INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo MARCH 2016 - by Paul Du Noyer
BOWIE ON BOWIE
In 2002, David Bowie agreed to edit the hundred-and-fourth edition of Mojo. he threw himself into the task with trademark energy, sharing fave raves past and present - The Velvet underground, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Mouse On Mars - and submitting to a rare and revealing retrospective interview centring on the whirlwind years of 1972-76. In the process, Mojo learned a lesson it wouldn't forget about Bowie's high standards. "How do you guys get your magazine out?" he chided Paul Du Noyer.
It's May 2002, and the good ship David Bowie is emitting serious distress signals. He has agreed to guest-edit the next issue of Mojo, but it's one of those jobs that always looks easier than it really is. For one thing, he didn't get the review copy of the new Oasis album that he'd been promised. And now I'm on the phone to New York, trying to coax him into a second interview.
David Bowie is not best pleased.
We'd already talked about his own new album, Heathen. That went well enough. He exhibited the patience of an artist with fresh product to promote. Besides, it was a fine record (as posterity is starting to notice). Bowie's final years were not destined to be his busiest, but his twenty-first century output never settled for anything that was mediocre, formulaic or expected.
But as well as Heathen, Mojo wanted material about his earlier work, specifically that glorious run from 1972's Ziggy Stardust to Station To Station in 1976. And so I have to break this editorial decision to him.
"This is really going on and on," he snaps. Awkward silence down the transatlantic line. "I finished all my deadlines for this editor thing on the thirteenth of last month and waiting for you guys to get your stuff over to me has really put things out. So I have to complain just before we start out. Everything was so late from you guys."
Oh God. So this is what it's like to get a bollocking off The Dame. I picture an exhalation of cigarette smoke, so fierce it almost seeps through the receiver. In the background, his other phone is ringing. "Oh shut up!" he shouts. "It's been a hell of a morning. They were Beckett's last words, you know: What a morning..."
He sighs again. Then, after many soothing noises from me, Bowie remembers he is, above all, an old-fashioned English gentleman. The other phone is silenced. His cultured south London twang is once more becalmed and he proceeds to rabbit away most pleasantly. He unboxes his memories of Ziggy, Aladdin, Thomas Jerome Newton, the Thin White Duke and all the phantasmic visions who stepped - as immortally as any characters from Dickens - into our collective imagination. And changed our lives.
Chief among them was Ziggy Stardust. He played guitar, he prowled a desolate London landscape in a quilted jumpsuit, he let the children boogie and he became a rock'n'roll suicide. Or did he? Not only was Ziggy Stardust aborted as a musical: the storyline of his adventures is probably too fragmented to qualify even as a concept album.
"There was a bit of a narrative," Bowie contends, "a slight arc, and my intention was to fill it in more later. And I never got round to it because before I knew where I was we'd recorded the damn thing. There was no time to wait.
"I'm glad in the long run that I just left it like that. Because I never drew a template for a storyline too clearly, it left so much room for audience interpretation. A couple of years ago I was seriously near to putting something together. But every time I got close to defining him more, he seemed to become less than what he was before. So I left it. Project abandoned."
The credible "rock musical" remains an elusive beast to this day, and Bowie himself did not pick up the gauntlet (not even Lazarus quite qualifies). "No, I'm as guilty as anyone. Possibly because of my natural impatience, I just don't discipline myself enough to see something through. Diamond Dogs, I suppose, got near that. It was my usual basket of apocalyptic visions, isolation, being terribly miserable..."
"Dystopian, absolutely," he smirks. "I went to the doctors for it. You always think you've got an ulcer but it's just heartburn... No, in retrospect, it has been a strong theme in the work that I've done down the years. In fact, I think if there is any consistency to what I do, it's going to be the lyrical content. I'm saying the same thing a lot, which is about this sense of self-destruction. I think you can see the apocalyptic thing as the manifestation of an interior problem. There's a real nagging anxiety in there somewhere, and I probably develop those anxieties in a 'faction' structure."
As an example of his 'faction'-writing, Bowie offers that singular astronaut Major Tom, who first appeared in his 1969 hit Space Oddity, and re-emerged eleven years later in Ashes To Ashes: "The second time around there were elements of my really wanting to be clean of drugs. I meta-morphed all that into the Major Tom character, so it's partially autobiographical. But not completely so: there's a fantasy element in it as well. It probably came from my wanting to be healthy again. Definitely. And the first time around it wasn't. The first time around it was merely about feeling lonely. But then the limpets of time grabbed hold of the hull of my ship; it was de-barnacling by the time I got round to Ashes To Ashes. No, leave all this out, actually, the barnacles... Jesus Christ!"
Yes, you've gone a bit Captain Birdseye.
"I know. Davy Jones's locker!"
The Davy Jones who became David Bowie chose rock music, he now suggests, because it was a career where he could take all his interests with him. "You couldn't really do that in accounting. Because I loved art and I loved theatre and the ways we express ourselves as a culture, I really thought rock music was a great way of not having to relinquish my hold on any of those things. I could drag square pegs into round holes: butcher the pegs away until they fitted. It's kind of what I attempted to do: bit of sci-fi, a bit of kabuki here, a little bit of German Expressionism there. It was like having my friends around me."
With the solitary exception of Space Oddity, (and by '72 it's fast receding in the public memory), Bowie's career took an age to warm up. At the time of his breakthrough with Ziggy Stardust, he'd been making records for eight years without a chart placing - as Davie Jones & The King Bees, Davy Jones, The Manish Boys and, from 1966, as David Bowie.
"Well, it took me a long time to get it right," he states. didn't know how to write a song, I wasn't particularly good at it. I forced myself to be a good songwriter, and I became good songwriter. But I had no natural talents whatsoever. I made a job of work at getting good. And the only way I could learn was see how other people did it. I wasn't one of those guys who came out of the womb like Marc [a reference to Bolan's T.Rex song, Cosmic Dancer: "I danced myself right out the womb"]. "I wasn't dancing, I was stumbling around."
Marc Bolan was the nearest thing to a real-life role model for Bowie as he sketched out Ziggy Stardust: in the year the album was conceived, 1971, T.Rex were at the height of their powers. Bowie's old friend was Britain's first sensation of the new era: a boy who had dreamed a whole persona for himself, and who seemed to become an overnight rock'n'roll star by sheer force of willpower.
"Oh yeah! Boley struck it big, and we were all green with envy. It was terrible: we fell out for about six months. It was [sulky mutter] 'He's doing much better than I am.' And he got all sniffy about us who were still down in the basement. But we got over that.
"You know how we first met? It's so funny. We both had this manager in the mid-'60s [Les Conn]. Marc was very much the Mod and I was sort of neo-beat-hippy, though I hated the idea of hippy because my brother had told me about beatniks and they seemed far sexier. Both Marc and I were out of work, and we met when we were poured into the manager's office to whitewash the walls.
"So there's me and this Mod whitewashing Les's office. And he goes, 'Where d'you get those shoes, man?' (Bowie does a perfect impression of Bolan's fey but icily determined manner) 'Where d'you get your shirt?' We immediately started talking about clothes and sewing machines. 'Oh I'm gonna be a singer and I'm gonna be so big you're not gonna believe it, man.' Oh, right! Well I'll probably write a musical for you one day then, 'cos I'm gonna be the greatest writer ever. 'No, no, man, you've gotta hear my stuff 'cos I write great things. And I knew a wizard in Paris,' and it was all this. Just whitewashing walls in our manager's office!"
Between Bolan's amazing success, and the public indifference to his own Hunky Dory (released in late 1971, it did not pick up serious sales until the Ziggy Stardust era), was Bowie ever pessimistic at this point?
"No, I never ever felt that, because I still liked the process. I liked writing and recording. It was a lot of fun for a kid. I might have had moments of, God, I don't think anything is ever going to happen for me. But I would bounce up pretty fast."
Sure enough, Bowie bounced up incredibly fast in 1972. No sooner was Hunky Dory in the shops than he'd shorn off the golden tresses; he toured Britain with a brand new look and a set of songs from his next LP, already in the can. In Ziggy Stardust, the transgender space boy who becomes a rock'n'roll star, Bowie had spawned a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"It became apparent to me that... I had an unbearable shyness; it was much easier for me to keep on with the Ziggy thing, off the stage as well as on the stage. It also seemed a lot of fun, a really fun deceit. Who was David Bowie and who was Ziggy Stardust? But I think it was motivated by shyness as much as anything. It was so much easier for me to be Ziggy."
Even before he hit big with Ziggy's preview single Starman, Bowie began to shape the 1972 agenda through a Melody Maker interview in February of that ear, wherein he declared he was gay. The cat was suddenly among the pigeons. Why did you say it?
"I found I was able to get a lot of tension off my shoulders by almost 'outing' myself in the press in that way, in very early circumstances. So I wasn't going to get people crawling out the woodwork saying (seedy, muck-raking voice): 'I'll tell you something about David Bowie that you don't know...' I wasn't going to have any of that. I knew that at some point I was going to have to say something about my life. And, again, Ziggy enabled me to make things more comfortable for myself. There was an excitement that the age of exploration was really finally here. Which is what I was going through. It perfectly mirrored my lifestyle at the time. It was exactly what was happening to me. There was nothing that I wasn't willing to try, to explore and see if it was really part of my psyche or my nature. I was terribly exploratory in every way, not just culturally but sexually and... God, there was nothing I would leave alone. Like a - it's a terrible pun, but - like a dog with a bone, I suppose! So I buried it!"
Before we knew it, there was a bizarre pastiche of "gayness" about, whereby the most meat-and-potato bands became what was called glam rock. And some of it was pretty poor, wasn't it?
"Oh, bloody awful. Some of the stuff that we encouraged - and I have to pull Roxy into this as well - Good Lord, we should be ashamed of ourselves. It was so dire. It lent itself to really despicable performances because you had to move into really outré areas to make it work; and if it didn't work well, my God, it came crashing down. The one I think of is this American character Jobriath. Woah! What a mistake that was. Very strange guy, he was at like every concert when I first went to the States, my number one fan."
But the cultural incongruities could sometimes be delightful. Quite aside from Ziggy itself, Bowie wrote the absolute anthem of 1972 in the song he gave to those doughty tractor boys Mott The Hoople: All The Young Dudes.
"If they were doing OK at the time," says Bowie, "I don't think they would have wanted to link up with me, because they were quite macho, one of the early laddish bands. But things weren't good, and I literally wrote that within an hour or so of reading an article in one of the music rags that their break-up was imminent. I thought they were a fair little band, and I almost thought, This will be an interesting thing to do, let's see if I can write this song and keep them together. It sounds terribly immodest now but you go through that when you're young: 'How can I do everything? By Friday!'"
The beauty of All The Young Dudes, in a way, was that it crystallised the emergence of a new pop audience, too young to belong to Woodstock and the '60s.
"Yeah. You have to try and kill your elders. We had to develop a completely new vocabulary, as indeed is done generation after generation. The idea was taking the recent past and restructuring it in a way that we felt we had authorship of. My key 'in' was things like Clockwork Orange: that was our world, not the bloody hippy thing. It all made sense to me. The idea of taking a present situation and doing a futuristic forecast, and dressing it to suit: it was a uniform for an army that didn't exist. And I thought, If I took the same kind of thing, and subverted it by using pretty materials... That Clockwork Orange look became the first uniform for Ziggy, but with the violence taken out of it."
But with Ziggy the future punk in the ascendant, Bowie's thoughts were already on the next project; Aladdin Sane. "There was a point in '73," he says, "where I knew it was all over. I didn't want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life. And I guess what I was doing on Aladdin Sane, I was trying to move into the next area - but using a rather pale imitation of Ziggy as a secondary device. In my mind it was Ziggy Goes To Washington: Ziggy under the influence of America.
"Then I started getting into a very bad period. I mean, it really developed. My drug addiction really started, I suppose you could pin it down to the very last months of the Ziggy Stardust period. Not in a particularly heavy way, but enough to have probably worried some of the people around me. And after that, when we got into Diamond Dogs, that's when it was out of control. From that period onwards I was a real casualty. I've not met many people that... I was in a very serious state. You just have to look at some of the photographs of me, I cannot believe I actually urvived it. You can see me at the Grammies, for instance, with Lennon, it terrifies me. It's a skull. There's not an ounce on me. I'm just a skeleton.
"I have an addictive personality. I'm quite clear on that now. And it was easily obtainable and it kept me working, 'cos I didn't use it for... I wasn't really a recreational guy, I wasn't really an out-onthe- town guy. I was much more, OK, let's write ten different projects this week and make four or five sculptures. And I'd just stay up twenty-four hours a day until most of that was completed. I just liked doing stuff. I loved being involved in that creative moment. And I'd found a soul-mate in this drug, which helped perpetuate that creative moment."
You mean cocaine?
"Yes, cocaine. Well, speed as well, actually. The combination. And apparently a lot of elephant tranquilliser went in there too!"
In the chemically-fuelled euphoria of Bowie's first taste of super- stardom, he revisited the notion of a rock musical. The first plan was to interpret 1984, until the idea was nixed by George Orwell's widow. "So I changed track real fast and converted it into Diamond Dogs, which was more of an effort than Ziggy. Thinking back, we didn't do anything on stage with Ziggy: all I had was a few costume changes. It was just the songs and the trousers. That's what sold Ziggy. I think the audience filled in everything else. But Diamond Dogs I intended to do something for. We had a bit more money by then - though not enough, apparently: it actually put me into bankruptcy. But that kind of started a lot, the Diamond Dogs show, in terms of you could do something more interesting on stage than just wear blue jeans. It was quite fun, but I got bored half way through and threw the set away, so I've only got myself to blame."
Still, if the ginger mullet was not long for this world, Bowie had not yet finished his assault upon America. Suddenly came the breathless but sophisticated "plastic soul" of Young Americans, accompanied by the statutory image overhaul. "I guess the dawning of it was some take on the Puerto Rican street look with a zoot suit, which kind of got it back into more conventional-looking clothing. Even though it's pretty bizarre when you see it now, the Young Americans thing was an attempt to turn the visual around as well as the music.
"With people like Carlos Alomar and a few of my girlfriends at the time, I was really seeing a lot of American nightlife, including the Latin clubs, and it was terribly exciting to me. It rekindled the affection for soul and R&B which I had in the '60s. In fact the reason I left my very first band, The Kon-rads, was that they wouldn't do Marvin Gaye's Can I Get A Witness?
But it was one thing playing blue-eyed R&B covers in the Marquee Club (of the sort he revived on his 1973 covers LP Pin Ups). It was quite another to record in America itself, and with black musicians too. Did he not think, 'This is a bit much,' coming over from England and doing this?
"It honestly never occurred to me," Bowie protests. "I was so hermetically sealed from everything. I was so in my own universe, that so much didn't occur to me about how other people thought. I had no idea I was even famous. I really had no idea. I just had this real creative thing going on and I went for it all the way. No, it didn't occur to me at all. I just knew it was a fantastic band. Obviously, we ran into race problems down in the South. But it was years before I realised I was one of the only white artists in rock working with a multi-race band.
"And I think what we were doing at that particular time was important. In its own way it opened doors just as Ziggy had opened doors. The Young Americans period developed an alternative approach to what you could do with rock and pop music. For me, it was another successful hybrid: of European melody against an R&B rhythm section."
In Bowie's subconscious the call of Europe was becoming audible. But first he underwent the parallel experiences of filming The Man Who Fell To Earth and recording Station To Station. At the same time he undertook to record a soundtrack for the movie. The exact chronology of this busy time is further confused by its having been the height - or depth - of his druggiest period.
"Did the film work come next? Ah, you tell me! Possibly! I know I had a lovely hat. It was that period. A fedora: the Borsalino."
The hat was one instance of another stylistic re-vamp, this time occasioned by the character, Thomas Jerome Newton, that he played in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Newton was a dapper yet inwardly-decaying space alien, maintaining a mere façade of human authenticity. It was a role the Bowie of those days seemed born to play. And as with Ziggy before him, the boundary between creator and creature grew indistinct.
"They all started to overlap each other," Bowie confesses. "The frame of mind I was in, there was no real split from one to another. To me (yappy, cocaine-paranoid voice), it all made sense, man! Oh boy, what days they were..."
The soundtrack venture collapsed amid some rancour and dispute: "I got angry about it, with no real rational reason. I thought I should be contracted by the film company to do the soundtrack, not just make a presentation of ideas - a stupid, juvenile reason but I kind of walked away from it. Ola Hudson - who in fact was Guns N'Roses guitarist Slash's mum - she was my girlfriend, you see. I sometimes used to put him to bed at nights, little Slash. Who'd have guessed? Anyway, I got Ola involved as the wardrobe mistress of the film: she designed all the clothes for it, and she continued designing clothes for Station To Station as well."
It's the Station To Station ensemble that we recall as Bowie's Thin White Duke look - perhaps the most dashing of them all. "It was extraordinary," he says, "and I must give Ola full credit for the all black, very conservative look: 'Nobody's done that on-stage before, that would be so cool. Why don't you just take Newton on-stage?' Then I had an idea of the French matinée idol, with the waistcoat and all that."
And always the little packet of Gitanes popping out.
"Exactly. The function of the cigarettes became a function of the stage. And I got addicted to 'em!"
They are very serious cigarettes.
"Oh yes, but with me, of course, no problem. Forty a day."
That was all back in 2002. As we wrapped up, I thanked Bowie and confirmed that his brief, unhappy tenure as Mojo's editor was at an end. "I'm happy to have helped," he said, laughing with relief.
"My first little... outburst... at the beginning was not directed at you personally. It was disappointing because my schedule is beyond belief. And I couldn't see how I could write any more at the last minute. How do you guys get your magazine out?"
It so happened that, a few months earlier, I had commissioned Bowie to write another article - which he submitted, neatly typed, bang on schedule - about rock photography. In it, he recalled his own early days of fandom, when he was the 1950s suburban child who sent off two-and-sixpence for two pictures of Little Richard. The envelope had arrived, "bent and smudgy". There was only one photo, "dog-eared and torn and, adding insult to injury, sized at six-by-eight instead of the expected whopper." But his belief in the rock'n'roll magic that would make him a star (and helps to get this magazine out) was undamaged.
"As for my Little Richard print," he added, "it sits now on my piano in the original Woolworths frame I bought for it over forty years ago, a small piece of yellowed Sellotape holding its ripped edges together."
Was it still in place on that icy New York night of January 10, 2016? One hopes so.
Even before his passing, Bowie had been memorialised in grand museum exhibitions. He rarely made the instant smash hits that define today's brittle stardom, but he is woven into the dark, soft fabric of our consciousness. The young David Jones believed in music and carried that belief to Olympian heights. Like his sometime partner John Lennon, David Bowie would probably understand the strange blend of sincerity and sanctimony that's attended his decease. So God bless David Bowie, who became part of the blessed yellowed Sellotape that holds all of our ripped edges together.