My 2002 encounter with Bowie produced more material than I could use in the MOJO interview of that year, which you can read here. For their issue of September 2020 the magazine asked me to look up those “out-takes”. The resulting cover story was announced as “The Lost Interview”.
Bowie’s career spanned 50 years and for most of those he was hyper-active, amassing a list of titanic achievements. But let’s not overlook one small, important entry in that storied CV. For a single month, around May 2002, he was the editor of MOJO.
We who served under Bowie during his brief tenure recall a mostly benevolent guv’nor, who took his “guest-editor” gig seriously. True, he became tetchy as the weeks wore on and the printers’ deadline drew horribly close. But all editors are like that.
Across the trans-Atlantic phone line from his New York office to MOJO HQ in London, he spoke to me for several hours over two days. There were some tense exchanges: “Everything was so late from you guys! I’m quite annoyed. How do you get your magazine out?” But he did want to promote his new album Heathen. Rightly so: it was the first fruit of an overdue reunion with his old producer Tony Visconti, opening their superb quartet of 21st century Bowie albums. He was also plugging that year’s Meltdown festival in London, for which he curated artists including his favourite “outsider” acts Daniel Johnston and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Fair enough. We covered all that. But the MOJO opinion was that our readers, of all ages, also wanted to hear Bowie’s thoughts on the albums they’d grown up loving. I put this to him and he made a token protest, but soon relented and chattered happily. For hours… In fact he gave us far more material than we had space to accommodate. Here, for the first time therefore, are some of Bowie’s “out-take” recollections from May 2002.
MOJO: Which part of your career do you look back on with the most satisfaction?
DB: Creatively, I had a good run from ’72 through Let’s Dance, which is a good album. I think the writing on it is very good. So that’s ’72 to ’83 which is like 11 years – or if you go into Hunky Dory, even earlier. It wasn’t bad. I had a good long stretch when things were flowing.
Which bits of that period would you listen to for pleasure?
Frankly the first thing I would listen to, I think the most creative of the early stuff was probably The Man Who Sold The World. I really like that album a lot. I did actually, because of hooking back up with Tony [Visconti] again, I did listen to it and it’s really got some interesting musical ideas apart from anything else. To take away the nostalgic elements, the music elements are pretty good. There’s an interesting use of synthesisers and odd instruments like recorders. It’s got some nice sounds on it. I think the structures of the songs are interesting as well: I was really fooling around with different chord shapes and how I could put together structures, and in its own way it’s a far better piece of music than say Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy Stardust had a far more direct approach to it but to satisfy me as a musician, The Man Who Sold The World is probably the better album.
Perhaps with Ziggy you were too busy to craft songs, because you had another agenda? You wanted to steam ahead with this character, this self-fulfilling prophecy, as he turned out to be.
I think at that age you tend to steam off, as you put it, with little or no forethought, and really work on the minute and second. But it had been percolating,
There was no real precedent for a rock musical at that time, was there? Apart from things like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.
No. The things that impressed me were the original version of Cabaret, which may well have been Judi Dench, it was such a long time ago now. But I know it was Sean Kenny’s staging, it was massively innovative, a lot of it stayed with me and I nicked bits of it throughout the ’70s. [Amongst many other things, Kenny had designed the 1969 tour of “supergroup” Humble Pie, where Bowie played support.] Nobody had done anything like it, it revolutionised the way staging could be done, especially for something musically oriented. And another piece that knocked me for six was Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, which also came into London during the ’60s. I saw that several times: I wasn’t terribly aware of Jacques Brel but became a lifelong fan after that.
You called the Major Tom character, from Space Oddity, “a physical manifestation of an interior problem”? Was the apocalyptic strand of Ziggy Stardust something similar? Something in yourself?
To use cheap Freudian stuff: you don’t make mistakes, you don’t make slip-ups. There’s a real nagging anxiety in there somewhere, and for me I probably develop those anxieties in a ‘faction’ [fact and fiction] structure. Again it’s not 100 per cent, that’s why it’s faction. Because a writer, however much he thinks he’s going to… I saw it said that a writer gives himself away, it’s such a personal thing that he gives himself away in his writing. Well I’m not sure if that’s true, because one thing that a writer does do is exaggerate and elaborate and diversify from his own feelings. He puts in his own distancing devices. So you get a bit of a clue, but not a 100 per cent clue.
In that whole bundle of words is what I’m trying to say. But if I could articulate it better I wouldn’t try making songs out of it. Ha! It’s partially me, and partially observation and partially the environments that I find that I put myself in. I’m very environmentally touched. Wherever I am, it really does become part of the landscape when I’m writing. I’m terribly moved by that.
How much were you affected by the London of those days?
Well the Ziggy thing didn’t really have as deeply threatening values attached to it as later stuff. It was much more of a singular cult personality type thing. Apart from the opener [Five Years] which was a quick “Locate it here” thing, a quick Burroughsian statement.
Somehow Aladdin Sane now sounds a better album than Ziggy Stardust, though of course it wasn’t the same sort of watershed.
There was a point in ’73 where I knew it was all over, long before the band. Well that’s not actually quite true. Mick Ronson did too, cos Mick had taken me to one side and said, I’m really keen on having a solo career. And we kind of sparred around with the question of how long d’you think this is going to go on for? And I said, Well don’t tell the others at this point but I’ve got to tell you I’m getting fed up with it, I’ve got to start moving on, there’s other things I want to do, I don’t want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life. And he said, Well look, I’m thinking of forming a band myself but don’t tell the others because I haven’t made up my mind if I’m going to be working with them in my new band. So it all became a little bit, Oh dear, behind closed doors, for the last couple of months. We were only going for 18 months. The whole Ziggy Stardust thing was 18 months, from beginning to end, it was a really short period of time. And that includes Aladdin Sane.
But you were a devil for the work, because apart from your main albums you sneak in this extra one, Pin-Ups…
But that was still natural me, remember. That was still before the mad stuff had really happened to me. I worked like crazy and it was an indication of my addiction, my workaholicism. I recognise it for what it is. I wouldn’t say I’ve controlled it too much because I still work like that. But I do confine my addictions, and try and channel them into my work. But I dunno, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. I loved all those old songs. I love covering other artists and I always got a thrill out of introducing new people to other people.
I love the fact that I did Waiting For The Man before any other person in the world other than Lou Reed, because I had his album before it was out. Is that cool or what? I got The Riot Squad [his 1967 band] to learn it the week I got the album. We were doing it on stage before the Velvets had the album out! My then-manager had been given it as a demo by Andy Warhol when he went to New York and he brought it back to England and he said, This is crap, but you might like it. As usual it was, Oh Bowie likes the weird shit. And I played it and thought, Oh God, manna from heaven. This is it, I don’t want anything else, I just want to be in this band. I can’t? Oh all right, I’ll just re-do it! And we started doing it in 1967.
More evidence of your workaholicism is that apart from your own career you were soon producing Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
It was part of my crusade to present these fantastic underground artists to the hippy world and get them an audience. You’d occasionally see things in the New Musical Express about the Velvets, but I would almost put money that there was never an article about Iggy in the British music press until I introduced him to England. And if there had been more than half a dozen articles in the five or six years before I got Lou into view again… They were totally abandoned, there was nothing about them. I had a real joy in, “You ain’t seen nothing yet: these are two great influences who will influence rock from this point on.” I get pangs of that every now and again. I had it in the ’80s about the Pixies, I thought they were just brilliant. In America they just did not make a dent, apart from on several bright artists like Kurt Cobain.
At one point you were trying to something around George Orwell’s 1984, but couldn’t clear the rights?
Yeah. There was a bit of treading water there, probably around the Pin-Upsperiod when we were waiting for Mrs Orwell to come back to us. But of course she said No. So I changed track real fast and converted it into Diamond Dogs. But it was initially started as a 1984 musical.
For Low and “Heroes” you made the move to Europe, and they sound European in a sort of literary sense: that it’s all right to be pessimistic or depressed. That’s maybe not so typical in American art.
Well I think they found that in grunge, how to be depressed, and of course Lou did it. There’s always the odd exception. But I know what you mean, it’s not really part of the American psyche. They’re very optimistic, can-do people. And that is one of the joys of living here: whatever happens there is an optimism that over-rides everything. As opposed to in Europe: Oh, it can’t be sunny all day. There’s bound to be a storm this evening. It’s the half a glass of water thing. In Europe it’s always half-empty and in America it’s always half-full. The Americans are: Hey! We’ve got this brand-new country and it’ll be fabulous. You can’t help but get carried away by their enthusiasm.
The last of that trilogy, Lodger, rather sounds the odd one out?
I think it wouldn’t if Tony and I felt we hadn’t rushed through the mixing process. We didn’t do it justice. It’s one of the few albums that Tony and I have always thought, God, I’d love to get my hands on that album again and re-mix it. It was done so quickly. It contains so many nuggets, I really like the stuff on it but I don’t think it was ever brought to its fullest state. We sold it short in the mixing, but it’s a lovely album. I do like it a lot.
At a time when pop video was emerging, it was your first album to use videos as part of the total process.
Yes. We had a run of three or four from that.
You must have wished video had become this important ten years earlier?
I was so on it. The idea of any multi-media, even, was thrilling for me and I really embraced the idea for the first few years. But then, when it became a wall-to-wall kind of thing, and it was so appropriated by record companies as a selling tool, it started to take on a different vestige entirely. I’ll still make them occasionally, if I ever feel that anybody’s going to show them. But I’m much too old to have videos shown, so I backed off from it. They started to become not so important in what I do. And they’re so expensive these days! We used to do those things for threepence, you know? But these days you’re looking at two hundred and fifty fucking thousand. What is this? For an art film? It’s stupid.
By the time of Scary Monsters you did seem to be coming back down to earth, in a sense.
In many senses, probably. That was a very good time for me and it did open things up to approach music in a different way. But it was very strange because I did feel this was very different, doing this stuff straight, without the support of anything.
Where did the Pierrot look come from?
From Lindsay Kemp. It was made by the same woman, Natasha Korniloff, who made that exact costume for Lindsay Kemp in 1967. It was identical. What was different was that I used much more the Pierrot face.
Were you aware of that New Romantic club look in London?
Absolutely, of course I was. I thought, Ooh, I’ve got some stuff like that, this is all very Lindsay Kemp. And the original genesis for all that, the clown, was on the back of the second album I did, the one that contained Space Oddity. The clown on the back of that is supposed to be me with my mother. That particular scene I put into the video [for Ashes To Ashes]; it was a painting done by George Underwood and it’s the back cover of the Man Of Words Man Of Musicalbum. So it was a confluence of events at that time which led up to the imaging of that particular album.
The 9/11 attacks had occurred just nine months earlier, and very near to Bowie’s New York home. While he was adamant that Heathen’s songs were written before that date, he was clearly moved to speak up for his adopted country. “It’s a great experiment, this place,” he reflected at the end of our talk. “A lot of it sucks, but there is a lot that’s exemplary. It is an extraordinary country. There is no place with such a rich mixture of peoples who really do live OK side-by-side with each other.”
As we now know, Manhattan remained Bowie’s base for the rest of his life. A year after this interview I travelled there to meet him for the last time, and found him more embedded than ever: “It’s like being on holiday,” he told me, “in a place I’ve always wanted to go, that doesn’t come to an end.” Of that year’s album, Reality, he said, “it’s a lot more about New York than I expected it to be. I really am still a Brit, but I probably know this town better than I know the new London.” Here he spent his years of semi-retirement and final illness, and from here he launched the two magnificent albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, that closed his account with consummate grace.
New York, he conceded in 2002, was “not Oklahoma or Nebraska, which I don’t know the first thing about, I’m sure that’s a completely different continent. But my bit, my knowledge of America, is pretty cool: Chicago, New York, New Orleans, they are just great, they are [upper-class British voice] kick-arse places…”
Ironically, the city that had once inspired his visions of decadence, excess and dread – as per Jean Genie, Diamond Dogs and Fame – now seemed to offer the consolations of domestic peace.
Americans, he concluded, “have a disbelief that anything bad can actually happen to them. Which is monumentally wrong thinking but you can’t help but admire it. You do think, Hey, I like that attitude. Not a bad way to approach life…”