In Part 4 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
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 10th 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… , 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 undersung.
“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 20, 30 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 doppelganger 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.”