The Age JANUARY 17, 2016 - by John Elder


Now and then I've been asked: "Didn't you interview David Bowie years ago?"

Yes I did.

"I'd love to read the piece."

I never wrote it.

"Why not?"

For thirty years I've kept the answer vague: along the lines that, as a fan, I was so overwhelmed by the experience of spending half an hour with one of the greats, that nothing useful came from the conversation. I'd blown it with fawning. Except it was much worse than that.

The truth is, I didn't let the man get a word in. Except when I invited him to sing along with one of his own songs. Except it was much worse than that.

In September 1987, as the New York correspondent for a stable of magazines, I saw Bowie perform at Madison Square Garden. This was early in the US leg of his much-maligned Glass Spider Tour, a circus-like (and Pepsi-sponsored) forerunner of the overblown theatrics that are now expected of music superstars.

The critics who wrote kindly about the Glass Spider production were hoping this was an awkward transitional phase in Bowie's endless creative evolution. They seemed to believe he would sort himself out and be cool again.

I'd seen the concert ahead our interview and felt let down and concerned. A colleague told me the whole thing was a waste of time. Bowie was history, he said. I worried he might be right - and decided an intervention was in order.

On the day I flew to Boston to meet the artist formerly known as Ziggy, I wore a 1950s white tuxedo jacket. In my pants pocket was an eyebrow pencil, some mascara, the address of a shady character who could pharmaceutically help dilate my eyes the size of saucers... and a cassette tape of my own latest album.

Briefly: I had produced a couple of ambient albums that managed to garner some kind reviews, some airplay on the JJJ Ambient Show and were later used by programs such as Four Corners as soundtrack material. I can say now that any success musically was largely due to the genius of musicians I had hired for the projects. I can also say now that at the time I was so horribly up myself it's a wonder I ever saw sunshine again.

Anyway. When most people hear the words "ambient music" they tend to think of Brian Eno, the sound designer with whom Bowie collaborated on the Berlin Trilogy albums that had initially divided critics but were later hailed as fab. I can honestly say I wasn't hoping to be Bowie's next Eno-like collaborator: I had my own thing happening and, hey, I just wanted to give the guy a pep talk.

I knocked on the door of Bowie's hotel room holding a notebook that listed a few questions for the actual interview (after all: I was a professional) and a list of suggestions as to how Bowie might get his act together.

The door was opened by a cheerful fellow in distressed denim jeans and very white running shoes. The room itself was... just a room. When Cameron Crowe had (extensively) interviewed Bowie ten years earlier, the Thin White Duke was keeping his fingernails and urine in the fridge, and doodling Black Magic symbols. Here, there was a couch, and a coffee table laden with a teapot, two cups and a cute little jug of milk.

As we sat down Bowie asked what I had thought of the show. It seemed he was quite anxious and hopeful, that my opinion truly mattered. Was this a new persona? The Bowie who cares what other people think? Good God.

I think I said something like "it was overwhelming", turned on the tape recorder and sighed.

Awkward silence.

Enigmatic smile from DB. Perhaps, on reflection, a spidery smile.

It was then, in a panicked rush, I told David Bowie to forget the critics, but at the same time maybe he should ditch the corporate sponsorship and go back to a creative garret somewhere and recover his God-like artistic temperament. Soon after, I was taking out the interview cassette, inserting my own album and lecturing him on the wonder of tape loops.

Still he sat there, nodding, smiling.

All the while, as I prattled on - at one point instigating a duo on the song Fame; I sang the chicken-feed riff - some deeper, more sensible part of myself had been doodling with great anxiety in my notebook, but not making any actual notes.

When our time was over, I was walking down the hall, when the door opened and Bowie stepped out and called: "John."

He had the notebook in his hand. "I couldn't resist," he said, meaning he'd looked inside, seen the list of suggestions I'd made for his artistry, seen the little flowers I'd doodled as I'd talked, and he was utterly delighted at the horror that has persisted and sharpened in those thirty years.