David Bowie: a really strange kettle of poissons
Jonathan Mantle • Vogue • September 1978
"a terrible charm, a real spell-binder. In another
context you might even say he was dangerous"
That's what they said about David Bowie's recent
concert tour: his performance to 18,000 ecstatic fans a night at
the Earl's Court Stadium was an extraordinary exhibition of power
over audience. The fans reacted to his techno-instrumentals (like
Schonberg's or John Cage's) as if they were rock music. JONATHAN
MANTLE talked to Bowie just before the fifty-sixth concert of the
A friend of David Bowie's once said, "He is not a
great musician, but he's the greatest star.'' At thirty-one, he
is a unique figure in his own sphere. After five years as the archetypal
star, Bowie no longer wishes to be known just as a musician, or
an actor, or a painter, but rather, he says, as a "generalist".
The ambiguity and mystery of his image have much
to do with his ability to keep at least one jump ahead of his audience.
One of his themes, the gradual decay of choice and freedom, explored
recently in Nicolas Roeg's film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, strongly
suggests Bowie's own fear of being trapped within the constrictions
of an image. Success came ready-packaged as a potential straitjacket.
Born in South London in 1947, he left Bromley Technical
School at sixteen, spent the first few months as a commercial artist,
formed his own band and joined Lindsay Kemp's Mime Company. The
way he moves and uses the stage are still one of the most remarkable
aspects of his concert performances. Three albums and a single (Space
Oddity) later, he had still made only a handful of live appearances.
In 1970 his new manager, Tony Defries, took him to the United States,
building and putting on view Bowie's flamboyant, bisexual image.
The next album, Hunky Dory, was his first hit. Focusing on the new
release, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from
Mars, Defries enlarged and extended the MainMan organisation that
was to embody Bowie, and ultimately control him.
Ziggy Stardust was the story of a quintessential
rock star who ''took it all too far, but boy! could he play guitar''.
It was the start of the powerful dominance Bowie was to have over
the fashion and style of his fans. The glittery, tight-rope image
of Bowie and his creation Ziggy mirrored and influenced a whole
generation of rock music, leading to his involvement as a producer
of other acts, notably two key albums: Mott the Hoople's All The
Young Dudes and Lou Reed's classic Transformer. But by now the persona
of Ziggy Stardust had become an albatross around his neck. His struggle
to escape it and at the same time exploit it was apparent in his
next album Aladdin Sane, where the narrative device he had successfully
used as Ziggy became chaotic and fragmented to an almost unbearable
In July 1973, two months after a near-disastrous concert
at Earl's Court, he announced that he was killing off Ziggy Stardust,
and was therefore retiring from music. However, he continued to
record, releasing Pin Ups in 1973, followed by Diamond Dogs, a nightmarish
futuristic parable reminiscent of Orwell and William Burroughs.
David Live, recorded during his mammoth American tour, captures
the strain and incipient collapse that Bowie had originally projected
as a theatrical concept, but which was now threatening to engulf
After this tour he went into seclusion in New York,
where he recorded his "plastic soul'' album, Young Americans.
Its clean-cut, disco style brought criticisms of blandness and creative
exhaustion, but it was, as Bowie says of another album, "a
good valve… it let out a lot of frustration.'' Station To Station which followed in 1976, though still disco-rooted, marked the beginnings
of a new phase.
His return to England the same year made it clear
that his audience had not forgotten him, even though it was a new-look,
austere Bowie who greeted the hordes of lookalikes and imitators
that assemble wherever he is playing. The concerts were ecstatically
received, with banks of brilliant neon lighting creating the harsh,
cold, magnetic aura that has endured up to his most recent tour.
Much was made by the press of his apparent fascist salute (his associates
insist that he was simply waving to fans from a car that happened
to be a black, open-topped Mercedes) and his comment in Stockholm,
"What Britain needs now is another Hitler" the ambiguity
of which was conveniently ignored by the reporters.
Emerging at last from long legal wrangles, Bowie
was no longer the Anglo-American of the mammoth American tour and
of Diamond Dogs. He was living in Berlin and had separated from
his wife Angela: they have a six-year-old son, Zowie Bowie. Now
he was listening to contemporary composers rather than rock, and
collaborating with one of music's more mysterious and interesting
figures, Brian Eno, to make Low and "Heroes", voted Melody Maker Album
of '77. It seemed that he might achieve what many rock musicians
fail to do lose part of one audience, but gain a new one.
Berlin has remained a strong creative influence.
There, in late '77, he made the film Just A Gigolo, with Marlene
Dietrich and Kim Novak; a film biography of the Expressionist painter
Egon Schiele, directed by Clive Donner, with Bowie as Schiele, has
recently begun shooting.
With Ziggy, you appealed to the devotion of
a generation. Your music isn't directed at one age-group any more,
I'm getting older, so I don't think in terms of generation
as much as I used to. Before, I was trapped into the archetype of
writing-for a generation, which is what I think most young rock
and rollers do. I'm bored with narration. It died out of all the
other arts years ago. Rock and roll follows the rest of the arts
about ten years later.
The music is more ambiguous?
I don't know if it's as interesting to young kids,
though. I'm amazed that they sit through something like Warszawa
as an opening number … and Brecht's Alabama Song – it's a pretty
strident piece of music, a demanding piece of music as well.
Your lyrics don't tell stories, they're a bit like
looking through a window…
A cracked window, which splits the face up… like
Cubism. A lot of what I really feel about things goes into the input
of what I write now. As a narrator you pick out sources from all
over the place, whether you believe in them or not, because they
are interesting and you can utilise them. But the kind of music
that I'm doing is pretty subjective.
You don't supply complete concepts any more.
I don't think they really work.
Your band for this tour is a synthesis of different
styles. You've got a rock and roll pianist, a synthesiser player,
an electric violin and a lead guitarist.
I wanted a really strange kettle of poissons… and
I think I got them! I told them, halfway through the tour, "None
of you have anything in common with any other member of the band.''
And they looked around, and said, ''Good God, you're right!'' They
don't have any kind of roots in common.
Is there any connection between your "Heroes" and
the Stranglers' No More Heroes?
Absolutely none … That was the most disastrous
piece of coincidence and timing. And, of course, the film Heroes came out at exactly the same time in the United States, with Fonzie,
Do you think people still want a message from you?
Not from me necessarily. But I think they want and
need art where mankind's symbols are thrown up every now and again.
I think rock does do that, more than just about any of the other
Whether you're protected, or you protect yourself
deliberately now, you keep yourself cut off. Is there a danger of
cutting yourself off from things you might not want to miss?
I keep myself cut off from hotels and things, out
of deference to the English countryside. At the moment I'm staying
way outside of Glasgow, so most of my time has been spent walking
on the hills and fishing in the lakes, and running every day. I've
been with a friend, Jimmy Osterberg, Iggy Pop. We're from very different
backgrounds, that's why we get on really well. I've spent this tour
in a very civilised fashion. I've been able to live as I do when
I'm not on the road. I get up at seven or eight in the morning,
How do you meet anybody other than as David Bowie?
In England and America it's a bit difficult, but
I don't spend much time in either country.
I was watching the Alan Yentob movie recently (the
1975 documentary called David Bowie, Cracked Actor). Were you
into drugs then?
My insides must have been like perished rubber! Yes,
it was not a good time at all… very amusing, looking back on it…
I must have been quite an extraordinarily hard person to relate
Why did you choose to go to Berlin?
I hold the same opinion as Gunther Grass, that Berlin
is the centre of everything that is happening and will happen in
Europe over the next few years. I wanted to throw myself back into
Grass calls it the city "closest to the realities
of the age".
Absolutely… I do find that, very strongly. It's
such an ambiguous place-it's hard to distinguish between the ghosts
and the living.
It's real and unreal at the same time.
That's an exact reason why I went there. As a city,
it seemed to be a macrocosm of my own state of mind. I thought it
would be a good thing to place myself in a context resembling myself
and see what came of it. Two wrongs made a right in my case, because
it helped me adjust to myself. Nobody gives a shit about you in
Berlin. Infamy or fame, it doesn't mean much there.
Do you also find that German clash between ego and
Oh yes! The angst! My God, there's angst in the air!
My instrumentals were written with a lot of Berlin in mind, and
East Berlin and Poland. And a few experiences I had in Russia.
Egon Schiele will be the flrst person you've acted
who existed in his own right. Why did you choose him?
The obvious reason is that Clive Donner invited me
over to his house one evening and told me his plans for making the
film, and asked whether I would like to do it. So I said yes.
What does it feel like being an actor?
God, I long to be on the other side of the camera.
Have you any plans? Are they to do with your production
company, Bewlay Brothers?
Yes, I do have. But you think you're only putting
in so much, and then you find that you've doubled your stake, and
trebled it … I'm trying to get some money together now. I have
written three screenplays. I don't want to talk about it, because
it's a damned good idea. But it has a religious aspect; it's about
a missionary, actually.
How long will you stay in Berlin?
I think I've finished there now. I've been in Japan
and Thailand recently and I may go back to Japan, Somewhere round
Will you be performing less as you diversify more?
I think once every two years is about right. I couldn't
tour any more than that. It's very demoralising after the second
Is David Bowie right now as much a persona as Ziggy
ever was, with this generalist approach?
No, I think not. I think the only thing that's false
about my stage presence at the moment is an actual knowledge of
stagecraft, which I do utilise… But apart from that, there's no
conscious attempt to portray anybody other than myself.