Ahead of his heavenly milestone birthday, Jim Sullivan reflects on his decades in conversation with the late, great Duke
Six years ago, my wife and I were looking for a cool gig to attend during the usual January doldrums in clubland around Boston.
One that struck our fancy: A small-scale celebration of David Bowie’s seminal LP, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, just days after the release of his latest album. Blackstar, which would come out on his 69th birthday.
So, we planned to go to the intimate Lizard Lounge in Cambridge to see Lake Street Dive drummer-singer Mike Calabrese and his friend, guitarist-singer Taylor Ashton, from Fish and Bird, and guest saxophonist Chris Miller from the Revelers. The lo-fi trio was going to be playing the Ziggy songs sequentially. It would be only the second time they’d done this in public and had been booked weeks in advance.
Of course, this turned into something else.
Bowie, who would have turned 75 on January 8th, had died two days before the gig. Prior to all this, I’d talked to Tony Visconti, Bowie’s frequent producer (he co-produced Blackstar with the singer) and longtime friend, about Bowie’s future post-Blackstar. No tour, certainly, but he floated the possibility that Bowie might do a one-off concert, simulcast in theaters around the country. Visconti was part of Bowie’s small, tight inner circle, none of whom believed anything tragic was imminent or that Bowie had been battling liver cancer for 18 months.
Well … the musicians at the Lizard Lounge did their best to keep the sorrow away from the songs – Calabrese said he hoped the gig would prove “cathartic” – but that sorrow couldn’t help suffuse the show, even as lines like “She wants my money not my honey/She’s a funky thigh collector layin’ on electric dreams” tripped off their tongues.
For two days, I’d been my semi-detached professional self, had written appreciations for Bowie and talked about him on the radio. But I lost it during “Five Years,’ tears welling up, and then again when they came to “Starman” and launched into the chorus, “There’s a starman waiting in the sky …”
I’d been fortunate, as a veteran rock writer, to have spent time with Bowie, both as a listener / fan / critic and an interviewer / feature writer. I’m almost tempted to say “conversational partner,” because interviews with Bowie were more conversations than cut-and-dried Q & As. I found Bowie charming, reflective and loquacious. He loved to engage and he was nothing if not good-humored about himself.
During one of those chats, in 1990, I honed in on the idea – not an original one, mind you – that he was a chameleon, and, if you wanted to give that a harder twist, maybe a stylistic thief.
“I do feel that that’s what I’m good at doing,” he said, cheerily. “Maybe I have this strange set of antennae that allow me to actually understand why — to a certain extent, maybe intuitively — why culture works and what the messages are and what we are sending out and receiving. That may be my contribution. I’m not a futurist. I’m very thoroughly sure-footed in the contemporaneous.”
“My focus is very short-lived,” he continued. “I’ll fool around with a side of art or a side of music or whatever, and then my attention is not there anymore. I don’t wish to take it any further. I’ve done what I want to do with it and then I move on. That just happens to be the kind of artist I am. I’m not sure whether that means chameleon. It just means there are so many aspects of music that are interesting to me, it really is fun playing in there, like a big playground.”
“Changes” was not just a song for Bowie; it was a way of life.
We talked a bit about acting, film and stage. Take a scan of his film credits – the lead alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the lead vampire in The Hunger, a POW in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, the evil king in Labyrinth and Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ, to name a few – and you’d probably assume that Bowie had been, at the least, pursuing a secondary career as an actor.
VIDEO: David Bowie as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ
“That’s very generous of you to call it a ‘career,’ ” said Bowie, chuckling at the term. “I get a little embarrassed about that whole area, although it’s great fun. I’ve ended up with a few cushy parts by some quite fabulous directors. Really, I just look at it like that: If I’m lucky enough to be offered a cameo by some great director, I’m over the moon. I don’t think I have the commitment to be an actor. I really think you have to really want it and you have to be prepared to study hard. There’s such a lot of good actors out there, I was intimidated.
“I saw a rock star on television who I won’t name,” continued Bowie, “saying, ‘Well, you’ve gotta understand when you see people like me up in a movie acting, we’re learning our craft as we’re working.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Why the hell did you accept the part when there’s 100 actors who could do the part better?’ “
Bowie had drawn raves for his portrayal of John Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway in 1980-81. Opined the New York Times: “It was not unnatural to think” that Bowie “had been cast simply for the use of his name. Dismiss that thought now … As John Merrick, the Elephant Man, he is splendid.”
What Bowie told me, years later: “That was probably the most boring thing I ever did in my life. I did six months, eight times a week. I mean, oh God, that’s hard work!” The trouble, Bowie said, was the constant repetition: “After the first couple of months, the rest of it seemed like I didn’t know how to reinvent it every night.”
VIDEO: David Bowie Scenes from The Elephant Man on Broadway
Back to music and exploration. Bowie quoted his friend and sometime collaborator Brian Eno: “’You know what the great thing is about music? It’s like being a jet pilot and you can crash your plane and walk away from it.’ Which I thought was a marvelous observation. You can really afford to make mistakes in music that you don’t make in real life. That kind of makes it exciting.”
Bowie’s approach to music made it exciting for us. He had a curious mind and he encouraged fans to be curious. He made art out of pop, pop out of art, and sailed through life and music with what he called, “unquenchable enthusiasm,” adding, “I’m a contagious, infectious enthusiast.”
Of course, he added, with a laugh, “I probably drive people around me mad with my enthusiasm. The most successful I’ve been is when I’ve just gone with my gut instinct about what I should be doing as an artist. And the audience will wax and wane and I just have to count on the fact that someone will like what I’m doing.”
One other thing that ought be mentioned: Bowie’s rescue and career resurrection of Iggy Pop. I talked to Pop in 1990 and he said counted Bowie as a close pal. Bowie, in fact, had popularized several of his songs, most notably (in 1983) “China Girl,” which kept him in pocket change during the lean years. Bowie had attempted to rescue Pop at several points in his career, first in 1973 when he co-produced Raw Power, then again in 1976 when they began a series of collaborations in Germany that lasted roughly three years.
Of this second rescue, from the drug days on the west coast, Pop says: “The main thing was that we both escaped from LA. He was on top of the heap of LA, and it was ruining him, and I was on the bottom of it, the other end of the circle from him. We were so far apart we were together. If he walked out his door, they wanted to bend over and kiss his butt. He was absolutely the flashiest dude in Hollywood. And I was the most reviled street-scum in Hollywood of no fixed address. I was Top Cat with body odor. It was like, ‘Oh no, here he comes, excuse me, I’m headin’ out the door.'”
I saw Bowie in concert maybe half a dozen times and with his band Tin Machine once. In sports stadia, summer sheds, mid-sized theaters, a club and a performance space in a recording studio.
I’d like to go back to that studio gig, April of 1997. Bowie was in Boston with longtime collaborator, guitarist Reeves Gabrels. They came to (the long-shuttered) Fort Apache Studio in Cambridge for a mini-concert and Q & A session sponsored by the reigning FM rock powerhouse radio station, WBCN. The audience comprised lucky contest winners, BCN staffers and, yes, press liggers like me.
It was the re-return of the Thin White Duke — all acoustic, warm, genial, and at ease with his surroundings, which included candles and big bouquets of flowers.
Attendees got to ask things like “Do you have a pet?” (A: Not currently, but he once owned a German shepherd), “What books are you currently reading?” (A: Life of Picasso and a biography of Marcel Duchamp) and “If you could visit any moment in history, what would it be?” (A: “1907-1913, Paris and London, because it was the most exciting time for music and art.”)
An especially good one: If an asteroid was certain to hit the earth in a week, wiping out civilization, how would Bowie spend the time? “Apologizing,” he said, after a pause. “Just in case . . . “
He played five (or six) songs – “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps),” “Seven Years in Tibet,” “The Supermen”/”Dead Man Walking,” “The Jean Genie” and “I Can’t Read” – and was in full raconteur mode between them. Bowie discussed mysteries large and small, from the genesis of the songs to the role of art.
He said he drew “`Heroes'” from the “hokey” situation of a couple that met at the Berlin wall every day, but believed was later turned into “an extraordinary song.” His Ziggy Stardust character was partially based upon a real-life delusional performer named Vince Taylor, who once performed a rock show as Jesus Christ and ended up a maintenance man for Swiss Airways.
What of art itself?
“I’m not sure any kind of artwork has to have intentions behind it,” he said, explaining his frequent use of science fiction allegories and modern man’s distance from traditional religion. He discussed Buddhism and history; he praised Neil Young’s dignity and grace.
I chatted with him briefly after the set and told me how much he admired the Kinks’ Ray Davies’ talent for weaving music and stories, something Bowie was no slouch at either.
Oedipus, then the program director of WBCN, said Bowie pulled him aside backstage at Fort Apache. “He dropped any persona and thanked me personally for always being there for him and for supporting him over the years,” Oedipus said. “It was genuine and heartfelt. Naturally, I was floored and mumbled my thanks and appreciation for his music. Words like those from David made all the choices that I made in my career worthwhile. My inspiration, my hero, my friend.”
VIDEO: David Bowie “Repetition ’97”