GOODBYE TO ZIGGY AND ALL THAT …
Thursday afternoon waltzes with the grace of Astaire on styro-foam heels through the swinging doors of the Dorchester, to be met by a venerable welcome. Brash, playboy confidence is at once surrendered to the air of mellow retreat that haunts the atmosphere like the foretaste of old age. A cosmopolitan chorus of accents embracing several continents provides a fractured soundtrack to the inconspicuous efficiency of the darting platoons of bellboys and porters, who look, in their smart green uniforms, like the well-scrubbed buglers of some private army. Their genteel buoyancy is a subtle contrast to the grim and laboured services of the older butlers, who carry silver tea-trays to impatient customers with a one-toe shuffle across the verdant wall-towall that recalls the hesitant walk of arthritic tightrope walkers out for a stroll along Niagara’s furious currents. Thursday afternoon wonders where it will find the European Man.
David Bowie’s hands flutter before him as if he was attempting to describe some indefinable abstract design to a blind man, or attempting, even, to conjure from the space before him a tap-dancing showbusiness dove. He smiles quickly and nervously. Thin lips spread narrowly over tiny rodent teeth. His laugh is like the crackling bark of static. Infectious, nevertheless. He chatters briskly, but without impatience. His accent will veer from the clipped Cockney inflections of Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer to the smooth, theatrical modulations and husky definitions of an actor in a provincial company impersonating some elder statesman of the stage with impertinent skill. He is so entertainingly polite that you feel sure he could charm the wings off an angel.
David Bowie is in London for the solitary purpose of selling his new album. And he makes no elaborate excuse for the frustrating brevity of his individual engagement with the media. “The only reason I’ve decided to do these interviews,” he later admits, “is to prove my belief in the album. Both ‘Heroes’ and ‘Low’ have been met with confused reactions. That was to be expected, of course. But I didn’t promote ‘Low’ at all, and some people thought my heart wasn’t in it. “This time I wanted to put everything into pushing the new album. I believe in the last two albums, you see, more than anything I’ve done before. I mean, I look back on a lot of my earlier work and, although there’s much that I appreciate about it, there’s not a great deal that I actually like. I don’t think they’re very likeable albums at all.
“There’s a lot more heart and emotion in ‘Low’ and, especially, the new album. And, if I can convince people of that, I’m prepared to be stuck in this room on the end of a conveyor belt of questions that I’ll do my best to answer.”
This is an opinion. David Bowie’s two most recent albums, recorded in Berlin in collaboration with Brian Eno, are among the most adventurous and notably challenging records yet thrust upon the rock audience. Inevitably controversial, these albums have combined the theories and techniques of modern electronic music with lyrics that have found Bowie dispensing with traditional forms of narrative in pursuit of a new musical vocabulary adequate to the pervasive mood of despair and pessimism that he has divined in contemporary society.
“Towards the end of my stay in America,” he reflects, “I realised that what I had to do was to experiment. To discover new forms of writing. To evolve, in fact, a new musical language. That’s what I set out to do. That’s why I returned to Europe.”
David Bowie, as you reach this sentence, is explaining the circumstances and sequence of events that provoked his retreat from his exile in America and his eventual decision to return to Europe.
“The conditions were thus,” he begins, his hands busily searching for pack of Gitanes. “I was at a point where I wanted to leave America. I had been, as I like to put it, ‘staying’ there for more than two years. I’m wary of saying that I ‘lived’ there. ‘Living’ in America is a real commitment, and it was a commitment I wasn’t prepared to make.
“So, as I say, I’d been ‘staying’ there for some time, and I realised that I’d become tired of the country. And I was also getting quite tired with my methods of writing. I wanted to move out of the area of narrative and character. I wanted, generally, to re-evaluate what I was doing.
“I realised that I’d exhausted that particular environment and the effect of that environment upon my writing. I was afraid that if I continued to work in that environment I would begin repeating myself. I felt that that was the way I was heading.
“There was no enjoyment in the working process—I’d exclude from that ‘Station To Station.’ That was fairly exciting because it was like a plea to come back to Europe for me. It was one of those selfchat things that one has with oneself from time to time.”
He suddenly throws down his pack of cigarettes as if annoyed with himself. “Christ, no … what am I talking about? A lot of that and ‘Young Americans’ was damn depressing. It was a terribly traumatic time. I was in a terrible state. I was absolutely infuriated that I was still in rock and roll. “And not only in it, but had been sucked right into the centre of it. I had to move out. I’d never intended to be become so involved in rock and roll … and there I was in Los Angeles, right in the middle of it.
“Whether it’s fortunate or not I don’t know, but I’m absolutely and totally vulnerable to suggestion by environment, and environment and circumstances affect my writing tremendously. To the point of absurdity sometimes.
“I look back on some things in total horror… . And, anyway, I began to realise that the environment of Los Angeles, of America, was by this time detrimental to my writing and my work. It was no longer an inspiration to be caught in that environment.
“I realised that that was why I was feeling so claustrophobic and cut off. I was adopting such a hypocritical stance. There was this incredible fight between materialism and aestheticism. My commitment has certainly never been to rock and roll. I’ve made no secret of that. I was just a hack painter who wanted to find a new medium to work in, frankly.
“And rock looked like a very good vehicle. But one was always fluctuating between the temptation to become a rock star and the sentimental ties with wanting to be an artist—and there I was living right in the middle of this crazy and filthy rock and roll circus. It really was no more than a circus.
“And I should not have been in it. I should not have become such a major part of it. It was frustrating for me. Now I’m fit and happy and well again. I’m enjoying the process of work for the first time in years. It’s more than work. That’s why I say that I’m not interested in posterity.
“I’m now more concerned with my work being appreciated on a more personal level. Once I had all those big dreams. Oh, I had all those dreams, man. Great ambitions. I had them until I learned about simply enjoying the process of working and the process of living.
“I’m happy now. Content. I feel more than a product on an assembly line and no more a means of support for 10,000 people who seem to revolve around every fart that I made.”
David Bowie crushes out a Gitane and immediately another is between his lips. His finger flicks at his lighter.
“My role as an artist in rock,” he says, “is rather different to most. I encapsulate things very quickly, in a very short space of time. Over two or three months usually. And generally my policy has been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date. I move on to another area. Another piece of time. “I have to answer these questions in naive analogies, I find, because I’ve always fought against considering my role, my position in this thing, this rock and roll game.
“I’ve never wanted to consider myself a part of it. It tends to hinder me. That’s when I start pulling on my hat of solitude. That’s when I usually clear off to Japan or somewhere. I never intended to become a part of it. Yet, at the same time, yes, I’ve challenged it and enjoyed—occasionally—the controversy.
“But you wouldn’t believe how much of it was entirely unwitting. I think I did play outside the boundaries of what is considered the general area of rock and roll. Some of it, just pure petulance, some of it was arrogance, some of it was unwitting, but, inevitably, I kept moving ahead.
“Ziggy, particularly, was created out of certain arrogance. But, remember, at that time I was young and I was full of life, and that seemed like a very positive artistic statement. I thought that was a beautiful piece of art, I really did. I thought that was a grand kitsch painting. The whole guy.
“Then that f—-r wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to sour. And it soured so quickly you wouldn’t believe it. And it took me an awfully long time to level out. My whole personality was affected. Again I brought that upon myself.
“I can’t say I’m sorry when I look back, because it provoked such an extraordinary set of circumstances in my life. I thought I might as well take Ziggy out to interviews as well. Why leave him on the stage? Looking back, it was completely absurd.
“It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity. I can’t deny that the experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself very dangerously near the line. Not in physical sense, but definitely in a mental sense. I played mental games with myself to such an extent that I’m now very relieved and happy to be back in Europe and feeling very well… . But, then, you see I was always the lucky one.
“‘David Live’,” says David Bowie, “was the final death of Ziggy. God, that album. I’ve never played it. The tension it must contain must be like vampire’s teeth coming down on you. And that photo on the
cover. My God, it looks as if I’ve just stepped out of that grave. “That’s actually how I felt. That record should have been called ‘David Bowie Is Alive And Well And Living Only In Theory.’”
“Berlin,” Bowie observes, reflecting upon the environment in which he has recorded his last two albums, “is a city made up of bars for sad, disillusioned people to get drunk in. I’ve taken full advantage of working there to examine the place quite intensively. One never knows how long it’s going to remain there. One fancies that it’s going very fast. “That’s one of the reasons, sure, that I was attracted to the city. It’s a feeling that I really tried to capture in the paintings I did. I made a series of paintings while I was there of the Turks that live in the city. There’s a track on the new album called ‘Neukoln,’ and that’s the area of Berlin where the Turks are shackled in very bad conditions.
“They’re very much an isolated community. It’s very sad. It’s very, very sad. And that kind of reality obviously contributed to the mood of both ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes.’
“I mean, having encountered an experience like that it’s hard to sing ‘Let’s all think of peace and love… . ’ No, … David, why did you say that? That was a stupid remark. Because that’s exactly where you should arrive after seeing something like that. You should arrive at a sense of compassion. The title track of ‘Heroes’ is about facing that kind of reality and standing up to it. “The only heroic act one can f—well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life and derive some joy from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive, despite every attempt being made to kill you.”
It will be remembered that Bowie’s performances in London last year were prefaced by his controversial pronouncements on Britain and the possibility of fascist rule here. His comments were interpreted by some as advocacy of extreme right-wing politics; others saw in his remark a prophetic nature, a warning rather than a gesture of support for fascist policies.
“I can’t clarify those statements,” Bowie says wearily when the subject arises. “All I can say is that I’ve made my two or three glib, theatrical observations on English society, and the only thing I can now counter with is to state that I’m NOT a fascist. I’m apolitical.
“The more I travel the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable. The more government systems I see, the less enticed I am to give my allegiance to any set of people, so it would be disastrous for me to adopt a definitive point of view, or to adopt a party of people and say ‘these are my people.’
“I guess it was all pretty glib. But then again, I’m not one for delicate social niceties. If I take a jump into the pool, I generally swallow all the water.” He is reminded of his fascist salute to the country when he arrived at Victoria Station, and is asked to define its significance.
He virtually explodes from his chair.
“That didn’t happen. THAT DID NOT HAPPEN. I was so livid with that cameraman. I waved. I just WAVED. Believe me. On the life of my child, I waved. And the bastard caught me. In MIDWAVE, man. And, God, did that photo got some coverage … as if I’d be foolish enough to pull a stunt like that. I died when I saw that photo. And even the people who were with me said, ‘David! How could you?’ The bastards. I didn’t …
“GOD, I just don’t believe in all that.”
David Bowie was 30 this year. It’s significant, he feels, that he feels no resentment now of the passing of time: in his early 20s, he reflects, the very thought of growing older appalled him—“it was an horrendous thought.” Now he accepts with equanimity the responsibilities of maturity, and even the eventuality of death.
“I think having a son made an enormous difference to me,” he remarks. “At first it frightened me, and I tried not to consider the implications. Now it’s his future that concerns me. My own future slips by. I’m prepared for it, and I’m prepared for the end.
“There are still so many people on an immortality kick, though, and it amuses me now. We’ll do anything in our power to stay alive. There’s a feeling that the average lifespan should be longer than it is. I disagree. I mean, we’ve never lived so long. Not in any century that man’s been on this planet.
“Not so very long ago no one lived pass the age of 40. And we’re still not happy with 70. What are we after exactly? There’s just too much ego involved. And who wants to drag their old, decaying frame around until they’re 90, just to assert their ego? I don’t, certainly.” In this context of age and the process of change, I inevitably mention the minions of the new wave presently battering at the doors of success and achieving now the kind of publicity that Bowie enjoyed five years ago.
“The sad thing about it all,” he says, “is that it’s being called a movement. I wish the people involved were being treated as individuals. I’m so worried for them. I’m dissatisfied with them because I can’t tolerate people who want to form, or be part of, movements. “It should always come back to individuals. I think there are now some individuals who have some very exciting ideas. Some of them, at least. I only hope they survive. Because I totally sympathise with their indignation.”
It is suggested (as the hounds bark at the door in an attempt to bring to a conclusion this brief interview), that both “Low” and “Heroes” betray an extraordinary pessimism, and there is, in the jagged atmosphere of the music they contain, an anticipation of violence and imminent disaster.
“I’m afraid I am pessimistic,” Bowie offers. “I’m not at all optimistic about the future. But I’m not totally resigned to the situation. There is, I hope, some relief in compassion—and I know that’s not a word usually flung at my work—and ‘Heroes’ is, I hope, compassionate.
“Compassionate for people and the silly desperate situation they’ve got themselves into. That we’ve all got ourselves into, generally by ignorance and rash decisions. Decisions to join or remain within sets of people.
“We haven’t moved on at all from that tribal thing—you know, if you don’t understand it, have a swing at it with an axe.
“You know, people simply can’t cope with the rate of change in this world. It’s all far too fast. Since the Industrial Revolution there’s been this upward spiral with people desperately trying to hang on, and now everybody’s started to fall off. And it’ll get worse.
“There isn’t really much cause for hope,” says David Bowie finally. “But I haven’t given in yet. I think there’s some fight left in me still. Somewhere. I’m not a brave man and I do see it all as a vast enormous joke. A very bad joke at that. But there is one area of optimism.
“Even bothering to write about it all and think about it is some kind of fight against it. But even so, I can’t help thinking that it’s all nearly over.” He turns his eyes towards heaven. “Just give us a date, will you?” he asks.