INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Journal OCTOBER 1995 - by Philip Young
EXPLORING DAVID BOWIE
David Bowie is wearing a greyish t-shirt and black jeans, chatting on the telephone in a hotel room overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
"The lobby provides you with fishing rods so you can fish out of the window," he says, adding with mock dramatic emphasis, "Whether you want them or not!"
"One of the band has caught a small shark this morning and has got it in the bath. It is like this traditional hotel thing here. I haven't attempted it yet and, no, I don't think I probably will."
It's another city - "I haven't got a clue where I am, but it could be Seattle" - another stop on another world tour. He says he travels light: "I am very self-contained within the suitcase, though I travel with an awful lot of books.
Bowie is charming, animated and 'terribly excited' about bringing his new show to Britain. The album it is based on, Outside, is generally regarded as his best piece of work in fifteen years.
"I think Outside has such a strong sense of atmosphere and really rock has always been about atmosphere and attitude, of subject matter. It might not be the same kind of attitudinal pose as a lot of rock, but it is certainly significantly heavy with that kind of atmosphere and I think that is what affects one about all popular music."
It is also, apparently, a Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle; what on earth does that mean? "Gothic means it is like a grand guignol; non-linear means that it is not a straightforward story, it has loads and loads of holes and gaps that the listener can fill in themselves..."
A non-linear gothic drama hyper-cycle based on a series of fictional 'ritual art murders and concept muggings' recorded in the diaries of Art detective Nathan Adler - complete with a large dollop of sleeve note stuff about artists like Bowie's chum Damien Hirst - almost begs to be branded pretentious. And the artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke is lapping it up.
"In 1978, Brian (Eno) and I declared publicly that we were creating the very first School Of Pretension, and we have basically encouraged the label because it is an area that nobody else likes to get involved in.
"We tend to go to the areas that tend to be either obscure or not part of the tyranny of the mainstream, so pretension is very much our forte."
So 'pretentious' is a compliment? "It certainly is what we do. And we do it very well."
They do indeed. Bowie and Eno first got together in the late '70s to make a trilogy of albums Low, "Heroes", and Lodger which, although producing a few hit singles such as Sound And Vision, and "Heroes" itself, represented a significant move away from the glam rock mainstream.
Low, made when Bowie was living in Berlin and by all accounts not in the best psychological shape was later scored as an orchestral piece by the American composer Philip Glass.
Bowie says he was flattered by the attention, but steadfastly prefers the electronic original: "I think he lost a lot of it. I think that one of the pieces that he did, Some Are, was beautiful, but the rest of it, I think there is something more detached and spine-chilling in the original version. It has almost become rather traditional."
"Heroes" included a track called Joe The Lion, now featured in the Outside show, which signalled Bowie's interest in performance art: "It was about a performance artist from California, Chris Burden, who crucified himself to his Volkswagen."
Burden's performances also included being tied up in a sack and being dumped on a busy highway. Miraculously he survived his art and is now a professor of conceptualism at San Francisco university.
For the British tour, with Morrissey, Bowie has drawn up a shortlist of 'older, more obscure songs', including Be My Wife from Low and another 'art song', Andy Warhol from 1971's Hunky Dory he says 'feel comfortable within the context of the songs from Outside'. "I can't pinpoint why, but there are certain things which actually rub shoulders really well and it just feels like a very cohesive presentation of songs."
Those expecting the really big hits will be disappointed. "I certainly don't enjoy touring when I am not enjoying the material... I never let myself get into that position. The last time I got damned close to it was the Sound + Vision tour where I virtually played out all the things that had become associated with my tours, Let's Dance, "Heroes", Jean Genie, and that was pretty hard after the first six months."
Behind the critical acclaim for his 'best work in fifteen years' lies an implicit criticism - that the last few albums, notably Tonight and the Glass Spider nonsense, really haven't been much good.
Really? Tin Machine, in which he tried to come on as just another lad in a heavy metal band has to be seen as a bit of a hiccup. Bowie is stoical: "Nobody liked that very much..."
Did the criticism hurt? "No, I am waiting for a few years' time when the first Tin Machine album will be re-evaluated. I will always remember the critique Low and those albums that I did with Brian got at the time was stunningly bad. There were some scorchingly bad review bit over the years they have more than validated themselves."
Certainly the '70s Bowie seemed to have a constant need to move from style to style, and it has become a rock truism that he left in his wake a string of new bands who would make a career from the ideas contained in any one of his albums.
Bowie greets this observation with an ironic 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' but says he believes his greatest contribution was the was he and Brian Eno changed music with the Berlin albums, Station To Station and Scary Monsters.
"I think listening to so many of the current bands, influences have come out of work Brian and I have done, both independently and together, and that is very satisfying."
Of course there is more to David Bowie than simply making music. He opened his first solo art exhibition in London earlier this year, and is acting in another film, playing Andy Warhol in Build A Fort, Set It On Fire.
Apart from his role in the science fiction film The Man Who Fell To Earth, his forays onto the big screen have not met with any great critical - or box office - acclaim. The British media doesn't seem to like polymaths; the view is stick to singing and let painters get on with painting. Bowie's response is flat and perhaps not quite candid: "I really don't have an opinion. It is par for the course."
Moving swiftly through styles has to laid him open to criticism of dilettantism, of being a skilled dabbler rather than serious innovator, a charge that can perhaps be reinforced by his enthusiasms for 'cut ups', a technique he borrowed from the American writer William Burroughs.
Back in 1974 he was writing the Diamond Dogs album on sheets of paper, cutting out individual words and phrases, and shuffling them like cards to create new lyrics. He still uses a similar technique, but now has replaced scissors and glue with a much faster computer programme that rewrites his lines at random in three word blocks.
"It tends to create pieces of information that you would never otherwise have access to. It will take two of your ideas and in cutting them up it will present you with a third option. That is an interesting way to work and it is also a way of really ending a cul-de-sac or a blank, it is a great way of continuing to write.
"Sometimes I take the lines exactly as they come out of the computer, but sometimes lines come out which just give me a further idea so it is a very interesting creative device. I would say sixty percent of the Outside album was written that way."
Outside also features a series of cameo characters, including a fourteen-year-old girl, a sleazy seventy-eight-year-old, and a forty-six-year-old Tyrannical Futurist. Time was when there was very little divide between Bowie and his characters, and he had serious problems separating out the stage persona of Ziggy Stardust and the real David Bowie who should have been conducting normal human relationships.
Those days are apparently long gone, and after six years with his wife, fashion model Iman, the new clean-living Bowie is telling the world he enjoys a social life, has friends and enjoys going to dinner and watching silly movies.
"I think I am quite happy to leave the characters on the album. I see myself as much more of an author. I enjoy storytelling and I enjoy developing character ideas. It seems to be one of my fortes and when I get into doing it I really enjoy the process a lot."
Bowie's other writing interest at present is in doing interviews - including a well-received piece for Modern Painters magazine on the French artist Balthus - and says he would like to meet Nelson Mandela.
What would he ask? "I think one of the things would be how he could keep his sense of purpose for such a length of time and what he did to stay on such a focused course."
So what keeps David Bowie on a focused course? "I don't have one! Laughs. That is my particularly freedom. Just avoiding the catastrophe of success more than anything else."
Bowie and I go back a long way; back in 1972 my first serious girlfriend thought there was more to life than Ziggy Stardust; I didn't and she took her affections elsewhere.
I was heart-broken. But Jean Genie was just around the corner...