INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo Special Limited Edition NOVEMBER 2003 - by Nick Kent
INTO THE ABYSS
Post Ziggy, David Bowie seemed to cross over to the dark side. Maybe that's why the late '70s witnessed some of the most thrilling records of his career.
What was it somebody said? A wonderful analogy: religion is for people who believe in hell, spirituality is for people who have been there. For me that makes a lot of sense. - David Bowie, 1995
In early 1975, when David Bowie installed himself and his increasingly strange fascinations in Los Angeles, the City of Angels was without question the most spiritually depraved environment in the known universe. The Manson murders and subsequent trial at the outset of the '70s had creeped out the entire LA community. They'd made it more paranoid and selfish, but hadn't caused anyone to question their own embrace of decadence too closely. On the contrary, they coped by numbing their feelings with cocaine, Valium and Quaaludes. As a result, twisted forces started manifesting themselves along the palm-tree-lined boulevards.
I lived on the Sunset Strip for three months at exactly the same time that Bowie arrived, and I still recall the eerie vibe of the locale with an involuntary shudder. Everywhere unsuspecting pedestrians would walk, they'd be approached by some intense young person attempting to indoctrinate them into some dubious cult or other. All these lost souls had a similar rap: the end is nigh, the devil has won, give up your ego and all worldly possessions and join us as we sink into blind submission to some crackpot deity.
The 'moneyed' elite of LA - the city's real movers and shakers - had long since learned to avoid rubbing shoulders with its walking wounded. It was simple, really. If you didn't want to be hassled by 'street' people, then you didn't go out in the streets any more. Employing this logic to its fullest degree, the superstars tended to lock themselves away at home in Malibu or Bel Air, only venturing out of their mansions to record in dark, airless studios or to visit their dealers. Every now and then, there'd be some ugly public spectacle: one of Led Zeppelin, say, smashing up a local club in a state of drug-and-alcohol dementia, or Sly Stone and his hoodlums pulling guns on a receptionist at the Record Plant in a seriously misguided attempt to get back several master tapes Sly had recorded there. But most of the real madness of those times was lived out behind the locked doors and gated driveways of remotely appointed luxury mansions that had previously been owned by silent movie stars that no one remembers the names of.
Such an arrangement was ideal for David Bowie at this juncture of his life. Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco - the club that Bowie had helped initiate three years earlier, when he was glam rock's glitziest potentate - was still open most nights of the week, but the Thin White Duke, as he now referred to himself, wouldn't have been caught dead in the place. Like a snake, Bowie had been shedding a lot of dead skin. Glam was gone, replaced by an all-consuming fixation with soul music - though that too had begun to wane.
Bowie had also recently succeeded in separating himself from manager Tony DeFries and the rest of the fame-seekers who made up the Mainman organisation. On discovering that their meal-ticket was about to leave them in the lurch and decamp to LA, the latter crew began a frenzied campaign of public gossiping. Bowie, they said, was a burnt-out, mentally unstable cocaine addict who needed institutionalising before he actually killed himself. In the weeks after his arrival in LA, phone-lines across America were throbbing with rumours of Bowie's involvement with white witches, pentagrams, exorcisms and Nazi theology.The singer didn't need to embrace the madness of the streets. It was already going on in his over-stimulated mind.
Bowie decamped to the city on the eve of the march 1975 release of Young Americans.The title track was already all over the radio, and DJs and programmers alike were convinced it would become a Number 1 hit single. One LA resident in particular was paying close attention to Bowie's latest musical manoeuvres. Iggy Pop had been nursing conflicted feelings for the erstwhile Ziggy ever since he and The Stooges had been ousted from the Mainman organisation in mid-'73 by DeFries, who blamed The Stooges' extensive drug use for the split. Iggy was more inclined to believe that he, like Lou Reed and Mott The Hoople, had been exploited and then discarded, simply to make Bowie's rising star shine more brightly.yet he never lost his fundamental high regard for his benefactor's musical talent.
Back in autumn '73, penniless and in need of drug money, Iggy had even penned his one and only rock review, a surprisingly positive appraisal of Bowie's Pin Ups for an LA-based music monthly, Phonograph Record. He'd spent most of 1974 holed up on Venice Beach, homeless and loaded, but had briefly reconnected with Bowie during the autumn's Philly Dogs tour, an occurrence commemorated by Iggy getting savagely beaten up in a car park of the LA venue Bowie was playing. Now, in early 1975, he was still penniless and crashing at Stooges guitarist James Williamson's apartment on Sunset Strip. He and Williamson were attempting to form a new band with Hunt and Tony Sales as their rhythm section. They even had a name, The Users, but no one in LA wanted to take a chance on Iggy any more. They all thought he was a burn-out.
David Bowie's circumstances couldn't have been more different. He was a global superstar with great material wealth and an entourage that indulged his every whim. He could make a highly public spectacle of himself, as he did in early 1975 when he turned up to present Aretha Franklin with a Grammy, and delivered a drug-addled eulogy to Lady Soul sounding like Peter O'Toole on PCP. And fans still bought his records in droves. His ego had become so gargantuan behind all the cocaine he was taking that Bowie thought nothing of criticising Bob Dylan to his face when the two songwriters met for the first time in late '74. I was quite convinced that what I had to say [to Dylan] was important, Bowie later remarked, before concluding, Actually, I think he hates me.
Maybe it was his ongoing obsession with all the (mostly imaginary) enemies he'd created for himself since fame and cocaine abuse had taken over, that compelled David Bowie to contact Iggy once more and invite him to record together in a local demo studio. The May '75 session found Bowie playing all the instruments with Iggy spontaneously creating lyrics on the spot. There were moments of conflict; Bowie at one point admonishing Iggy with the words, You're singing too much like Mick [Jagger]! Iggy grumpily retorted, I don't sound like fuckin' Mick!, etc. By the end of the evening, three songs had been taped - Sell Your Love, Turn Blue and Drink To Me. The best thing I've ever done, raved Iggy. Cameron Crowe, a teenage Rolling Stone journalist who would become a major Hollywood director, later wrote perceptively about the Bowie/Iggy relationship from what he'd witnessed the night: Bowie clutches his heart and beams like a proud father watching his kid in the school play. His whisper is full of wonder.'They just don't appreciate Iggy,' he is saying. 'He's Lenny fucking Bruce and James Dean. When that ad-lib flow starts, there's nobody like him. It's verbal jazz, man!'
It was Iggy's talent for verbal jazz that attracted Bowie to working with him - rather than a desire for some Velvet Goldmine-like sexual trysting. David Jones had devoured Jack Kerouac's On The Road as a teenager. Now, in his twenties, he'd found the ultimate wild American friend - his very own Neal Cassady - to share his life with.
The pair would embark on many travels together in the coming years, but first there were serious career issues for the Duke to regulate. In summer '75 he travelled to New Mexico to star in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, a peculiar film about aliens and alcoholism. Most sources claim that Bowie didn't have to act the part of Thomas Newton, the pale, super-IQ'd visitor from another planet who becomes corrupted by his time on Earth.he simply had to behave in the ultra-paranoid, nerve-shredded fashion that came most naturally to his cocaine-addicted system, and the cameras did all the rest.
After shooting was completed, Bowie's chauffeur/bodyguard Tony Mascia drove his still-in-costume employer - apparently healthier from a strict cocaine ration while on set but still worryingly emaciated - back to Los Angeles, where Bowie immediately swan-dived into his worst period of drug-addiction. Amazingly, in the early winter he managed to create a compelling new album of songs, while simultaneously in the throes of a form of chemically sustained psychic dementia that was perilously close to insanity.
When asked in 1997 about the making of Station To Station, the album he had made in drug-crazed Los Angeles and released in January 1976, Bowie confessed: I remember working with Earl [Slick] on the guitar sounds. And screaming the feedback sound that I wanted at him... And that's about all that I remember. I can't even remember the studio.I know it was in LA because I've read it in a book.
That's a pity because, as Bowie now cagily recognises, it's one of his masterworks. Everywhere in America in the mid '70s, recording studios were filled with cocaine-using rock musicians trying desperately hard to play funk and failing miserably. Bowie not only made credible funk records - Fame had already proven his point - he was also able to bring his profoundly European sense of pop drama to rhythms and grooves played by a multi-racial blend of support musicians, and push the songs into challenging new terrains. And there were all those bizarre lyrics to consider: It's not the side-effects of the cocaine, he crooned on the title track. I'm thinking it must be love... It's too late to be late again... The European canon is here. What on earth was he talking about?
Bowie scholars like to refer to the teachings of Nietzsche and the fact that their hero was listening to a lot of Kraftwerk at the time, when trying to explain the perplexing words to Station To Station, but even Bowie now has trouble trying to make full sense of them. Still, they convey a mad, decadent exuberance entirely in keeping with his new invention, the Thin White Duke. Golden Years is one of his greatest ever tracks - a wondrous piece of inspired pop-funk and such a vocal tour de force that Colonel Tom Parker contacted Bowie and asked if he could write similar material for Elvis Presley.
It has to be pointed out here that for a raving cocaine fiend forever maltreating his nasal membranes and numbing his skull membrane, Bowie's singing voice was remarkably agile throughout, jumping the octaves with unbridled bravado. Nowhere is this more evident than in his extraordinary version of a song he'd first heard none by Nina Simone called Wild Is The Wind. With only a timid-sounding guitar, bass and drums back-up tapping away behind him, Bowie attempts - and succeeds - in duplicating Simone's raw passion with a vocal performance that is over-the-top but spine-tinglingly soulful because of it. Equally poignant was his solemn-voiced 'prayer' to God in times of great darkness, Word On A Wing.
Just how dark was made clear to the British public when Bowie interrupted the Station To Station sessions to film a live transatlantic link-up interview with UK talk-show host Russell Harty. Deathly pale and lacking any trace of humour, the Thin White Duke spoke like some deluded aristocrat and even suggested he'd be a first-rate political leader for Great Britain. His UK fans came away united in the belief that exile had not been particularly good for their idol's psychological health.
While Bowie continued staring at the yawning abyss, Iggy Pop was institutionalised. I was in a mental hospital and [Bowie] happened to be there for another reason, Iggy recalled in 1996. And he came up one day, stoned out of his brain in his little space-suit, with Dean Stockwell the actor. They were like, 'We want to see Jimmy. Let us in'. Now the strict rule was to never let outsiders in: it was an insane asylum.But the doctors were star-struck [laughs], so they let them in. And the first thing they did was say, 'Hey, want some blow [cocaine]?' I think I took a little, which is really unpleasant in there. And that'show we got back in touch.
When Bowie toured America in spring 1976, Iggy Pop was his travelling companion. The former Stooge was also close by when Bowie made what appeared to be an ill-considered fascist salute to fans as he re-entered Britain via Victoria train station.(Some insist that the photographs merely depict an unfortunate hand wave.) Standing in the wings and watching the stick-insect Duke with his taut hair and stark black-and-white stage show, Iggy later recalled feeling miserable, lost, lonesome and nostalgic... [yet] I had been offered an opportunity in that David Bowie offered me the chance to make solo records, basically with him as my band.And at the time that he offered me that, the guy was a white-hot talent.
In June, a month after the Station To Station tour had ended - without further incident - Bowie and Iggy began recording an album together at the Château d'Hérouville studios near Paris. Bowie wrote the music, played almost all the instruments, directed the vocal performances and suggested several lyrical themes. To work with him as a producer, Iggy now claims, he was a pain in the arse - megalomaniacal, loco! But he had good ideas. The best example I can give you was when I was working on the lyrics to Funtime and he said, 'yeah, the words are good. But don't sing it like a rock guy. Sing it like Mae West.' Which made it informed of other genres, like cinema. Also, it was a little bit gay. The vocals there became more menacing as a result of that suggestion. He has a work pattern that recurs again and again. If he has an idea about an area of work that he wants to enter, as a first step, he'll use side-projects or work for other people to gain a little taste of the water before he goes in and does his... And I think he used working with me that way also.
While completing The Idiot at the Château, Bowie began work on Low, the record that would become his follow-up to Station To Station. At exactly the same juncture, Playboy published a lengthy interview conducted by Cameron Crowe and dating from Bowie's recent mad sojourn in LA.
I'd adore to be Prime Minister, the singer stated provocatively.And yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can rid ourselves from the sort of liberalism that's hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over with as fast as possible. People have always responded better under a regimental leadership. And then came the punch-line: Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.
Seeing such sentiments uttered in cold print must have given David Bowie serious pause for thought. If they didn't, he needed only to stand in front of a full-length mirror and study his skeletal physique to see that all was not well in his fame-insulated world.
Vowing never to live again in Los Angeles, he remained in Europe, staying briefly in Switzerland (where his faithful assistant Corinne Schwab put him in touch with a therapist) before heading for Berlin with Iggy Pop. Moving into a seven-room flat at 155 Haupstrasse in the city's downmarket Schöneberg district, he mingled anonymously with the area's mostly immigrant population and found inspiration for several instrumental pieces he planned to record with the recently recruited Brian Eno. The first side of Low was all about me, Bowie later explained. Always Crashing In The Same Car and all that self-pitying crap: Isn't it great to be on your own, let's just pull down the blinds and fuck 'em all...
The record shocked listeners at first. Bowie sounded withdrawn and down in the mouth throughout his five vocal performances, as though his personality was deflating before our very ears.
Deep in your room / So deep in your room, he intoned, like some crooner peddling valium via a television advert. It's tempting to see Bowie's depressive persona as the creative expression of a mild nervous breakdown brought on by a lack of food and sleep and too much cocaine and speed.
Today, Bowie likes to claim that Low and its two follow-ups were conceived and recorded in a largely cocaine-free state of being but other sources insist this wasn't exactly the case. Certainly he was taking far less of the drug in Berlin than he'd managed in LA, but there was also a lot of alcohol being consumed. Iggy would later recount that in a typical seven-day week he and Bowie would spend two days in some form of intoxication, two days recovering from the hang-overs, and three days straight, which is a pretty good balance for musicians. Of his months as Bowie's Berlin house-guest, Iggy still remembers the basic routine.
Get up in the morning on the fourth floor of a cold-water building and take a sponge bath. Cut a little brown bread and cheese, and eat.Then walk over the city, which hasn't changed since 1910: organ grinders who still had monkeys, quality transvestite shows. A different world.By evening, I'd go have dinner with Bowie, see a film or watch Starsky And Hutch - that was our big thing. If there wasn't enough to do, I knew some bad people and I'd get stoned and drunk. Sometimes I'd do the bad stuff with Bowie and the good stuff with the bad people.
Whatever bad stuff Bowie was still consuming, it didn't impede his rapacious need to create. The new music was captured at Berlin's Hansa By The wall studio where the tail-end of Low was created, as well as Lust For Life and "Heroes". Bowie had spent 1977 in a determinedly low-profile stars of high activity. He chose not to promote Low, apart from filming a video for Be My Wife in Paris, and toured instead as the un-spot-lit keyboard player for Iggy Pop on his Idiot comeback outing in the spring. Straight after the US leg had been completed, Iggy's touring band - with Bowie at the helm - entered Hansa and recorded the tracks for Lust For Life. Bowie's a hell of a fast guy, Iggy later reflected on those sessions. Very quick thinker, very quick action, very active person, very sharp. I realised I had to be quicker than him or whose album was it going to be? Lust For Life turned out to be truer to Iggy's live-rock-band-in-a-studio natural leanings anyway, even though Bowie makes his presence more than felt with consistently magnificent back-up music ideally created for the mighty Pop's salacious baritone croon.
Straight after the Iggy sessions, Bowie summoned the great, often underestimated Tony Visconti and the rest of his crew and commenced work on what quickly became the "Heroes" album. Brian Eno was back on board, still straining and soaring against the entire dark ages of music methodology. But the co-star who really made a difference was Robert Fripp, the owl-faced King Crimson guitarist who played a series of devastating riffs and solos over an equally sulphurous funk-based rhythm, creating a credible art-rock-funk hybrid for future exploitation. It's still the best playing of his entire career.
I said, play like Albert King, Bowie recalled. He looked puzzled for a few moments, then he'd go in and try his damnedest to get somewhere near it, but it would come out his way.Things like Joe The Lion were him really having a bash at the blues.
According to Eno, everything Fripp played throughout "Heroes" was performed in a single take. Joe The Lion was Bowie's homage to underground performance artist Chris Burden, who often mutilated himself, going so far as to publicly impale himself on the roof of his Volkswagen in Venice, California in 1974. Iggy was a fan - clearly he could relate - and Bowie quickly fixated on Burden's role as an individual quite literally crucifying himself for his art. Still, the general mood was surprisingly up-beat during the sessions. Bowie and Eno communicated a lot via in-joke voices borrowed from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Derek & Clive characters. Bowie even incorporated this tomfoolery into the creative process, intoning the word Arabia on the album's camp finale The Secret Life Of Arabia as though he were Bernard Bresslaw in a Carry On skit. Studio spirits were generally high, while drug use was generally minimal.
Tony Visconti later defined the "Heroes" sessions as such a positive time in [Bowie's] life. He was, in fact, a hero. We all felt like heroes. It was a heroic album. And yet the record is overshadowed by dark moods and an underlying sense of menace and imminent betrayal. Bowie had been consorting with the well-known transsexual cabaret singer Romy Haag while in Berlin, but had lately discovered that Haag was using the relationship as a way of getting more publicity for herself. Even more pressing was his desire to rid himself of wife Angela. During the "Heroes" sessions, Bowie set into motion divorce proceedings, having already taken custody of their son Zowie. As a result, tracks such as Blackout resonate with bleak messages of farewell to some troubled ingenue. It'snot a happy record but it's a better, more important overall statement than Low, because Bowie is clearly alive once more and facing his pain as opposed to running away from it with the aid of various medications.
"Heroes" went on to become one of the most innovative albums of the '70s with countless new wave up-and-comers desperately trying to make a career out of aping the tumultuous blending of Bowie's arch European croon, Fripp machine-gun guitar playing and the thick metal-funk grooves of Dennis Davis, George Murray and the brilliant Carlos Alomar.
Last - and least - of Bowie's Eno-involved '70s albums is Lodger, released in May 1979 and recorded with the band that had accompanied him on a successful world tour in late spring 1978, his first in two years. Initially entitled Despite Straight Lines or Planned Accidents, the project ran into trouble when Brian Eno elected to control the creative flow of ideas. Tony Visconti recalls that Eno made a chart of his eight favourite chords and stuck them on the studio wall and he had a teacher's pointer and he pointed.he was telling these three black guys [Alomar, Davis and Murray] who came from the roughest part of New York, 'Just play something funky'.
As the sessions developed, Bowie and Eno started arguing a lot about how individual tracks should sound. At the end of the album, as Red Money plays itself out, Bowie enigmatically repeats the phrase, project cancelled. He wouldn't work again with Eno for fifteen years. Still, Lodger is ultimately weak because Bowie's songs are lazily conceived and not particularly inspired, apart from the anti-wife-beating sentiments of Repetition and the nagging idiot-chorus of D.J.. Red Money is Iggy's Sister Midnight with incomprehensible new lyrics. Move On is Ricky Nelson's Travelling Man in new wave drag, while Boys Keep Swinging and Fantastic Voyage shared the exact same chord changes and structure, even the same key, as Visconti later pointed out. Bowie does his best to inject the usual high drama but doesn't sound fully convinced; one senses he'd have preferred to spend the time on the ski slopes of Switzerland, getting a healthy tan. Not to worry: Bowie got re-inspired when he and Visconti returned to the studio a year later for Scary Monsters, probably the last truly mind-boggling record that Bowie made.
Nowadays, of course, we all recognise the impact that Bowie's late-'70s experiments with sounds and words had on popular music at the time. Without them, Nick Lowe would never have written I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass, Gary Numan, Simple Minds and The Human League would never have enjoyed successful music careers and Joy Division probably wouldn't have existed.
On Reality, his latest album, Bowie returns to that now-distant era for Bring Me The Disco King, the most compelling song he's managed to release in over two decades. Over a melancholy jazz piano, he sings forlornly about killing time in the '70s and the damp morning rays in the stiff bad clubs of Berlin. Memories that flutter like bats out of hell, he intones like a ghost revisiting the empty spaces of his former mad world of inventiveness and self-delusion.
Bowie survived all the perils of fame, drugs and self-absorption but still has to live with the haunting realisation that his best art was made when he was spiritually at his lowest ebb.
In some way, those records really captured - unlike anything else in that time - a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass, Bowie admitted in 2001. Nothing else sounded like those records.If I never made another album it really wouldn't matter now, my complete being is within those three. They are my DNA.