David Bowie: "I'm hungry for reality!" – Part 3
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 3 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
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 the 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 backpedalled for years. Even with Tin Machine, he was still raging against fascism on songs such as “Under The God”.
In 1977, Bowie was 30 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 “DJ” 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 32 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 98lb 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 20 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 moneyspinning 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 40 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 60 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 50…
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, 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 50, 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 50th 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 (Exhuming Mr Rice 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 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 400 sets in four huge cities, four hours of dialogue and 1,200 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.