie's
cramped dressing room. Anton asks if he can take pictures during
the interview, but it is firmly rebuffed by Bowie: "I never allow
it. Never. I find it most distracting". Exeunt Anton and Coco Schwab,
Bowie's enigmatic personal press assistant, a helpful but reserved
who has worked with Bowie for the past six or seven years, travelling
with him wherever he goes, and who adopts a distinctly protective
attitude towards the man.
Bowie grins a lot, looks extremely well and, lighting
the first of a virtual chain of Marlboro, settles back opposite
me adopting a suitably expectant but nonetheless commanding air.
Almost shaking the cola out of a paper cup with nervousness, I broach
the vexatious matter of De Witt's time limit on the interview.
Bowie seems understanding of my position, but unimpressed
by my banter. I've never met him before but I rapidly appreciate
that he is not to be crossed. I begin to suspect that if he felt
so inclined he would simply stop proceeding by elegantly stalking
out of the room.
His good eye fixes me for an instant, he pulls deeply
on his cigarette then, as if suddenly resigning himself to my presence
and the obligations it entails, he replies with surprising hesitancy:
"The thing is, you see, that - well, the reason why I haven't given
any interviews in recent years is simply because I've become, I
think, very private. Also, (pause) to be honest I really don't think
I've got that much to say. But why don't we just start and see how
I mumble assent and we begin. Bowie's earlier self-assurance
seems to desert him occasionally during the 40-minute interview.
If I ask him straightforward factual questions, he replies promptly
enough. But if I touch on more sensitive areas, he becomes extremely
evasive. He'll either, infuriatingly, agrees with everything I've
said, divulge so much (not much) before deciding some psychological
Rubicon is about to be crossed and changing the subject or simply
answer me with a question of his own.
Bowie laughs frequently, sometimes because he's amused
but more often because he's only too well aware of what Ian MacDonald
later describes to me as the "double vector" of our conversation.
In other words, Bowie laughs whenever it occurs to him that he's
said or admitted something in a private encounter that is being
recorded for public consummation. It's as if with this reflex reaction
he can somehow shrug off the momentary anxiety he feels at having,
perhaps, given too much way.
Talking with Bowie makes me more then usually aware
of the manifold absurdities inherent in the interview process. Why
should Bowie tell me anything at all? He has little to gain and
much to lose by doing so. We're total strangers compelled by our
respective positions and professions to confront each other for
a ludicrously short time. For all Bowie knows I might just want
to run for home and then tear him limb from limb in print. Mutual
confidence and trust are understandably not easily win in such situations.
But if Bowie does worry on this score, he needn't.
I make a conscious effort to steel myself against his gushing charm,
an attribute he can and indeed does call on at will with both men
and the small crowds of the merely curious and fanatically adoring
that greet him every night at the Blackstone's stage door, but I
still find myself liking the man; he's in fact surprisingly sympathetic.
Although one of the most profoundly amoral people
I've met, Bowie is nonetheless hamstrung by an acuity of self-awareness
that constantly threatens to bemuse or even overwhelm him. I really
don't think he likes himself very much at times - and Bowie is extraordinarily
introspective. His hyper-active mind resembles an entropic vortex
that pulls a bewildering succession of variety of ideas, interests
and influences into its orbit, arranging and then disarranging them
at lightspeed. Concentration on any one thing for any length of
time must pose him serious problems.
Bowie is also, or so it seems, painfully insecure.
This is not something he flaunts in the hope of earning sympathy,
but more of a compulsion. What he calls his 'old re-examination
program" evidently entails continual reassessment and often comprehensive
re-writing of his past, an intensive form of self-therapy which
in turn forces him to be forever redefining the motivations and
behaviour of the various characters he has created and whose mantles
he has adopted.
In this respect Joseph Merrick is no exception to
the rule. The sheer pathos of the Elephant Man's existence obviously
entrances Bowie and so Merrick - or rather elements of what Bowie
perceives Merrick to be - will undoubtedly merge imperceptibly in
the man's mind with all the other self-analytical data already accumulated
there by the likes of Ziggy. To that extent, nothing's changed.
Bowie always has and probably always will 'blame' his characters
for his own more irresponsible or, in his view, otherwise inexplicable
actions. This exaggerated, almost hapless identification with what
are really no more than sub-personalities of himself will presumably
continue to provide Bowie with some very necessary degree of solace.
It is of course something that most of us periodically
catch ourselves at, but Bowie's past insistence on giving such characters
concrete form by shining them through the distorting prism of the
image-obsessed rock medium has meant that he's developed the faculty
to an extreme degree, and thereby totally bamboozled himself in
the process. In fact Bowie has externalised so much of himself so
often that he seems virtually incapable of confronting fundamentals.
When I eventually ask him why he thinks people continue to find
him interesting, he backs off with an immediate disclaimer that
he'd never even try to answer such a question. Small wonder then
that he finds it so hard - and yet so absorbing - to make mental
A 'weak' person in the pejorative sense of the term
Bowie most certainly isn't though - a more wilful individual I can't
imagine. But given the complexities of his mercurial temperament
- this a dark, deep pool from which I will draw no more then a glassful
or two in the hour and a half I spend with him in Chicago - it becomes
almost superfluous to have to point out how inconsistent he is and
how often he bluntly contradicts himself.
Which doesn't mean that nothing Bowie says can ever
be taken at face value - far from it- but merely that it's never
any more or any less then what happens to cross his mind at a particular
moment. The point's been made on every occasion Bowie's given a
substantial interview, but its validity has, I'm convinced, increased
rather then decreased with time - as, I feel, has Bowie's pronounced
ability to phrase what he says in such a way as to utterly disarm
his interviewer; he's uncannily adept at telling you exactly what
he thinks you want to hear.
So much for psychoanalysis - when it's all dripped
and dried Bowie must speak for himself.
Very simply. I saw the play just after Christmas.
I wanted to see it on off-Broadway before it got all glossed up,
but I wasn't in America at the time. So I saw the thing, liked it
as a piece of writing and for myself I thought I would have loved
to have the part if it had ever been offered to me - but it hadn't
And that was the last I thought about it until February
of this year when I was back in New York recording the "Scary Monsters"
thing. Jack Hofsis the director approached me and asked me if I
would consider taking over the role at the end of the year (on Broadway).
I wasn't sure if I liked the idea. I wondered if
he'd seen me perform or if he knew anything about me. But then he
told me about my concerts and things, so he had indeed seen me -
or if not then he had a great scriptwriter. I thought that as long
as he directed me I'd be quite willing to take the chance. It's
the first piece of legitimate acting I've ever done per se. So I
thought I might as well. It's a very complex and difficult role,
but if I was going to jump in anywhere, I might as well jump there.
Sure. A lot of those strange freak stories appealed
to me in my teens and then stayed with me - everything from hairy
women (laughs) to people with 15 lips. I read all that stuff avidly
and of course I did my homework on Merrick.
Yes, it makes on suddenly very aware of how one's
body and one's facial expressions function. It's - you do feel you're
being scrutinised to an unbearable extent. It's not that pleasurable
But I think that was the first thing I had to fight.
After we'd finished rehearsals and opened in Denver I was furious
with myself on the first night that the thing that was preoccupying
me during the performances was how people were adjusting or relating
to my body movements and that I hadn't been considering the character
at all. It took a good week to shake that feeling off and become
interested and involved onstage with Merrick.
Yeah, but I also knew that if I hadn't been successful
within the first 15 or 20 minutes, then they'd have got up and started
leaving because it's not the kind of part you can fuck about with,
frankly. You've got to be credible. You've got to be a believable
Merrick or it all falls to pieces.
Absolutely. You've got to be forthcoming with some
kind of physical vulnerability, to show that you have a sharp but
'new' mind - new inasmuch as Merrick hadn't been in a situation
where he could take advantage of the quite excellent mental process
that he had. He had never been involved in that kind of higher society
before. So in those terms it was a new mind, encased in this terrible
grotesqueness. And you have to imply all that at once. It's a terrible
I didn't find that any problem at all. I went back
into mime training during rehearsals and I had to use the pre-imposed
exercises before and after performances to get myself into and out
of it. One's spine can be damaged very badly. I had one night of
excruciating pain when I didn't do the exercises. I've been to a
chiropractor every now and then just to check I'm not putting my
spine out of place. It's quite possible to do that, especially if
you sit down in that position. You hear a click and think that's
it. That was also frightening for the first week, but you learn
just how much pressure to use and when to lay back.
"We polish him so that he may better reflect ourselves,"
as it's later stated.
It's certainly one in which I can see strong parallels
with other kinds of folk that I've tried to develop. Yes (insistently),
after you - you had a line of thought there.
(Laughs) OK, we'll backtrack a bit. Yeah, studying
Merrick. On a pedestrian level the first thing I did when I was
told I actually had the part a couple of weeks before rehearsals
It was a very fast move. I had to make up my mind
immediately I was told, so fortunately it didn't give me time to
get cold feet. I think if I'd had a couple of months to think about
the part I would definitely have to get cold feet - over little
things like could I project that far in a Theatre without a microphone,
stuff and nonsense like that. When it comes to the crunch those
things are really important.
But I didn't have the chance; I had to say yes or
no within 24 hours. I think they knew that as well. I think that
Hofsis knew that if I'd had time to think about it I would have
dropped out. He was very clever psychologically in forcing me to
face an issue like that.
Yes, I was biding my time and was quite set to go
back to the East or something. Then Hofsis came to see me…
So anyway the first thing I did was to go to the
London Hospital and see what's left there. The real letdown was
seeing the bloody church which was built. The real thing he made
- in fact he gave it to Mrs Kendal and she donated it back to the
hospital - was a penny plain and tuppence coloured thing that the
nurses actually cut out for him; all he did was bend it up and stick
it down. I was really disappointed that it wasn't a little wooden
structure that he had patiently and tenderly carved by hand.
Oh yes, since one has to see that the purity Merrick
was developing is evidenced in real form by the church that he was
building. It's a good idea to hang onto the old church as a symbol
- and also of course his enraptured idea of what heaven was going
to be like and that he would be saved.
There was no doubt about it in his mind. Even though
God does these terrible things to man and sits back and waits for
them to ask for forgiveness… despite that, Merrick was prepared
to believe in heaven, because of Jesus, not so much because of God.
It's really such a used idea. I think it still captures
the public's imagination now for the same reason that the original
Elephant Man captured the Victorians' attention - because he looked
funny. But what the play is actually doing is shoving that pure
'new' spirit into the middle of sordid society and then seeing what
sort of juxtapositions you get.
Absolutely. There are also, I must say, elements
of the same thing in The Man Who Fell To Earth, although in that
instance the purity of the character was corrupted.
Yeah, he has this hi-tech emotional drive. He discards people and their values all the time. Actually though, it's a false illusion of purity and in that sense it's very Nic Roeg. Sorry, Nic, I love you but. There's such a corruptness in Nic's thought, one that (pause) …
I saw it, I saw it. Wait for the next one. He starts
it off at Christmas on Haiti. It's about voodoo and if any of that
crew come off that island alive I'd be very surprised. Nic is always
presenting something that is none too clear but which seems superficially
to be everything that one's first impressions would have it be.
You know, pure spirit comes to earth, and they fuck
it up. In fact, it's nothing of that kind. There's this insidious
lie going on throughout the film; Newton is a far better person
at the end of the film than he was when he came down. He's actually
found some sort of real emotional drive; he knows what it is to
relate to people, and what the effects of all that on him are is
secondary. When he first comes down, he doesn't give a shit about
I find him more like Puck. I would far more work
with Roeg than, say Mr Anger (Kenneth Anger, author of 'Hollywood
There is, you see, a great purity in Nic's own thought.
It's convoluted, but it's there. There's an enormous struggle going
on in his own mind. It's a very tense; he asks himself why he wants
to create things, to make films. He knows though that he's undertaking
some great magic - I'm wary of saying spell, but it's some kind
of ritual thing when he's making a film. I mean, knowing the man
it's very hard to look at the film (Bad Timing) without going back
and feeling involved with him again. It's such a personal film.
Absolutely correct, all the way down the line. There
was no - no, very little essence of myself. I think the only freedom
I was given was in choosing how the character would dress. That
was it. That was the only thing I could claim at all, that I choose
my wardrobe and that I put it in again - I had to - that Japanese
influence, something that I felt had something to do with my very
weak analogy between spacemen or a spaceman and what Westerners
regard the Orientals as: an archetype kind of concept.
Yes, I agree there too, strangely enough. There are
few directors who have the kind of discipline over actors that Nic
has and who can then pull out more of the actor by doing that.
Yeah, the film was a cack (laughs loudly), a real
cack. Everybody who was involved in that film - when they meet each
other now, they look away (covers face with hands, laughs).
Yes, it was one of those. Oh well, we've all got
to do one and hopefully I've done mine now. I think the great failure
on my part for becoming involved in that particular venture was
my acceptance of the director (David Hemmings) as a person rather
than actually bothering to consider what the script consisted of
- or rather didn't consist of, since it contained absolutely nothing
- and also what experience the guy had had as a director.
I love Hemmings. He's a terrific fella, and I fell
for that. He's wonderful and a great talker (laughs). Listen - you
were disappointed, and you weren't even in it. Imagine how we felt.
Really, it was such a shame. I can only say that David and I are
still great friends and we know what we did. We'll never work together
again. Friendship was saved, if nothing else.
Fortunately it's been so long now that I don't feel
so uptight when I talk about it, but the first year or so after
I'd made the thing I was furious, mainly with myself. I mean, oh
God, I really should have known better. Every real, legitimate actor
that I've ever met has told me never to even approach a film unless
you know the script is good. If the script isn't any good, then
there's no way a film is going to be good.
Well, only one piece survived and became 'Subterraneans'
on 'Low'. I really can't remember the details, but there was a great
row - not between Nic and I because we kept apart from those areas;
I didn't want to row with Nic, a couple of er, unusual people who
were putting the thing together.
I was under the impression that I was going to be
writing the music for the film but, when I'd finished five or six
pieces. I was then told that if I would care to submit my music
along with other people's … and I just said "Shit, you're not
getting any of it". I was so furious, I'd put so much work into
Actually thought, it was probably as well; my music
would have cast a completely different reflection on it all. It
turned out for the better and of course it did prompt me in another
area - to consider my own instrumental capabilities, which I hadn't
really done very seriously before. The area was one that was suddenly
exciting me, one that I never really considered would. And that's
when I got the first inklings of trying to work with Eno at some
Word On A Wing I can't talk about. There were days
of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly
started to approach my reborn, born again thing.
It was the first time I'd really seriously thought
about Christ and God in any depth and Word On A Wing was a protection.
It did come as a complete revolt against elements that I found in
the film. The passion in the song was genuine. It was also around
that time that I started thinking about wearing this (fingers small
silver cross hanging on his chest) again, which is now almost a
left-over from that period.
I wear it, I'm not sure why I wear it now even. But
at the time I really needed this. Hmmm (laughs), we're getting into
heavy waters… but yes, the song was something I needed to produce
from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations
that I felt were happening on the film set.
(Laughs) Yes, I can understand that, but I think
you were probably post-period there. It had already hit me. There
was point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort
of looking - no, finding the cross as the salvation of mankind around
the Roeg period.
That whole period stretching through to '76 was probably
the worst year or year and a half of my life in the old re-examination
Oh yeah, it was best thing that could have happened
to me. I'd come out of the American thing with (pause, sigh) smashed
ideals inasmuch as I'd found that the ideals I did have weren't
worth a shit anyway, that I was too willing to jump from point of
view to point of view without taking into account the consequences
of anything I was doing, just breaking out of the American cocoon.
And so yes, Berlin was definitely the best place I could have gone.
Yeah, looking at things, but with not that much conviction
about whether I'm right or wrong about what I'm seeing. I think
those three albums helped me to appreciate that my make-up is generally
much more of a microcosm of what society is than me standing back
and saying "This is what society is about".
Before, up until the '76 period, I was far more of
the opinion that I had some kind of definite viewpoint on how society
was made up and what it represented. But now I'm feeling like a
society in myself, so broken up and fragmented that it's best just
to throw me into the (pause)…
It was. To use a cliche - and why not? - it was…
some kind of maturity.
(Still laughing) No, I'm sure none of that helped
in the past.
Well, actually, Victoria Station (long pause) … now this you're going to believe, but everything else you're saying
is absolutely correct. I had indeed been bombed out for quite long
This was all an escape plan heralded by a couple
of friends of mine - I won't say who they are - who helped me get
out of America and get back to Europe, whatever. That whole 'Station
To Station' tour was done under duress. I was out of my mind totally,
completely crazed. Really. But the main thing I was functioning
on was - as far as that whole thing about Hitler and rightism was
concerned - it was mythology.
I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King
Arthur. It was not as you probably know because… I mean, this
whole racist thing which came up, quite inevitably and rightly,
But - and I know this sounds terribly naive - but none of that had
actually occurred to me, inasmuch as I'd been working and still
do work with black musicians for the past six or seven years. And
we'd all talk about it together - about the Arthurian period, about
the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign, and about the mythology
All that stuff was flying around, buzzing around
the skies. I could see it. Everywhere I looked, demons of the future
on the battlegrounds of one's emotional plain (plane?) and all that
… I was in a haze of mythology. Mixed up too of course were
my own fucking characters. The Thin White Duke - throwing him, it
was like kicking him. There was such an addictive thing about what
was happening there that actually being able to ride that particular
storm I was able to send a lot to those demons back to their - well,
wherever it is they live.
Altogether, none of it is something to be dealt with
unless you're in a particularly stable frame of mind.
Oh God yes, I know it all … ghastly stuff.
Yes, I know. Only too well. It's so insidious - and
of course the first thing that happened to me when I got to Berlin
was that I really had to face up to it, because all the people I
had as friends there were naturally extreme leftists.
Suddenly I was in a situation where I was meeting
young people of my age whose fathers had actually been SS men, That
was a good way to be woken up out of that particular dilemma, and
start to re-function in a more orderly fashion - not totally ordered,
but you know . . yeah, I came crashing down to earth when I got
back to Europe.
And Los Angeles, that's where it had all happened.
The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth. To
be anything to do with rock and roll and to go and live in Los Angeles
is I think just heading for disaster. It really is. Even Brian Eno,
who's so adaptable and quite as versatile as I now am living in
strange and foreign environments, he couldn't last there more than
six weeks. He had to get out. But he was very clever: he got out
much earlier than I did.
Well, admitting it? I don't actually agree with that
viewpoint, you see. To digress completely for a moment - I still
adopt the view that music itself carries its own message, instrumentally
I mean. Lyrics are not needed because music does have an implicit
message of its own; it makes its case very pointedly. If that were
not the case, then classical music would not have succeeded to the
extent that it did in implying and carrying some definite point
of view, some attitude which presumably can't be expressed with
That's why I'm furious you didn't get to hear the
album because the lyrics taken on their own are nothing without
the secondary sub-text of what the musical arrangement has to say,
which is so important in a piece of popular music. It makes me very
angry - and I'm not saying you're doing it at all - when people
concentrate only on the lyrics because that's to imply there is
no message stated in the music itself, which wipes out hundreds
of years of classical music. Ridiculous.
That's my first direction. Well, no, I'll cross with
him there. The other three that were done for 'Lodger' were co-directions
inasmuch as I gave David complete control over what I wanted put
in there. But this one I story-boarded myself, actually drew it
frame for frame. He edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed
me to say (adopts Edward Heath voice) publicly that it is my first
direction. I've always wanted to direct and this is a great chance
to start - to get some money from a record company and then go away
and sort of play with it.
Yes they are, and intentionally so. It was supposed
to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has
been founded by the earthling, of what he looks like - and in that
particular sequence the ideas was for the earthling to be pumping
out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic.
So there was a very strong Giger influence there: the organic meets
There're an awful lot of cliched things in the video
but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing
isn't cliched - at least inasmuch as the general drive of the sensibility
that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for a future. I've
always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do, however
far away I try to get from it. It does recur and it's something
I have to admit to and I can't … and that's obviously part of
what I'm all about as an artist (this said with uncharacteristic
Now I tend to go with it rather then escape from
it because it's obviously an area that, even if I refuse to face
it, does interest me. The idea of having seen the future, of somewhere
we've already been keeps coming back to me.
No, not on that kind of simplistic level. I don't
… I think I work even more these days from dream sequences.
(With sudden enthusiasm) Have you ever read a book
called The Origins Of Consciousness In The Dawn Of The Bi-Cameral
(?) Mind? It sounds an awful title but it's really a very easy book
to read. In fact it's an extraordinary book written by a guy called
J.P. Haines (?) which suggests that at one point the mind was definitely
of a schizoid - no, a dual nature and that the right hand passed
messages through to the left side of the brain, and vice versa.
It's highly interesting.
I related to that tremendously because I've often
had that feeling very strongly with myself that … well, it's
like what Dylan said about the tunes are just in the air. I still
believe in that kind of naive approach to writing. I leave the cerebral
stuff to the Enos and Fripps of this world. Because I'm far more
tactile in my approach to what I do. I think it's probably why we
work together so well.
I must say I like working with Brian a lot, but I
think this happens to conceptualists; they often have the seeds
and germs of truly revolutionary ways of doing things, which I believe
I really think he's one of the brightest minds I've
met in this particular area, although of course he's duplicated
many times over in the field, in the so-called more serious world
of painting, where you can find a conceptualist for every square
yard. But there are few in this business and Brian is definitely
one of them, and he has moments of true genius. I think some of
the music on 'Another Green World' was really, for want of a better
word, transcendental. I dare say we'll be working together again.
Again, the sub-text of 'Ashes To Ashes' is quite
obviously the nursery rhyme appeal of it and for me it's a story
of corruption. It's also about as subversive as one can get in popular
music terms inasmuch as I would love to get a record played by the
BBC containing the word "junkie". I thought that was quite successful
(grins). There's not much you can do these days; we're all such
a blase, world weary lot (laughs).
But if one can make anything more serious out of
it all other than that it's The Further Stories Of, it's that when
I originally wrote about Major Tom I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated
lad that thought I knew all about the great American dream and where
it started and where it should stop.
Here we had the great blast of American technological
know-how shoving this guy up into space and once he gets there he's
not quite sure why he's there. And that's where I left him. Now
we've found out that he's under some kind of realisation that the
whole process that got him up there had decayed, was born out of
decay; it has decayed him and he's in the process of decaying. But
he wishes to return to the nice, round womb, the earth, from whence
I guess it's that simple. I really don't think there's
anything more insidiously perverse about the thing at all. It really
is an ode to childhood, if you like, a popular nursery rhyme. It's
about space men becoming junkies (laughs).
That came about because Mallett wanted me to do something
for his show and he wanted 'Space Oddity'.
I agreed as long as I could do it again without all
its trappings and do it strictly with three instruments. Having
played it with just an acoustic guitar onstage early on I was always
surprised as how powerful it was just as a song, without all the
strings and synthesisers. In fact the video side of it was secondary;
I really wanted to do it as a three-piece song.
Oh yes, now I've started, no one will stop me. Also
another thing I've come up with over the last six months are my
first stoned-out video tapes that I did in 1972 on black an white
reel to reel, which are so exciting, and some later ones I did after
In those I recreated the set for 'Diamond Dogs' -
this was in the Pierre Hotel in New York - and I built three or
four-foot high buildings out of clay on tables. Some were standing
up, others were crumbling and I took the camera and put a micro-lens
on it, zooming down the streets in between the tables.
I tried animation out and had all these characters;
the whole thing is so bizarre I'm going to put together and put
it out as a cassette. And as it's silent - there's a few bits of
strange music on it but nothing much else; mainly I sued the 'Diamond
Dogs' album as a backing track…
You know, I wanted to make film of 'Diamond Dogs'
so passionately, so badly; I really wanted to do that, I had the
whole roller skating thing in there. We had no more cars because
of the fuel problems - which was super stuff to look back on and
say yes, I thought that then - and these characters with enormous,
rusty, sort of organic-looking roller skates with squeaking wheels
that they couldn't handle very well. Also I had groups of these
cyborg people wandering around looking so punky it's going to be
a lovely tape to put out. I want to write some new music for it
though: a piece of music accompanied by a sort of strange black
and white vision.
Now there's a certain quaintness in some of its arrangements
that pieces it into the '70s as an artefact of the time.
The Japanese lyrics to the first 'It's No Game (#1)'
are exactly the same as the others, although 'Part 1' sees a more
sort of animal approach on my part. Also, repeating me parrot fashion
but in Japanese is a young Japanese girl friend of mine who says
the lyric in such a way as to give the lie to the whole very sexist
idea of how Japanese girls are so very prim. She's like a Samurai
the way she hammers it out. It's no longer the little Geisha girl
kind of thing, which really pisses me off because they're just not
like that at all.
No, not really. It's more to do with that dedication
to fashion. I was trying to move on a little from that Ray Davies
concept of determination and an unsureness about why one's doing
it. But one has to do it, rather like one goes to the dentist and
has the tooth drilled. I mean, you have to have it done, putting
up with the fear and the aggravation. It's that kind of feeling
about fashion, which seems to have in it now an element that's all
I don't know, you know. The American disco I went
to in the early '70s in New York when it was supposed to be the
hot new thing that was sweeping the city - well, I never felt that
grim determination that one feels now. There is that. Yes, I must
say I did feel it when I was in London. I was taken to one extraordinary
place by … Steve Strange? God, what was it called? Everybody
was in Victorian clothes. I suppose they were part of the new new
wave or the permanent wave or whatever… (enter Coco making throat-slitting
gestures) … it's the Valkyrie (laughs). We'll have some more
time but I'll have to keep it to a minimum.
As we finish, I protest to Bowie about this "minimum."
I overstate my case to Bowie, and he suddenly snaps "Alright, alright,
don't sell it to me, Angus. I don't need anybody to sell me anything".
I retire in confusion and, convinced that I've aged years in less
than an hour, make my exit.
FRIDAY afternoon finds Anton and I awaiting
Bowie and Coco in a small, seedy bar opposite the Blackstone. They
arrive on time and Bowie, sharing Anton's delight at having found
Sinatra's 'God's Face Looks Like' on the jukebox, agrees to the
photographer's request to do a session there and then, but not without
first consulting Coco.
The bar's proprietor, a Chicano with knife scars
criss-crossing the left-hand side of his face an neck, looks on
We move to the theatre and on a whim Bowie suggests
we do the interview onstage. I agree and so we heave table and chairs
into position. The contrast with the claustrophobic dressing room
couldn't be more complete. Whereas yesterday Bowie and I fenced
tensely at each other, today we both seem much more at our ease.
For my part I have noted down some dozen simple, factual questions
and when these are dismissed, I plan to freewheel. Bowie seems positively
expansive. It's as if we're both convinced we have the other's measure.
As it transpires the interview's very informality
belies the way it progresses. Much to my surprise, after initial
evasions Bowie begins to discuss himself with very little prompting
and answers off-the-cut questions I'm quite prepared for him to
ignore altogether. Or so it seems.
On reflection it occurs to me that wondering whether
or not Bowie is being as straightforward and comforting as he appears
to be is pointless, just as to depict him as the archetypal manipulator-chameleon
who invariably vanishes behind a verbal smokescreen of his own making
is both fatuous and unfair. Suffice to say that, soon becoming quite
oblivious to our surroundings, Bowie and I talk intensively for
some 35 minutes. If our conversation doesn't follow a very logical
course, that's only because most conversations don't but, since
this one had a peculiarly insistent flow, I've left it unedited,
That particular cut, it was simply one of the most
appealing on his album. I'd always wanted to work with him in some
way or another, but I hadn't considered doing one of his songs.
In fact Carlos Alomar, my guitarist, suggested that we do a cover
version of it since it was such a lovely song.
Yes and no. The song just happens to fit into the
scattered scheme of things, that's all.
Only because we dug them up and the beat version
was something that never got on the 'Young Americans' album. It
seemed so right at the time and RCA wanted to put it out, and I
agreed to it fully. It was just some more material that was held
back there. I've still got lots of things canned like that which
I'd like to release, things like 'White Light White Heat' with the
Oh no, they've put out things without my approval.
'Velvet Goldmine' is the one that immediately springs to mind. That
whole thing came out without my having the chance to listen to the
mix; somebody else had mixed it - an extraordinary move.
No, I most certainly haven't. We're miles away from
that and shall just have to see what happens.
That's true. They weren't happy with 'Low' either.
At the time the one comment I received from them was "Can we get
you another pad in Philadelphia?", so that I could do another 'Young
Americans'. That was the kind of attitude I was having to cope with.
I don't know. You see, my own needs were satisfied
within that area in the '73/'74 period, when I was staying as much
as I could there, crashing down with people in either Philadelphia
or New York. I spent an awful lot of time in that kind of environment.
That's alright, I'm in the mood.
Yes, definitely. That drum and guitar sound, that
especially, is quite a dream. The moments of difference though,
they came from Adrian (Belew, Bowie's guitarist at the time) not
being played Neu; he'd never heard them. So I told him the atmosphere
I wanted and he came up with the same conclusions that Neu came
up with, which was fine by me. That Neu sound is fantastic.
Well, that's a contrivance of my own. What I do is,
say, use four tracks for a recorded solo and then I cut them up,
knock up a little four-point mixer clipping the solos in and out.
I give myself arbitrary numbers of bars in which they can play within
a particular area, and go backwards and forwards from one track
to another. So yes, the effect is somewhat histrionic.
I guess … no, if I had my kind of mythical younger
brother, I think it might have been addressed to him. It's for somebody
who's not mentally armed.
The shell shock of actually trying to assert yourself
in society and your newly found values… I guess the younger brother
is my adolescent self.
(Laughs) I have my own personal bloody midwives.
We all have them. Mine shall remain nameless. For the sake of the
song they're symbolic; they're the ones who would not have you be
I think that more and more that advice is given to
myself; I often play questions and answer time with myself, however
momentarily. I don't seriously think I could offer anybody else
any advice at all. It would be about as profound as (chuckles) Alfred
E. Neuman (Mad's late cover artist and humorist). It's just not
my thing, maaann.
I only have opinions on them because I've been asked
about them; I never had any before. I've already been asked once
about Numan over the last month.
Foxx - I think he gives himself a wider berth; I
think there's more diversity in what he does and could do.
Numan? I really don't know. I think what he did -
that element of 'Saviour Machine' - type things - I think he encapsulated
that whole feeling excellently. He really did a good job on that
kind of stereotype, but I think therein lies his own particular
confinement. I don't know where he intends going or what he intends
doing, but I think he has confined himself terrifically. But that's
his problem, isn't it?
What Numan did he did excellently but in repetition,
in the same information coming over again and again, once you've
heard one piece.
But that's really so narrow. It's that false idea
of hi-tech society and all that which is… doesn't exist. I don't
think we're anywhere near that sort of society. It's a enormous
myth that's been perpetuated unfortunately, I guess, by readings
of what I've done in that rock area at least, and in the consumer
area television has an awful lot to answer for with its fabrication
of the computer-world myth.
Well, how did you define those three lines?
I agree (pause)…
(Sigh) No, not really. Those three particular lines
represent a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what
I've done. (Bowie absently traces a finger around his mouth then
proceeds, choosing his words very carefully) I have an awful lot
of reservations about what I've done inasmuch as I don't feel much
of it has any import at all. And then I have days when of course
it all feels very important to me, that I've contributed an awful
lot. But I'm not awfully happy with what I've done in the past actually.
The idea that one doesn't have to exist purely on
one defined set of ethics and values, that you can investigate other
areas and other avenues of perception and try and apply them to
everyday life. I think I've tried to do that. I think I've done
that fairly successfully. At times, even if only on a theoretical
level, I've managed that. As far as everyday life goes, I don't
I have this great long chain with a ball of middle-classness
at the end of it which keeps holding me back and that I keep sort
of trying to fight through. I keep trying to find the Duchamp in
me, which is harder and harder to find (laughs).
Yes, of course, and a class consciousness is a very
great wall of contention with me, always getting in my way.
Oh no, not at all. Not on that level. I just keep
finding my vision gets blinkered and becomes narrowed all the time.
I'm continually trying to open it up and break it down and do shattering
things to it - and that's when it becomes dangerous, I suppose.
I don't know, you see. There are few magazines or
newspapers or television programs that will deal with me on the
same level that your paper would for instance. In the majority of
the media - there I'm completely stifled. I have been for years.
I have never been anything other than Ziggy Stardust for the media
I think it was rather to do with two ideas that I
felt strongly. One was that I actually wanted to play 'Ziggy' album
from top to bottom, from bottom to top, one to nine, because I suddenly
found it again an enjoyable piece of music to listen to, having
not done it for quite a few years on stage. So there was pure personal
enjoyment value in there. On the other hand, I'm only too willing
to admit to the number of people who come to see me to hear a lot
of those old songs and without any hesitation I'm quite willing
to play them. I will also play the things I'm doing currently. But
I have absolutely no qualms about playing older things of mine that
Yes, next spring. I say this every time and I hope
it happens - I want to play smaller places. I think this, the play,
has helped a lot; it encourages me to work in smaller environments.
At this time, as we talked yesterday about my 32
Elvis Presley movies contained in one, I wouldn't jump at the first
thing that came along by any means. No, whatever it was, it would
have to be a script that had the same kind of power as Elephant
Oh yes, I was well surprised that I was able to do
this successfully. My confidence was at a very low ebb on opening
night. I was terrified actually.
I've been doing that for a long time (laughs), since
'76 in fact.
For me completely so… oh, but you mean on a public
Ah well, maybe not then.
I don't think that by taking a Japanese or an African
emblem or motif I try to represent them at all. I would have thought
it was pretty transparent that it was me trying to relate to that
particular culture; not in my wildest dreams would I think I was
trying to represent them.
Because I've been there. Because it was there, rather.
It is no more than… it does get back onto the sketchpad basis
for songs for me. Often. And I guess that 'Lodger' was the sketchpad
of all of them.
I don't know much of it is rock any more. Music then?
I don't think I'm too old to be writing the music I write either.
(laughs) That was an extraordinary thing to say. I mean, good God,
when was the last time I wrote a rock song? can you remember? I'm
damned if I can.
Well, there you are. I don't think I would try to
revitalise the same area of energy and sensibilities that, say,
Ziggy had. I wouldn't attempt that again, because I haven't got
that same positivism within my make-up any more. I mean, the very
juvenile sort of assertiveness and arrogance of that period. He
said modestly (laughs). I can't write young.
I think repeatedly that having got a nine-year-old
son that's an area where I can try and talk to an age group that
I've been through.
Not necessarily. My audience has diminished remarkably
over the years.
No, not at all.
Yes it does. On those terms doing something like
this is not something one does for the kind of money that rock and
rollers can charge. And also of course I've never made any money
on tours. Ever. Ever.
That's for you to answer. I'd never even try to answer
Because I don't want to, and I don't want to because
I can't. That's something that I would really have no interest in
trying to find out. I think I would far prefer to spend more time
on finding out if I am still interesting to myself, if I still feel,
if I still relate if I still have any capacity for understanding
where I am within the very tight, very small area of society that
I physically live in.
That for me is more interesting. If I can then broadcast
my own doubts through my pieces of music, however that's related
to by an audience, that's quite honestly where the responsibility
for me stops. I can do no more than write about how I feel about
things or how I… what dubious kind of thoughts I have about
where I am and what I've done.
I don't think it's up to the one single person. It
becomes a collective responsibility. Because, like it or not, whatever
I do or say is going to be interpreted in a fair or unfair manner
by disparate elements of the media.
So the responsibility is not mine alone and I do
have to consider what I should contribute and then hazard a guess
at how it will be dealt with. As I say, I'm still referred to over
here as the orange-haired bisexual. Now that is what I am here.
Period. Zilch. There's nothing else.
After all (laughs), if ever there was a country of
stereotypes and icons, this is the one. If you don't fall radically
into some confinement or department, then they will stab away until
they find something that is so superficially concrete that it will
become the flag that they will wave.
Absolutely. Far more so than in England or Europe
generally. The other people who tend to do that, much as I like
them, are the Japanese; they come up with -isms as well.
Oh sure, and of course there's a great anti-American
For me it's a physical representation - or I can
read it in terms of that - of great new modern advances precariously
balanced against an old, kind of mythological way of thinking and
Oh yes, very much. It appeals to me on the surface
but it's something I can't handle myself (laughs). Yes, it's wandering
back and looking at something that I felt would have a place in
my life at one time. That kind of thing…
When I was flirting around with the ideal of Buddhism,
which was also a set of values and disciplines that have to be adhered
to in a strict form. At that time I had some idea of my way, or
my potential, with nature … and I wished to confine it. What
does Merrick say about truths? That they're "restriction, governance
and punishment" (laughs). It's that self-flagellation element again
in me …
Yes, I do, I do. It's not infrequent that I wake
up on a chilly morning and wish that I was in Kyoto or somewhere
and in a Zen monastery. That feeling lasts for well over five or
six minutes before I go and have a cigarette and a cup of coffee
and (laughs) go for a walk round the block to shake that off. That
idea of being controlled by an aesthetic set of values does recur
I still have a pipe dream that when I'm an old chap
(the 'p' deliberately over-stressed) I shall go off to the Far East
and smoke opium and go out in a sort of euphoric, cloudy bliss.
I think I'd have to be (laughs) - many, many times.
What I might want to be and what I might become are
two very different kettles of poison (laughs). Let's see, what would
I want to be? Good God … well, it wouldn't be Lou Reed (loud
laughter all around). But … probably a rock and roll journalist.
(Laughing) No, no one's reincarnated as David Bowie.
I'm quite positive of that.
I guess it restricts my thinking …
Aesthetically. Morally I've never had too much -
I sort of approach things in quite a barbarian fashion when it comes
to morals. It's more to do with aesthetic values for my own writing.
What I write is so inadequate.
Compared to a Genet. Yeah, I do put myself against
other writers and find my sensibilities thwarted and rather dulled
and that … angers me.
I think that I have a mainline, but I couldn't define
it. Again, I wouldn't wish to; there's a danger in trying to define
that one thing. There's also a particular spirit value that I find
very difficult to articulate and I guess that's my, my mainline
as you put it.
But it comes and goes, it hides, it gets lost and
it reappears, rather like a stream that you come across when you're
walking through a wood. You see it sometimes and it sparkles and
then it disappears. And that makes me angry when it disappears (here
Bowie's tone becomes distant, abstracted, almost as if he's talking
aloud to himself). And I should be happy about that because it's
the natural way of things - but when it does disappear, which is
known I think as a dry-up, then that is the most frustrating feeling
I get repetitive feeling that … (Coco appears
in the auditorium; Bowie suggests we talk for another five or ten
minutes) that … come back, come back (he gestures with his left
hand, as if plucking something out of the air).
Yes, I get the repetitive feeling that it is - and
this somebody else's statement, I know - that the worst joke God
can play is to make you an artist, but only a mediocre artist. And
that happens, you get that kind of feeling. And one can get so despondent
and melancholy and (lowering his voice, almost choking the word
out) bellicose. And, boy, do I get bellicose.
(Genuinely astonished) Do you really believe that?
Really though, I think the greatest problem comes
in wondering why I think that any of what I write should be of any
import to anybody. And that's something I find more and more - that
my contribution isn't enough.
Oh, quite. That dissatisfaction, it's an old quandary
that all writers come across all the time. It's certainly nothing
new; it seems to follow the integral feelings of most writers.
It seems to be so. It seems to be my one focus. Uncertainty?
Yes, if there's one thing I've contributed, it's a great dollop
of uncertainty (laughs). For better or worse.
Although I must say I can see, I can feel exactly
what brought that about.
No, I understand perfectly what you're saying. No,
I think I'm very happy with the problems that I have in my own way
of living. Day to day is very enjoyable for me and has been for
a couple of years now, although I must admit that at one time my
lifestyle was far over and above what anybody would sensibly inflict
on themselves. But at the moment it's a rush, and it's really very
enjoyable. Growing up with my son is one of the greatest enjoyments
that I have.
But on an aesthetic level - no, no (conclusively), I'm quite happy with my lot as a writer. I would really be nervous
if I didn't have the uncertainties and the problems that I do have.
I would dread feeling that complacent.
Oh God, yes. That sort of thing is just horrendous.
Obviously I've already got a backlog of stuff I want to record,
which I guess I'll start doing after Christmas. But I think it only
becomes a drag for reasons of personal satisfaction, because the
material isn't disposed of, swept out of the way so I can't get
on with something else.
But as far as actual songs themselves are concerned,
I don't think they're written with any particular timespan in mind.
For me I don't think it would really matter whatever they'd been
released two years ago or two years forward. I think they're pieces
of music I could listen to anytime. But I have to take that into
consideration these days when I record something, as to whether
or not I would want to listen to it again in a few year's time.
I try not to write as immediately as I once used
to. There was a time when I was very keen to write songs that had
a very definite edge to them, like all of 'Diamond Dogs' comes over
in a completely different light. It still has a validity, a strong
one, but at the time and for a couple of years after it felt as
if it was firmly slotted into that particular period. I had a thing
about trying to write every year about that year, but I've loosened
up now, I think … (Coco appears at the foot of the stage pointing
at her watch).
Got a last one?
Oh God, don't you dare.
After I've stopped the tape, Bowie and I surface
as if from deep trance. He asks if he can look at my copious but
"It's a bloody thesis!" he exclaims.
"Well, what did you expect?"
"But don't you think I'm entitled to make similar
preparations of my own?"
"Of course," I reply, "but it never happens that way,
"Shame really. I must say I wasn't looking forward
at this at all, but have been pleasantly surprised at how it's gone."
Outside the theatre the inevitable limo arrives and,
rather ridiculously accelerates briskly away from the deserted sidewalk.
David Bowie is an intelligent, articulate and fascinating
man who is still writing messages to himself and sealing them in
bottles. It's an obsessively private process that for obvious reasons
he offers up for public scrutiny. Whatever he may think or feel,
Bowie has done both good things and bad things. He has also done
a lot more of the blue than me may ever surmise.
Unsuspectingly I'm sure, Bowie positively leaks loneliness;
it wraps itself around him like a clammy shroud. But the man is
driven, and it's surely no accident that on 'Scary Monsters' he
sings Tom Verlaine's 'Kingdom Come' with such unguarded passion;
Well I'll be breaking these rocks until the
And cuttin' this hay until the kingdom comes
Yes I'll be breaking these rocks until the kingdom
It's my price to pay until the kingdom comes
Such is the alternately frustrating and rewarding
lot of the long-distance creative person and such is David Bowie's
typically reflective portrait of himself the artist as a now not
so young man. You must make of both whatever you will.