In 2003 I travelled to New York where David Bowie was preparing his next tour and promoting his album of that year, Reality. We spent a day in Poughkeepsie and met again the next day in Manhattan for a two-hour interview. I was asked by The Word magazine to combine Bowie's thoughts with my own memories of Bowie fandom across the decades.
(You can read my 1990 interview with Bowie here. And my 2002 interview here.)
At the end, here, is a review of Reality, also done for The Word.
On a day of hard, Biblical heat in Summer 2003, a black limousine sweeps into a sun-baked side street. From its air-conditioned interior David Bowie peers out and sees, penned in, his most devoted disciples. Behind the temporary crowd barriers they have waited patiently all day; many have travelled across New York state and some, the passenger recognises, are hard core fans from Britain. My own eye is drawn to a tall boy at the front of the scrum whose luxuriant hair is in the orange and blond style of The Man Who Fell To Earth. He’d be a dead ringer if he weren’t Japanese.
We’re in Poughkeepsie, a town sufficiently far from New York City for rock’n’roll acts to audition their new material in some privacy before going on tour. Our venue is a rock club called the Chance that still looks like the tiny picture house it used to be in the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. David Bowie’s band have been rehearsing in there all afternoon and now their leader has arrived to join them. The fans outside, who’ve got their tickets through Bowie’s online community, cheer and whoop with every new intro they hear. Suffragette City, The Man Who Sold The World, Rebel Rebel…
Noticing the English fans on his way in, Bowie laughs in exasperation. “I did tell them it wasn’t going to be a long show.” He remembers that he’s decided not to play the whole new album tonight – we’re still a month away from Reality’s release date – because he calculates there would be a live bootleg selling on e-Bay by tomorrow.
Within minutes Bowie is on stage with the band for the remainder of the sound-check. He’s in a white T-shirt and jeans with black boots and the successfully resurrected Station To Station haircut. In the right light he could have just stepped right out of 1976. There’s some comradely banter with the musicians, but all the technical conversation is channelled through guitarist Gerry Leonard, a young Irishman who’s been made Bowie’s musical director. Across the stage’s tangle of cables stand the striking bald bass-player Gail Ann Dorsey and the none-more-rock’n’roll guitarist Earl Slick. Another Bowie band veteran, Mike Garson, sits massively behind his keyboard looking like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, playing those broken toy piano sounds that dramatised Aladdin Sane.
It’s a rather business-like procedure. “That OK for you, Pete?” Bowie enquires of his soundman, periodically. Frowning figures from the Bowie organisation are looking obscurely busy, as do various tour personnel who will soon be steering this show around the world. A New York publicist briefs the TV crew lining up for a quick interview. At the still centre of it all Bowie peers into the book of lyrics on a music stand in front of him, and occasionally crouches at the stage front to confer with Coco Schwab, his personal assistant since time immemorial,. David Bowie does not possess a mobile phone, but in Schwab he has its nearest human equivalent.
Sound-checks soon lose their allure for the non-involved and though it’s fun to observe Bowie close up I opt for a breath of fresh. In a small compound behind the club the limo driver is performing a manoeuvre called “turning the talent’s car around”, to smooth said talent’s eventual exit. The fans are reddening in the afternoon heat and anticipating sundown. I talk to a girl from England who proudly states she first saw Bowie at Hammersmith Odeon in 1973. Which sets me thinking of my own first time…
That was a little earlier, in late 1969. Though Bowie had just scored a quirky pop hit called Space Oddity he was still not personally famous and was touring Britain at the bottom of a bill headlined by Steve Marriott’s heavy “supergroup” Humble Pie. Supporting them, for those were the dying days of the package tour, was an assortment of hairy phenomena including Dave Edmunds’ Love Sculpture and bands that were probably named after the Tolkien hobbits they generally resembled. What I chiefly recall was how uncomfortable the lowly Bowie looked. Shy and unamplified, he was a curly-permed folk singer on a night of rock monsters.
The Liverpool Empire crowd was a gruff mob of dandruffed trogs in RAF surplus greatcoats and no quarter was given. He fluffed a few numbers and had to start again, then played his hit and walked off to a thin mix of faint applause, jeers and silence. I felt for him but more than that believed I had seen an other-worldly genius ¬– the wild-eyed boy from Freecloud. Being so new to live music I thought everything that night was amazing, but only Bowie haunted me. He seemed to disappear for a few years after that, until Hunky Dory appeared in 1971 and I discovered him all over again.
Back in Poughkeepsie, a little later in the evening, the club has filled up with Bowie fans, though the ones who’ve arrived tonight look less hard core than those who kept vigil in the day. In fact there are surprisingly few signs of outright devotion – no Aladdin Sane lightning stripes or spangly pierrot costumes, to be sure. Perhaps the American take on Bowie is more conventionally rock than England’s fond conception of him as space age panto dame.
The band begin by romping through the new album’s title track, Reality. In the darkness to the side of the club, Bowie’s wife Iman is spirited inside, surrounded by minders and unnoticed by the crowd. The capacity is just 500 and I’ve found a berth up front, so I’m only a couple of yards from Bowie’s microphone.
It’s not the nearest I’ve been, though. The mind drifts back to my second Bowie gig, in a grim little boxing venue called Liverpool Stadium. It was 3 June 1972 and I stared up at the evening’s challenger in thrilled bewilderment. We’d been expecting the Hollywood blonde look of Hunky Dory’s LP sleeve, but he was already transformed into the figure that would appear on his next album cover, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.
Hair cropped back into a tousled proto-punk look, he led a band who wore the same quilted jumpsuits and boots and yet – far from seeming fey – looked as brutal as any pug who’d ever fought in that boxing ring. The Spiders’ style, I’d later understand, was very Clockwork Orange, but for now I exulted in finding an act who were doing precisely what I needed to see. That is to say, they were finally killing the 1960s.
How I loathed hippies and velveteen loon pants. For the decade of peace and love I felt the disgust that only an adolescent zealot can feel. I looked up at Bowie that night with gratitude and adoration. He sang Hang On To Yourself and all the Ziggy songs we’d never heard before. By the summer’s end I knew every word of them and I believe I still do.
A short while after that, in my first week living in London, I bought an A-Z and looked up “K. West” in the phone book – every Bowiehead knows it as the illuminated sign on Ziggy’s cover. Looking for Heddon Street was my first encounter with central London and my mental map of the city has grown up around it. Just off Regent Street, I seldom walk down that way without paying a visit – it’s full of smart restaurants now but in those days was just a dusty alleyway of the rag trade. Strange to recall, I was so enchanted by Heddon Street that I didn’t bother looking for a building that stands almost directly behind it – the old Apple HQ in Savile Row, where The Beatles had played their last public gig a couple of years before.
Thirty-one years later and the Bowie who prances before me is shockingly unchanged, his only appreciable weight gain being some muscle around the pectorals and biceps. He wears a short denim jacket, artfully tapered to the slimness of his hips. Soon he’ll be down to his T-shirt and the air pierced by feminine squeals. What’s so different nowadays is Bowie’s relationship to us, the crowd. Early Ziggy was rather polite on stage. He didn’t say much and took care to thank us for any applause. Yet everyone felt they were in the presence of, well, strangeness. His distance was unbridgeable. The young Bowie’s charisma was so unusual that the notion of a foundling child abandoned by cosmic gypsies was not so difficult to swallow.
Amid his family of fans, by contrast, the 2003 model is like a jolly gay vicar in charge of a tombola evening. “How have you been?” he asks. “Ooh, I like your new shoes!” He gives every appearance of being most relaxed person in the room. Listen, he keeps telling them, it’s only a show. “Don’t look so nervous!” Shouldn’t that be the other way around?
“I don’t know what’s happened,” he’ll say to me later, “whether it’s having a child recently… It’s not that the work doesn’t seem a priority, but it puts it in perspective. You realise that working in a front of a crowd is not a life-threatening situation. It’s just going out and singing some songs. It’s nothing more than that. This has been coming home to me and I've enjoyed it a lot more. Shows have become something else for me in recent years. ‘Here’s me, here’s the songs I write, you’ll like some of them, some you won’t have heard of and others you just won’t like.’ I’m very comfortable with it. And I’m not particularly a gregarious person, so it’s something almost of a social breakthrough.”
So I’m looking at the new, normal David Bowie and his new, normal fans and thinking how extraordinarily normal it all seems compared to the old days. But as the last chord dies and the house lights go on, I’m tapped on the arm by a scarily blank-eyed woman who has spotted my backstage pass. “Will you take me in to meet him?” she says, in the disconnected voice of a sleepwalker. “I have to meet him. I am his biggest fan.” She nods solemnly. “Totally.”
With a slight shudder I remember the years I worked in the NME’s old office in Carnaby Street. The visitations of lunatics were not uncommon, but by far the largest constituency of these were David Bowie fans. Being so bad at telling them to go away I used to spend whole hours listening to their mad claims that Bowie had arranged to meet them there, or that they were charged by higher powers to become his successor on earth, or … whatever.
There was often a troubing undercurrent of mental dysfunction in Bowie’s music, and in the weirdness that his persona seemed to provoke. I suddenly feel a little bit nostalgic, to be honest.
Bowie got home from Poughkeepsie at about 1.30 last night, but still arose this morning at his usual time of 6.30. He likes to step out early from his downtown apartment. It’s his favourite time in New York City, he says, when there’s nobody else about except the workers he meets in Chinatown, delivering the day’s vegetables to market. It’s a long way from the Bowie of The Jean Genie, his wide-eyed Brit-boy song of praise to the city that never sleeps.
Does he, I wonder, still recognise the New York of those days? The days of slash-back blazers and pulling the waiters? “I guess it’s a lot more homely now,” he says. “That was a more romantic vision than I would have now, but then again I was living another kind of life. A late night life. I would come alive around four in the afternoon. I’d be out all night long. I’m sure that side is still out there, but it’s just not my New York any more.”
We’re sitting in the Manhattan studio, Looking Glass, where he recorded Reality. He points to various corners of the room like a tour guide, telling me where the different players would stand. A baseball cap, pulled tight around the head, crushes the great mane of hair and makes him seem smaller than he did last night. He wears a crisp white T-shirt, jeans and trainers, and flops on to the sofa as tea is served. Does New York feel like home nowadays?
“Yeah, it really does. It’s a bit like being on a holiday in a place I've always wanted to go to, that doesn’t come to an end. So ‘home’ is not quite right, is it? I always feel a stranger here. I am an outsider. I really am still a Brit, there’s no avoiding it. But I've got friends here. I probably know this town better than I know the new London. London has changed beyond belief since I've been coming to America. I can walk around here and find my way far better than I can in Chelsea. I've forgotten all the streets. [He mimes befuddlement.] Where did Clareville Grove used to be?”
When I arrived at JFK the other day the immigration official put me through the usual routine, squinting suspiciously at my journalist visa and asking the purpose of my trip. “David Bowie? Is he still alive?” I assured the man, politely, that he was. “Hmm. Looked half dead last time I saw him…” But of course the 56-year-old Bowie looks entirely alive and enviably well. As well as the replica 1976 haircut his face, though lined with age, is structurally unchanged since Ziggy Stardust’s time. There’s even a significant improvement, presumably a concession to US misgivings about British teeth, in the gleaming dental work – Bowie’s smile used to remind you of a Gothic graveyard.
From his handsomely refurbished pegs protrudes the tooth-pick that we suddenly see in all his publicity pictures. Like most ex-addicts – and Bowie declares himself to have an addictive personality – he loves to talk about his old tormentors and cannot keep off the topic of cigarettes. “The bane of my existence” he groans. His chosen weapon of defence, the tooth-picks are herbal (Australian Tea Tree, apparently), with what he describes as “a strange, minty taste.” Inevitably he’s now found himself addicted to them.
He’s in tip-top physical shape, though. About three times a week he submits to a personal trainer whose speciality is making boxers out of rowdy kids from New York’s tougher districts, and Bowie laughs when he wonders what the guy made of him, this frail English aesthete who couldn’t punch his way out of a paper bag. “I think he took me on out of sheer bemusement. But I really am pretty disciplined. I work out a lot now. I really only started when our baby was born, because I just wanted to be around longer: ‘Come on, pull it together, Bowie. You used to be fit, do it again.’”
According to Bowie the arrival of daughter Alexandria, three years ago, changed everything in his domestic routine. Though he tries to keep abreast of current music (The Dandy Warhols, Polyphonic Spree and Granddaddy receive approving murmurs) the only song he gets to hear regularly, he says, goes The wheels on the bus go round and round… “I tell you, time is the factor. A littl’un takes up a lot of your hours because they want to be looked at. Look at me, Daddy! Entertain me! So I don’t go out in search of things any more. And it’s such hard work because there is a lot of crap out there.”
More and more he’s found himself returning to vinyl. “I’ll tell you what I was playing the other day: Daevid Allen who was in Gong and Soft Machine. I think all the strands of glam rock are in that. He preceded us by about two years. And so did Kevin Ayers. Soft Machine, especially with Robert Wyatt, were great London favourites. They were like ‘our heavy band, man.’” Another path has taken him from the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, back to the proto-rap of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets and to the 1950s “word jazz” of Ken Nordine, looping around to the modern, socially conscious hip hop star Mos Def. Like the scholarly cove he has become, Bowie enjoys making connections between stuff, from fusions of the spoken word with music to the griot storytellers of Africa.
What else does he do? “We go and see a movie occasionally but all that’s changing. Being a homebody really does things to you. I haven’t been able to get out to the theatre, which I used to love. The last theatrical event I got to see was The Lion King.” (His daughter, he reports was duly impressed: “best piece of theatre she’s seen.”)
He’s been famously keen on the Internet, of course. He tends to his online fan community, Bowienet, like a particularly diligent shepherd. (We all know Bowie has adopted various guises down the years, but who among us ever predicted “Internet Service Provider” would be one of them? And yet it was.) He still spends a chunk of each day in cyberspace, he says, especially when he’s researching his novel.
A novel? He grins, almost shyly. “It needs about a hundred years of research, and it’ll never be completed in my lifetime, but I’m having a ball. I start with the first female trade unionists in the 1890s in the East End of London and I’m coming right through to Indonesia and the political problems of the South China Seas. I’m picking up these extraordinary things I never knew. And it’s so easy to do research on the internet. It’s something I've been writing for the last 18 months and it’s hideously hard. The trouble is my through-line started splintering at some point, because I kept finding so many interesting things and I’d have to go, ‘No, come back to the story, stop going off at tangents. Just show that you can write a fucking story that has a beginning, a middle and an end.
“It’s so epic that I’m not sure I’ll ever finish. Maybe the notes will emerge after I’m dead. They’re interesting notes! There’s an awful lot of ‘Did you know?’ [He puts on a suburban pub-bore voice.] Ha ha! ‘Did you know that in the 1700s the population of London was 20 per cent black?’ They all lived in the St Giles area, there were black pubs…”
You should read Peter Ackroyd.
“Oh! I love Ackroyd. I've read everything he’s ever written. I was supposed to ring him and I must do it. That disquieting underbelly that he sees in London, that’s how I perceive it too.”
One imagines that the young Bowie’s early visits to New York were – as The Jean Genie suggests – a punishing vortex of Andy Warhol parties, prodigious ingestion of drugs, unfettered creativity and open-all-hours sexual exploration. Lower on the agenda, perhaps, were rambles across the grey expanse of the New York Times.
But his conversation nowadays – hesitantly high-brow, earnestly liberal-left – suggests a Manhattan academic. The new Reality album is laced with local references and is stamped with the cultural aversion to George Bush that’s standard in New York circles.
“New York informs it,” he says of the record, “but it’s not the content of the album. It’s a lot more about New York than I expected it to be, but I would not want it to be considered my New York album. It’s more about the times it was made in.”
Although some of Heathen’s songs had a desolate, 9/11 air about them, they were actually written before that day. Those on Reality were written after. And his adopted home, New York City, was in the middle of it all.
“A hard black line was scored through the history of New York on 9/11,” he says. “It really has changed everything in this culture. Even in the most subtle ways. I was amazed at the way New Yorkers came together during the black-out [the power failure of August 2003]. That was absolutely unprecedented. I think the last time was in about 1977 and I wrote a song called Blackout because I was there then as well. I remember burnings, looting, it got very nasty. But this time around everybody was looking out for everybody else. It was extraordinary. There was no looting. Normally it’s rule number one, there’s a black-out, all the alarms are off, loot. But this time was extraordinary. There is definitely a sense of community here that there wasn’t before.”
He brings up the conspiracy theories that 9/11 was, if not instigated by the American government, then at least exploited by them in furtherance of plans they had all along. A lot of his suspicions arise from the website of a neo-conservative think tank, The Project For The New American Century, whose members have included Bush’s inner circle and which advocates US domination of the post Cold War world. “My amazement,” he says, “is that nobody, apart from certain left wing writers and magazines like Mother Jones has tumbled on to this site or made much of it.”
(When I get back to London I find he’s emailed me some addresses. Go to www.newamericancentury.org for a statement of the group’s manifesto and, for an opposing view, www.informationclearinghouse.info/article1937.htm.)
“So I can’t make sense of the fact there seems to be a plan and nobody seems to recognise that plan. Everything is other than what you are told it is.”
But this mistrust of appearances is an old habit of Bowie’s – he was always pop’s prime subverter of the “authenticity” yearned for by other rock artists. Now it’s at the heart of his new album, and in its very title. You’re left in no doubt that the word Reality has implied inverted commas around it, or at the very least a question mark.
“The word has got such a lot of spin attached to it these days. It’s become very hard to say Reality without putting virtual in front of it, or TV after it. So it’s been debased but there again, what has been debased? The actuality of reality is so much in flux now. It’s different realities for different people.”
Being an old-fashioned seeker after absolute truth, myself, I’m disinclined to this post-modern doctrine that there is no such thing. Bowie himself admits to a few reservations: “I know that a person in a Third World country isn’t going to give a fuck whether we believe there are or there aren’t any absolutes. Because there are absolutes for them, indelibly so, poverty and so on, absolutes of survival from day to day. So the definition of the word is the luxury of an elite few in the West.”
But when I start to mention a Tom Wolfe satire of post-modernists, Bowie bridles at the name: “Oh, I admire the fluency of his writing, but he’s a very egocentric writer. There’s something narrow about his world view, very puritan, that makes me not warm to him.” (Allow me, all the same, to recommend Wolfe’s collection of essays, Hooking Up, which is cruelly pungent about the intellectual fashions of our times.)
From satire we turn to mysticism and somehow get on to George Harrison, whose Try Some, Buy Some is covered on Reality. “For him,” Bowie muses, “there is a belief in some kind of system. But I really find that hard. Not on a day to day basis, because there are habits of life that have convinced me there is something solid to believe in. But when I become philosophical, in those ‘long lonely hours’, it’s the source of all my frustrations, hammering away at the same questions I've had since I was 19. Nothing has really changed for me. This daunting spiritual search.
“If you can make the spiritual connection with some kind of clarity then everything else would fall into place. A morality would seem to be offered, a plan would seem to be offered, some sense would be there. But it evades me. Yet I can’t help writing about it. My cache of subject matter gets smaller and smaller and is rapidly reduced to those two or three questions. But they’re continual questions and they seem to be the essence of what I've written over time. And I’m not going to stop.”
My allegiance to Bowie never wavered in the 1970s. In the finest traditions of teenage snobbery I declined to see his big Ziggy Stardust tour because I resented all the new fans who had just discovered him. And whilst I loved Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs I couldn’t overlook the crimson mullet, the leotards and general frightfulness of glam-rock style. With the soul-boy makeover of Young Americans I could at last consider Bowie sartorially acceptable and, by 1976, consented to attend his next big tour, the “Thin White Duke” dates that accompanied Station To Station.
His style this time around was impeccable ¬– the black suit and white shirt, the Gitanes packet in his waistcoat, the blonde sweep of his pre-War Berlin quiff. It’s a good look and one he’s reprised successfully of late. Queuing up at Wembley I took malicious pleasure in spotting the silly glitterheads who’d been wrong-footed by the new regime and still dressed like clowns in Bacofoil. That same week in May his film The Man Who Fell To Earth went on release and there was a curious tendency, in London tube stations that carried the movie poster, to draw a tiny swastika on Bowie’s cheekbone. I started seeing The Sex Pistols at the 100 Club and noticed the artier types sporting that same little swastika.
I saw him again whenever he came around, on Iggy Pop’s 1977 dates, then at Earls Court and – his mass-market breakthrough – the Serious Moonlight tour of 1983. By now a music journalist I became used to seeing him around, and watched a whole Clash show in New York standing next to him and Joey Ramone. I ought to have been ecstatic, but somehow I wasn’t, partly because I’d lost the sense of wonder you can only feel as a kid outside the industry process, and partly because the new David Bowie was not as fascinating as the old one.
In the 1980s, we saw a sunnier David on the boulevards of pop but for me it was not an improvement. While the physical excess and mental turbulence of the 1970s were at least matched by marvellous music (Ziggy Stardust, Low and so on) the next decade found him coasting along with mediocre records such as Never Let Me Down. Such was my disillusion that I remember having complimentary tickets for his Glass Spider Tour in 1987 and deciding, on the spur of the moment, to give them away to somebody in a pub.
Speaking today, Bowie recalls it as a period of creative crisis.
“My own success as a songwriter and performer, I think, really flies or not on whether I’m doing it with a personal integrity. All my biggest mistakes are when I try to second guess or please an audience. My work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it and just do what I want to do. Even if they’re dismissed, and perhaps rightly, there were a couple of albums in the ’80s that did exceptionally well for me – and I’m not a huge selling artist – but they’re not albums I’m proud of. I’d much prefer to say that I did Buddha Of Suburbia [his 1993 soundtrack for the TV series]. I feel much more comfortable about that than about say Never Let Me Down even though it was a really big seller.”
The symptoms of this crisis were Bowie’s 1989 “farewell” to his back catalogue (which he toured under the Sound + Vision title) and that awkward spell as a band-member of Tin Machine. Many were sceptical of the former and scornful of the latter. I came away from one of his press conferences frankly unconvinced that we had heard the last of Space Oddity. But with hindsight these twin gestures are at last looking like the beginning of Bowie’s revival. The Sound + Vison shows were visually stunning and the Tin Machine gig I saw in Kilburn was – you’ll just have to trust me – fantastic.
Shortly before Tin Machine I met Bowie in person for the first time, interviewing him in New York. I was by now too much of an old hand to feel nervous. When it was suggested I take along an old LP sleeve for him to autograph I spurned the idea as un-professional. But it was impossible; through our conversation, to stop a fan’s lifetime of memories un-spooling in my mind. The man himself was entirely charming, and so he has seemed in each of the four subsequent encounters I’ve had with him. It’s as if a chap who spent his early career as an honorary extraterrestrial has subsequently applied himself – with cub scout seriousness – to the role of affable earthling. But he cannot be as ordinary as all that, because he is, of course, David Bowie.
This rather obvious fact came home to me with startling force on the day in the 1990s when I had to chaperone him around a magazine awards ceremony. Simply escorting him and Iman through a packed hotel lobby and bar, down to his allocated table, was to realise how contorted our reactions to a celebrity can be. The conversational babble, hitherto deafening, dropped to near silence when he entered. And while nobody wanted to give the impression of rubbernecking, every eye flickered across him, then back and back once more. The crowd, without prompting, re-assembled itself in the style of the Red Sea meeting Moses. Only the paparazzi (whose presence I had scarcely registered two minutes previously) scorned to play the game; everyone else made some attempt ¬– however unsuccessful – not to gawp too obviously, whereas the snappers flew into the feeding frenzy of seagulls around a whelk-stall.
The long-term Bowiephile has to be prepared for the occasional lonely vigil. For me this occurred with the 1989 release of Tin Machine’s hard-rockin’, suit-wearin’ first album. I’ve defended the record against overwhelming odds ever since. Not only is it more tuneful and exciting than it’s given credit for, it served a higher purpose in rousing Bowie from the lethargy that he’d descended into. Happily, I’ve now found someone who agrees with me. The snag is that his name is David Bowie:-
“I love Tin Machine! I’m a huge fan. I really rate a lot of that work. At least 50 per cent of what we did was good. It was exciting stuff and some of it, in its way, was reasonably innovative. There wasn’t much around that sounded like it at the time. There was something in the air that I just felt, This is what the world is like right now. It felt like that. But there were such volatile personalities in that band, you never knew from night to night how it would go. There was nothing you could depend on. Somebody would be out of their minds, not be able to play – or even turn up in some cases. But when we were ‘on’ it was incredible.
“And audiences loved that band. Outside is a really popular album with my lot, they love it, but I’m telling you, the audiences for Tin Machine had the greatest nights. When it was bad it sucked a big one, but that’s what that band was all about. It was a terrific experience and really made me feel good, because now I felt I could make decisions about what I wanted to do over the coming years. There was nowhere to hide with that band. We had everything against us – and it was good!”
Why do you think they were so disliked?
“The consensus was that they thought it was a huge hype, because I was saying I was ‘part of the band’. There was nothing I could do or say to convince people, but I was just part of that band. I can’t say it louder. When I made the decision that we were going to carry on as a band it was really run on democratic lines. I was part of the band. And a lot of people didn’t like that and I never understood why. It had always been accepted when I was playing piano with Iggy in the ’70s – no big thing was made of it.”
When you announced in 1990 that you were dropping all your old songs, was it because you were oppressed by your younger self? I’ve had the feeling your recent work has been a bid to achieve equality with your past.
“That is absolutely on the money. It was such turmoil for me at that point. I knew there had to be a real life change. I could either pull myself together or just find some other occupation that I actually enjoyed doing, become a painter or something. I didn’t know if my songs were any good. I’d spread myself very thin and I didn’t want to be intimidated by my own catalogue, so I thought I would really have to begin again. For myself, I would have to start anew, build a new catalogue and see where it takes me. What will I be like as a writer? Let’s do it and find out.
“And as the ’90s progressed I felt my writing was getting stronger and stronger. I knew it was different, it might not have the frantic energy of some of the more youthful stuff but that’s the way it is when you get older. But there was a certain quality to the writing. And quite frankly, over these past three or four years, I’m really happy with the way I’m writing. I now feel very confident about touring and putting new songs against old songs. I don’t feel intimidated, it’s as simple as that.”
“It occurs to me that we have been living under a lot of stress in the last few years. The halcyon days are well and truly over. It’s just cyclic, isn’t it, the anxiety. That’s why I keep trying to be positive. The last time, there was the Bay of Pigs [a prelude to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962]. I remember how scared my Mum and Dad were, they really thought that was it, we’re gonna go up in a nuclear holocaust. Every now and then you get one of those and you think, Well, we pulled back last time and I've got a three-year-old daughter now and we are definitely going to pull back this time because she is going to have a great life, dammit. When I keep coming back to that I can’t afford to be negative any more. It doesn’t behove me to be the nihilist any more, even for creative reasons. I have to be positive.
“Hopefully there is a sense of that on the album. It’s not ‘woe is me’, it’s not a Diamond Dogs. I want the ultimate feeling after hearing it to be a good feeling. That there is something to be said for our future and it will be a good future.
“George’s song, Try Some, Buy Some, means a lot to me now. When I first heard that song it had a very different narrative to it. Now my connection to the song is about leaving a way of life behind me and finding something new. It’s overstated about most rock artists leaving drugs, it’s such a bore to read about it. But when I first heard the song in ’74 I was yet to go through my heavy drug period. And now it’s about the consolation of having kicked all that and turning your life around.”
Do you feel better for having gone through all you did?
“That’s the scary part, I really don’t have too many regrets. I have personal regrets about myself and my own behaviour and people I let down considerably during those years. But that’s how life was for me, that’s how my life has been, and I can’t see it in terms of regret. If I think I wasted years of my life, then perhaps I should have gone into completely different venture, outside music. So I don’t regret it in that way. If I was told it was all going to happen again and I was able to retain the memories of what went down last time, I don’t think I would do it that way at all. I wouldn’t do it because it’s too risky. I might be dead next time, that’s the major thing. Or come out of it really clinically unbalanced. Knowing what I know now… I wouldn’t do that to myself again.”
Do you think you’ve been lucky?
“Do I feel lucky? I’m supposed to say luck had nothing to do with it…”
“I should call one of my albums that. I’m blessed. I could thank God. Yeah. But which one?”
(Read my 1990 Bowie interview)
A review of Reality
Back in 1977, David Bowie took stock of his first five years of superstardom and concluded he was a dead man walking. Thin as a tooth-pick and coked to the brim of his Borsalino hat, he made an executive decision to flee Los Angeles, the good times that were killing him and the mysterious emissaries of Beelzebub that were making fog in his noggin. Holed up in the cooling gloom of old Europe he began a tortuous spell of self-examination. With the producer Tony Visconti he made his cathartic “Berlin” album Low – probably the closest rock’n’roll has ever come to an aural exorcism – wherein the demons danced in grave attendance and prepared their exit from his head.
Now, in 2003, Bowie is wondering if his new album Reality is almost the anti-Low. This record was not made by a semi-sane young celebrity who hadn’t slept for a thousand nights and looked to unlock the darkest dungeon of his soul. It was made by a middle-aged man who lives quietly with his young family, rises early, keeps fit and wants to find something hopeful to write songs about. Of Reality he says, “I want the ultimate feeling after hearing it to be a good feeling. That there is something to be said for our future and it will be a good future.”
Whatever the fate of the earth there are grounds for optimism about Reality. Bowie has been reunited with Visconti since last year’s excellent Heathen CD. Now he’s teamed with a tight rock ensemble that includes some vintage Bowie sleeve credits such as pianist Mike Garson, guitarist Earl Slick and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey. He’s suddenly recording and touring at a rate unseen since the glory days. The question is whether Reality will help Bowie fulfil the ambition that’s driven him for the last decade – namely to create a body of “mature” recordings that can match the dazzling achievements of his younger self.
For me the last few Bowie LPs have been his most enjoyable in years and Reality is better still. Like Hours and Heathen the old record it most reminds me of is Hunky Dory from 1971, which was the last he made without the self-consciousness of celebrity, and the last to operate simply as a set of songs, not a concept at the service of some self-created persona. Coincidentally they were both informed by the euphoria of recent fatherhood (his son Zowie by Angie Bowie the first time, his daughter Alexandria by Iman this time). And yet Reality’s last track, Bring Me The Disco King, just like Hunky Dory’s Bewlay Brothers, slowly unravels in a sinister murk of unspecified dread.
Actually you could liken nearly half of this album to the Hunky Dory song Quicksand, whose youthful seeker after wisdom confesses that he’s lost. From the sarcasm of its title downwards, Reality is a report from a man without a map, “I look for sense but I get next to nothing,” he sings. “Welcome to Reality. Ha ha ha ha.” The opening line of the opening song, New Killer Moon, goes “See a great white scar over Battery Park” and you’re aware that here is the music Bowie made in New York after 9/11. He’s watched the planet’s ultimate city abruptly confronted by the unfathomable. Some of the songs, like Fall Dog Bombs The Moon, suggest a liberal citizen wondering what you can believe in after you’ve lost faith in the government. Other songs, like Days, Never Get Old and Try Some, Buy Some, indicate the answer is in the consolations of love.
You might know Try Some, Buy Some. It’s an old George Harrison song written for Ronnie Spector, the wife of Phil. It sits along side another cover, Jonathan Richman’s Pablo Picasso. One is about the beloved whose arrival surpasses everything, the other is an amusing lark in which the renowned painter cruises New York picking up girls. Both were numbers that Bowie had pencilled in for a possible Pin-Ups 2 (which he now doubts he’ll get around to) and they’re definite highlights. It’s a bit troubling that the two most lyrically vivid tracks are by other writers (I found the same with Heathen’s covers, Gemini Spacecraft and Cactus). But it points up the way that Bowie’s own writing has grown more abstract since the story-telling days of A Space Oddity and Diamond Dogs.
This abstract quality of some Reality tracks could limit the record’s appeal, even if they’re musically thrilling. Hardly anyone outside of Bowie’s internet fan-club has ever cared for the obscure texts of his 1995 album Outside, for example, but a rare return to explicit emotion such as Absolute Beginners (“And I absolutely love you”) finds grown women requiring the St John’s Ambulance. Bowie believes, and I’m sure he’s right, that the new song Fall Dog Bombs The Moon will be a live favourite. It’s a fine, stomping tune with arresting fragments of meaning like “These blackest of years / That have no sound, no shape, no depth” – they’re redolent, for me, of burning oilfields and sanitised TV news briefings. But its lyrical undercurrents of anger and frustration are just that – undercurrents, not great waves to carry us away.
The listener might find Reality’s emotional grounding in some of its slower, romantic moments. The fretful anxiety of Looking For Water (“I lost God in a New York minute / I don’t know about you but my heart’s not in it”) has Bowie prowling his post-modernist moral vacuum – or sinking in the quicksand of his thoughts, as he used to sing. But Days is a classically simple love song that alludes to a very ancient notion – namely that in giving we are enriched and when we take we are diminished. The polar extremes of those songs are artfully combined in Never Get Old, whose protagonist ricochets from the panicked chant of his younger self (“There’s never gonna be enough money / There’s never gonna be enough drugs”) to a richly soothing image of personal resolution: “Looking at the future, solid as a rock / Because of you.”
They could be the words of a grateful lover or a proud new Dad. Either way they’re the sentiments of a man who describes himself in another song as “the luckiest guy in the world”. But he’s a lucky guy in an unlucky world.
That’s the inner tension that’s working through these songs, and any long-term Bowiephile should find delight in tracing it. If you tuned out of Bowie’s career some years ago then Reality could be the place to renew your acquaintance. If you were persuaded by Hours or Heathen that the man might just have a second career in him after all, then here’s another encouraging bundle of evidence.
(You can read my 1990 interview with Bowie here. And my 2002 interview here.)