An interview with David Bowie for the April 1990 issue of Q Magazine
Areas covered include the Sound + Vision tour he was planning, Tin Machine, the nature of fame and the origins of Ziggy Stardust.
A New York winter’s day, in the 43rd year of David Jones’s dependably unpredictable life, finds him – beardless once again, in summer-cool white casual clothes, the ever-present gold crucifix around his neck and a comforting soft-pack of Marlboros to hand – sequestered inside a downtown studio. “What’s happening in Britain, then?” he queries – his classless Englishman-abroad voice slipping into south London civvies whenever he wants to strike a matier or self–mocking note .
“Is Heseltine going to take over?” Political shenanigans, of whatever nationality, appear to occupy a considerable proportion of his off-duty thoughts, to judge from his small talk. “Is Thatcher still dragging us kicking and screaming into the 19th century?
“Ooh, that woman,” he adds in another accent from his repertoire – the cod Yorkshire over-the-back-fence job that he reserves for comic pronouncements. “Well I’ll go to the bottom of our stairs!”
Indeed, but a few questions first, Mr Bowie, if you please …
You’re busier now than you’ve been in years: an album and tour last year, another tour now, a second Tin Machine tour and album to follow that. Why so much sudden activity?
I’m not sure. I think I might have been pushed into it from Reeves Gabrels [Tin Machine guitarist]. He really was eager for us to solidify the band and I think I got caught up in his enthusiasm. It was very exciting to work with those guys.
The normal thing would have been for you to disappear for a year or two.
I felt that was wasting time. It’s become the thing now to not tour for seven years or so if you’ve achieved a certain level of recognition. I don’t know whether your work’s supposed to have become that much more important, which I don’t really believe. But it seems to be that you start relaxing. And I guess the fascination of touring wears off after a few years. I would tour regularly up until 1978, every year without fail. All of us did – you did at least six months, and usually eight, a year. That’s what your job was. And I think working with the band gave me the feeling that it is what I’m good at doing, and there’s really no excuse for not working, that half the excitement of recording was getting the stuff done real quick and not dwelling on it and making a big production of it. Last year that’s why the album came out so fast, the band went out on the road so fast, and we went back in the studio so fast.
Your new tour will be a sort of Greatest Hits show, is that right?
It’s definitely the most popular songs.
Can you anticipate what people would choose as their favourite songs of yours?
Yeah, about a good 60 per cent. If we’re restricting ourselves to a manageable sized show, between 25 and 30 songs, then I’m going to know 18 to 20 of them. But after that it gets a bit grey. Ryko started putting my stuff out in America last year, and did such a great job on it. They said, is there any chance that I would help them work that catalogue and tour it?
Were you much involved in putting together these re-releases yourself?
Yes, very much so. I would look for old obscure tracks and demos and so on and they had their fingers on stuff I’d forgotten about, so between us we compiled a lot of original things that hadn’t seen the light of day – and probably never should have! – but are coming out. But what knocked me out about them [Ryko] is the care they take with the product. So there really was no question of who I wanted to go with to release all the old stuff. And they said, as the spearhead of their campaign they wanted to put out a hits album.
I feel odd saying hits because I’ve had so few. [Laughs] I’ve had a few singles that have been quite popular but I haven’t had that many hits. I’ve had a couple of Number 1’s, but I’m better known for albums. Although there are things like Changes, which are very anthemic in concert, it was never a single, but it’s a really well known song. So there’s a few things like that. I guess it’s best-known songs rather than . . . The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Springsteen have hits, I sort of have well known songs. So I’ll align myself with Dylan on that one: he’s the same, he doesn’t sell records either, but he’s really well known. Ha ha!
But it’s odd that there a number of artists, with myself at the forefront, who are well known and their material is well known but their album sales would belie that fact. When you think of people like Foreigner: I wouldn’t know one of them if I bumped into him, but they have these extraordinary… Or Milli Vanilli, six million albums sold. I think that covers my entire catalogue! So it’s a really odd position to be in.
So, popular songs, then. It’s been thrown at me for some years, since the Serious Moonlight tour [in 1983] which was about 50 per cent not so well known stuff, and after that – both from audiences and from producers of rock shows, who’ve said, Why don’t you just go all the way and do all the songs that they know? You’ve never done it and it’d be great. I’d go, Oh, I don’t want to; it’s corny, no. Then I gave in last year when Ryko said it would be great if you would help support this thing, and I said, Let me think about it. So I went away and thought, Well, I’ve never done it before, I’m sure by the end I’ll never want to do it again, so what about if I do these songs for the last time – just do them on this tour and never do them again? that would give me a motivation for the entire tour, knowing each night that I do them, I get that much closer to never singing “ground control to Major Tom” again. That gives me some reason for doing it, selfishly. And it would be fun to do that, just once, just do the songs that people know. So I am.
Do you have any idea what you might do after Tin Machine?
We decided when we formed that we’d play it from album to album, that if we were still getting on with each other – which was the priority – that we’d continue. and so far it’s going great. So if after the next tour we’re still enjoying the process, we’ll go in again and keep recording. It’s a good search: we’re finding a lot out about ourselves and it’s given me a feeling for what I want to do again as a solo artist, no doubt about it. So I definitely think I’ll be fitting in some solo work next year.
What’s it been like for you, surveying your own past for this re-issue project? Is that something you would do normally?
No. I used to listen to it a lot more, but I haven’t felt a need to for some reason. Maybe it’s been a mistake; maybe I should do. The thing I’ve found interesting is the amount of enthusiasm and fire in the early stuff – there was a real desperate edge to it. This guy really wanted to be heard. I’m not sure if it’s endearing or embarrassing, but you definitely get the impression that this person didn’t want to be left behind.
I find the Ziggy Stardust record very thin. I don’t like the sound on that, it’s much thinner than I always thought it was. It sounded really powerful then; maybe systems have got better, it sounds kind of weedy. I thought Diamond Dogs sounds really good, I like that one, and I’ll always love the Eno/Fripp/Belew stuff [Low, “Heroes”, Lodger]. It’s the very early stuff, there’s a naivety there that’s not disenchanting, but I’m not very comfortable with it.
But there you go, it’s what’s there.
Do you regret that the re-issue programme right back to the Love You Till Tuesday era (ie late ’60s Decca tracks, including The Laughing Gnome)?
Oh, thank God it doesn’t! I’m glad they couldn’t get their hands on it! You kidding me? Aarrghh, that Anthony Newley stuff, how cringey. No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favour. Lyrically I guess it was striving to be something, the short story teller. Musically it’s quite bizarre. I don’t know where I was at. It seemed to have its roots all over the place, in rock and vaudeville and music hall and I don’t know what. I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley.
And as for that cover, that military jacket [on the front of his debut LP, David Bowie, in 1967], I was very proud of that, the first handmade military jacket that I knew of. It was actually tailored.
You’ve chosen Fame as a single to launch the campaign. What made you return to that song?
My guess was that it’s the most popular one. My presumption is that it’s either Let’s Dance or Fame, since they were the two that were Number 1 over here in America. So it was one or the other and Let’s Dance was too recent. And it covers a lot of ground, Fame; it stands up really well in time. It still sounds potent. It’s quite a nasty, angry little song. I quite like that.
What sort of resonance would its lyrics have for you today, now you’ve lived with a state of celebrity for that much longer than you had when you wrote the song?
There was a degree of malice. I’d had very upsetting management problems and a lot of that was built into the song. I’ve left all that behind me, now … I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants. Other than that, there’s very little about it that anybody would covet. It’s really not much of a deal. I still have my favourite times when I’m not recognised, or at least left to my own devices.
And there are some cities … in London it’s peculiar – it’s impossible on the streets during the day, it really is. Forget it. It’s easy going over to dinner at friends’ houses, but anything public in London is just a circus. But here in New York it’s not. I understand why so many people want to come and live here. I don’t live here, but if I had to move somewhere from where I do live, in Switzerland, I’d come here if I wanted to live in a big city. It’s so anonymous, it really is; nobody gives a damn.
It does rather restrict how you’re going to live. It’s nice just to go shopping with the crowds, and that’s virtually impossible in most cities now, which is a shame because there’s nothing better than just walking amongst people. And as a writer you’re supposed to be the one on the edge looking at everybody and being able to note what’s happening, and when it’s the other way round, it’s not great for a writer to find himself the centre of attention when he should be on the periphery – I whinge …
There’s fabulous aspects to it, the financial rewards of popularity, being able to travel, which is my particular penchant. I’m in heaven: I go anywhere I want, anytime I want. That’s a remarkable thing to do, remarkable. But I’m not a “thing” person. I’d rather spend the money on getting somewhere than on getting a thing.
I used to be more of a collector but I stopped collecting because it was too simple to buy stuff. When I was in Berlin I’d find old woodblock prints from the Brücke school, from 1907 to 1921, in small shops, at unbelievable prices, and to buy like that was wonderful. Just when I left Berlin at the beginning of the ’80s there was a resurgence of interest in German Expressionist art, and the prices went through the ceiling. That had been with me since art school, I’d always liked that. And now I find I could buy those things at the prices they’re asking, but it no longer interests me to buy them.
Maybe I’m just very mean. But I’ve always liked collecting something that nobody else knows about. When it becomes the fashion, it doesn’t lessen my interest in the subject but it does lessen my need to acquire. It was the same with books, and music. I a1ways liked everything until everybody else liked it. It’s a very English trait, I’ve noticed. When somebody else discovers what you like, it’s, Mmm, I’ll move on to something else.
On its release you put the tide of “Heroes” inside inverted commas, to give a slightly ironic, distancing effect. And yet it’s since become an anthem for people, quite straightforwardly joyous and optimistic.
It did adopt that, after multiple live playings. Recording something in a studio, and then putting it to a live audience, it becomes a different animal. And it certainly did, that one particularly; I hadn’t anticipated the way it would become that kind of anthemic thing. Now, of course, to play the thing is going to be rather odd because it’s setting up a series of associations which are no more. [The lyric depicts two lovers meeting beneath the Berlin Wall.] And to play it in Berlin, which I will be doing, will be particularly odd. I’m not quite sure what that song means any more, which is kind of exciting… I can’t contain myself about that one. I’m really looking forward to playing it in Berlin.
Is it true you based the character of Ziggy Stardust on the old rocker Vince Taylor?
Yes, that’s right. He looked like a tall, gangly Gene Vincent in his black leather. he thought he was Presley-esque but he was much tougher looking than Presley. he had a very successful career in France – he was the French Presley – and he was very messed up, both psychologically and with drugs. At his last performance with his band in France, he dismissed the band, then went on stage dressed in white robes as Jesus Christ and said, I am the Resurrection, I am Jesus Christ, this whole thing. They nearly lynched him there and then. It was his last performance.
But he did in his own mind become the Messiah. And he came over to London, so we got him. He used to hang out on Tottenham Court Road and I got to know him then. And he had these strange plans showing where there was money buried, that he was going to get together; he was going to create this new Atlantis at one time. And he dragged out this map of the world, just outside Tottenham Court Road tube station – I’ll never forget this! – and he laid it on the pavement and we were both down here [Bowie gets down on his hands and knees, almost weeping with laughter] and he was showing me all this. It was so funny! I’m the kind of person who never says no, and so I’m going, OK! Mmmmm, oh yes… thinking, What am I doing down here? This is so embarrassing!
The guy was unbelievable. He had this six-day party once in some guy’s house, that just went on and on. Just the weirdest kind of creature.
And he always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock’n’roll. I’m not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become. Bit of both, probably. There was something very tempting about his going completely off the edge. Especially at my age then, it seemed very appealing: Oh, I’d love to end up like that, totally nuts. Ha ha! And so he re-emerged in this Ziggy Stardust character.
But the last name, Stardust, came from another of my favourites, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, who was on Mercury Records along with me in the Space Oddity days, and he sang things like I took A Trip In The Gemini Spacecraft. His big hit was Paralysed… well, I bought it! He was a kind of Wild Man Fischer character; he was on guitar and he had a one-legged trumpet player and in his biography he said, “Mah only regret is that mah father never lived to see me become a success.” I just liked the Ziggy Stardust bit because it was so silly.
And the Ziggy bit came from a tailor’s that I passed on the train one day. It had that Iggy [as in Iggy Pop] connotation but it was a tailor’s shop, and I thought, Well, this whole thing is gonna be about clothes, so it was my own little joke calling him Ziggy. So Ziggy Stardust was a real compilation of things.
You summed up the music on Young Americans as “relentless plastic soul”, didn’t you?
Yes, I shouldn’t have been quite so hard on myself, because looking back it was pretty good white, blue-eyed soul. At the time I still had an element of being the artist who just throws things out unemotionally. But it was quite definitely one of the best bands I ever had. Apart from Carlos Alomar there was David Sanborn on saxophone and Luther Vandross on backing vocals. It was a powerhouse of a band.
And I was like most English who come over to America for the first time, totally blown away by the fact that the blacks in America had their own culture, and it was positive and they were proud of it. And it didn’t seem like black culture in Britain at that time. And to be right there in the middle of it was just intoxicating, to go into the same studios as all these great artists, Sigma Sound [in Philadelphia]. Good period – as a musician it was a fun period.
I presume, when you were younger, you never expected to be doing this in your forties. In those days, nobody did. Does it feel natural for you now?
[Pause] I think I would feel odd if there was a huge generation gap in the band itself, but all the band that I’m working with are in their thirties, and the music for me still has great resonance. Only infrequently have I written things for a particular generation, things like Rebel Rebel. Those kind of songs are odd for me to sing now. I haven’t done Rebel Rebel since the Glass Spider thing. It felt odd then and it feels odder now, placed in with a lot of other songs that I have no problem with, like TVC15, Station To Station. Those things fit like a glove, I feel like I could do those forever. But the ones that are generationally message-oriented, like Rebel Rebel, I feel very uncomfortable with, and I find I’m throwing them away a bit. I hope it won’t show.
But it’s a point that is quite interesting. It is the first time that any of us have experienced this thing where rock’n’roll gets to this sort of age. Can we carry it off so that people who are 25 now will have something to look forward to when they get to out sagely age [laughs], or do they have to think, Oh God, look at that lot! What a mess it’s all become!
So I think we’re at a kind of crossroads, which is the kind of situation I personally like to be in – it’s a bit no-man’s land. Who of us is going to make a breakthrough and show it can really work? Jazz artists proved it can, blues artists proved it can, but rock’n’roll hasn’t yet. Because we still have the baggage of it being a teenage music. That’s changed tremendously over the last 15 years, however we cannot lose at the back of our minds the idea that it is a teenage music. But it so graphically isn’t. The span of people who buy albums now is so enormous.
So I find it rather exciting, and that’s another reason why it makes it interesting to start Tin Machine and not do these songs again. It gives me a reason to struggle again, and the struggling element is terribly important to the music we play. Whatever Eno says, I think struggle is important, angst, all those emotional things that he despises. He’s have us believe that it’s all very analytical and it’s just a question of selection and arbitrary choices. I like a lot of that as well, but I still have this feeling that you’ve got to keep pulling bits of your soul out every now and then, to give it that edge.
When you don’t have the worrying weight of being a teenager, a teenage seer and a radical fanatic, when you don’t have that adrenaline serving your purposes, you have to create, or at least develop synthetic situations to just… point you in the wrong direction.
I think it’s altogether unsportsmanlike to suggest that we shouldn’t enjoy it any more. I don’t buy that argument any more. Even when I was 33 the question was around: Well, now you’ve reached your thirties, shouldn’t you give your card in? Hang the stack heels up? Yes, a lot of us are tending to reflect on what we’ve done in the past, add certain new pieces to our repertoire, it hasn’t diminished the audience’s enjoyment of what we’re doing. Lots of people do like the few of us who’ve arrived at this age, it’s not like everyone’s lost interest. If that were the case, none of us would be touring.
It’s just a matter of whether we have the ability, without being totally gymnastic about it, to define new areas in the music. And if it just becomes desperate-looking and pose-like, 1 guess we’ll try and bow out with the little grace that we’ve got left.
But I think there is room for adventure somewhere in there. One of us is going to stumble on it sooner or later.
God, please let it be me!
Did you see on the TV news when they were trying to get Noriega out of that building in Panama? The Americans played Let’s Dance at him through a loudspeaker. It’s a rather ambiguous compliment.
I did. I don’t want to be involved! I really don’t. I think that whole thing is so messy. Here you have a man who’s been condoned by the American government for 20 years, while they’ve been aware of what he is and what he does, merely so they can have the inroads into their ridiculous war, supplying things to the bloody Contras. It’s just incredible. . . They’re so keen to let anyone rule a country as long as it’s not pinko-commie. They’ll let any monster take over …
These are just lightweight observations; I’m not much of a political realist, I don’t know my facts well enough and I always get myself in a furious mess trying to work things out, but it seems to me that there is no-one of the magnitude and strength of purpose of Martin Luther King anymore.
Can rock music ever provide a useful lead, do you think?
I think it’s only as good as its leaders. It can observe very well, it can articulate to a certain degree the flavour of what’s being thought and said, but it cannot lead in quite that same way. Sixties rock was so powerful because there were such powerful radical leaders at the time, the Luther Kings, the Kennedys, the Abbie Hoffmans – voices that you could not ignore. I don’t see those kind of driven personalities any more, and those are the kinds of people that we can support.
But we’re not good at that stuff. We have another talent, which is for understanding what’s being said and delivering it in another way. But rock as leader is a dubious situation. I go backwards and forwards on these things. I worry when I see an artist who moralises – one feels he’s working for a party or is under the thumb of somebody, or has been narrowed to some degree. I don’t think it’s our position to be morally, spiritually or politically correct. I think all any artist can do is kick and scream and make a terrible row and then stand back and see if anyone can make head or tail out of it.
I get worried by the “This is the right way to think” attitude. I don’t think I want that from my rock artists.
Have you thought again about writing your autobiography, as you said you would around 1976, in your Thin White Duke phase?
Absolutely not. Thank God I didn’t start it then, it would have been something akin to Naked Lunch. No, I’m not too driven by the idea of what people are going to think of me when I’m dead. It’s not something that occupies my thoughts much. I’m far too interested in how I’m feeling about me and how my relations are with people in my immediate vicinity. I’m not really concerned with what the general public think of me, or my motives or my actions. I don’t really give a damn, and less and less as I get older. It really doesn’t occur to me that it’s something I should bother myself with.