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The Changing Faces of David Bowie

David Bowie

“I should live my life on bended knee. If I can’t control my destiny. You’ve got to have a scheme. You’ve got to have a plan. In the world of today. For tomorrow’s man”

Taken from issue 14 of Dazed, 1995:

The chorus of "No Control”, one of the outstanding tracks on the new album Outside, co-produced by Brian Eno, echoes around the sparse, hangar-sized photographic studio. Heavy, black curtains prevent the scorching Californian sun from entering this artificially-cooled, darkened environment. In the corner against a stark white background, Bowie pulls apart his eyelids with his thumb and forefinger. His trademark stare, one dilated ‘cynical’ pupil, one expanded 'childlike' eye, takes on an exaggerated, forced life of its own. One half of him has been there, seen it, done it; the other half is still excited and enthusiastic about seeing new things.

Bowie's 48, his son Joe (christened Zowie) is 23. He's been married to Iman for over six years. Outside sees Bowie begin a five year strategy to release a series of albums and accompanying diaries to mark the coming of the new millennium. Four months ago he signed a multi-million dollar recording deal with Virgin America. For now, at least, he's got a plan, a scheme to control his destiny. In the world of today it looks like he's got tomorrow's man well covered.

Outside is a dark, dramatic, urban, timewarp tale. We enter Bowie's fantasy past and fantasy future, flung from 1999 to 1977 with 1994, remaining the constant, the time when this first album in the series was written.

It's 1999: A day in the life of art crime detective Nathan Adler. He's investigating the art-ritual murder of Baby Grace in the futuristic meta-world of Oxford Town. Bombastic lyrics are narrated through the voice of the characters; these are the outsiders, the counterculture's most vulnerable denizens, the rebels, losers and loners who are his main suspects.

Flip to 1977: Bowie was a semi-recluse in Berlin. He'd left LA in '76, heavily addicted to cocaine. Ziggy was dead; his alter-ego cashed in his chips at the rock'n'roll casino and headed for the bohemian, artistic fringes of liberal Berlin. He produced The Idiot for Iggy Pop, he toured a little with Iggy as well, but really what is relevant now, to this album, was Bowie's collaborations with Brian Eno, and his access to and involvement in the late-'70s European art scene.

Flip to 1994: Bowie is experiencing the same level of artistic activity. The same personal revolutions. He is friends with Damien Hirst, the artist who famously confronts us with juxtapositions of life and death. He attends Ron Athey's New York show. Liberating the body, using his skin as a canvas in scarification art, Athey's HIV positive blood provides the print for canvases applied to his skin.

It sounds weird, it sounds obsessive, but for Bowie, art carries with it the last possible vestiges of rebellion in popular culture. Revolutions on a personal level that are as dramatic as the political revolutions of the '70s and the social revolutions of the '80s. Bowie is obsessed with art and history, observing from the sidelines of the underground, waiting for the right time to run on and kick it into the mainstream, re-inventing himself in the process like he's done so often in the past.

Bowie was the first rock star to openly talk about his bisexuality, embracing his glam rock image, just before the release of Hunky Dory. His music has consistently been about escape from class, from personality, from sex. By going public he challenged preconceptions of sexual identity that had been consistently repressed and ignored in the history of rock'n'roll.

Later, in 1976, Bowie flirted with fascism. Wearing a black shirt, standing in the back of an open-top black Mercedes, he arrived in Victoria station from Berlin as the Thin White Duke. His years of cocaine addiction had made him an arrogant, reclusive, and androgynous victim of success. Again it was Bowie being rebellious; his music, unlike that of Dylan or Lennon, has never been political, it was about challenging moral acceptabilities and escaping personal oppression. But cocaine blurred the subtlety and his pose. His dabbling in black magic, around the time of filming The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), combined to load him with political and personal persuasions which he later regretted, stating: "The idea that fascism was about the complete oppression of different races completely evaded my extraordinarily fucked-up nature at that particular time."

By the early '80s he changed again; giving people what he thought they wanted: himself. He dropped the artist for the entertainer and consequently lost the advantages of an ambivalent stance. It saw him adopt the musical clichés of the time and ultimately, after his most successful (yet most easily dated) album Let's Dance, both Tonight and Never Let me Down were sell out albums, creative and critical humdingers.

He changed again and gave people a band. Not Bowie, but Tin Machine; a traditional rock four piece, that made him look like he was trying to recapture his youth, or purge himself of the knockbacks of a meandering solo career. Next up: '93's White Noise, Black Tie; tiresome, traditional, stadium funk rock. Mmm... Bowie, in Armani suits and private helicopters shared the same space for most young, alternatively-minded people as the dull Peter Gabriel, the over productive Prince and the mindless touring of the big rock survivors' league; Phil Collins, The Stones, Elton John. BORING.

“I’ve always questioned dictums, I’ve always questioned what I’ve been told and the things I’ve got to live by” – David Bowie

Bowie's brilliance was when he was at his most rebellious, synthesising styles from William Burroughs and elevating his studies in mime under Lindsay Kemp to the creation of Ziggy, the rock'n'roll animal, cutting the first postmodern record and making himself a star. Outside sees Bowie return to the time of some of his most creative output, when he worked with Eno, on Low, Heroes, and Lodger in Berlin between 1976 and 1979, experimenting and creating a trilogy of poignant, relevant and still now, contemporary sounding albums.

Bowie has recently finished acting a cameo as Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel's Basquiat (1996), “Build A Fort, Set It on Fire”, the story of Jean Michel Basquiat, due for release early next year. Acting seems like a natural step for Bowie from the theatricality of his alter egos to the screen, but he doesn't take it seriously anymore. He sees it as far too collaborative and he's been let down by other people too many times. His most well known roles have been as Newton, the androgynous alien in “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and as a laughable, tap dancing, advertising executive in the flop “Absolute Beginners”.

Back in the studio, Bowie's talking incessantly and I'm finding it hard to get a word in edgeways. He laughs a lot. He's got an incalculable thirst for knowledge, especially for art. He's straight and he feels great, he's high on life, love, family, turning 50, on conversation, history and new experience. We talked for an hour. He averaged a cigarette every six minutes.

Dazed & Confused: Do you think the '90s is a more exciting time for music?

David Bowie: It seems to be gathering momentum again. It built to a high point in the '70s and kind of faded off in the bland '80s and seems to be coming back up again in the '90s. I just sort of edited the '80s out of the diaries. It was almost like a re-gathering forces period, as though everybody was taking a breather from life itself to charge at the '90s and the oncoming millennium.

D&C: Did you find you were at an inspirational loss in the '80s because of this lack of creative activity?

DB: I didn't have anything to fight against. I felt no friction, no tension, no artistic competition. The music went rotten and I went rotten, it was as simple as that. I love a sense of competition, I love to say, ‘That's pretty good, but I can top that, I can do better than that.'

D&C: So are the new contemporary artists and musicians your new competition, are you feeding off and fighting against them?

DB: So much at the moment, I think it's truly exciting again. I never really felt like I made a dent in American music at all and I just felt like I was this English eccentric who comes over here and I've got quite a good following and that's it. And I thought, 'This is Elton's territory and The Stones' and I obviously don't figure in what they want out of music'. I got a real morale kick when it was really brought to my attention that Nirvana were doing some of my stuff and I heard “The Man Who Sold The World” and I started reading interviews with people like Trent Reznor, and Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, and it wasn't just me that was coming up, it was a particular aspect of what music I'd written actually meant to them, and I suddenly felt validated over here. This present crop of bands actually drew a lot from what I'd done in the late '70s and it was really inspiration, you know.

D&C: And at the same time in London there was Suede...

DB: But, you know, I don't want to be cocky, but I kind of expect it every ten years, that a new cycle of Bowieism crops up...

D&C: So all this Bowieism must have made you feel good about making the new album, made you feel akin to what was going on?

DB: I felt akin to it, especially as Brian (Eno) and I were beginning to recover our own strengths in this new collaboration. It was so great that everything suddenly felt in sync again, it was like one had gone completely out of kilter and the cycle had come round and things musically made sense again, and I like the music today, and I didn't like the music in the '80s, and I felt that I couldn't fit into it and I didn't really want a part of it, I didn't feel I could be adventurous at that time.

D&C: How much are the songs contextualised within the diaries? what came first the diaries or the...?

DB: The diaries came after we began recording... yeah, it's really complicated, it's hard to pin down exactly where this album came from. It started as a series of improvisations in March in the studio in Montreaux, and Brian psyched up the band and gave them all these character references which they had to adopt.

D&C: Which is something he used to do in Roxy Music as well...

DB: Yeah, it's really variations on his oblique strategies. Change the context and the subject will change, so he did kind of change the ambience and the reason for being in the studio considerably.

D&C: Are you worried that the music might be heard out of context? That people won't care about the stories, the art or the ways in which it was made?

DB: I'm not so sure how much responsibility as an author lies with me any more, and I fully believe that now, art in all mediums belongs to its audience and the culture it is put into, and the most an author can do is apply the content but not the intent.

“I think that at heart, I’m no different from anybody else” – David Bowie

D&C: Do you see yourself now as more of a curator than an originator of ideas?

DB: I think now I'm curating my own stuff, I'm doing a lot of dipping back into my past. But what I'm really confident doing is juxtaposing contradictory pieces of information together. I do that very successfully, because I've always been fascinated by it, that's why I've always been drawn to people like Bill Burroughs and why I like painters like Julian Schnabel and why I like Damien (Hirst) so much, because his visual contradictions, I find, set off reverberations within me, as a viewer. For me that's successful, and I'm not sure if it's art...

D&C: But that's not important...

DB: I know, I don't care, I really don't care anymore. For me art is...

D&C: Here's some art, David (I show him a dead cricket which is suspended in the middle of a transparent green lollipop). Cricket suspended for the purpose of tickling your tastebuds.

DB: Oh these are wonderful... You know how these started. There was a guy in Mexico...

D&C: What, a tequila idea? Catch the worm...

DB: Yeah that's right. I drunk a bottle of wine with John Lennon once with a snake in the bottom. A white wine in Hong Kong. It was a fermenting snake in the bottom and we were the honoured guests of the family.

D&C: Did you chase the snake?

DB: There was bits of snake sediment in my glass. It was incredibly strong. And John told me he was taken by the Triads one night to be involved in a kind of initiation ceremony, where they cut the head of a living snake and he had to drink the blood from the snake's throat and he said he was as high as a kite. The power of the thing just threw him into another universe...

D&C: Have you ever been confronted by situations like that? 

DB: The nearest I got to it I guess, which is really quite tepid in comparison, is when I had a tattoo put on my leg when I met Iman for the first time and I had to go through the Yakuza in Japan. In the majority of places in Japan it's still taboo to have tattoos, unless you're a member of the gangs, because it's so associated with criminality, that the only people who do really reasonable jobs are members of the fraternity. I had to search a guy out. It took me two weeks to be allowed to go and see him and then all his cohorts came up for a good laugh to see this Caucasian get himself tattooed. That was fairly scary to have all those guys around, because they all had tattoos, and they were drinking the snake wine as well, and at that time I was straight, so I did it without drinking. It was so painful.

D&C: Let's have a look at it.

(Bowie lifts his right trouser leg and turns his heel, so the back of his calf is facing me. The bare arse cheeks of a young, smiling Japanese girl ride high in the air, as she grips tightly with her arms around the neck of a blue dolphin. In the background a formation of evenly spaced out Japanese letters extends the size of the tattoo to roughly ten by four inches)

D&C: How ambitious are you for your new album to be successful?

DB: This sounds totally over-modest, but I really don't have expectations for it. I don't think music has quite the same cultural impact that it once had.

“I’ve just found this new aspect of myself that enjoys conversation, to an extent I’ve never really realised before. It’s really cool” – David Bowie

D&C: It almost seems like the music is not that important to you any more.

DB: It's the process that is important. The process of making the music. I've always been bored by touring, the aftermath of album release; I can't wait to get back into the studio and work again. I'm not going to say that I'm bored with this album, but for me the part of the album I enjoyed is over now. The actual making of it. It'll be fun for a few weeks playing the music on the road, then that's it.

D&C: How much do you think the revolution is in the hands of the artists. What do you think the artists are doing that is different to the scientists?

DB: As a collective they provide a frame for society to see its context and that's what art does. It certainly solves nothing, art only creates more problems, the world needs another work of art like it needs a hole in its head...

D&C: Is that your album, the hole in everyone's head?

DB: (Laughs) That's the next album, 'A Hole In My Head' (Laughing).

D&C: Or the space between the holes? (Laughing)

D&C: What's new technology done for you?

DB: For a year it took me away from painting, which wasn't such a great thing. I've got my doubts about new technology. I don't buy into the Utopian dream of the computer by any means, I think that there is a very strong chance that what it can do is provide a huge chasm between the haves and the have nots, it's a middle class situation...

D&C: Cultural fascism in a sense...

DB: It's terribly dangerous in that way. It could be a situation where far too much precious information is in the hands of the few. And that is inevitably used to control the many, and that's the down side of it. At a creative level it can stop a lot of waste of time. There are constructive things it can do, but I'm not sure I can buy into access to information. 

D&C: I know this is a very personal question, but you talked about Cobain earlier and since his suicide I wanted to know about dealing with the pressures of celebrity, and how close you've come to suicide?

DB: Well, the only times I've been in that state are when I've been really under the influence of other substances or at the bad end of one, maybe a day or two later. When I'm in a really straight and sober state of mind it would not be something I'd even entertain. I really have high expectations of the day when I wake up and I try and live it to a certain kind of quality. I don't fuck about wasting my time too much. I just think it's impossible to overestimate the change you can put yourself through with a chemical substance. 

D&C: What did you think when you heard the news?

DB: My immediate reaction was, 'God, if I'd been the father of that boy', and then I automatically think, 'Jesus, if I'd have had a son who died I don't know how I'd cope with that'. He was just such a young guy and if I had felt that way, which I probably have done a few times when I was that age, and I'd have gone ahead and done that... you almost want to bring him back and say, 'Don't do that; things really do get better.' It's a huge tragedy.

D&C: Have you ever thought of retiring from the public eye? Just not doing interviews, entertaining the press... (Long pause)

DB: I'm not sure. I thought of backing off from music in the '80s; I seriously thought of just being a visual artist about '86, just before the Glass Spider Tour, just after the album. In fact, that whole period '84 to '88, I went in and out of the idea of just pulling back, I'm not sure if that's really retiring from it.

D&C: What I meant more, was how important is the celebrity to the artist? How important is the media?

DB: Yeah, using the position of my celebrity status. It's something I don't ignore. I'm very much a product of the late 20th Century; the media is all and I think if you want to have an effect... I cannot buy into a new band who says, 'You know we just do our music and if somebody comes to our shows that's just a bonus,' I think, 'You fucking liar', that just isn't true. If nobody comes to your show you think, 'Fucking shitheads, they don't understand us'. I'm far too experienced to buy into that crap. 

D&C: Do you think people will take it seriously, do you ever feel that your music has no validity?

DB: No. I'm not a victim! (Laughs) I think a lot of people like my stuff and I think that because I like it and I think that, at heart, I'm no different from anybody else, I just read more. That's the only difference. I just force myself into cultural situations because I find them really exciting and I've got this burning curiosity to find out why things work, how artists work and the process of society, how it constructs itself.

D&C: Where's Iman today?

DB: I'd say she's about two and a half miles down the road at a place we're staying at, hopefully cooking.

D&C: And Joe?

DB: He's back in Switzerland at the house and he's waiting to start his doctorate at the end of this rest period. He's taking philosophy. He's just got his BA, so if he's a good student he'll end up being Dr. Jones in five years time. He likes the life, especially in America where it's a lot less elitist.

D&C: So are you still teaching him, as father Jones or are you learning from him?

DB: I'm supposed to say 'yes', aren't I? (Laughs) I'm sure that I over-lecture him. We really enjoy each other's company and we're never short on talking areas. If he's inherited anything of me, he's got the same curiosity about things and won't take absolutes as the given, he'll always question why he should accept somebody's ideas on something and what those ideas are supposed to mean, and where do they fit into his life.

D&C: Would you say that's your personal philosophy?

DB: Yeah, very much so, I've always questioned dictums, I've always questioned what I've been told are the things I've got to live by or that this is the way things are done.

 

“The couple of times where I’ve remotely tried to take an audience into consideration, the work itself has been utterly a wash out” – David Bowie

D&C: I wanted to ask you about the film. What personal effect did playing Warhol have on you?

DB: As I didn't know him very well, I guess not that much psychologically. Because, he was just this strange bloke I met half a dozen times at the most, socially, or at people's apartments, or at clubs, and we didn't really say anything much to each other. In fact he was very hard to get any kind of conversation out of, he was virtually an inanimate voyeur, it seemed, from the outside, but that is very presumptuous of me as I didn’t know him very well.

D&C: Were you chatty in public then?

DB: Oh no, I've only become more gregarious, I guess, in the last six years or so since I got married.

D&C: Why's that? Has it made you feel better about where you're coming from and what you've got to say?

DB: That's all happened as well, but a really epic journey began. It's the most adventurous thing you can do, I think, to make a commitment to sharing your life with someone else for the rest of your life. And in the course of having a companion and sharing more and more things with them, you find it spreads outwards and I was starting to develop a wide social life because of that and that I enjoyed the process of talking things out and I started to develop a large circle of friends and I like that. I've just found this new aspect of myself that enjoys conversation, to an extent I've never really realised before. It's great. It's really cool. It gives life a whole new dimension.

D&C: Why do you think most musical stars don't make it as actors?

DB: (Laughing) Usually because we are all very rotten.

D&C: What are the qualities that you have, that you feel allow you to cross over?

DB: I don't know if I'm the one to be at all judgmental. Let's think. Who is there and why?

D&C: Tom Waits I like.

DB: Tom Waits is fabulous, he's great. Often the case with rock stars is that firstly we're given such rotten roles and we, being inexperienced suckers, generally take them. (Laughing) I'm getting much better at reading scripts these days and I don't naturally jump at every damn thing that comes along, but I think it works out better when I really home in on who the director is and what kind of respect I have for them as a director.

D&C: But Julian Schnabel has never directed anything.

DB: Yeah. But I knew Julian and I have great faith in his vision. He's no fool. I knew it was the subject matter; he knew Basquiat and Warhol intimately.

D&C: How much do you want acting to be a part of your life?

DB: I have absolutely no ambition in that area. I don't particularly enjoy the process. I like working on the set for a little bit. I much prefer these little cameo roles...

D&C: So why do it?

DB: Because it's fun, (Laughing and with affected accent) 'and that's OK'. It just allows me to have some fun, but I'm not into going into all that motivation thing they have to go through. I kind of say, 'Well I can look left, I can look right and I can look straight ahead, which do you want?'

D&C: You come across as being very confident of everything working out well. (Laughing) And excited...

DB: (laughing) Yeah, I'm a fairly satisfied guy.

D&C: Do you feel like you are overstretching yourself with the new album, the whole concept, the film: do you think people will get it?

DB: I really can't take them into consideration. It's really so important to me, that the one who enjoys it to it's fullest is me, and my presumption has to be that if I enjoy it, somebody else to a greater or lesser extent will enjoy it too. And that's it. But the couple of times where I've remotely tried to take an audience into consideration, the work itself has been utterly a wash out…

D&C: You're not well-noted for your sense of humour, but have you got a joke? Let's shatter another myth. (Pause)

DB: There was this pianist and he was auditioning for this club-owner and the club-owner said, 'Well, show me what kind of thing you can do.' So he sat down and started playing the piano. It was so beautiful, such a complex pattern of notes, it was like Rachmaninov on acid. By the end of it the nightclub owner said, 'That's bloody marvellous. I think that's the most beautiful piece of music I think I've heard in years, what's it called?' and he said, 'Shut up or I'll cut your head off and I'll fuck you down your throat.' The club-owner says, 'I'm sorry, is that the title?' The pianist says, 'Yeah'. 'OK, so have you got any more music?', he asks. So he played another, even more magnificent piece. The nightclub-owner says, 'That was also really beautiful. Got a title, has it?' 'Bend Over And I'm Gonna Fuck You Up The Arse'. 'I see. OK. Well, you've got the job, you start tonight. Just do me a favour; could you just not tell the audience what the titles of the pieces are?' 'But I work on these titles really hard. I work on them as much as I work on the music.' He goes, 'I understand that, but please just keep shtum about what they're called.'

That night he starts playing to an enraptured audience, lots of applause after the first pieces. 'I'll zip my lip', he thinks to himself. After the next bit, they're standing on their chairs by the end, and he can't contain himself and he thinks 'I've got to tell them what they are called. But I'll lose my job if I do', so he keeps quiet. Then he plays the third, this euphoric piece of symphonic material, and the audience is wailing in absolute passion and he goes off to this virtual standing ovation and he goes out so tense that he runs off to the lavatory and jerks off out of frustration, and comes out and he's just leaning against the wall. The stagehand comes along and says, 'Do you know your cock's hanging out and you've got spunk all over your tie?' 'KNOW IT? I WROTE IT!' (Laughs)

D&C: Have you ever done that, have you ever had an audience in your hands and then done something out of the blue that you're not supposed to do? (Pause) You know, done the opposite of what's expected...

DB: Yeah, yeah... or the sullen walk off and just not coming back on again, just fucking off in the car and going out for the night, instead of going back and doing encores and things like that.

D&C: You're smiling.

DB: (Laughing) It's kind of a fun thing to do.

D&C: What, having that arrogance...

DB: Course it is... it's broad, working-class arrogance elevated to high art.

Bowie People: styling Katy England, assistant Trino Verkade, hair Adam Bryant for Toni and Guy, makeup Rachel Howarth, models Carol-Anne at Little Boats, Mystic Mill, Alister Mackie, Lina Bergman at Tuff Chics, Margo Dillon at Uglys, computer possession Tony Campbell at AMX Digital

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