INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Humo DECEMBER 5, 1995 - by Staff Writers
CAN THE REAL DAVID BOWIE RISE, PLEASE?
Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, Cracked Actor, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Jean Genie, Aladdin Sane, the pirate from Rebel Rebel, The Thin White Duke, the pop-god from Let's Dance, the Tin Machine Rock Star - they were all persona of David Bowie.
Can the real David Bowie rise? was a much-heard question during the '70s and the '80s.
Bowie collects art nowadays and is a member of the Modern Painters board of management. Not long ago he also exhibited his own paintings and sculptures in a London gallery and designed wallpaper for Laura Ashley. Critics scoff at all these kinds of artistic sideways, but he doesn't seem to care.
Outside reunited him with Brian Eno, the man behind U2's Zooropa tour, and also the man with whom Bowie recorded the legendary Berlin-Trilogy : the LPs Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. Now he plans to create some other avant-garde cyberpop records with Eno before 1999. Those will express the "Zeitgeist" and work out the Outside characters. In the year 2000 there would be a giant multimedia show, opening up new horizons like the Diamond Dogs show twenty years ago.
Today Bowie wears a shirt, designed by Dirk Bikkembergs (a Belgian!!!) with a number 1 (very appropriately) on the backside. When I mention it, he says mumbling: Ah yes, good old Dirk. My eye also catches the tattoo on his shinbone, a naked eastern girl with something that looks like a dolphin.
Humo: You played the part of Andy Warhol in Basquiat, Julian Schnabel's film: Build a fort, set it on fire. At a certain moment, at the end of the '70s/beginning of the '80s, you were as famous and legendary as Warhol: he was the Pope of Pop art, you were the Pope of pop. You're also mentioned in the Warhol diaries a couple of times. Was he a friend of yours?
Bowie: No, certainly not. I met him a couple of times, but we seldom shared more than platitudes. The first time we saw each other an awkward silence fell until he remarked on my bright yellow shoes and started talking enthusiastically. He wanted to be very superficial and seemingly emotionless, indifferent, just like a dead fish. Lou Reed described him most profoundly when he once told me they should bring out a doll of Andy on the market: a doll that you wind up and doesn't do anything. But I managed to observe him well, and that was a helping hand for the film.
We borrowed his clothes from the museum in Pittsburgh, and they were intact, unwashed. Even the pockets weren't emptied: they contained pancake, white, deadly pale fond de teint which Andy always smeared on his face, a cheque torn in pieces, someone's address, lots of homeopathic pills and a wig. Andy always wore those silver wigs, but he never admitted they were wigs. One of his hairdressers told me lately that he had his wigs regularly cut, like they were real hair. When the wig was trimmed, the next month he put on another as if his hair had grown.
You mentioned that Warhol reminded you of a dead fish. But there were also periods that you were seen as a cold, emotionless creature. At the time of Station To Station, with you as Thin White Duke, for instance.
Yeah, I realise that and it hurt me an awful lot back then. I was a coke head, totally paranoid and withdrawn, but not cold. I've always been a very sensitive, warmhearted, and enthusiastic person. That sounds ridiculous when I put so much emphasis on it, but just 'cause I'm like that, I found it disturbing to be taken for cold and calculated. I'm very emotional. In many ways me and Andy are each other's opposites. Of course it has to do with the shallowness of human perception. People often see only the first layer of something! With the Thin White Duke people only kept the decadence in mind and not the themes touched by the Station To Station album.
Just after Warhol's death they found out that his house was filled with antiques. The Pope of Modern Art didn't possess a modern painting and that was considered as betrayal. Suppose you die - God forbid that - although, you are God.
God beyond God. (smiles)
Suppose that after your death, it comes out that you didn't listen to rock and pop all those years, but secretly to muzak.
Well, I indeed have more than a couple of Brian Eno's records at home (grins). But Brian is really proud of the fact that he makes Muzak for our times. He doesn't mind at all being considered the godfather of ambient and phenomena like The Orb. In my opinion Brian's personal fight against elevator music and airport muzak encouraged him to beat that kind of music in its own area. People have now forgotten how brave it was back then for a serious pop musician to turn away from the hitparade and to produce music with a conscious social function and to start working in a context which serious composers looked down upon.
Again: back then - in the early '70s - it was revolutionary. Brian always thinks: "Which are the norms and procedures nowadays?" And then he looks for jammers, until he's found an alternative vocabulary to work with.
It's very difficult to realise now how revolutionary your albums with Eno were, when they were released.
That's true, 'cause the frame of reference has changed so strongly. On those albums we were experimenting with lots of new methods concerning recording techniques as well as composing tactics. But during the past twenty years those tricks have also been used by hundreds of others - thus they seem outdated now. Somebody who's twenty can't realise anymore how revolutionary Picasso and Duchamps were either. In their times they had an enormously liberating function. But in the meantime everybody's been free for years, thus the need for that function doesn't exist anymore, and a large part of those artists' worth became invisible.
I don't like Nine Inch Nails very much. I'm getting tired of the so-called depressive grunge rockers' wailing, who earn a lot of money from their young fans who believe that all that negativity is real. But how did your American tour with Nine Inch Nails go, actually? I've heard so many contradictory reports on it.
Well, I played for a public consisting mostly of Nine Inch Nails fans 'cause - several reliable sources told me so - my fans didn't to come, afraid of what could happen during a Nine Inch Nails concert: riots, violence, extreme loud sound (grins)
I personally liked the combination of Nine Inch Nails and me, but my fans didn't. Bad luck!! It was also an extremely young audience, between about twelve and seventeen years old. My starting point was simply: I've just made an adventurous album, what can I do now to make the concerts as adventurous? Looking at it in that way, it seemed logic to confront myself with the Nine Inch Nails audience. I knew it would be hard to captivate them by music they've never heard, by an artist whose name was the only familiar thing.
Very brave, actually. I can't imagine Eric Clapton or Rod Stewart doing that.
I don't need medals for courage or audacity, I just try to keep my life interesting. Over the past few years I've never been so alive as during those concerts.
I imagine that the atmosphere there was like the Heaven's In Here video by Tin Machine, where you continue to sing in the midst of all the chaos that's going on, totally undisturbed. By the way, I think Tin Machine was brilliant, although it's nowadays cool to say it was the lowest point in your career.
My downfall!! (sarcastic) But I certainly found it funny that after the first Tin Machine album grunge bands like Pearl Jam hired our producer Tim Palmer to copy our sound for their new album. Pearl Jam even plays Heaven's In Here during their rehearsals.
No -in my (holy) opinion my lowest point was the period '83 to '86, when I made up my mind not to create a Let's Dance Part 2, but I didn't know what I wanted to do and I also had a lot of personal problems. That was my middle of the road crisis.
Perhaps it sounds a bit too obvious, but I suppose, considering what happened, that Kurt Cobain could have made a very good version of My Death.
Yeah, absolutely, because he was that kind of artist - and those are rare - who's able to express feelings of being torn apart, doubt and fear which don't come across as being pose or cartoon.
You're right. I'm afraid that it's typical of youth that death isn't exactly something real. It's a vague concept that's even sort of romantic, because you can't behold what it is: pain, fear, never eating again, never again making love, never again travelling, going to a party. When you're young, you commute between the unreal idea that you could die some day and the very real seeming possibility that you'll never die. Someone who's fifteen or even twenty can't imagine the terror of dying and being dead. And if you're like Kurt Cobain, a famous pop star, which is a way of intense living, the temptation of thinking that you're immortal is immensely big. I thought a lot about it and I'm not sure that Cobain - or rather everyone who wants to commit suicide - really thinks he's going to die when he pulls that trigger. Because, certainly with very young people, there's that idea: "This is just a signal; death is not real; later on I'll wake up and everything will be alright."
It's like in a dream: even if you're haunted or threatened in your dream and you almost die, there's always some sort of safety mechanism in your brain that makes sure that your imagination finds a way out, at the very last second, so you'll stay alive in your dream.
Absolutely. That's why I wonder if Kurt Cobain was sober or stoned when he died. That's never been really cleared up. Because when you're stoned, those safety mechanisms disappear. The best evidences are all those LSD users in the '60 who jumped off roofs and out of windows because they thought they could fly. In Cobain's case there were of course also a lot of other factors. If you want evidence of how drugs can distort your perspective on life, you don't have to look any further. And then there's of course that rotten American law on gun sales. We've all got moments when we have had enough, and when you got a gun within reach at such a moment...
I'm glad you're touring with Morrissey in Europe.
That's going to be very exciting. I wonder how that contrast will work! I hope we'll find time to sing a few songs together like I did with Trent Reznor. But back then we had two weeks to rehearse six songs (they'll be on a record some day by the way), but now with Morrissey we've got no rehearsal time at all. Once we stood on stage together, in LA, in 1991.
Do you remember that scene in the film Merry Christmas Mr Laurence when your character and Riuchi Sakamoto's kiss, and that kiss gets a wonderful, surreal effect, because the film in the camera got stuck?
Yeah, of course. It was pure coincidence, but very attractive to explain that as a great idea of the director, because the result was so overwhelming.
Well, I 've noticed that effect lately as well, when your Station to Station CD got stuck and 'Stay' therefore an ambient-house effect had. The result sounded incredible.
Lately Brian and I wondered why there are no CDs you can play on both sides. We were told that itt was technically unworkable. And then Brian just glued two CDs together and put them into a CD player and it worked. So now we ask ourselves: why that industrial lie? Is this a conspiracy? But now I hear that soon there will be CD with eight hours playing-time on the market. Eight hours! That'll be a nightmare for pop groups, who'll have to decide what they are gonna do with those eight hours.
It will be great for pretentious concept CD makers but a disaster for ordinary rockers. I'm not sure that more playing-time will have a positive effect on the quality. You know, when we still worked with vinyl, you had two sides of twenty minutes. If each of those twenty minutes had an awful bad track, it really showed. But on one sided CDs of seventy minutes - when you hear all songs straight through - weak songs are less striking.
I wonder why you know that so well.
Because I listen to CDs of my competitors (grin). I hear quite a lot CDs with two good tracks and the rest is just filler.
You can't blame The Stones, can you?
[laughs] Erm, I wouldn't know, 'cause I haven't bought a Rolling Stones record for years.
Really? Did the Voodoo Lounge Tour escape your attention?
That's strange. The Stones were everywhere last year or do you barely listen to rock?
No, on the contrary! Let's say that I'm very focused in my listening. My favourites nowadays are Nine Inch nails, Tricky, PJ Harvey and Courtney Love, who plays an art groupie very convincingly in Basquiat.
Your own Outside contains a few peculiar samples. On I Am With Name you can, for instance, hear someone yelling something in the background and then there's applause.
Ah, I'm glad you noticed that. See, most songs on Outside are products of a very long jam session. Later we worked all those pieces out. Brian Eno gave each musician an order. They got a file with a character-description and then Brian said you have to portray this person as long as we play. Make sure your instrument sounds the way you think that you character would act and speak. To our drummer Brian said: "You're a displeased ex-member of a racist South African rock group. Play now the notes that you weren't allowed to play back then." My file said: You're the news presenter and fortune-teller in a society where all existing media are defective, so that the population counts on you for their daily portion of news. The sound engineer also got a part: the one of audience. He disposed of a sampling machine on which four sorts of audience reactions were set down, and his task during our rehearsals was to react each time with the kind of applause or cheering he thought our music deserved, sometimes an ovation or weak applause or the cry of an unsatisfied person in the audience.
I just thought it was a sample of: Triumph Des Willens by Leni Riefenstahl. It sounds very Hitler-like. It's interesting that you unconsciously touch your moustache when I say Hitler.
I just swept a smile away. I get it that you associate that huge applause with those by Riefenstahl filmed Nüremberg rallies. That association I always make as well during others' concerts [laughs].
Brian is very good at classifying sounds afterwards. He first does something and only starts analysing afterwards - but then very thoroughly - what he did, why, how, and if the idea can still be extended. So, he isn't the intellectual he's always taken for, from the very beginning, but he always thinks of a justification for what happened. Like many artists do. Very few painters say: "Okay, I'll call this painting Chaos, and that's what will appear on the canvas." No, most of them paint something, and think afterwards: "Looks quite chaotic. You know what, I'll call it Chaos."
But personally you're very fond of Damien Hirst, the British visual artist who became notorious for exhibiting dead sharks and sawed-up sheep and cows. Hirst is very good at explaining his intentions afterwards. For me, art is more like an instant reaction of Wow, fantastic!! The more explanation a piece of art needs, the less it's worth in my eyes. Let it be conceptual or not.
(smiles) There are even crimes committed in the name of conceptual art. That Dutch artist Rob Schultz, whose legs were blown off by a bomb in his car, did you hear that? Well, that assault was, according to reports, claimed afterwards by a rival artist, who saw it as a performance. Incredible, isn't it? That sounds like the surrealistic-nihilistic ideas of André Breton, who once claimed that shooting into a crowd creates a piece of art. That suggests that murder can be art. Very spooky!!!
The question is if Breton would still see it like that if it concerned his murder.
(smiles) Exactly. Well, murder may be art if you get away with it. Like, perhaps, O.J. Simpson. With Damien, modern art gained momentum again. Recently one of his fans left him his body in his will. That fan wants to be part of one of Damien's works of art after death, so, who knows, perhaps his body will be used sometimes. But Damien has got very young fans, and for the time being that kid is still in good health, so it'll be a long-term project probably [laughs]. But, that element leans also perfectly to the themes on Outside. Very peculiar: since that record came out, references to ritual mutilation as art appear everywhere. Murder as art; masochism as performance.
Do you think we should encourage self-destruction as art? In fact it boils down to someone who is willing to hurt and mutilate himself to work that way.
The kind of people like Ron Athey, the artist who suffers from AIDS and pierces himself with needles and as performance he catches his infected blood and exposes it. The Austrian performance artist Stellarc, who puts miniature cameras in his body with a sort of virtual arm. The French woman Orlan, who subjects herself to bizarre plastic surgery as a work of art - she had horns implanted to question the ideal of beauty for women nowadays. All this fascinates me, but I don't admire it. I see such artists just as a sign of times.
On Outside, "outsider art" is brought up. What's that? And is it really necessary to know that to enjoy the album?
Outsider art is a collective name for art made by people who have some unique point of view, but who aren't real career artists. Brian and I went to an institute for the mentally ill in Vienna, where one side of the building was reserved for mentally ill artists who had all that space to express them. The fascinating thing about those mentally ill artists is that their expression is totally free, because they aren't aware of what art should be; they don't know what a gallery is; they don't think about money; they aren't conscious of what the outside world expects from art.
I heard that in Germany an artist sued his gallery. He had exhibited a blob of grease as a installation. The blob was cleaned up and thrown out the cleaning woman because she didn't think of it as art, but as five kilos of dirt. The artist claimed compensation of half-a-million dollars, but the judge's verdict went against him.
[laughs] That's the difference between an amateur and a professional: Damien Hirst would have somehow involved the judge with the sculpture, so that the court and the lawsuit were also part of the installation.
In-between the songs of Outside there are the strange voices of the persona: the murdered girl Baby Grace Blue, the art detective Nathan Adler, the thief Leon Blank, the drug-dealer Ramona A. Stone, the eccentric art collector Algeria Touchshriek.
Next year there'll hopefully be a triple CD out, which'll be called Inside and there'll be a sort of the making of Outside: our working method detailed on it, a couple of jams and more of those voices. The first monologue of Baby Grace was fifteen minutes long and was very Twin Peaks.
The first time I heard her voice, I was really shocked and moved. She sounds so real that you want to save her, even though you don't know where she is.
When I listen to Outside now - yes, I do play my own records at home- it's also Baby Grace's voice that touches me most. Perhaps because I based her story on a girl I know very well and who's been through a whole bunch of bad relationships in which she was abused. It seemed like she really picked that kind of man each time, like it's very likely to happen with that sort of tormented woman.
Baby Grace is your deformed voice. Why did you admit they were characters? Those voices sound so real that you could have pretended they were real people. That'd have been much more exciting, wouldn't it?
It was a valuable alternative, yes. But you can be sure that a thousand weirdos would appear claiming they are Baby Grace or Nathan Adler. Who knows: there could be a whole lot of lawsuits, or worse. All that's very interesting from a distance (smiles).
You deformed your face with a computer to become the Outside characters. What was it like to see yourself as a woman?
Exciting!! (smiles) It wasn't the first time. With pain in my heart I remember my travestite outfits during Boys Keep Swinging. And at the beginning of the '70s with The Man Who Sold The World, I was also walking around in dresses and long hair. And now I'm twenty years older and thanks to a computer I'm just a fourteen-year-old girl. Although I'm tired of flirting with bisexuality. It became so banal, all those women magazines that promote bisexual chic now.
Brett Anderson from Suede caused a lot of commotion in England confessing that he was bisexual. Twenty year prior to that you made an even bigger commotion with a similar confession.
Yeah, obviously nothing has changed. To me it wasn't about that bisexuality by the way. Now I'm strictly heterosexual. But I wanted attention and tolerance for ambiguity. Nothing is black or white. Brett also formulated that very well: "I'm a bisexual man who coincidentally has never had a homosexual experience." The funny thing is that there are certain kinds of homosexuals who are just as intolerant as some gay haters. Fanatic homosexuals don't want at all that you become part of their little club.
Something else: do artists steal a lot now? Or plagiarise, if you like that word better?
Plagiarism is a good norm for the shift in morals in society. What was called plagiarism when I was young, it's now called "post-modern appropriation" and what was called theft, is now described as homage. Be careful of artists who say that their work is homage to other artists; it just means they stole their ideas.
So I can "with permission" plunder your songs, as homage.
Feel free! You wouldn't be the first. The most recent homage to my work is the first song of that Elastica's album. That riff is copied from Robert Fripp's guitar riff in It's No Game from Scary Monsters. That's the most recent theft that struck me.
Laugh. Let them do that. It's pathetic. But life is too short to fill it with such things (murmuring). I'm thankful to be part of the texture of pop-music nowadays.
You travel a lot. What's the most bizarre echo of your own music that you've heard on other continents?
Well, a very fascinating echo I didn't hear myself. During the American Army's siege of the palace - of what's his name again - that South American dictator drug-dealer Noriega. The American troops tried to find a way to get him out of his palace without bloodshed. In such cases they use psychological warfare. One of the elements of that is sleep deprivation. But in this specific case they used a huge music installation that played Let's Dance very loud day and night until Noriega went nuts and surrendered. It was the most bizarre and strangest use of rock music that I ever heard. [proudly] My contribution to democracy [laughs]
Concerning your reputation for: a) Changing your image constantly like a chameleon and b) planning your career very sharp and precisely.
Not "sharp". If I were sharp, at thirty-seven I would have made Let's Dance 2 by now. But continue.
Still, I wonder how much you even manipulate your personal life for the sake of your career. China Girl's maybe an example of that. To me it can't be a mere coincidence when you were with a gorgeous Chinese girlfriend exactly when China Girl came out as a single.
Good try, Sherlock Holmes! (laughs) But in this case it's just the other way around. Don't forget the words were written by Jim (Iggy Pop). I just wrote the music. And Jim had a Chinese girlfriend at the time he wrote the words, so six or seven years before I met my China Girl.
She was an absolutely gorgeous girl, as you can see in the China Girl video.
Oh, she was fantastic.
Although Iman isn't bad either.
She's the best!
On Black Tie White Noise there's an instrumental, The Wedding, which you composed for your wedding ceremony. But there was nothing on it for your honeymoon night. What kind of music was on the menu then?
(smiles) Oh Lord. Very sentimental classical music, Vivaldi and so on, and especially a lot of Marvin Gaye (very sensual music). By the way, I saw Jim last week.
Skiing on coke in Switzerland, was he?
No!!! He's finished his new record and is going to tour again! And probably we'll be recording a record together again. And he's finally going to write! I've been pushing him to write a book for years.
When I see Henry Rollins doing his spoken words performances, I always think: Iggy Pop would do that a lot better.
Precisely. Jim is intelligent and funny and has original insights on everything. In my eyes he's one of the greatest undiscovered American Voices. A new William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac.
It's perhaps sacrilege, but I find that beat generation bible, On The Road, a boring book: a bunch of guys who are bored and drink too much and find it interesting that they have no job and no money and haven't got an interesting opinion about anything. Or perhaps my generation can't appreciate anymore how revolutionary that book was thirty years ago.
Sure. I found it fascinating that Jack Cassidy didn't like the book either, even though it deals with his father. It also fascinated me hearing that all of the children of those great popes of the Beat Generation are all fuck-ups. Their parents all knew it well, but the result is that their children are totally confused. Without any distinction - dysfunctional or addicted.
Is that why you're so happy that your son Duncan graduated at university?
Well yes. I mean, for sons and daughters of any successful artist it's very hard to live a normal life and find their own way. Thank God, my son did a better job.
Another fine singer who you've plugged lately is Scott Walker, whose Nite Flights you covered, a version which you play (superbly) live now. I've got all his records.
What do you think of his latest, Tilt?
The first half an hour was disappointing, because he does everything except what he's best at - like you try not to use your greatest qualities (your voice and the ability to write major hits) on Outside - and the last thirty minutes are fabulous. It's like Walker is saying: Okay, you've done your best and now you're rewarded.
I agree. I find it a sensational record - very brave, too. I got a lot of respect for his integrity. He's true to himself, whereas other artists are traitors to themselves. He really works without compromising and there are very few artists like that. Scott Walker makes records, which I like to take as an example of an artist. What you said about not doing what you're best at. Well, it may sound arrogant, but I don't feel like adapting to the wishes and expectations of the big audience anymore.
No more hits from David Bowie?
I'm sorry for anyone who is waiting but, no, I don't give a shit anymore.