INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut OCTOBER 1999 - by Chris Roberts
DAVID BOWIE: "I'M HUNGRY FOR REALITY!"
David Bowie looks back on thirty years of genius, drugs and derangement.
David Bowie's one of those people you travel to meet knowing that whatever agenda you have - perhaps to talk about his records, his images, his imaginings - he'll unwittingly all but scupper it with a carpet-bombing charm offensive and voracious intellect. In the three times in the '90s this writer has interviewed him prior to this meeting with Uncut, he's zealously pontificated on Russian politics, the art of Johannesburg, chaos theory and the number of microchips in the average aeroplane. He's done this while putting the journalist completely at ease with a matey approachability, yet revealing only tantalising fractions of "himself". It takes resolve, and a temporary suffocation of the fan within, to bring him down to the level of talking about pop music, let alone who he is, who he once was, who he might still be.
When, in 1979, Valerie Singleton asked if the media's tendency to view rock stars as a bit thick bothered him, he smiled and said, "Not at all. I'm very thick." Which is just about the cleverest thing a rock star could ever say. He gets on well with Tony Blair now, and with prominent art historians; he jogs occasionally, and doesn't drink. Two years ago, as the first big-league artist to float himself on the stock exchange - something of a move up, or towards the centre of things, from a tin can far above the world - he became debatably the richest British entertainer alive.
And yet this is the once coke-addled, gender-bending, demon-seeing, perhaps even Fascism-expounding paranoid egomaniac, who, after struggling determinedly for years, found global acclaim to be a royal screw-up, and perversely killed off each new persona just as it won love. This he repeated until he realised it was the sheddings, the acts of transformation, the rebirths, that were doing the winning. Until he realised that in pulling new identities out of himself he made us think we could pull new identities out of ourselves. Now a successful musician, actor, painter, sculptor and Internet guru, he can pursue whichever medium he pleases, as, with little to lose, the classic example of how to turn fifty and stay interesting. He is still revered by younger artists, his influence ubiquitous. Happily married, his self-esteem - rocky even throughout the years when "Bowie Is God" was graffitied on just about every suburban street wall - is settled and serene. He's also manically busy and creative.
In the '70s, Bowie co-opted shock value to become the most prominent and challenging of stars, then jettisoned it when everybody else caught up. He then introduced the glam generation to the joys of soul music, and forced the rock cognoscenti to concede that art wasn't a dirty word. "There's new wave, there's old wave, and there's David Bowie," ran the slogan alongside one of the many zeitgeists he's hurdled.
Bowie was the thinking person's rock Messiah, an actor observing himself playing a role for which his parallel talents as a great singer and songwriter were uniquely suited, given his knack for the most agile appropriation and artifice. If he saw someone else doing something he liked, he'd do it better. If no-one else was doing it, he'd hold and hold and hold, then play his card at exactly the right moment to cause maximum subversion and sparkle. Although his more recent work has been as often merely eccentric as truly inspired, his charisma, as he cares less about it, grows. He plays it down, but you still know you're meeting aristocracy.
All of which brings us to New York, on a fine August morning, at the Fifth Avenue offices of Virgin Records, at what's the crack of dawn for me but probably halfway through the day for Bowie. The journalist is five minutes early; the artist is five minutes late. He's doing things. He's always doing things.
YOU'VE BEEN AROUND
Preparations for the legend's arrival have been made. A dozen scented candles adorn the boardroom table and, more importantly, there's a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights, a lighter, and an ashtray in every no-smoking room.
He glides in, long-haired in a heatwave, enthusiastically bearing a cassette. The hair throws you a little: how come this man never looks like his most recent photos? Tall, long-limbed, someone who strides, he's wearing clothes which are so nondescript it's remarkable; greyish-brown shirt and trousers.
"Hi", he says, "Listen, can I just play you this?" He's been remixing a track called "Seven" from his new album, Hours..., and, like a kid in a new band, wants the nearest human being to hear it at once. On it goes, and I am placed in the only slightly surreal position of having to nod along approvingly to this world exclusive while steering clear of being a sycophantic twit. I like it. He likes it. "Lovely," I go. "Yeah," he grins.
Coffee is brought, and I check he's aware that, as well as discussing the Bowie of '99, we're attempting - in our too brief allotted time - an overview, a retrospective look at his thirty years as a shape-shifting icon. Here's what our most articulate, durable rock god says.
"Oh, fuck, shit. No, I didn't know that. Ha, good luck! All right, I'll try. OK."
Thirty years as a superstar, I go, making it sound attractive. Bearing in mind that his seventeen studio albums from 1969 to 1989 are re-released (again) this month. Thirty years as Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Cracked Actor, Thin White Duke, Beep-beep Pierrot, mainstream crooner, bloke from Tin Machine, earthling, Cyber-seer, multi-millionaire...
"Thirty years as an occasional front cover," he muses. "Heh heh. Well, this gives me the opportunity to now go out and get a spoon."
"A spoon," he says, furrowing his brow, "might affect my performance."
David Bowie, one of the first rock stars to enter cyberspace with a vengeance, has learned to temper his obsession with the internet. He only plays with it at night now, or "the wife is out the door - zoom!" He has to be careful. She'll say, "Are you ever coming to bed?" "Hold on just a minute," he'll plead. "Come and have a look at this, you won't believe..." "No, I am not coming to have a look," she'll reply. "I'll see it tomorrow. All right?" "But," he'll say, "it's really incredible." "I'm sure it's incredible, darling," she'll sigh, "but please come to bed now."
So what he does is he gets up at 5AM and checks out his sites, makes sure everything's up to scratch, till around nine or ten.
"There's nobody about. Well, Iman's about, but I mean in the outside world there's nobody about."
He hasn't let it distract him from music too much. "I'm aware where the drugs are these days. I see 'em coming! They're not all chemicals, y'know. I look at the screen, and think: this is a drug. I've gotta be careful with this, because I can get hooked ever so easily." Through most of the '70s, he admits, he was "cracked-up and broken... not on this planet".
I ask what surprises him most about the way he's perceived today, and he answers, "I guess I am what the greatest number of people think I am. And I have no control over that at all. This lot on Bowienet are quite funny and sarcastic - they're not, like, goths, all serious and heavy. They do a lot of sending-up, which I like."
They're cheeky as much as reverential?
"Absolutely, yes. So there's an awful lot of referencing 'Laughing Gnome' and Dame Bowie and all that."
Which you're OK with?
"Oh, God yeah! I had to get over that a long time ago." He laughs the laugh of the happy. "But then as we all know, history is all revisionism. One makes one's own history."
HIS NAME WAS ALWAYS BUDDY, AND HE'D SHRUG...
It's tough chaining Bowie to one subject at the best of times: he's too interesting and interested. "I do this now," he mentions, the second the tape recorder is on. "So I know about the fears and horrors of not having enough batteries, the embarrassment of getting it to work in front of them."
He's been for some years conducting interviews for the publication, Modern Painters, beginning with former neighbour and fellow Swiss tax exile Balthus, moving through Lichtenstein to Hirst and Emin.
"I've done a lot, and I love it," he says. "For me it's far preferable being on that end of it. I'm interested in how artists work. The process. How they got where they got, why they're like they are, how they do what they do. Those three things are what you want to find out about a person you admire. The most delightful experience recently was Jeff Koons, who I adored. He's so ultimately American, a dream. Very sweet, simplistic, almost a naïve presence. Terrific company. I've not done anyone yet that I don't admire, but I've got a couple coming up, and that's gonna be odd. I suppose I ask the same questions, but how do I greet the answers? Should I get personal or remain objective? Is there room for editorial comment? What do I do if he's a prick? An unctuous, obsequious prat?"
Pretend you're a character in a play?
"But... it's all theatre, y'know. Everything. I mean, even Springsteen's theatre. Whether they like it or not. It's a performance, an interpretation of something. That's what it is. That's what we do."
Manhattan sirens blare through the window and Bowie half-turns his head for a second. When he turns back, the eyes do that thing, the David Bowie thing. Right, you think, that's him.
"All we dysfunctional people who feel that it's important for more than three people to know our opinion, that's why we're in this 'music biz'. All the painters, all the anything else - it's where all the nut-cases go when they haven't been locked up. They go into the arts. Because nobody in their right mind needs to tell hundreds or thousands of people what it is that they believe."
Oh, it's in everybody to some degree, that can-I-get-a-witness thing...
"Is it? Oh. So I'm one of the sane ones, you're saying?"
David Bowie, who has studied and feared the topic of mental illness all his life, and whose estranged half-brother Terry committed suicide in 1985 (hence Jump They Say from 1993's Black Tie White Noise, the first song he'd written about him since The Bewlay Brothers), finished mastering his new album yesterday. Simultaneously, he and collaborator Reeves Gabrels started writing some new tracks. This morning, he's already chatted with Pete Townshend ("we see far too little of each other, he's a lovely man"), with whom he bemoaned the fact that constant travelling, currently between New York and London in his case, means he keeps missing people. "It's a shame: I've got to stop befriending nomads."
You could keep still yourself for a few days.
"Yes," he agrees, adopting mock Dame David accent. "Let them come to one."
You're relentlessly prolific.
"I know. Apart from one short time, I've never really suffered from blocks."
This one short time was probably the crisis of confidence and direction after Let's Dance and its tugboat sequels - Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) - rattled his cutting-edge credibility for the first time in nearly two decades. "I never try and analyse why that is, because it might cause me to have one. It freely flows out. Whether it's writing, making music, or painting, I don't have a problem that way. There's always something happening. Probably because what others might have as time off, as relaxing time, I apply to working... I can't be without doing something. I don't take kindly to holidays; they're forced sabbaticals."
Indeed, Bowie's work rate - for an alleged poseur - has always been the stuff of myth. Even at the height of his drug-induced crying jags and hallucinations and self-imposed isolation, he would pull forty-eight-hour non-stop stints in the studio.
Does he feel a sense of guilt if he stops?
"Not guilty so much as irritable. I sit there stubbornly waiting for the sun to go down, mumbling, 'Have you had enough of your holiday now? Can we go back and get on with things?' My compromise is, if I'm not working, I'll be inquisitive. I'll make sure we go somewhere interesting, so that I can scavenge about and see if there's anything I can take away with me that'll become part of what I do. I guess I'm always looking for experience or titillation of some kind. I'm never still. I'm an itchy-crawly kind of guy. That's why I like New York so much: there's always something going on. I once asked David Byrne why he'd chosen to live here, and he said, 'Um, because you look out of the window and someone falls down.' Perfect."
Before we blast through the past (and touch on such pop-trivia subjects as absolute truth, personal belief systems, self-abuse and, er, Sir Thomas More), we need to set Bowie's new opus, Hours..., in context. 1.Outside (1995) found him back in touch with Brian Eno and getting in touch with his dark side again, tapping into the now over-familiar themes of pre-millennial angst and serial killer aggrandisation. Earthling (1997), a healthily ironic title, was a patchy drum'n'-bass experiment with what were probably then referred to as "the latest sounds".
Yet Hours... is Bowie in that rarest of guises: man singing songs, acknowledging bona fide emotions. (Contrary to lore, this is something he has done before: think Be My Wife from Low or Can You Hear Me? from Young Americans. Contenders such as Ziggy's Rock'n'Roll Suicide were more distanced, considered . . .).
"It's a more personal piece", he says of his twentieth solo studio album proper in thirty years, "but I hesitate to say it's autobiographical. In a way, it self-evidently isn't. I also hate to say it's a 'character', so I have to be careful here. It is fiction. And the progenitor of this piece is obviously a man who is fairly disillusioned. He's not a happy man. Whereas I am an incredibly happy man! So what I was trying to do, more than anything else, was capture some of the angst and feelings of... guys of my age. I'd say, broadly, it's songs for my generation. People who've lived through the late '60s, '70s, and part of the '80s... although the '80s don't really come into this album. It's a long reach back, generally. I was trying to capture elements of how, often, one feels at this age.
"So it's personal, but not some hybrid fantasy. There's not much concept behind it. It's really a bunch of songs, but I guess the one through-line is that they deal with a man looking back over his life."
LIFE JUST KISSED YOU HELLO
This man, this narrator, definitely isn't you?
"No, no - because there's one song where I'm talking about how we've got to break this relationship up, y'know - and please don't read things into that! My wife and I are extremely happy; I'd like to state quite publicly - haw, haw. But there was a time in my life where I was desperately in love with a girl - and I met her, as it happens, quite a number of years later. And boy, was the flame dead! So in this case on the album the guy's thinking about a girl he knew many years ago, and she was 'the great mistake he never made'. See, I know how that feels, but it's not part of my current situation. I'm much too jolly. I'm inwardly jolly."
So this isn't you probing your heart and soul?
"God, right, let it pour out - aaargghh! No, not at all." (I notice the straight teeth, not the fangs of photographic legend, which he resisted getting fixed for decades. He only gave in when they started giving him real pain.) "But it doesn't mean I don't take it seriously. I have friends who are in similar situations; I draw from people I know. I see what they're going through, and think, God, if I could help them... but you can't ever help somebody sort out their internal life. Never. Even if you know what's wrong, you can't tell 'em. You can give support, but they've got to do it themselves."
Bowie, notoriously, married Angie Barnett in 1970. By their divorce ten years later they were barely on speaking terms, and Bowie won custody of son Joe (AKA Duncan Zowie Bowie). Early on, however, many reckon Angie's commitment to her husband's lust for fame was admirable, and she was an essential motivator, contributing ideas to the crucial Ziggy look and presentation. Her bitch'n'tell book, Backstage Passes, is a self-serving, one-sided rant, fuelled by loathing for Corinne "Coco" Schwab, who replaced her as Bowie's confidante and buffer from management hassles, but if even a twentieth of it is true, Bowie's bisexuality back then was no pose. It got every mixed-up teenager's mother in a whirl.
Prior to the pugnacious Angie, Bowie had a long romance with a ballerina, Hermione Farthingale, the subject of Letter To Hermione from Space Oddity. His sexual appetites, while by no means latent before stardom, ballooned post-fame. "Not too many gay gods," Marc Bolan once chuckled, "have slept with five thousand chicks." Later affairs included the Berlin transsexual, Romy Haag. A leaning towards black girls then seemed to usurp bisexuality. In the '80s there was a serious, three-year relationship with Melissa Hurley, a dancer from the Glass Spider tour.
In 1990 he met Iman, and "started naming the babies on the first night". He proposed on one knee on a boat cruising down the Seine in Paris on the first anniversary of their meeting. He agreed to an AIDS test and swore off all drugs. They married in 1992 in Lausanne. And again in Florence.
A recurring theme of the album seems to be: no regrets.
"Yes, that is from me. I don't have regrets. If I am cajoled into looking at the past, which I do very infrequently, I tend to look on it as not so much luggage as... wings. My past has given me such a fantastic life. A lot of it negative, a lot positive. For me it's been an incredible learning process, arriving now at a situation where I... know far far less than I knew when I started out!
"There again, nobody knows more than a young person knows. I knew so much when I was about twenty-five. I had an answer for everything, knew all the answers..."
Even before reaching that ripe old age, David Robert Jones, born in Brixton in 1947, had asked a few questions. Quickly shuffling off the mortal trappings of a fractious, working-class family, his early mods'n'sods bands included The King Bees, The Manish Boys and The Lower Third.
Changing his name to avoid confusion with The Monkees' singer, he released a loopy, self-titled 1967 album and numerous flop singles, riddled with music-hall structures and Anthony Newley vocal mannerisms, while dabbling in folk, mime, acting, dance, Buddhism and the obligatory bohemian lifestyle.
In 1969, he finally forged a hit with Space Oddity, inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and helped by the Apollo moon landing broadcast. The sister album was the work of a trippy hippie, but the chameleon was just waking up, unfurling the flag.
People sometimes forget just how many records the little bombardier made before hitting big fame...
"And unfortunately they were all released! I mean, I must've had seven-hundred-and-forty-three singles come out before Space Oddity. And half of them daft as a brush. And the other half - well, there may have been potential, but only so much. Ha!
"But it's kinda fun now, actually - I see sites on the Internet where they study those areas very intimately. You can see them picking through the peppercorns of my manure pile. Looking for something that might indicate I had a future. They're few and far between, but they have come up with some nuggets."
"So yes, the whole of my learning period is all out there, all released. It took me an awful long time to work out what it was that I did. I guess what made it so difficult was that I was never in love with one kind of music and one kind of music only. At that point, particularly, it wasn't 'right' to have an interest in all areas. It was make-your-mind-up time. You were either a folk singer or a rock singer or a blues guitarist... you were a thing, and you could definitely say that's what you were. Now, that kind of singular craft seems almost quaint. This TV show came on the other day and it was, like, Mountain, Fleetwood Mac, Joe Walsh... and I thought, God, that approach to music seems so incredibly out of step now. And I think I felt that back then! I felt: well, I don't wanna be like this. I wanna keep my options open; there's lots of things I like. So it was: 'How can I do this so I can try everything? How can I be really greedy?'"
TURN AND FACE THE STRANGE
The murky, proto-metal of 1970's The Man Who Sold The World saw Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson, a decidedly heterosexual gardener from Hull, fusing and working up to glam (the singer lounged Dietrich-like in a frock on the original front cover), but it was the following year's Hunky Dory which, through a series of simply exquisite songs, struck on the themes of flamboyance (Kooks, written on the night of Zowie's birth), gender confusion (Queen Bitch, inspired by The Velvet Underground), transformation (Changes) and life on stars and Mars, and served notice that the decade's most significant rock demagogue was about to land. There were respectful nods to Warhol, Reed and Dylan, but Bowie was homing in on his own selves.
"Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell," he reminisces with no little delight. "I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience - I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, 'Good album, good songs.' That hadn't happened to me before. It was like, ' Ah, I'm getting it, I'm finding my feet. I'm starting to communicate what I want to do. Now: what is it I want to do??' There was always a double whammy there..."
Dylan had influenced the verbose folk patterns of Bowie's prior albums, but when the two eventually met there was no rapport. Encounters with Warhol and Reed were, however, more fruitful, even if Warhol simply took photographs of Bowie's feet, complimenting him on his shoes. Bowie had visited New York with ambitious manager, and later adversary, Tony DeFries, and met not only Reed but also Stooges madman-masochist Iggy Pop. The evening ended with Iggy, three days without sleep, snarling that "the only good rocker is a dead rocker" and concussing himself with a beer bottle. The Englishman, along with Angie, had already been dazzled by the wilfully decadent musical, Pork, a sleazy representation of New York Factory life playing at The Roundhouse. He was beginning to tell people in London that the perfect rock star would be Lou Reed's brain in Iggy Pop's body.
"I remember my state of mind at that age quite well, actually. How I'd be driven into humiliation quite easily if somebody knew something that I didn't know. I'd reject what they were offering or trying to tell me. My knowledge had to be the only important knowledge! If I hadn't found it myself, and done my own research, I was just closed off. Especially if it was an older person telling me something. I wouldn't own up to the fact that I didn't know it all! Then I'd go away and reconsider what he or she was saying, and look into it in my own way, then make out it was me that found out about it. It took me a long time to acknowledge mentors.
"Yeah, there may be hints of Hunky Dory on the new one, but it's not supposed to be retro, I hope."
The hints are there on gentler, acoustic-led tracks, such as Seven and Survive. Elsewhere, there are echoes of the feel attained by ballads on Scary Monsters, such as Because You're Young and Scream Like A Baby.
"I've actually tried a little experiment this past year. I've virtually not listened to anyone other than myself, my own stuff. I wanted to immerse myself in the palate of the things I've done. Obviously, I've always drawn from myself to a certain extent, and I don't leave things behind, so they keep cropping up in another form. I just find combinations of various styles to be useful and exciting."
THERE'S ONLY ROOM FOR ONE AND HERE SHE COMES
Throughout '72 and '73 Bowie pretty much took over, if not the world (America resisted at first), then the imagination of everyone in Britain between the ages of ten and thirty.
His revelation to Melody Maker - "Hi, I'm bi" - was just the intro. The first rock star to comment, ironically and melodramatically, on the medium, to undermine rootsy authenticity while projecting new sounds, new styles, new (self-destruct) maps of the playing field, he stole, borrowed, invented and pioneered.
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars introduced the alien, messianic, androgynous rock über-god who was to consume Bowie's persona for the next year, until adulation and demands were to cause him to announce Ziggy's retirement onstage. Glam's glad-rags shorn, Top Of The Pops turned on its head, he moved on like a sly shark. Drastically influential even today, the red-haired, green-jumpsuited, platform-booted Ziggy had made love with more egos than his own.
Through this period, Bowie, a vastly underrated studio technician, also boosted the careers of Lou Reed (Transformer), Iggy And The Stooges (Raw Power) and Mott The Hoople (All The Young Dudes). A line from Mott's Bowie-penned hit All The Young Dudes - "My brother's back at home with his Beatles and his Stones / I never got off on that revolution stuff" - instantly rendered both of those bands aesthetically defunct to any self-respecting, painfully malleable twelve-year-old.
He brought Lou and Iggy over for an ostentatiously camp press conference, having made sure they were signed to DeFries' Mainman management company, thus, some have sniped, ensuring that the artists he perceived as threats and rivals were forever indebted to him. Yet it was his faith and energy that (along with Ronson) produced Reed's first and only mainstream success, Transformer (featuring Walk On The Wild Side). And though his mix of Iggy's Raw Power was much criticised, he persevered to make his more durable friend The Ig palatable to a wider audience in later years.
In 1973, he released Aladdin Sane, a kind of Ziggy Does America on quaaludes. It was the fastest seller in the UK since The Beatles. The onstage retirement of Ziggy at Hammersmith in July '73 was a tearful shock for legions of fans, a financial shock to his stunned rhythm section, and just possibly a very clever move to force the American record company to increase their offers for further American tours. One of the roles other than Media Prom Queen that Bowie played superbly when appropriate was Hard To Get.
He sailed to France (at this point he was still afraid of flying) and recorded Pin Ups, a racy '60s covers (The Who, The Kinks, Pink Floyd) collection. Bryan Ferry, already recording his own career-defining set of oldies, These Foolish Things, tried to persuade his record company to issue an injunction against Bowie releasing his nostalgia-fest first. A compromise was reached, both albums coming out on the same day, both doing well. For Bowie it had been a time-buying exercise while he dreamed up his next masterplan.
The following year's Diamond Dogs, a brooding, spooked, ambitious masterpiece partly inspired by George Orwell's 1984, revealed both attacks of emotive grandeur and further cynical, clinical genius. Rebel Rebel's "You're not sure if you're a boy or a girl" and grinding guitar riff were unsubtle enough to intrigue America, while the layers of lyricism in Sweet Thing were his most inventive yet. Ever-widening cracks in the psyche filtered through the record's baroque edifices.
He'd let Ronson go, and was enraged when the guitarist tried to launch a solo career with the hyped but unsuccessful Slaughter On 10th Avenue. The silver lining was that Bowie played much of Diamond Dogs himself, and began to trust his instincts as much as his man management.
He remained riddled with self-doubt. His family upbringing had been lukewarm if not dysfunctional. He'd always been driven to prove he could achieve. The heavy work schedule, however, along with the haste with which he'd been swept from the Beckenham commune where he lived with Angie and various hangers-on, to a life of constant promotional travel and fan worship, was attacking his fragile sense of self. This self could be one day supremely confident, the next timid and withdrawn. Cocaine became the booster of choice.
When Ziggy Stardust exploded onto the scene, did he bring you more trouble than fulfillment?
"I had a blast at first, y'know, but it wasn't the character, it was me that did it. Because, OK, I was doing great, having a helluva time, and then around the end of that Ziggy period was when I first found drugs in a major way. If that hadn't happened, I wonder how different life would've been for me. Maybe... but I can't dwell on that.
"In all seriousness, that's why it all went wrong. Starting the drugs, then, in that way, when I was virtually on top of the world. I was having a ball, y'know? I can't say it wasn't fun: it was fun. The whole of that time was terrific. But then after late '73, I really got into... stuff."
Were people around you, through this coke haze, relating to you as if you were Ziggy or Aladdin?
"Well, not the band - I was just Dave, y'know?! But everybody else did, sure, yeah. Everybody."
Was that weird?
"Yes, that was weird. And I'd play up to it. I enjoyed playing up to it, y'know, it was a laugh, it was fun. But when you're actually doing that and you're drugged out of your mind, it becomes an altogether more serious matter. Because then you really do get into it. In an unhealthy fashion. You've gone away, and you don't really come back out of it again."
Were there times when it was easier for you to carry yourself as Ziggy, as this lofty alien being, than as a regular guy?
"All the time. Of course. Because I was basically an extremely shy person. I really was. I could... I could never have talked like this to you, when I was that age. I found it very very hard to get it up to have a conversation with someone. I was very reticent. I felt incredibly insecure about my own abilities of communication on a one-to-one level with people. So that front was very useful to me. It gave me a platform from which to talk to people - I talked to them as Ziggy. Some of me came through, but it got kinda twisted through the persona of Ziggy."
Who was a bit of a diva?
"A bit of a... crazed mirror. One of those funny fairground mirrors. It was sort of David Jones in there somewhere, but... not really."
Is that why you then, perhaps unwisely, stayed in the States, to clear your head?
"No, that was more of an ongoing process... I stayed in America because I just fell in love with the place. I really enjoyed it at first, and there were all these new sources of music that were coming to me..."
THE SIDE EFFECTS OF THE COCAINE
The ever curious Bowie, having released a transitional double live album, David Live, culled from the extensive schedule and labyrinthine sets of his biggest American tour, the praised and pioneering 1980 Floor Show, took on board the influences of Philadelphia's then-burgeoning soul movement. "I've always listened to soul music," he told new musicians. And probably he had. Even if he hadn't, it was another example of his quicksilver prescience, his uncanny ear for sea changes. The tour mutated, halfway, from tense melodrama (Bowie was by now pale and emaciated) to a neo-gospel revue, panned as naive and exploitative of black music by critics.
He re-emerged in '75 with the extraordinary, vocally inspired, "plastic soul" opus, Young Americans. "They pulled in just behind the fridge," it begins, captivatingly. Win attacked yuppies (who by the '80s would be his chief audience); Can You Hear Me was a gorgeous, febrile love song to the exotic singer whose career he'd been failing to launch for years, Ava Cherry. Rock purists who sneer at this LP, where Bowie out-sighed henchman Luther Vandross, don't know shit about singing. He had every colour of Jesus on his breath.
"Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?" he pleaded. A spur-of-the-moment session at Electric Ladyland with new pal John Lennon produced Fame, tagged on to the album at the last minute, and soon Bowie's first US Number One. Bowie and Lennon, whose widow Yoko Ono later wrote that the nouveau soul-boy bombarded the ex-Beatle with playbacks of his new direction, were attending the Grammys together before long. America began to take him seriously: prior to this he'd been indulged as an oddball Brit queen, talked up by New York and LA media types, by Warhol and Capote, rather than considered as a potential major, coast-to-coast, chat-show-friendly star.
His film career launched with Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, wherein he played himself very, very well. Frustrated when his nearly-completed soundtrack music wasn't used (many reckon this would have preempted the synth-drone ideas of Low), he adopted his latest persona, The Thin White Duke, who characterised the chillier, more cerebral funk of Station To Station.
Sick of California, where his drug-taking had pulled him toward dementia (he spoke of being kidnapped by witches and warlocks who wanted to extract his semen), he hoped to find salvation by convincing himself that "the European canon is here". "It's not the side effects of the cocaine," glimmered another lyric, "I'm thinking that it must be love..." There followed the stark, stripped White Light tour, then, with typical restlessness, relocation to Berlin.
Was it therapeutic to sing soul?
"Hmm... it was more just another way to write. It added something; I still wanted to learn...
"I remember talking with John at the time - er, John Lennon - about people we admired, and he said to me, 'Y'know, when I've discovered someone new, I tend to become that person. I want to soak myself in their stuff to such an extent that I have to be them.' So when he first found Dylan, he said, he would dress like Dylan and only play his kind of music, till he kind of understood how it worked. And that's exactly how I feel about it as well. In a more awkward fashion, I did that, too. I lived the life, whatever it was."
"I guess it was in a way. I'd immerse myself. It comes from having an addictive personality: I'm sure John had the same thing. Except we didn't know the term in those days! It was a process of becoming, of transforming into the thing you admire and want to be. To find out 'what makes it tick'. Then, hopefully, you've absorbed that knowledge and you move on to something else.
"But you don't leave it behind. I rarely did. R'n'B still comes through in my music. As does electronica. All the things I've been through on the way, even folk music, still come through. Take this new track, Seven - my God, it's like right out of the '60s, real hippy-dippy!"
The Thin White Duke, though, was not hippy-dippy. The Thin White Duke was, by his own admission, "a very nasty character indeed".
BLUE, BLUE, ELECTRIC BLUE
Officially a tax exile in Switzerland (Angie claimed she bribed the Swiss authorities), a gaunt, haunted Bowie, his heart in the basement, was by 1976 collecting expressionist art and reading up on right-wing politics in Berlin, trying to - as Iggy Pop has put it - "kick heroin, in the heroin capital of the world".
He had meetings with local electronica emissaries Kraftwerk. His music became increasingly introspective and experimental, resulting in two more groundbreaking albums, Low and "Heroes" (the latter voted Album Of The Year in 1977, in both NME and Melody Maker, and this at the proverbial height of punk): collaborations with Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and often undervalued long-time producer Tony Visconti. During this phase Bowie also produced two classic albums for his friend Iggy Pop: The Idiot and Lust For Life. It was, as someone even more famous than Bowie used to sing, a very good year.
In May 1976, he made a lunatic faux pas, when, arriving at Victoria Station to be greeted by thousands of fans and plentiful reporters, he was photographed enacting what appeared to be a Nazi salute. He was murdered by the press, and for years tainted by accusations of racism. It didn't help matters that Iggy's China Girl, lyrics by D. Bowie, contained the phrase, "Visions of swastikas in my head, plans for everyone..."
Floundering, he issued denials, claiming the photograph was a trick of the light, that he'd been studying the King Arthur legends. It wasn't until he explicitly denounced fascism on Lodger and Scary Monsters albums that he fully smelt redemption. (Touring, modestly, as keyboardist with Iggy, who punk rock welcomed as a conquering hero, also helped him to ride out punk's purgings of "irrelevant" oldsters.)
Bowie had always flirted with Aryan and Nietzschean imagery, from the "supermen" of The Man Who Sold The World through the "candidates" of Diamond Dogs. All his "personas" had coerced (theatrical, harmless enough) strains of blind devotion to a big brother, an enigmatic leader-figure. But this unthinking, to him meaningless, mock gesture almost derailed his career just as punk's period of iconoclasm hurtled around the corner. Christopher Sandford's book, Loving The Alien, reports that in Washington, the FBI file on Bowie replaced the adjectives "kooky" and "subversive" with "would-be-demagogue" and "apparent Nazi sympathiser". He back-pedalled for years. Even with Tin Machine, he was still raging against fascism on songs such as Under The God.
In 1977, Bowie was thirty and still coming down from the highs. Although Low (with its sideways cover shot of Bowie an explicit depiction of the artist's desire to recede from public view: low profile...) sounded like a man scratching out the eyes of internal demons, it was recorded, Bowie has said, with Eno, Fripp and himself often collapsing in giggles on the floor. Using cut-up techniques and ambient soundscapes, Low startled the state of the art, but still managed a perverse, percussive pop hit in Sound And Vision.
The considerably less bleakly solipsistic, more affirmative "Heroes" (with the deliberate use of quotation marks to denote ironic detachment) was equally surprisingly embraced, thanks to its anthemic title track, inspired by two lovers, glimpsed by Bowie through the studio window, meeting at the Berlin Wall.
Bowie was keen to promote "Heroes" and reassert his place in the rock royalty pecking order. The critics were eating out of his hand again, but sales were slipping - due to the "abstract" nature of his music, RCA suggested. He agreed to perform on old friend Marc Bolan's TV show, Marc, but what should have been a joyous, historic reunion turned into a debacle. Bowie looked slim and healthy performing his own song, but when the pair stepped up to duet, Bowie got an electric shock and Bolan (a few drinks to the worse) fell offstage. Bowie left hastily. Eight days later, Bolan was killed in a car crash.
Bowie sat next to Tony Visconti at the funeral, and set up a trust fund for Bolan's son. He started to take more of an interest in his own son, visiting Nairobi with him. The songs on his next album made references to Africa, to Kenya and Mombasa.
1979's brave, fractured Lodger, recorded in France (he was by now a tireless traveller, from Africa to Indonesia to the Far East) completed a loose Bowie-Eno trilogy. With what was becoming almost predictable prescience, it captured not one but two buzz-word subcultures in D.J. and the witty Boys Keep Swinging, the video of which - where he wore several shades of ironic drag - was the first of many in which Bowie was to subvert and prod at his own mythology without ever actually doing anything so uncool as to ridicule it. (In the later Blue Jean video he played both the nerd who loses the girl to the glamorous rock star and the glamorous rock star. He played the latter superbly.)
Bowie's film career debatably progressed (he described Just A Gigolo as "all my thirty-two Elvis Presley movies rolled into one"): by 1980 he was playing The Elephant Man on Broadway to considerable acclaim. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), yielding the hits Ashes To Ashes (a Number One accompanied by what is often cited as the best pop video of all time) and Fashion, came out the same year. Bowie again bent a rising movement - this time, New Romanticism - to his indomitable will. "I've never done good things, I've never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue," he (dis)informed us. Some consider this the last indisputably great Bowie album.
When you look back on the late '70s, is it like watching a previous life? Another you?
"I know what you mean, but I can relate to that person if I go back there, in my head. I can relate to what was going on with me. The light and shade in it is that the late '70s, when I was living in Berlin, is when I was nearest to who I am now." By this, Bowie means to emphasise his creative traits, not the hedonism. "And then when I came to New York briefly, just as the '80s began. But the big difference is that then I was deeply unhappy and incredibly lonely.
"I did have two or three fabulous, wonderful friends... but the loneliness was within me. Coco was always a great support, and I was very close to Iggy as well, so the three of us bonded as a team. And yeah, some wonderful work came out of it. But within myself I was a very lonely person. It wasn't a pleasant neighbourhood in my head. I was in a kind of recovery, yet I didn't know it. I'd really badly fucked myself up, and it took quite a few years to realise the extent of the damage to my emotional self. I was really cracked-up and broken, y'know."
Was this the price of fame? (Most biographies suggest that if Bowie was lonely at this time, he was lonely with a different admirer nearly every night.)
"No, no... it was just... self-abuse. It was. Drugs were not helpful in my life."
What drove you to that? Always crashing in the same car?
"Absolutely nothing original. I just took 'em. Ha! I had lots of money, I bought 'em, and I ingested them. Mr President, I did inhale."
No special pleading?
"Absolutely not. I dived in with a vengeance."
It must've been strange being David Bowie at that time.
"I wouldn't know! I was not on this planet. I was just not aware. I was so very unaware of so much that was going on about me. Ha, I can't tell you the extent to which I have unbelievable holes. I mean, the Swiss Cheese thing does apply. Funnily enough, I can meet somebody, and they can prompt me, and - whooosh - I'll go, oh yeah, I remember that! Thank you! And I'll write it down so I don't forget it again...
"So obviously, it's in there somewhere. I've just got broken synapses. They just have to be glued back together again. And I'm sure when the junctions are fixed, it'll all come back."
Wasn't it fun at all?
"Yeah... I do remember great periods of pain, but I think some of it was... most enjoyable. Again, more than anything else, the creativity. The writing, recording, and some of the touring I remember with strong affection. But I honestly don't remember having much of a personal life. It obviously had no importance to me. My memories of private living really start in the '80s, when it slowly dawned on me that I needed another kind of life, as well as the obsessively workaholic one. I mean, if you think I work hard now, you don't know how crazed I was in those days."
Even when you were partying hard?
"But I wasn't really ever playing! It all went into the work. I wasn't a person who went out clubbing much or anything. I was this guy... I tell you, I see it in Trent Reznor [of US industrial metal-rockers Nine Inch Nails], who I admire hugely. I see him fixated on some personal and traumatic vision that he has. I do feel for him, because there's a lot of pain inherent in that."
"I like crazy art and, most of the time, out-there music," Bowie told yours truly when I spoke to him last year. "Rather than having a hit song these days, I like the idea that I'm in there changing the plan of what society and culture look like, sound like. I did change things, I knew I would. It feels great, and very rewarding."
REMEMBER, THEY ALWAYS LET YOU DOWN WHEN YOU NEED 'EM
Despite his biggest worldwide commercial success yet with 1983's Nile Rodgers-produced pop-dance confection Let's Dance, its attendant Serious Moonlight tour, and singles China Girl and Modern Love, the '80s were not the golden years for Bowie. However much he may have wrestled with reservations, he allowed the mainstream, previously just a compass to stick magnets on, to dominate his choices. He told Rolling Stone that "saying I was bisexual was the biggest mistake I ever made"; told Time it was "a major miscalculation".
Guitarist Carlos Alomar, in David Buckley's new biography, Strange Fascination, reports that on the Serious Moonlight tour, Bowie had "one of those punching bags on the road, was hanging out with the bodyguards and doing all these exercises in the morning... I guess he was tired of being called a ninety-eight-pound weakling." He was distracted by films, in which his acting was rarely as ropey as rock critics like to make out, ranging from The Hunger to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, from Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ to Absolute Beginners. Not forgetting Labyrinth. "I get offered so many bad movies. And they're all raging queens or transvestites or Martians," he said in 1983.
"The acting," he confided to me a few years back, "is purely decorative. It's just fun, it really is. It's not something I seriously entertain as an ambition. The few things I've made that were successful were because I homed in on the directors, as they had something I wanted to know about. Like Scorsese. Whenever I choose the role, it's usually a joke. So I've learned that my gut instinct is right: just go because you think the guy making it is interesting. Generally then I'll have a better time and be able to live with the end result."
Under Pressure (1981), Bowie's third chart-topper up to that point (Let's Dance would be his second-last), was recorded in a day with Queen.
Chatting with Freddie Mercury about royalties and suchlike, he'd realised he wanted to leave RCA and sign for EMI, which, after some sulking, he did, to massive financial gain. He had a good Live Aid (including another Number One single, Dancing In The Street with Mick Jagger), where, unsurprisingly by now, many report that he was twenty times more organised than anyone else. Performing at around seven in the evening, he seized the moment and spirit as much as anybody that day (although, oddly, he was among the few Live Aid artists who didn't quickly promote an album of their own within weeks). Bob Geldof recalls him dropping all airs and graces so far as to give him a back rub within two minutes of their first meeting backstage.
At Mercury's memorial concert in 1992, he made an error of judgement with a pompous recitation of the Lord's Prayer. During much of the previous decade, he seemed to take his eye off the ball, to neuter his muse, unsure whether an aesthete such as himself was still up for this rock'n'roll lark. Albums such as Tonight and Never Let Me Down, featuring several retreads of earlier Bowie/Pop compositions, diluted both his acclaim and his credibility. (Although how bad can an album featuring both Loving The Alien and Blue Jean be?) The bloated Glass Spider tour, with the undesirable Peter Frampton, impressed no-one (OK, except me).
Then came the real shocker: he formed a blokey, beardy, far-from-glamorous guitar band, the much-lampooned Tin Machine, with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, the husband of his then-publicist, and Hunt and Tony Sales, who he'd last worked with on Iggy's Berlin albums and the subsequent tour, and who, as the sons of US comedian Soupy Sales, had grown up on the fringe of Sinatra's Rat Pack. (Rarely mentioned statistic: both Tin Machine albums were million-sellers.) Short-term shot-in-the-foot, perhaps, but long-term shot-in-the-arm for our resurrection man, whose subsequent money-spinning Sound And Vision tour saw him playing the "greatest hits" for "the last time".
Was that decade about dropping the masks?
"I really believe I haven't played personas of any kind since the late '70s," Bowie insists. "Nothing much was happening in the '80s, except I was a pretty lonely, strung-out, kind of guy. Just wasted, in a way. But there were no personas going on. I was just non-communicative, still. The whole change came at the end of the '80s, when I got my engine going again for life generally. Working with Reeves for [avant-dance troupe] La La La Human Steps, and then becoming Tin Machine. The whole being-in-a-band experience was good for me. I know it looked... it really is a strange thing to think about now, that I actually did that to myself... but it was very useful. All three of them were very canny, masters of the put-down - the Sales brothers, being the sons of Soupy Sales, were born stand-ups. So I wasn't allowed to lord it, which I recognised as a situation I wanted. To be part of a group of people working towards one aim. Success was rather immaterial. I needed the process, to acclimatise myself again to why I wrote, why I did what I did - all those issues that an artist going through 'a certain age' starts to think about. Of course, smack on '87 was forty for me. I'd been thinking: OK, I'll go off and paint now."
So Tin Machine was a kick up the backside?
"It was: I had to kickstart my engine again in music. There'd been a wobbly moment where I could quite easily have gone reclusive and just worked on visual stuff, paint and sculpt and all that. I had made a lot of money: I thought, well, I could just bugger off and do my Gauguin in Tahiti bit now. But then what do you do - re-emerge at sixty somewhere?
"So I look back on the Tin Machine years with great fondness," he says. "They charged me up. I can't tell you how much. Then personal problems within the band became the reason for its demise. It's not for me to talk about them, but it became physically impossible for us to carry on. And that was pretty sad really."
Carlos Alomar's happy to allege that drummer Hunt Sales' drug addiction infuriated the singer, given that he'd burned so many bridges for the band.
"After Let's Dance," Bowie told me in 1995, "I succumbed, tried to make things more accessible, took away the very strength of what I do. Reeves shook me out of my doldrums, pointed me at some kind of light, said, be adventurous again. And it broke down all the contexts for me. By the time it was over, nobody could put their finger on what I was any more. It was: what the fuck is he doing?! I've been finding my voice, and a certain authority, ever since."
FORGET THAT I'M FIFTY...
The '90s have seen Bowie the artist returning to his mercurial, peripatetic self, drawn to the cutting edge of creativity the way most men are drawn, frankly, to skirt. He doesn't always get there, but he can't give up the thrill of the chase. His antennae twitch again. Meanwhile, he's found domestic contentment with Iman - as long as he sometimes just says no to the internet - and untold financial riches. He has, as often as not, denied he was ever bisexual. Mr and Mrs Bowie have homes in Switzerland, America and Bermuda.
His albums have been wildly diverse. On 1993's poppy, pert Black Tie White Noise, where Bowie used Nile Rodgers rather than letting him take control, he covered Scott Walker and Morrissey songs among cunningly crafted jewels of his own. Mick Ronson, terminally ill, returned to the fold to play on Cream's I Feel Free. For the promotion of this, Bowie agreed to a joint NME interview, brilliantly headlined "One day, son, all this could be yours", with "heirs apparent" Suede. Only thing was, Bowie's album then knocked Suede's off the top of the charts. The Buddha Of Suburbia, the score to the Hanif Kureishi-written TV series, came out the same year (sales suffered accordingly).
1995's dark, difficult, esoteric reunion with Eno, 1.Outside (the one which will come to be seen as his millennial brooding thesis), was, he told me at the time, "placing the eerie environment of a Diamond Dogs city now, in the '90s, and giving it an entirely different spin. The narrative and stories are not the content - the content is the spaces in between the linear bits. The queasy, strange textures." The drum'n'bass exercise, Earthling (1997), showed his refusal to grow out of current musical trends.
"An ageing rock star doesn't have to opt out of life," he told Jean Rook as far back as 1979. "When I'm fifty, I'll prove it."
He's had work flirtations with Nine Inch Nails (with whom he toured the States), Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Tricky and Goldie. Nirvana respectfully covered The Man Who Sold The World, Oasis bollocksed up "Heroes". Placebo, who he bizarrely continues to champion, raced through Bolan's Twentieth Century Boy with him at the last Brits (where the previous year he'd accepted a Lifetime Achievement award).
For Bowie's fiftieth birthday bash in January '97 at Madison Square Garden, he swerved clear of anything resembling nostalgia. He was joined onstage by Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, Billy Corgan, Foo Fighters, Robert Smith, and Frank Black. His exquisite playing of Warhol in Basquiat was a lifelong calling, surely, and he has other films imminent (Mr Rice's Secret and Everybody Loves Sunshine, the latter co-starring Goldie, are rumoured to be ready to roll). He's also co-written the score to Stigmata with Corgan and durable pianist Mike Garson, who's worked with him on and off since Aladdin Sane.
He ignored The Velvet Goldmine, which didn't ignore him, thinking it trivial and sleazy. He launched Bowienet, the world's first artist-created ISP, and, oddly, was voted music star of the century by readers of The Sun, while only managing sixth position in a similar poll in a mainstream rock magazine.
A computer game - Omikron: The Nomad Soul - launches in October. A futuristic (surprise!), 3-D action-adventure, this has Bowie playing "Boz, the Virtual Being and Leader Of The Awakened" and Iman playing "an incarnate". Bowie and Gabrels wrote the music. The game contains over four hundred sets in four huge cities, four hours of dialogue and twelve-hundred responses. You take a journey in a 3-D parallel universe where you can drive your anti-gravity vehicle to a bar where Bowie and band are playing. You can then buy their CD, take it back to your virtual apartment and play it. Oh, and there's lots of shooting and fighting and stuff. But if you die - and this I think is where Bowie may have had most input - your soul is transferred to the body of the first person who touches you. You're reincarnated as them, and carry on.
And now there's Hours... , another timely, out-of-time twist.
WHEN IT'S GOOD IT'S REALLY GOOD
To pinpoint where it all went right, observe that the opening track on Black Tie White Noise was The Wedding...
Is it fair to say you've played down your own mythology of late? Wilfully been less enigmatic, more approachable? (In '90s interviews, I've found him almost absurdly affable, and certainly more gracious and modest than most celebrities with a tenth of his class, which is to say most celebrities. He's eager to agree with any theories or laugh at any attempts at humour you might squeeze in the gaps between his well-read monologues. Of course, this act of basic decency in itself provides him with another, blameless, smokescreen to stand easily behind. Or, I don't know, is there a point at which one should stop second guessing and take him at face value?)
"I think it has a lot to do with being married, I have to say," he explains, clutching his umpteenth Marlboro of the day. "Having to share one's life with somebody else, you tend to talk a lot more. You'd better! I mean I was quite content spending days without saying a word to anybody, quite alone, getting on with my own obsessive thing, whatever that happened to be at the time. I didn't really need company particularly.
"Then when I met Iman and we started living together, I kind of realised how much I'd missed. I guess I quite enjoyed being more of a social animal, going to dinners with people, having conversations there. I'd never really done that much. I hadn't lived that kind of life, y'know? Elton John I never was. I didn't go out to... soirées, and all that. So I've enjoyed opening up. Privately at first, then I guess it translated into more public terms."
Could any of your '90s records have been any more different to its predecessor?
"That's... fair. I personally think my work in the '90s has been the best that I could possibly do. It's proved to have a lot of life and it's got some strong devotees. From Black Tie White Noise, I think I've not put out a shoddy piece of work. I'm very proud of it all. Especially things like The Buddha Of Suburbia, which went - pffft - under the radar. Maybe Buddha was an indication that I'd be going back into more experimental stuff, like Outside, again.
"We ran a thing recently on Bowienet asking what songs they wanted me to do on VH1 Storytellers, and the diversity from list to list was amazing. There is no consensus of opinion. There's no: oh, well obviously... the younger ones, for instance, only start at Outside. They're just getting back into the older material. And because of Trent [Reznor], they've explored Scary Monsters, stuff like that. And the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan is a big Hunky Dory fan, so they get recommendations from over there. It's strange - their whole reference system is completely different from that of somebody who's near enough my age, saying, 'Well, you know, you can't beat Ziggy Stardust...'"
Is there something you still want to achieve this century that you haven't?
"No. I honestly don't have ambition in that way. My real ambition is to feel I don't waste my day when I get up. I do feel guilty if a day, or part of a day, goes down the drain."
WHAT'S REALLY HAPPENING?
"Let me say that my songs are a construction; it's very rare that they inherently have a particularly deep 'meaning'. Or if they do, it's a very personal thing which I wouldn't expect other people to perceive or understand. That's not why I write songs. I like the idea that they're vehicles for other people to interpret or use as they will. It's a device. That's what I do with songs, with art generally. Yes I have an interest in how an artist works, but I don't need to know what it's 'about'. I'm quite capable of reading the ciphers and symbols for myself. I think a lot of people these days have ended up cobbling together a belief system that works for them. An absolute truth seems so hard to get to in this... blah blah, fragmented age and all that."
It's interesting to hear Bowie say "fragmented age and all that". This being the man who, at least for the consciousness of pop music, invented the notion of a "fragmented age" as a good thing, who anticipated this chaotic, post-modern pop world where all eras and genres are up for grabs, up for collaging and colliding. "I can revel in a Romantic or Renaissance painting," he told me once, "and I can fall into a kind of euphoria over a beautifully painted landscape or wonderfully executed sculpture. Or I can enjoy dismantling toys and putting the wrong bits back together. Or I can embrace confusion, where every piece of information is as unimportant as the next, in our deconstructed society. I can surf on chaos. I have needs for all these things.
"See, I don't think one thing replaces the other. Consider the more positive aspects of post-modernism! Not the ironic stance it continually takes. One of the better things about it is that it seems so willing to embrace all styles and attitudes."
In New York, in 1999, he's extending the thought. "A belief system is merely a personal support system really. It's up to me to construct one that isn't carved in stone, that may change overnight.
"My songs do that. That's the feedback I get from people who listen to the stuff. Their readings of it, especially of the earlier work, is that it was an accompaniment to their lives, and maybe got them through periods where they were trying to orientate themselves socially and all that. They often found the music helpful in that way. And that's great; I feel good about that.
"Though I don't feel bad if it doesn't serve any purpose. It could just be decorative. I don't care - I just like doing the stuff!
"Everyone views everything - past, future and present - in a different way. So I've always been intimidated by this idea of absolutes. There can only be one person's absolute, one person's end result, one person's history. Sir Thomas More, poor old thing, went to the block for his absolute belief in the Catholic church. Now I have great admiration for a man sticking to his guns, but on the other hand... he really shouldn't've done that! 'Have you thought about Buddhism, Mr More? Protestantism? Same deal without the ritual?' I'm not saying we don't have a moral duty, or should relinquish all responsibility. We are intelligent animals and we can quite simply see that it's not right to hurt others. That comes through a consensus of behaviour and opinion, I guess. But we don't have to feel that if we don't do right we'll go to some strange place... without flames, apparently."
"Last week The Vatican issued a... whatever it is they issue... one of their issues... saying, hold the front page! There are no flames! There is no Hell! And likewise, there are no angels with white wings. Which is a brave step for them. After all this time."
What made them cave in?
"An edict! That's it - a Papal edict! That's what they issued. Um, I guess they feel all that might be a little dated. That image of Heaven and Hell in those figurative pictorial terms. Didn't it work well for them though, eh? That got them right in the confessionals. Giving up everything for that very well-run organisation. So anyway, poor fucking Thomas More is, like, wait, whaddya mean?! There's no Hell?!"
D'oh! I say, doing the Homer Simpson thing.
"D'oh!" says David Bowie, doing the Homer Simpson thing.
HIS SCRIPT IS YOU AND ME, BOY
Hours..., the title of which he admits involves some "obvious double punning" and reflects "a vague notion of being songs of a generation", is pretty damn good. It's smooth, with nice flashes of stress and disturbance. It's subtle, seductive, and under-sung.
"Yes, I hope the vocals aren't mannered. I was trying to keep them... reasonable. I was trying to not try too hard. It's not like, 'Hey, I'm a professional singer!' I wanted to approach them just like a bloke. To give them a feeling of: anybody could sing these songs, they're not difficult."
The album was originally to be called The Dreamers (title of the closing track), until the millennial Mick Ronson, Reeves Gabrels, said, "As in Freddie And...?" At which point Bowie thought, Ah, we'll drop that idea, then. "You see what I had to contend with in Tin Machine?"
Seems like he's a grounding influence.
"Yeah," he guffaws, too cool to even relish the impact of this next bit: "And you don't really need that when you're a genius."
The lyrics to another track, What's Really Happening, were chosen from fans' entries to a Bowienet competition. The opener and first single, Thursday's Child, begins: "All of my life I've tried so hard / Doing my best with what I had / Nothing much happened all the same." Yet you, I suggest, have never appeared to sweat or strain...
"I'm supposed to say, 'Ah, but that's the secret of stagecraft!' But no, I don't find it particularly hard - the guy in the song's had a tough life, though. He's a teeth-grinding, I'll-get-this-job-done guy. But, right, it's not a dogged labour for me: I do work hard, but it comes easily."
Pretty Things Are Going To Hell is a goldmine of a title for Bowiephiles - references to Oh! You Pretty Things, the band The Pretty Things as honoured on Pin Ups, Iggy's Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell? All of the above?
"Obviously, I'm aware of those... I think these are tough times. It's a tough period to live in. And I was thinking of that Evelyn Waugh idea of the bright young things, the pretty things... I think their day is numbered. So I thought, well, let's close them off. They wore it well but they did wear themselves out, y'know, there's not much room for that now. It's a very serious little world."
They? Meaning who? Pop culture peacocks with a brand new dance?
"Hmmm... yes, why not. Yes, the flighty silly ones will be smacked down by the flyswatter."
EVERYTHING BUT COLD FIRE
Bowie doesn't think he'll ever write an autobiography. Doesn't feel the compulsion, and dislikes most books about him. Will people still remember you in twenty, thirty years' time? By which I mean: will they remember rock stars, pop music?
"I don't think people take much time to look back these days," comes his answer, which might be poignant were it not for his unflinching modernism. "They don't look back anywhere near as much as we used to, as I used to. History has receded into the distance, and so has the future. There is a present sensibility now. The past, the idea of history, has lost a lot of currency. It doesn't carry the weight it had for my generation. So I'm not sure whether last week's papers will mean a light..."
Isn't that sad in a way? For people's forgotten achievements? Say, yours? ("They can bury it under dust," he once told me of his oeuvre, smiling contentedly.)
"See, that's the thing," he reiterates now. "I'm not so sure what I consider to be achievement any more. Your personal day-to-day existence is the achievement, I think. I'm kind of getting into all that corny stuff, y'know?
"I don't know what the real worth is of achievement in terms of 'world opinion' or whatever. It's a conjecture, it's, again, a consensus of opinion of a large amount of people. Which has no real worth at all. It may all be flotsam and jetsam."
One recalls a younger, less at-peace-with-his-life Bowie, who was reported, during a 1976 drunken Berlin row with Coco, to have yelled, before storming off in tears: "Fuck you! I changed the world! Kiss my arse!"
Ah, full of contradictions that man.
Because they recur on the new album, and because they're what he does for a living, and because if you let them loose they're hard to swallow, he talks about dreams.
"Being imbued with a vividly active imagination, still, I have brilliantly Technicolor dreams. They're very, very strong. The 'what if?' approach to life has always been such a part of my personal mythology, and it's always been easy for me to fantasise a parallel existence with whatever's going on. I suspect that dreams are an integral part of existence, with far more use for us than we've made of them, really. I'm quite Jungian about that. The dream state is a strong, active, potent force in our lives.
"The fine line between the dream state and reality is at times, for me, quite grey. Combining the two, the place where the two worlds come together, has been important in some of the things I've written, yes.
"That other life, that doppelgänger life, is actually a dark thing for me. I don't find a sense of freedom in dreams; they're not an escape mechanism. In there, I'm usually, 'Oh, I gotta get outta this place!' The darker place. So that's why I much, much prefer to stay awake."
With that, the man who changed the world, formulated escape and blew scales from the eyes and ears of more than one generation goes off, with a devilish grin, to do a thousand things and more.
"I like reality a lot!" he says. "I'm hungry for it."