Jim Sullivan celebrates his history in conversation with the Thin White Duke
This is the second part of our tribute to David Bowie, on the occasion of what would have been his 74th birthday and the five-year anniversary of his death. (Five Years?!)
The word most frequently applied to Bowie’s career has to be “chameleon-like” — for all the musical changes and image shifts he undertook. I didn’t consider the word pejorative, particularly; some did. During a 1990 interview, I asked him if he saw himself as a chameleon.
“I think a painter who fell into that category was Picabia,” said Bowie, dropping the name of the French artist who began as a Post-Impressionist and later embraced Cubism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism. “He had a very hard time being taken seriously as an artist because he changed so rapidly and continually throughout his career. And if you aren’t seen as a craftsman who will stick to your so-called guns, I think you unfortunately start falling into the realm of ‘dilettante.’ I got plagued with that for a while, and I think I probably always will.
“But I can’t change my focus. My focus is very short-lived. 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.”
Bowie went on to quote 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 once looked like a hippie, then a carrot-top with lightning bolts painted on his face, then a slick, suave nightclub singer. In 1971’s “Changes” he sang: “So I turned myself to face me/ But I’ve never caught a glimpse/ Of how the others must see the faker/ I’m much too fast to take that test. The concept runs contrary to what most rockers have always told us through their music: that they were almost always the protagonists of their own songs, that this wasn’t a fabrication, it was real life. Bowie popularized the idea of rock fiction — of adopting a character and a different point of view from which to sing.
That was his modus operandi pretty much throughout his career, going back to 1969’s Space Oddity, inspired by the first moon landing. But Bowie’s music made little impact, at least in the United States, until 1973’s seminal The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie played the doomed hedonist-egotist rock star, Ziggy; he invited fans to question his own sexuality; he made rock ‘n’ roll that pulsed with eroticism and danger. It was highly charged, quirky, conceptual rock ‘n’ roll — very English and totally unlike anything else in the mainstream.
As Bowie put it, he caught a wave. “I think you’re very aware of that,” he said. “It must be kind of what it must be like for surfers, when they can’t do a thing wrong. I suppose, like every new rock era, the bands that so-called ‘spearhead’ the era feel that they’re wiping the slate clean and starting off with — this is what’s gonna happen now. And we had the same kind of derisive feelings about everything that had happened before us.”
“Which,” Bowie, added with a laugh, “you get now from new bands about us guys, and it’s perfectly understandable. You really have to feel as if you have an answer, or a message, that meteoric kind of feeling, that euphoria that you just discovered something brand new.”
Bowie swore he didn’t get depressed anymore. “In terms of adjusting to who or what I was, I mean, I hit every cliché in the book,” he said. “Should I be with younger people or should I let go of the youthful feelings? Am I now supposed to settle back into something? Should I change my life entirely? . . . I did in fact, in a way, change my life. I just treat the rest of whatever life I’ve got as the adventure it used to be, so I’m not just kind of by myself, just left on the sands of this awful, nostalgic, rather poignant, sad old life.
VIDEO: Kurt Loder interviews David Bowie and Trent Reznor for MTV News 1995
“I think I’m actually glad to be alive,” he said, acknowledging time spent in cocaine hell, wrestling with paranoia and self-doubt. The happiness, he suggested, may have to do with “surviving all that stuff and finding that actually getting older ain’t such a bad thing, that really, I would be left with an appetite for life and finding at 50 I really do have one.
“It’s the last thing that I imagined at 25. I thought I’d be all burned out, or at least really bored or boring. Both probably. I find that life is more stimulating to me than it was at 25, when I was just racked with ambition.”
Bowie was like his friend Neil Young. He followed his nose, explored genres that right-thinking people wouldn’t attempt. Both Young and Bowie ran contrary to most rockers who slowed down or mellowed as they aged. Why hadn’t Bowie?
“I think I’ve had the advantage of not believing in myself as a`rock’ person,” he said. “Therefore, I don’t think that I imbued those qualities that were so much part of the rock character, which was agelessly young, being the permanent social rebel in that stereotypical fashion.
“I had these dreams of rock music being the great art form of the late 20th century. To me, it still is the greatest art form of the 20th century. It has surpassed, in its communicative powers, the visual arts, theater, opera — maybe cinema is the only competition it has.
“I didn’t feel myself as being such an integral part of [rock] in that way, but somebody who utilized the rock platform as a way of expressing themselves as an artist. So, maybe, I was not weighed down with the thinking `Hey, I’m a rock god.’ … All I know is that I don’t want to play anything other than the stuff that’s really interesting me and exciting me at the time. I’ve always gambled on that. 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.”
Stay tuned tonight for A Bowie Celebration: Just for One Day, a star-studded virtual tribute show helmed by Bowie pianist Mike Garson. You can watch at 9 p.m. (east coast time) for $25 and, of course, there’s plenty of ancillary merch to buy if you wish. ($2 of every ticket goes to Save the Children, one of Bowie’s favorite charities.)
On tap: Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, Ian Hunter, Perry Farrell, Joe Elliot, Yungblud, Adam Lambert, Billy Corgan, Macy Gray Peter Frampton, Bernard Fowler, Ian Astbury, Gavin Rossdale, Corey Glover and more. Bowie’s longtime producer (and bassist) Tony Visconti is in the mix. The band, joining Garson. will be members of Bowie’s final touring band, including Gail Ann Dorsey, Earl Slick, Sterling Campbell, Gerry Leonard and Catherine Russell.
VIDEO: A Bowie Celebration: Just for One Day trailer