This interview with David Bowie was conducted at brief intervals during four days’ filming of Just A Gigolo. The interviewer had to put up with the film crew playing trumpets and old gramophone records of German marches, as well as a film extra belting out songs at the piano. “I hate these blues sessions,” says Bowie. Once, a long time ago, however, he used to play sax behind Sonny Boy Williamson …
I haven’t talked to you since February 1973, when you were performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York. You’ve since left, amid a lot of publicity, MainMan Management and Tony DeFries. How do you feel now about DeFries?
(Long pause) Yes, that’s an interesting question. My anger was spent a good couple of years ago, and all the feelings of being used, done-out-of and whatever, I think they’ve more or less melted into the mist. I suppose now it was all rather important in a way. I certainly would not have achieved the degree of notoriety, I think, without all that nonsense going on. If I was an egoist I guess I could say that I would’ve done because my performance was good enough, but one doesn’t know. Without some of those initial ridiculous fusses, some the best things never come to light. It did come to light through the efforts of him and the crazies who were running around at that time, and so I guess I’m thankful for that period in one way. But I’ll never condone completely what went on. I don’t know whether I was absolutely manipulated but I believe all my business was manipulated. I believe that a lot of what were initially very good ideas were cheapened for the sake of getting something out economically rather than going the whole hog and doing things properly. Stage shows were never what they were supposed to be because suddenly the money was not there to pay for what I wanted initially. Things would always be done on a shoestring and I could never understand why, because apparently we were very, very popular and … “where’s the money?” All that was involved. We have settled now. I don’t think any of it was amicable, but it’s mellowed out now. We have an understanding with each other. We have to deal with each other from time to time—but not on a personal level.
You would never go back to him?
Oh, Lord no! That’s absolutely … it couldn’t be further from my mind. I have literally no idea of what he does, where he is and what kinds of things he does anymore. It was an astonishing, chaotic period. Very tumultuous.
What are your feelings now about the sex angle? (In January 1972, at the outset of his career with MainMan, Bowie confessed to the MM that he was bisexual, the first rock star to make such a declaration. The remark had huge reverberations.)
It seems easier for people to assimilate that now than it ever was before. I’ve got two views about it. Initially, I thought it was a good polemicist’s basis; it was something to throw in people’s faces. But on the other hand it had a disastrous effect on my credibility as a composer and writer for a long, long time.
Why did you tell me?
Do you know, I’ve never really understood why. It certainly wasn’t a premeditated thing. I was starting to build Ziggy, he was starting to come together, and I was naturally falling into the role; and it was using one’s own resources, and you sort of pick up on bits of your own life when you’re putting a role together. Bang! it was suddenly there on the table. It was as simple as that.
I read that article again for the first time the other day. It’s very coy and embarrassing.
Yes, but imagine in a few years’ time, that will become an archetype interview of that period. You mustn’t feel embarrassed. No, no! I know exactly what you mean, but you wait and see. Mark my words, mark my words. It’s the old McLuhan thing about cliche, archetype. I’m sure only a few years after he’d made them Chaplin was very, very embarrassed by his first movies—but all these years later! There was nothing like that before then, and a whole school of something or other has come from them. And I was sort of half serious then when I said that I’d developed a school of pretension within rock and roll. I can see why I said that. I don’t necessarily agree with it now. I only said it as, again, a throwaway. But there is some strength in it, I think. Quite definitely.
I remember an interview about 18 months ago in the Village Voice with Cherry Vanilla (once Bowie’s American publicist at MainMan). It was a piece about marketing gays…
Oh God. Marketing gays.
And she said, “we peddled David’s ass like Nathan’s sells hotdogs.”
Good Lord. Chronic, isn’t it?I hope she meant it tongue-in-cheek. I know what she meant, yeah. She worked very hard at pushing that side of me, because it gave her very easy access into headlines. And all the time that that was going on, of course, I was in another country, so it was hard for me to keep any sort of control. My compromise at the time was to live with it when I got to America and found out how I’d been set up to be over there, and I thought, “my God, I can’t fight this enormous snowball. I’ll have to work with it and gradually push it back down to something more manageable.” But I’d just started with Ziggy, and I couldn’t suddenly drop it then. He was Ziggy, he’d been created, and that was my piece at the time, my theatre piece. I thought, “well, I’ll have to use what Ziggy’s got and be what God’s given him” (short laugh).
And so I had to work with him for a little while in those first few months in America.
You put yourself on the line, too, by involving yourself in other artists’ careers. I’ve always wondered why, considering that you’ve had such personal success, you should want to build, or re-build, others’ successes: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and now Devo.
I guess it’s because there is still a lot of fan in me. I do get impressed with new things. I can’t help but be. I like to feel that if I can’t do that myself then I’d like to be part of it and try and … Especially people who are not being noticed. I would love to be responsible for helping somebody. I think that’s great for my ego.
They’ve not been acts of unadulterated kindness?
Oh, no, no. Good Lord, no.
But you did receive some rather horrible criticism, particularly in relationship to Lou, that you were coming up on his back.
I did read a lot of that, of course, and I never denied it because it seemed such a shallow observation of what I was doing. There are very, very few parallels between me and Lou Reed. I think I’ve only ever written one song like his, and that was “Queen Bitch,” and it was only recognised as a Lou Reed song—and I know this for a fact—because I wrote next to it “For Lou.”
“Andy Warhol” was next to it.
Oh yes, yes. Those two together. But I don’t think my career was based on those two songs, and there is very little else that I have done that is anything near approaching what Lou Reed does or has done. I find it very hard to find a comparison between me and Lou. I’ve never written about street people or such, or the gossip of the day, walked like him, dressed like him, looked like him or even performed like him. I think that’s really shallow. We got on very well. I found him very witty, in a very New York way. And the same again, I might add, applies to young Iggy as well, ’cause I’ve also read that a coupla times. But, you know—and I did it partly for the amusement factor—I’ve always noticed that if I put out certain names as my influences to see if people would pick up on them and then say I was definitely influenced by them, then every time I’ve done it it has always come back. Always, always, always! I could say that my greatest influence, in fact, was Tiny Tim, and they’ll say, “ah, of course! Quite obviously David Bowie has lifted an enormous amount from Tiny Tim.” Always it works in that fashion. I don’t blame anybody because I do it purposely—I certainly used to do those red herrings just to see how it affected people—but it amused me that they would take something like that and convolute it and make it into a statement of their own.
Let’s move from the past to the present. How do you feel about this film as compared with The Man Who Fell To Earth?
A totally different kettle of poissons. This has so far been a far more enjoyable experience. For one reason or another I’m a lot closer to David than I was with Nick (Roeg). Nick is less approachable. David is a far more generous personality.
Roeg’s an intellectual.
David not so much; though, of course, he is of a sophisticated nature. Creatively, quite as extraordinary as Roeg in his way.
Do you feel that movie was a success?
I think that’s debated by everybody that’s seen it. I think there’s a lot of pro, a lot of the reverse. I still have only seen it the once—the one time that I saw it in the cinema—and I still feel that I learned more by the actual process of making it than seeing the film in a finished state. I didn’t enjoy it as a movie to watch. It’s very tight. Like a spring that’s going to uncoil, it’s full of terrific tensions. Of course, that’s part of the so-called magic of the film; that it’s got these very inhibited feelings in it. There’s a repressed feeling of something or other boiling under the surface all the time. It’s never allowed to come out, so it leaves you with that terrible feeling that you’ve had a restricted viewing of something.
Would you agree that it’s a film about a man who originally is pure but ends up being corrupted and disgusted with himself?
The way Nick interpreted that purity, looking at the way it’s cut, he seemed to have interpreted that purity in a perverse way. There’s something awkward about it, gawky; there’s something not right about that person’s purity. I suppose on surface value that’s the film Nick was making, yeah. Nick had a lot of other intentions that he never confided—well, not to me, anyway. He’s a secretive man. And, indeed, at that time I was also pretty closed about talking, with anybody, really.
Yes, I want to ask you whether you saw parallels between yourself and Thomas Newton, the strange character that you played, which is why you took the role.
Oh, that’s a dangerous trap to fall into! Sort of, it was quite easy for me. When I did it was hook, line and sinker, I would’ve thought (Laughter). I mean, Nick exerts such a tremendous influence over one psychologically that one does carry the weight of the image around for a bit afterwards.
He was a cold, inexpressive character . This is what your image was at that point.
I think I was very frightened of expressing any kind of emotion then, which of course, followed with the most dramatic and traumatic experiences on the “Station To Station” tour when I became overemotive. I went through great waves of despondency and ecstasy … and I’d kept a lot of things pretty well repressed for a few years.
So that was a very cathartic point in your life?
Oh, Christ, yeah. I feel much more on an even keel now.
But you’re a volatile man, to say the least. It could happen again?
Yes, I get scared stiff of the idea of touring again because of all kinds of experiences that one has. Once bitten, maybe twice shy. I hope that I don’t get back into that situation again.
Do you mean drugs, and other things as well? All the things.
The testing of one’s personality to the fullest: can you cope on a tour? When you’re shouldering the responsibility of the whole thing, it’s quite easy to break up. Either way, you close up or you let loose. My tendency goes either way. God knows how it’s gonna affect me. But I’m a lot healthier and fitter beforehand this time.
You appear to be enjoying acting, anyway.
I’m finding it enthralling to be really getting into a person’s flesh this time around. I really feel very much at home with this character, being led and shown how to do it.
But you’ve always been interested in creating personae!
Oh yeah, yes, but I’ve never approached it this way. It’s impossible to explain, really, but it’s a question of following through thoughts rather than just like a parrot reciting the words … This is wonderful! (Breaks off). It sounds like (assumes brittle, actorish voice), “well, of course, there’s only 3,584 words in Othello. As Peter Brooks used to tell me, now you know all the words, all you have to do is get them in the right order.” (Laughter) I hate talking about acting. I don’t know enough about it.
I think you ought to tell me how you got involved in the movie about Egon Schiele.
It was originally suggested to me that I should play the part by Clive Donner, the guy who did The Caretaker and Mulberry Bush. He sent me the original script and I jumped at the idea of it, ’cause Schiele was somebody I was aware of. Wally was one of his girlfriends—pronounced “Valley.” Wally is just a working title. I think it will be changed. It will go through the time from as he was leaving Klimt as a pupil and setting himself up as a painter, through his prison sentence and to the end of his relationship with his girlfriend, Wally. Charlotte Rampling is on the boards to play her at the moment. I don’t have much say in the actual casting. Donner I don’t know that well, but he’s very, very intelligent. It seems that all the time I pick on the English and European directors. The next person that I’m meeting in a couple of weeks’ time is Fassbinder, with the possibility of doing The Threepenny Opera with him, a re-make. He’s now getting into doing English language films. I’ve seen him in Berlin a couple of times, but I’ve never been introduced to him or had a chance to chat to him. Supposedly a strange sort of guy, very weird. This is such a strange sort of movie for him. I think it’s everybody’s efforts to pull the strange quantities together and see what comes out—an idea that I go along with completely. Planned accidents.
Whatever happened to The Eagle Has Landed and Stranger In A Strange Land?
Eagle Has Landed I was turned down for the part, and Stranger In A Strange Land I didn’t want to be involved with because I thought it would be a bit typecast (short laugh). It was also during the MainMan period. But I was violently against doing Stranger In A Strange Land, having realised it would be, you know, “get out of that one.” I’d be alien for life. I’d just be stuck out there. All I’d be offered would be people with green skins and varying colour hair—that would be the only character change I could make, hair colour.
People do associate you with futuristic things, don’t they?
I don’t know now whether it’s so futuristic. I never thought of myself as a futurist. I always thought I
was a very contemporary sort of figure, very Nowish. Rock is always ten years behind the rest of art; it picks up bits and pieces. I mean, I only picked up Burroughs years after it all happened in literature, and actually applied it to my work. The application wasn’t made until years after it was a dead and gone style; it’d been finished in literature a long time. And that happens with rock. It’s only just reached Dada now. So, as far as putting me as a futurist, I think the fact is I’m as contemporary as I feel I need to be, and a lot of the rest of what’s going on pays a retrospective look to what’s gone down before. It’s work generally in an atmosphere that’s about five years behind. There’s so much of it that it seems to represent today, but it isn’t, in fact: it’s using references and feelings and emotions from a few years back.
I’ve always thought there was a lot of England 1890s about you as well. Beardsley and Wilde, etc.
Oh, yes! That was a very strong influence, the idea of the Aesthete, the elitist (laughs)—a point which Brian (Eno) and I share. I think there’s a large snob factor in what I do.
You once said to me, “I’m an actor , not an intellectual,” and yet critics see in your records ideas rather than emotions.
I’ve decided I’m a Generalist now!
Yes. I thought that just about covered all grounds. It encompasses anything I wish to do, really. I find, for instance, I really want to paint seriously now, and not toy with it, and I am painting very seriously now, every available moment. And I’d like to be known as a painter one day when I get up the nerve to show them. But I want at the moment to be known as a Generalist rather than as a singer or a composer or an actor. I think a Generalist is a very good occupation to have.
How about this contrast of ideas and emotions? Critics do tend to find more ideas in your work than other musicians’.
Again, I think the sum total of the parts is greater than the input, very much so, and especially on the latter stuff that I’ve done. There were a considerable amount of very diverse ideas that went into the album, but the sum total of all those ideas is something extraordinarily different to that which I expected to come from the album when I made it. For me, listening to “Heroes” is quite as new an experience as any other listener listening to it. They’re never what I expected them to be.
There was, apparently, a quite casual, happy atmosphere in the studio with Eno. But the music didn’t turn out that way.
No, no. I thought it was a nice, exercising process, but it turned out to be a substantial piece of work, which was very satisfying.
“Low” is, in fact, more bleak than “Heroes,” I think.
Yes, it is. But that was a come-down period, a withdrawal time.
Tony Visconti, who helped produce it, told me that you made “Low” because you felt you were becoming predictable.
Yes, yes—I felt I was very predictable, and that was starting to bore me. I was entering an area of middle-of-the-road popularity which l didn’t like, with that disco soul phase, and it was all getting too successful in the wrong way. I want and need creative, artistic success. I don’t want, need or strive for numbers. I want quality, not a rock ’n’ roll career. My ego is such that I do wish to be recognised as offering something fairly worthwhile, and when I feel it is getting a bit ploddy it embarrasses me and I wish to move on.
Do you think there is a general theme to your records?
(Pauses, then mischievously adopts a Dr. Bronowski voice) “Is there an element of the irrational in the human spirit?” (Laughter) Yes, I think the irrational is very much part of it all, and the combination of the wrong elements in the wrong place at the right time.
That’s very vague.
Yes, I don’t think I would like to subject myself to complete analysis of my work, really.
With the exception of “Hunky Dory” and “Pin Ups,” there’s a very chilly, technological feel about much of it.
A bit chilly, you think? I think it’s not expressed in general, emotive terms: love or anger, or whatever the emotional scale is somewhere above top C (grins). The emotions on it are those rarely touched by writers, I think. That’s what gives it the chilly feeling. But I don’t think they are chilly emotions—I think they are just rather surprising emotions that are lurking in one’s head somewhere that are very rarely expressed, possibly because one doesn’t feel there’s an occasion to express that kind of emotion. I still don’t know whether there is an occasion to express that emotion, but I’m expressing it on those records if anybody needs it!
Well, they obviously do because they’re buying the records. Although, without knowing their sales, I would have said that the last two albums didn’t do as well as the others.
Oh, no, of course not, no.
And that doesn’t bother you at all?
Not at all. It’s rather pleasing in a perverse kind of way.
That does smack of snobbery.
Yes, I know it does. Brian says he’s most embarrassed that “Before And After Science” is doing so well in New York—of course he’s lying through his teeth, he’s very pleased. But he said, “I did everything to put people off buying it. I went over there and did my utmost to dissuade people from purchasing the aforesaid article.” In fact, “Before And After Science” is receiving a very good reaction in the States.
But as far as you’re concerned, isn’t there a chance of you losing your audience?
But it doesn’t bother you?
No. No. There comes a time when you go through the most ridiculous posture of saying, “I’d be really pleased if everybody stopped buying my records so I could go away and do something else.” There’s an ounce of lunacy at the back of one’s mind when the album comes out. “Let’s see if this one can really crash, really bomb.” There’s a little bit of oneself that actually thinks it.
Because that would mean there’s now no constraint to make a record for that particular audience?
Absolutely. And then you can take the whole bull by the horns and just record something underneath a table with a cassette recorder, or whatever, and all those things one says one’s gonna do one day.
But Lou Reed tried that with “Metal Machine Music,” didn’t he, and it didn’t work for him?
I haven’t talked with Lou for a long time, so it’s hard to know exactly what was at the back of his mind. ’Course, he promptly started producing very commercially-orientated albums after that, so I don’t quite know whether that was a ploy to lever himself off RCA.
And he went back to his basic theme, writing about that kind of netherworld.
Yes, yes. I don’t think he’s too interested in writing about anything else, though. I don’t know—I think Lou stays in New York too much. Having said that, of course, I now hear that he’s staying in Japan, so it’s not entirely true.
Let’s talk a bit about the collaboration with Eno. What do you think you’ve taken from him?
That’s a nasty question, a nasty question. What has he injected to my music? is probably the more accurate, and what he’s injected is a totally new way of looking at it, or another reason for writing. He got me off narration, which I was so intolerably bored with. Narrating stories, or doing little vignettes of what at the time I thought was happening in America and putting it on my albums in convoluted fashion: Philadelphia, or New York or Los Angeles, “Panic In Detroit” and “Young Americans.” Singer-songwriter askew. And Brian really opened my eyes to the idea of processing, to the abstract of communication. I don’t think we agree with each other on everything. We’re certainly not that simpatico where we embrace what each other says with open arms. It’s possible also that my word-manipulation in songs has slightly changed his ideas. He enjoys the way that I work with words and melodies.
How do you?
I still incorporate a lot of Burroughs ideas, and I still purposely fracture everything. Even if it’s making too much sense. I now fracture more than I would’ve done in the past. But it’s still a matter of taking my three or four statements and interrelating them. Not as literally as I used—I don’t use the scissor method very much—but I’ll write a sentence and then think of a nice juxtaposition to that sentence and then do it in a methodical, longhand fashion. A lot of me goes into it now, whereas at one point it was getting very random.
It was far more random on “Low.” On “Heroes” it was a bit more thought about. I wanted a phrase to give a particular feeling. But never a song as a whole—I never had an overall idea of the feeling. Each individual line I wanted to have a different atmosphere, so I would construct it in a Burroughs fashion. There are two or three themes in each song, but they are interlinked in such a way as to produce a different atmosphere per line, and sometimes a whole batch of lines. But I didn’t want to restrict myself with one process, so I would use straightforward narrative for maybe two lines and then go back to disorientation. “Heroes” was the most narrative, about the Wall, on that album.
On “Low” a “New Career In A New Town” …
That didn’t have any words, though. (Intrigued). But did it give you the impression afterwards that it had? Yes, it does, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what I mean, that the sum of all the parts produces an astonishing feeling, and that you really feel that you understood something from it.
“Be My Wife” was quite specific. Was it genuinely anguished, or were you being tongue-incheek?
It was genuinely anguished, I think. It could’ve been anybody, though. But I think as a generalisation what you find on both albums is a potpourri ranging from narrative song to, I suppose, in its own way, surrealism. In fact, some of the songs are very like those I used to write a long time ago, not so very different from something like “Quicksand” which was on “Hunky Dory.”
What’s “Sound And Vision” about?
That was an ultimate retreat song; actually, the first thing that I wrote with Brian in mind when we were working at the Chateau. It was just the idea of getting out of America, that depressing era I was going through. I was going through dreadful times. It was wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows. But I do think Brian and I are very good collaborators. I’ve never been happy collaborating with anyone before to the extent that I do with Brian. We do have such varied interests that it makes for some very interesting speculations in the studio. It’s nice to have a friend like that and to work in that relationship. I never thought I would work like that. I always felt very singular.
How did you get on with Bob?
Oh, I thought you meant Bob Dylan! Didn’t get on with him at all. I had a dreadful time with Bob Dylan. Absolutely ghastly. I talked at him for hours. I was fairly flipped out of my head, if I remember, and I just talked and talked. The funniest part about it was that I’d been talking about his music and what he should do and what he shouldn’t and what his music did and what it didn’t, and at the end of the conversation he turned to me and—I hope it was in jest, but I have a feeling it wasn’t—he said (falling into a banal American accent), “you wait till you hear my next album.” I thought, “oh no, not from you, please! Not that, anything but that!” I don’t know whether I was in the correct state to appreciate him, but it was the first and last time I ever met him.
He never made any other contact with me (laughs uproariously). That was in New York. I didn’t find him odd, that was the problem—there again, when people meet me they generally don’t find me as odd as they would have me be, so I guess it’s one of those things where you build up a particular picture. I lost all that fascination for him, I must admit, quite a number of years ago, though. Once I had quite a thing about him.
Does any rock person now hold any interest for you?
I really don’t think so, I really don’t think so. At this particular stage I do feel incredibly divorced from rock, and it’s a genuine striving to be that way. I refuse to listen to records, refuse to listen to music in general.
Not even Kraftwerk?
No … I don’t think they have found their niche—I could turn that into a pun but I don’t think I’d better! I’ve found a lot of their earlier work more invigorating than their later stuff, actually. I liked a lot of the stuff that seemed to be free-form. That was when Neue were with them, of course, and you had two very frictional elements working against each other—Neue who were into complete volume against Florian’s very methodical planning. I can’t get the same satisfaction out of them now, though I like them as people very much, Florian in particular. Very dry. When I got to Dusseldorf they take me to cake shops and we have huge pastries. They wear their suits. A bit like Gilbert and George, actually … God, whatever happened to those two? I used to really like them… . When I came over to Europe—’cause it was the first tour I ever did of Europe, the last time—I got myself a Mercedes to drive myself around in, ’cause I still wasn’t flying at that time, and Florian saw it. He said, “what a wonderful car,” and I said “yes, it used to belong to some Iranian prince, and he was assassinated and the car went on the market, and I got it for the tour.” And Florian said, “ja, car always lasts longer.” With him it all has that edge. His whole cold emotion/warm emotion, I responded to that. Folk music of the factories.
Were you influenced by Kraftwerk when you made “Low”?
I dunno if I was in a musical way. Some of their premises for wanting to make music I found interesting.
You say you don’t listen to rock music, and yet you and Eno are producing Devo in Cologne.
Yes. Firstly, I like their music, and then meeting them had a lot to do with it. I found them very interesting people, very much in the same sort of conversational pattern as Brian and Fripp, but an American equivalent. I felt there was an awful lot of enthusiasm in what they thought they could enter into eventually. The theory of their potential is very strong. I don’t think it’s fulfilled at this particular moment. You really should go and see them live. I don’t think I’m particularly interested in their basic premise of de-evolution. I just quite like their music and their lyric composition.
“Jocko Homo” reminds me a bit of “The Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family” off “Diamond Dogs.”
Yes, I like that piece of music, it was good. Actually, some of those pieces off that album would’ve been quite in place with some of the things I’m doing now, I think. The intro, sans poem, was a very interesting piece of music. I would like to treat the Overture From Tannhauser in a similar fashion to the way I treated “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered.” “Diamond Dogs” was a hard sort of album to live with at the time, but it does mature, doesn’t it, and gains potency with time? I don’t like a lot of my albums. A complete album it would be hard for me to say I like. I like bits and pieces. A bit of it works exceedingly well, and a lot of it only works.
You prefer to make them and put them out very fast, don’t you?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t like too much premeditation.
I’ve heard that you use a peculiar system of notation for the musicians.
I draw the music, the shape that it should look like. I have to draw the feeling because I can’t explain it. The musicians who have worked with me have now learned the language. It’s very contributive music.
The last two albums have been a curious mixture of disco funk and New Music, haven’t they?
Yes, it’s still there, isn’t it? I mixed up the bass very high, of course, and did very extraordinary and naughty things to the snare drum sound over the last two albums as well. I wanted the snare drum to disorientate. I was so incredibly bored with the drum sound one hears, especially the American drum sound of the last four, five years: the big, heavy, upfront bass drum, the make-it-sound-like-a-wooden box that’s been there ever since “I Can Hear The Rain.” I said, it doesn’t cut anymore. So we fooled around with the drums, and found that when we treated the whole drum kit it started to get back to a sort of psychedelic sound, and so we picked out different drums and treated them all individually. We found that corrupting the snare drum definitely put the whole thing out of focus with the normal perspective of how drums have sounded.
How did you come up with the idea of what I think you called at one stage “plastic soul”: the music of “Young Americans” and “Station To Station”?
Mm, had a lot to do with where I was staying, and at that particular time it was New York and Philadelphia. I thought, I don’t write soul music but I do enjoy this. I also wanted to keep messing around with my lyrics as well, which are very un-soully. So I juxtapsoed the two: very un-soully lyrics over very soul-influenced music. It’s always taking something and just twisting it. It’s a very constant way of working that I have, really. In those terms it’s predictable, in that I will take something, look at it, and then say, okay, now let’s just bend it out of focus and see what that does to our very comfortable positions. A little bit of unease.
You’ve never experimented with reggae, have you?
No, I don’t like it very much. I got rather biased against it… . I heard an awful lot of it when I was a
kid, and I heard even more of it when I was a teenager of the ska and bluebeat variety, and it rather unfortunately—I know it’s terribly bigoted—but I find it very hard to come back into liking it again. It still doesn’t move me. Maybe I just ain’t got rhythm!
Going back to plastic soul, how did you come up with “Fame,” for example?
It was, in fact, Carlos’ riff to “Footstompin’” (Carlos Alomar has been Bowie’s guitarist for several albums.) I wanted to do “Footstompin,’” and I said, “Carlos, that is such a good riff. I’m going to take it away from that song, and let’s do something with that.” And then Lennon came in and said (Scouse accent) “that’s f—— great, that! Worra great riff that is!” And then John stood in his spot and made sounds, and it sounded not unlike “fame.” You know, one often just makes sounds and those sounds become words, and then you think, “gotta word. Now out of that word let’s create a subject and evolve that subject.” Things often start like that.
Can you contrast that process with “Warszawa,” say, on “Low.”
Oh, on my part that was a quite positive idea to try and take a musical picture of the countryside of Poland. But I didn’t tell Brian that. The procedure of that one was really quite simple. I said, “look, Brian, I want to compose a really slow piece of music, but I want a very emotive, almost religious feel to it. That’s all I want to tell you at this point. What do you suggest as a start?” And he said, “let’s go lay down a track of finger clicks.” And he laid down I think it was 430 clicks on a clean tape. Then we put them all out as dots on a piece of paper and numbered them all off, and I picked sections of dots and he picked sections, quite arbitrarily. And then he went back into the studio and played chords, and changed the chord as he hit that number, and went through his piece like that. And I did a similar thing on my areas. We then took the clicks out, heard the piece of music as was, and then wrote over the top of that according to the length of bars we’d given ourselves.
It sounds incredibly mathematical.
Oh yes, quite assiduously so. But each of those instrumental pieces was done differently—very, very differently—and that’s what retains my interest on these albums.
How about “V-2 Schneider”?
No, that was more of an idea of a sequence. Except we turned the riff around in the beginning, purely by accident. I started playing the sax riff on the offbeat instead of the onbeat. Halfway through I thought, “Oh, I’m the wrong way round,” but we continued through. So now you get this extraordinary intro where it’s all the wrong way round—beautiful! Impossible to write that—so I stayed with that and built it up from that wrong way round. But I must say, that is why I’m so held to these albums: that each track is a whole different system of methods. It keeps me interested. It’s incredible! And I’m still learning, every album I go in with Brian. Now I’ve learned some of his methods quite thoroughly, and I’m fairly competent with them so I can utilise them on my own, but I’m still learning more from him.
Do you work more spontaneously?
No, he’s spontaneous, but in a slow, methodical fashion. He allows accidents to slowly evolve, and I work very quickly. So Brian is probably in the studio for a far greater length of time than I am, because we often work separately—either of us will not be in the studio when the other is, so we don’t hear what the other one is doing. It sounds awfully … no, I don’t care! It does sound, as you say, very mathematical and icy, but that doesn’t defeat its ultimate musical impact. The impact is definitely an arrangement and presentation of some emotive force, and it does touch one.
Can you see a future in ambient records? You know, albums which say “this mood is Nostalgia, this mood is Sombre.”
Oh, well, Brian and I talk quite seriously about the idea of writing music for having a bath to. Yeah, absolutely. The idea of very subtle emotive influences for various parts of one’s activities during the day could become a feasible reason for buying music, not just the old one, the Sixties one, which is to buy to develop an identity with somebody else. The cult figure thing will always, I suppose, have its place; but I think the idea of having environmental music—which, of course, when it first came upon the world scene, was called Muzak —that cliché of Muzak will become a very important archetype. It’s not to be scoffed at. At first I was furious when what we were doing was described as Muzak, but then I reconsidered and thought, “Well, yes, it does have roots in that somewhere along the line.” The ideas we’re working in are so undefined at the moment, because they are relatively a new kind of idea for music—in the rock and roll field, anyway—that I find it very hard to analyse exactly what it is we’re doing. I think Brian is far better at analysing it. I still work very instinctively, and I’m still affected by environment, people, passions and whatever.
Are you going to play this music onstage when you tour in March?
I’m going to play a lot of the last two albums, a lot of it. Brian, of course, would love to be able to, but for reasons of his own he is not able to complete a long tour. He’s certainly going to do some one-offs with me, and they may very well take place on the next tour. (This American and European tour finishes at the end of June.) But I would imagine far more of them will take place on the last leg of the tour (in Japan and Australia in the autumn). For two reasons. One of them is his own business, and the other is that he would prefer to play in places he has never been to before because he does not like stage work. But he and Fripp will be doing six performances with me. I could only work with them if it was the unit. I am going to play some synthesizer, with Roger Powell, who’s sort of with Todd Rundgren. Originally, I wanted Larry Fast. It will not be the same as Brian’s, ’cause I would not expect anyone to reproduce somebody else’s work, but I’ll certainly expand the framework with which we worked. Also, Simon House will be on violin, and Stacey Heydon on guitar this time, with Dennis (Davis, drums) and George (Murray, bass). Again, the reason Carlos will not be there this time is I was getting too confident with bands somehow. (Smiles ruefully.) It’s the same story! And so the biggest test I can give myself is to remove what is considered one of the essential qualities of the stage performance and rearrange things by bringing in a violin instead of another guitar, and a synthesizer rather than another keyboard, then see what happens when I try and play my same music with a band which is not built for it quite the same way. I’ve got to have the element that surprises me else I’m not on the panic level button, which I’ve got to be to make it live. If it becomes too sheltered and precious, it shows like hell and looks self
satisfied. So I’m in great anticipation of rehearsals. I’ve no idea what they’re gonna bring. A bit worried, but very excited about working with new people.
You constructed no image, no persona, for the last two albums, presumably because the choice of subjects was so diverse. Does this mean that you’ve decided to stop such conjuring tricks?
Quite definitely for the time being. I have no enthusiasm for that anymore, quite honestly. A lot of that’s died since leaving America. It got me into an awful lotta trouble. It mixed me up quite a lot. I began to think I was Ziggy. And then, of course, Ziggy began to merge with the others, and I wasn’t quite sure whether I’d completely dropped the last one or not. Bits and pieces would keep creeping through though.
I’m intrigued by your role-playing. It’s probably a bore to you now.
Somewhat, yes, but…
I’d like to read to you something that Pete Townshend said to me about you. He said that you’ve “provided almost an alternative reality, a fabricated stable image which people could react to, because he himself isn’t stable, he is constantly in flux.” I think he was talking specifically about Ziggy. How do you feel about that?
“Constantly in flux?” It sounds like I’m heading from that for a future as the Grim Reaper of the Avant Garde! (Laughs.) Yeah… . Artistically, of course, I’m in constant flux. As a person, a living organism, I think I’m becoming a lot more rational and composed emotionally as I get older, and I welcome the age I’m moving into with open arms.
But that period of incredible role-playing, of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, you were emotionally unstable?
Oh yes, very much so. But I read in that Sunday Times article on Surrealism that somebody suggested all revolutionaries should be shot once they reached the age of 30, and I sort of see why, because one does become far more composed once one reaches that age. But I do enjoy it. There’s also a feeling, though, when one’s in one’s 20s, that it’s got to be done in that time period, whatever the greatness is that that one feels is in oneself. But one feels success is something a lot more to do with having a contentment with the way things are—not being apathetic towards them, but to not be quite so rational about things. I recently decided to adopt the doctrine that a man reaches his most creative strength at around the age of 35. I’ve given myself another five years, ha ha.
You used to be given to contentious statements, like that grand one in the Playboy Interview that you wanted music to “return to the sensitivities of the working-class.”
Mmm. There’s always that appeal to me for making the obvious controversy. I mean, that was my Los Angeles era. Bloody awful. I was pretty fractured. I really wasn’t in a fit state to have myself interviewed all that year. No, I’ve always been very wary of defining myself or actually having some concrete standpoint ’cause it does tend to shackle oneself. And I still don’t have a viewpoint. I’m just as open to suggestion as ever.
How about your advocacy of Nietzsche and homo superior?
They were used very much in defiance more than anything else. I had a period when I was very fond of flaunting suspicious points of view in front of people, merely for effect. I found that very rewarding. It’s hard to remain artistically illegitimate; it’s so easy to become legitimate and Establishment. That becomes a cause: “how can I avoid that next?” I’d hate to become part of the accepted cultural set-up. You know, “that’s it, nicely, in place.” That’s not what an artist wants to do.
Your incessant role-playing always led to criticism that you were more interested in style, in synthesizing styles, than content.
Yes, I think I am still, in a way, interested in synthesizing styles.
But not at the expense of content?
No, not at all, no. I think it’s a very important mode of working. A style is the superficial arrangement of things as they are, and to juxtapose a few of these styles against each other produces some quite important artistic factors and results.
Do you read your press a lot?
Months and months later. I’m now reading the reviews of “Heroes.” There’s a wonderful one I’ve just read, another one of those “he’s driven the last nail into his coffin.” It goes on about “this record will never move off the counter” and “it has nothing to say—he’s obviously completely lacking in any ideas any more.” Actually, I think it had the line in it, “he can’t write a good song anymore!” (Falls about.) Damn right. I think it was American. But I’ve got to Texas now, and Texas seems to like it a lot. It’s the first time it’s happened to me in Texas. But you see, the only way to remain a vibrant part of what is happening is to keep working anew all the time. For me it always will be change. I can’t envisage any period of creative stability and resting on any laurels. I think for what I do and what I’m known for it would be disastrous. So that’s my predictability. Again, it’s the elitist in me, but I find it very hard to consider that I am primarily still in pop or rock … though I’m not quite sure of what the definition of being in it is. I mean, I would be the first to say that I am absolutely and completely out of touch with what young teenagers are thinking. I have absolutely no idea.
Not about punk?
Artistically, I can understand, yes. But I don’t know whether a 14-or 15-year-old on the streets thinks the way I was thinking at that age. I don’t know. I think it would be too much to expect that he would be thinking that differently. By the same token, 30-year-olds think very much the way they’ve always thought, because I look at myself and say, yes, I was told when I was 30 that I would be a lot mellower that I was at 25. And I am, and it’s a fact.
Yes, punks are supposed to be oppressed by the past and figures like you and, more so, the Stones and the Beatles.
Yes, yes, I think that’s the point: now music for me is not an expression of generation anymore. I think that has changed. That’s a very important point. I was, when I was younger, writing for a particular generation, and I considered it my generation. Now I have widened my interest in music to not making a statement of a particular generation, but it’s a statement of the emotive forces that one feels in particular environments. It’s no longer an age thing with me, it’s a place thing, and place applies to any age. So it’s music for all ages, one wants to fall into, but it’s not confined anymore to the generation that used to be interested or, indeed, hopefully is still interested in what I’ve got to say. Although, actually, we are going through an incredibly important era. I think the Seventies will have the same chaotic appeal to future generations as the Twenties do to us, to a certain extent.
I hope it doesn’t foreshadow another holocaust, as that decade did.
Well, yes. But I don’t think I’ll limn that one anymore. It became a bit of a torch in my earlier period.
Of course, we have now entered the Aquarian Age, which is supposed to have terrible consequences.
Enormous. It has always been cited in the past as being the age of unbelievable chaos. And, of course, Halley’s Comet comes round in ’88. It all falls in place with the more factual, scientific ideas that are going around. But I’ve dropped enormous clangers on that before, so I’m not gonna even start on it. A little knowledge can be quite dangerous—or can be put to great effect if it’s used only artistically. If it’s used artistically a little knowledge can be very symbolic of how people are thinking.
And how about your professed knowledge of politics?
I have absolutely no interest whatsoever. Never have had, probably never will.
You were needling us all again?
Very definitely, yes.
You have no interest in the political situation in Germany, for instance?
The kind of interest one has if one lives in a foreign country. But may I live and die an artist! Through the ages, though, a lot of artists have used those very spiky little things just to get people at it.
We’re not going to see a flesh and blood re-run of Peter Watkins’ Privilege, then?
(Laughter.) No, no.
Because the movie was terrible, anyway.
But have you seen it recently? Much, much better than when it was made. It is really worth seeing, and I loathed it when I first saw it. I saw it again a couple of months ago—on Kenyan Airways, I think it was—and it is quite amazing. Do look at it, and then remember that horrendous gig I did in London years ago—I think it was the retirement gig at Olympia. An enormous arena. And it was all so fanatical and quite horrendouslooking. It was a cliché at the time, but now it makes a lot more sense, though not for what we thought it was about at the time.
You and Jean Shrimpton as the President and First Lady.
I think not, I think not. I think we’ve passed along that way once.