David Bowie: "I'm hungry for reality!" – Part 2
As Bowie returns with a new album, The Next Day, it seems fitting to delve back into the Uncut archives to celebrate the career of a man who has constantly redefined pop music. In Part 2 of this exclusive interview from Uncut’s October 1999 issue, David Bowie looks back on 30 years of genius, drugs and derangement. Words: Chris Roberts
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 (“Ch-ch-ch-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 10 and 30.
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 uber-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 gladrags 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 12-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 Tenth 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 exploitational 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, chatshow-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 pre-empted 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”.