This interview was done for the MOJO magazine edition of July 2002. It took place over a period of days in May 2002, by phone from London to New York.
“I really wanted to write musicals more than anything else,” remarks David Bowie, remembering the days before a certain carrot-headed extra-terrestrial turned him into a rock’n’roll superstar. “At the time I thought that was probably what I was going to end up doing. Some kind of new approach to the rock musical, that was at the back of my mind. The initial framework in ’71, when I first started thinking about Ziggy, was as a musical-theatrical piece. And it kind of became something other than that…”
It sure did. Fate decreed that his 1972 LP The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars would become a turning point in musical history. So it’s strange to think how close it came to being a West End war-horse, playing to tourists from Ohio and coach parties from West Bromwich.
We should be thankful that it did not, for David Bowie was made for greater things. And the Ziggy Stardust album ushered in a staggering run of albums: quite the strongest of any artist since Dylan or The Beatles. Though he’d done good work before (he now counts early album The Man Who Sold The World among his personal favourites), nothing prepared the world for Ziggy. Nothing, in fact, prepared David Bowie for the events that were about to sweep him up and turn him into that decade’s defining figure.
He is naturally flushed with paternal pride, right now, at the delivery of this year’s album, Heathen. Yet it’s a record with several echoes of the old Bowie, and will put many long-term listeners in a retrospective frame of mind. Most notably it re-unites him with producer Tony Visconti, a collaborator on some key releases of the ’70s. Heathen is also imbued with a considered songcraft that recalls such earlier milestones as Hunky Dory. And one track, ‘Gemini Spacecraft’, repays a debt of honour to its writer The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, by way of a thank-you for donating a part of his name to that aforesaid carrot-headed extra-terrestrial.
“Obviously a lot of crafting did go into the new material,” confirms Bowie, in his New York office, “because I was determined that Tony and I shouldn’t rest on previous reputations. Such a lot of the albums we did together are held up in fairly high esteem, we didn’t want to tarnish that. And I remember the thing that made what we did very successful was often doing very well-crafted songs. So I sat myself down at the beginning of last year and made myself start stockpiling pieces that I thought were quite strong beginnings. There was no way for me to go in just freewheeling… The new one has a strong narrative thread to each of the songs. It’s not particularly abstract. It’s quite personal and it relies strongly on melody.”
While the release of Heathen and his directorship of this year’s Meltdown programme will have restored “the Dame” to British thoughts, he remains for now a New Yorker by adoption: “It is,” he observes in his best Duke of Edinburgh, “just a kick-arse place.” A family man for the second time around (his wife Iman presented him with a daughter, Alexandria, in 2000), his general contentment is only disturbed today by the interruptions of the phone and pressing deadlines for the rehearsal of his current band. But he consents to while away a morning in talk of that fabled ’70s sequence which made his reputation.
And so we turn to Ziggy. He played guitar, he prowled a desolate London landscape in a quilted jumpsuit, he let the children boogie and he became a rock’n’roll suicide. Or did he? Not only was Ziggy Stardust aborted as a musical: the story line of his adventures is probably too fragmented to qualify even as a concept album. “There was a bit of a narrative,” Bowie contends, “a slight arc, and my intention was to fill it in more later. And I never got round to it because before I knew where I was we’d recorded the damn thing. There was no time to wait. I couldn’t afford to sit around for six months and write up a proper stage piece, I was too impatient.
“I’m glad in the long run that I just left it like that. Because I never drew a template for a story line too clearly, it left so much room for audience interpretation. A couple of years ago I was seriously near to putting something together. But every time I got close to defining him more, he seemed to become less than what he was before. And I thought, I should just bloody well let go of this, because it’s not right. So I left it. Project abandoned.”
The credible “rock musical” remains an elusive beast to this day, and Bowie himself has not picked up the gauntlet. “No, I’m as guilty as anyone. Possibly because of my natural impatience, I just don’t discipline myself enough to see something through. Diamond Dogs, I suppose, got near that – my usual basket of apocalyptic vision, isolation, being terribly miserable… Ha!”
From Ziggy’s opener, ‘Five Years’, through to Diamond Dogs and beyond, the apocalyptic strain does recur in his work – or, if not quite apocalyptic, then the anti-Utopian outlook of 1984 or A Clockwork Orange that is sometimes called “dystopian”.
“Dystopian, absolutely,” he smirks. “I went to the doctors for it. You always think you’ve got an ulcer but it’s just heartburn… No, in retrospect, it has been a strong theme in the work that I’ve done down the years. In fact, I think if there is any consistency to what I do it, it’s going to be the lyrical content. I’m saying the same thing a lot, which is about this sense of self-destruction.
“I think you can see the apocalyptic thing as the manifestation of an interior problem. There’s a real nagging anxiety in there somewhere, and I probably develop those anxieties in a ‘faction’ [fact/fiction] structure.”
As an example of his faction-writing, Bowie offers that singular astronaut Major Tom, who first appeared in his 1969 hit ‘Space Oddity’, and re-emerged 11 years later in ‘Ashes To Ashes’: “The second time around there were elements of my really wanting to be clean of drugs. I meta-morphed all that into the Major Tom character, so it’s partially autobiographical. But not completely so: there’s a fantasy element in it as well. It probably came from my wanting to be healthy again. Definitely. And the first time around it wasn’t. The first time around it was merely about feeling lonely. But then the limpets of time grabbed hold of the hull of my ship; it was de-barnacling by the time I got round to ‘Ashes To Ashes’. No leave all this out, actually, the barnacles… Jesus Christ!”
Yes, you’ve gone a bit Captain Birdseye.
“I know. Davy Jones’s locker!”
The Davy Jones who became David Bowie chose rock music, he now suggests, because it was “a career where I could take all my interests with me. You couldn’t really do that in accounting. Because I loved art and I loved theatre and the ways we express ourselves as a culture, I really thought rock music was a great way of not having to relinquish my hold on any of those things. I could drag square pegs into round holes: butcher the pegs away until they fitted. It’s kind of what I attempted to do: a bit of sci-fi, a bit of kabuki here, a little bit of German Expressionism there. It was like having my friends around me.”
With the solitary exception of ‘Space Oddity’, (and by ’72 it was fast receding in the public memory), Bowie’s career took an age to warm up. At the time of his breakthrough with Ziggy, he’d been making records for eight years without a chart placing. “Well, it took me a long time to get it right,” he states. “I didn’t know how to write a song, I wasn’t particularly good at it. I forced myself to be a good songwriter, and I became a good songwriter. But I had no natural talents whatsoever. I made a job of work at getting good. And the only way I could learn was see how other people did it. I wasn’t one of those guys who came out of the womb like Marc.” (A reference to Bolan’s T.Rex song, ‘Cosmic Dancer’: “I danced myself right out the womb.”)
“I wasn’t dancing, I was stumbling around.”
Marc Bolan was the nearest thing to a real-life role model for Bowie as he sketched out Ziggy Stardust: in the year the album was conceived, 1971, T.Rex were at the height of their powers. Bowie’s old friend had become Britain’s first sensation of the new era: a boy who dreamed up a whole persona for himself, and who seemed to become an overnight rock’n’roll star by sheer force of willpower.
“Oh yeah! Boley struck it big, and we were all green with envy. It was terrible: we fell out for about six months. It was [sulky mutter] ‘He’s doing much better than I am.’ And he got all sniffy about us who were still down in the basement. But we got over that.
“You know how we first met? It’s so funny. We both had this manager in the mid-60s [Les Conn]. Marc was very much the mod and I was sort of neo-beat-hippy, though I hated the idea of hippy because my brother had told me about beatniks and they seemed far sexier. Both Marc and I were out of work and we met when we were poured into the manager’s office to whitewash the walls.
“So there’s me and this mod whitewashing Les’s office. And he goes, ‘Where d’you get those shoes, man?’ [Bowie does a perfect impression of Bolan’s fey but icily determined manner.] ‘Where d’you get your shirt?’ We immediately started talking about clothes and sewing machines. ‘Oh I’m gonna be a singer and I’m gonna be so big you’re not gonna believe it, man.’ Oh, right! Well I’ll probably write a musical for you one day then, cos I’m gonna be the greatest writer ever. ‘No, no, man, you’ve gotta hear my stuff cos I write great things. And I knew a wizard in Paris,” and it was all this. Just whitewashing walls in our manager’s office!”
Great impression there, by the way.
“Oh, he could do me as well!”
Between Bolan’s amazing success, and the public indifference to his own Hunky Dory (released in late 1971, it did not pick up serious sales until the Ziggy era), was Bowie ever pessimistic at this point?
“No, I never ever felt that, because I still liked the process. I liked writing and recording. It was a lot of fun for a kid. I might have had moments of ‘God, I don’t think anything is ever going to happen for me.’ But I would bounce up pretty fast.”
Sure enough, Bowie bounced up incredibly fast in 1972. No sooner was Hunky Dory in the shops than he’d shorn off the golden tresses; he toured Britain with a brand new look and a set of songs from his next LP, already in the can. In Ziggy Stardust, the transgender space boy who becomes a rock’n’roll star, Bowie had spawned a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet, having turned David Jones into David Bowie, why did he need a second reinvention? The answer seems to be that Bowie required Ziggy Stardust as a kind of body armour: an imaginary rock idol to help him become the real article. With this device he could escape the diffident, quizzical Englishman of Hunky Dory to become more like his current obsessions: Iggy Pop the wild child, and Lou Reed the dark priest of decadence.
“It became apparent to me that… I had an unbearable shyness; it was much easier for me to keep on with the Ziggy thing, off the stage as well as on the stage. It also seemed a lot of fun, a really fun deceit. Who was David Bowie and who was Ziggy Stardust? But I think it was motivated by shyness as much as anything. It was so much easier for me to be Ziggy.”
Even before he hit big with Ziggy’s preview single ‘Starman’, Bowie began to shape the 1972 agenda through a Melody Maker interview in February of that year, wherein he declared he was gay. The cat was suddenly among the pigeons.
Why did you say it?
“I found I was able to get a lot of tension off my shoulders by almost ‘outing’ myself in the press in that way, in very early circumstances. So I wasn’t going to get people crawling out the woodwork saying [seedy, muck-raking voice]: ‘I’ll tell you something about David Bowie that you don’t know…’ I wasn’t going to have any of that. I knew that at some point I was going to have to say something about my life. And, again, Ziggy enabled me to make things more comfortable for myself.
“There was an excitement that the age of exploration was really finally here. Which is what I was going through. It perfectly mirrored my lifestyle at the time. It was exactly what was happening to me. There was nothing that I wasn’t willing to try, to explore and see if it was really part of my psyche or my nature. I was terribly exploratory in every way, not just culturally but sexually and… God, there was nothing I would leave alone. Like a – it’s a terrible pun, but – like a dog with a bone, I suppose! So I buried it!”
Yes, very often, I hear.
“The quote has taken on far more in retrospect than actually it was at the time. I’m quite proud that I did it. On the other hand I didn’t want to carry a banner for any group of people, and I was as worried about that as the aftermath. Being approached by organisations. I didn’t want that. I didn’t feel like part of a group. I didn’t like that aspect of it: this is going to start overshadowing my writing and everything else that I do. But there you go.”
Before we knew it, there was a bizarre pastiche of “gayness” about, whereby the most meat-and-potato bands became what was called glam rock. Some of it was pretty poor, wasn’t it?
“Oh, bloody awful. Some of the stuff that we encouraged – and I have to pull Roxy into this as well – good Lord, we should be ashamed of ourselves. It was so dire. It lent itself to really despicable performances because you had to move into really outré areas to make it work; and if it didn’t work well, my God, it came crashing down. The one I think of is this American character Jobriath. Woah! What a mistake that was. Very strange guy, he was at like every concert when I first went to the States, my number one fan.”
But the cultural incongruities could sometimes be delightful. Quite aside from Ziggy itself, Bowie wrote the absolute anthem of 1972 in the song he gave to those doughty tractor boys Mott The Hoople, ‘All The Young Dudes’.
“If they were doing OK at the time,” says Bowie, “I don’t think they would have wanted to link up with me, because they were quite macho, one of the early laddish bands. But things weren’t good, and I literally wrote that within an hour or so of reading an article in one of the music rags that their break-up was imminent. I thought they were a fair little band, and I almost thought, This will be an interesting thing to do, let’s see if I can write this song and keep them together. It sounds terribly immodest now but you go through that when you’re young: ‘How can I do everything? By Friday!’ So I wrote this thing and thought, There, that should sort them out. Maybe I got my then management to phone up their people: ‘David Bowie’s written you this song.’ And it worked! I was flabbergasted. And then I wrote them ‘Drive In Saturday’, but by that time I think they thought ‘Oh, we don’t need that wimpy glam-rocker any more.’ I think they would have done it great.”
The beauty of ‘All The Young Dudes’, in a way, was that it crystallised the emergence of a new pop audience, too young to belong to Woodstock and the ’60s.
“Yeah. You have to try and kill your elders. We had to develop a completely new vocabulary, as indeed is done generation after generation. The idea was taking the recent past and re-structuring it in a way that we felt we had authorship of. My key ‘in’ was things like Clockwork Orange: that was our world, not the bloody hippy thing. It all made sense to me. The idea of taking a present situation and doing a futuristic forecast, and dressing it to suit: it was a uniform for an army that didn’t exist. And I thought, If I took the same kind of thing, and subverted it by using pretty materials… That Clockwork Orange look became the first uniform for Ziggy, but with the violence taken out of it.”
As the mention of ‘Drive In Saturday’ suggests, Bowie’s own ideas were already on the next project; Aladdin Sane. “There was a point in ’73,” he says, “where I knew it was all over. I didn’t want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life. And I guess what I was doing on Aladdin Sane, I was trying to move into the next area – but using a rather pale imitation of Ziggy as a secondary device. In my mind it was Ziggy Goes To Washington: Ziggy under the influence of America.”
But it looked like Ziggy under the influence of lots of things, didn’t it, what with the lightning bolt through his head. Were things already slipping out of control? Bowie says not.
“No, not really. That came later. I just knew it was over. I kind of thought, How am I gonna wrap this up? Also, I was incredibly drained. The touring schedules that MainMan were putting us on were insane. D’you know, the extraordinary thing is that we never played Europe. We never left England except for America, and we went to Japan, and that’s it. And I was beginning to miss Europe.
“Then I started getting into a very bad period. I mean, it really developed. My drug addiction really started, I suppose you could pin it down to the very last months of the Ziggy Stardust period. Not in a particularly heavy way, but enough to have probably worried some of the people around me. And after that, when we got into Diamond Dogs, that’s when it was out of control. From that period onwards I was a real casualty. I’ve not met many people that… I was in a very serious state. You just have to look at some of the photographs of me, I cannot believe I actually survived it. You can see me at the Grammies, for instance, with Lennon, it terrifies me. It’s a skull. There’s not an ounce on me. I’m just a skeleton.
“I have an addictive personality. I’m quite clear on that now. And it was easily obtainable and it kept me working, cos I didn’t use it for… I wasn’t really a recreational guy, I wasn’t really an out-on-the-town guy. I was much more ‘OK, let’s write ten different projects this week and make four or five sculptures.’ And I’d just stay up 24 hours a day until most of that was completed. I just liked doing stuff. I loved being involved in that creative moment. And I’d found a soul-mate in this drug, which helped perpetuate that creative moment.”
You mean cocaine?
“Yes, cocaine. Well, speed as well, actually. The combination. And apparently a lot of elephant tranquilliser went in there too!”
In the chemically-fuelled euphoria of Bowie’s first taste of super-stardom, he revisited the notion of a rock musical. The first plan was to interpret 1984, until the idea was nixed by Orwell’s widow. “So I changed track real fast and converted it into Diamond Dogs, which was more of an effort than Ziggy. Thinking back, we didn’t do anything on stage with Ziggy: all I had was a few costume changes. It was just the songs and the trousers. That’s what sold Ziggy. I think the audience filled in everything else.
“But Diamond Dogs I intended to do something for. We had a bit more money by then – though not enough, apparently: it actually put me into bankruptcy. But that kind of started a lot, the Diamond Dogs show, in terms of you could do something more interesting on stage than just wear blue jeans. It was quite fun, but I got bored half way through and threw the set away, so I’ve only got myself to blame.”
Still, if the ginger mullet was not long for this world, Bowie had not yet finished his assault upon America. Suddenly came the breathless but sophisticated “plastic soul” of Young Americans, accompanied by the statutory image overhaul: “I guess the dawning of it was some take on the Puerto Rican street look with a zoot suit, which kind of got it back into more conventional looking clothing. Even though it’s pretty bizarre when you see it now, the Young Americans thing was an attempt to turn the visual around as well as the music.
“With people like Carlos Alomar and a few of my girlfriends at the time, I was really seeing a lot of American nightlife, including the Latin clubs, and it was terribly exciting to me. It rekindled the affection for soul and R&B which I had in the ’60s. In fact the reason I left my very first band, The Kon-rads, was that they wouldn’t do Marvin Gaye’s ‘Can I Get A Witness?’. It had been a major thing for me in my youthful days. And it all came back with a vengeance, seeing it for real in the States. It was unlike anything I’d seen or witnessed before.”
But it was one thing playing blue-eyed R&B covers in the Marquee Club (of the sort he revived on his 1973 covers LP Pin-Ups). It was quite another to record in America itself, and with black musicians too. Did he not think, This is a bit much, coming over from England and doing this?
“It honestly never occurred to me,” Bowie protests. “I was so hermetically sealed from everything. I was so in my own universe, that so much didn’t occur to me about how other people thought. I had no idea I was even famous. I really had no idea. I just had this real creative thing going on and I went for it all the way. No, it didn’t occur to me at all. I just knew it was a fantastic band. Obviously we ran into race problems down in the South. But it was years before I realised I was one of the only white artists in rock working with a mixed race band.
“And I think what we were doing at that particular time was important. In its own way it opened doors just as Ziggy had opened doors. The Young Americans period developed an alternative approach to what you could do with rock and pop music. For me it was another successful hybrid: of European melody against an R&B rhythm section.”
In Bowie’s subconscious the call of Europe was becoming audible. But first he underwent the parallel experiences of filming The Man Who Fell To Earth and recording Station To Station. At the same time he undertook to record a soundtrack for the movie. The exact chronology of this busy time is further confused by its having been the height – or depth – of his druggiest period.
“Did the film work come next? Ah, you tell me! Possibly! I know I had a lovely hat. It was that period. A fedora: the Borsalino.”
The hat was one instance of another stylistic re-vamp, this time occasioned by the character, Thomas Jerome Newton, that he played in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Newton was a dapper yet inwardly-decaying space alien, maintaining a mere façade of human authenticity. It was a role the Bowie of those days seemed born to play. And as with Ziggy before him, the boundary between creator and creature grew indistinct. “They all started to overlap each other,” Bowie confesses. “The frame of mind I was in, there was no real split from one to another. To me [yappy, cocaine-paranoid voice], it all made sense, man! Oh boy, what days they were…”
The soundtrack venture collapsed amid some rancour and dispute: “I got angry about it, with no real rational reason. I thought I should be contracted, a stupid, juvenile reason but I kind of walked away from it. But bits of it, things like ‘Subterraneans’ on the Low album, were actually started for the film. So, musically there was some kind of continuum going on there.
“And I kind of pulled the clothes out of Newton’s character and made them work for what I was doing next. Another girl comes into the picture, Ola Hudson – who in fact is Slash’s mum – she was my girlfriend, you see. I used to put him to bed at nights, little Slash. Who’d have guessed? Anyway, I got Ola involved as the wardrobe mistress of the film: she designed all the clothes for it, and she continued designing clothes for Station To Station as well.”
It’s the Station To Station ensemble that we recall as Bowie’s Thin White Duke look – perhaps the most dashing of them all. “It was extraordinary,” he says, “and I must give Ola full credit for the all-black, very conservative look: ‘Nobody’s done that on stage before, that would be so cool. Why don’t you just take Newton on stage?’ Then I had an idea of the French matinee idol, with the waistcoat and all that.”
And always the little packet of Gitanes popping out.
“Exactly. The function of the cigarettes became a function of the stage. And I got addicted to ’em!”
They are very serious cigarettes.
“Oh yes, but with me, of course, no problem. Forty a day.”
It was in this year, 1976, that Bowie disengaged himself from an LA life that had nearly wrecked his health and mental equilibrium. He finally toured Europe, too, and would eventually re-locate to Berlin. The same Germanic vibe that tainted some of his more outlandish interviews of the time was heard, more constructively, in his new music: “This is where I have to give Kraftwerk their due,” he says. “I had an import of Autobahn in the States, probably in the year it came out, 1974. I just got so hooked on this band: Who are they? Who are they connected to?
“And so I came across Tangerine Dream and Can and eventually Neu and this whole new sound happening in Germany. I thought, Wow, I’ve seen the future and it sounds like this. I very much wanted to be in the swim. It’s interesting that when I go back and listen to what Tony [Visconti] and I did with those albums, Low and all that, there really is not as much depth to the German influence as one would have expected.
“It’s still a very organic, blues-driven sound. It’s swathed in extraordinary atmospheres, partially from Eno, a lot from Tony Visconti himself and my choice of playing rather dotty old synthesisers, quite Beatlesque in a way. But again the actual rhythm section is not a metronome, electronic sound like the Germans were doing: it was Dennis Davis and George Murray, Carlos Alomar [some of the Young Americans crew, in fact]; it was another hybridisation that I thought might be fabulous. If I took what I’d found in America, brought it back to Europe and combined it with what was happening in a sonic way in Germany, I’d just see what would happen.”
The return of Visconti to this tale, with Low in 1977, completes one circle of our conversation, since it was with that producer that Bowie had made his first fully-rounded album, The Man Who Sold The World in 1970. It begins a larger circle, too, in that Visconti would remain at Bowie’s side for the next stupendous sequence of albums (“Heroes”, Lodger, Scary Monsters), returning for the third time on this year’s Heathen. But that is a wider circle than we can discuss today. “My schedule,” Bowie groans, “is just beyond belief.”
From across Bowie’s New York office a telephone rings. “Oh shut up!” he snaps. “It’s been a hell of a morning. They were Beckett’s last words, you know: ‘What a morning’…”