Outside David Bowie… is the closest you're gonna get
Martin Hayman • Rock • October 1973
Picture a large stone-flagged room with bare, whitewashed walls. A minimum of furniture, just a long curvy settee in front of a huge open fire, now sinking into dying embers. A collection of people sunk into the cushions, murmured conversation occasionally bursting into bouts of laughter.
At the corner of the settee nearest the fire, beneath a television which has long ceased to flicker its soundless images, sits a familiar figure, eyes half closed, head bowed, nodding gently, almost imperceptibly, to the pain and anger of John Lennon's Mother, growling out of a loud speaker at each corner of the spacious hunting lodge room. He still has the same dungarees in turquoise corduroy, and you might think he was falling asleep were it not for the slight tightening of the eyebrowless forehead at the compelling anguish of the shrieking fade-out.
Music-lover on holiday? Or a man trying to catch up with his past? For David Bowie is a man who is usually disassociated from his past by events which have run almost beyond his control. In the last two years there has been little of his life which belonged to him alone.
All the time in the world to be Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane - you would be surprised just how many letters we get from his fans to whom Ziggy is a real person - but precious little time to be David Bowie. A real person in a fantasy world? Or a fantasy person in a real world?
Nobody would claim to know anyone else well enough to know his innermost secrets - not even your best mate. Far less is it possible to portray the complex and vague character of David Bowie alias whatever alias - after hanging out for a while and on the strength of a few conversations snatched at various opportune moments in a career.
But sitting in that big, comfortable sitting-room as the logs in the fire shift and crack and settle down to glowing embers, and David plays his own selection of records to his own people and talks according to his own whims - here is a greater possibility for insights into the greatest star phenomenon of the moment than those formally-posed situations where questions demand answers and words are hewn to fit the image.
Though I did in fact ask him whether he would care to sit down and face the questions in a non-conversational way and he laughed and replied "No I won't, I've always hated those things, never got off on them, don't like them," the insouciance concealing a very genuine dislike of the probing or more often groping questions which have assailed him in the past couple of years.
A curious location, I suggested for an album of his past years. "Yes… but it's a good place for nostalgia," as his soft shoe shuffle chimed with my clanging boots through the dusky vestibule of this oh-so-lost country chateau in France.
Here it is, at the Château d’Hérouville, that David Bowie is hiding from the world: at the same time charged with such a rush of ideas that no fewer than three albums are being worked on, with plans and projects as yet not tempted into reality by the march of time.
It had seemed like a good idea, with the dust settling down after David Bowie's final exit from the performance business, and recalling (as it said on one of the Byrds’ album sleeve notes, "Things happen so fast!") that memories are short to find out what it was that Bowie was up to.
After all, even if he would not tell anyone his plans for the future, at least maybe we could gain some impression of what he was doing at the present moment, as he clearly only just started to fulfill the potential of his many ideas.
And what he does now is more crucial than anything ever before. For surely, with the groundwork so solidly laid, he was not going to let it slip away. The lesson of Space Oddity has been learned.
The plan to "drop in" on the happenings at the chateau seemed a less good idea as, with the dark bellies of storm clouds hanging over Paris, I piloted the unfamiliar motor through Paris's notorious rush-hour traffic; and once North of Paris, peering through the windscreen at rain falling like rods and main roads so comprehensively blocked that lengthy country lane detours were the order of the day, it seemed like a fool's errand.
Hérouville is not a large town - it's a village. But patience and the Peugeot map won the day and evening saw me pulling into the gravel courtyard of the solid, sober chateau, a dark and clammy evening. Music was coming from somewhere inside the grey stone walls, over the leafy rustlings on the plain trees and the country sounds.
I stroll into the reception area and the first person I encounter is David Bowie, bent over the switchboard, making one of the many private calls to England which punctuate his day, still in his striking turquoise and orange spiky hair and even thinner, it seems than ever. There is not the slightest hint of surprise as he greets me. The intrusions into his private life are an accepted fact.
There is hardly any surprise registered with the company in the relaxing room, either. The old faithfuls plus a few new faces: Mick Ronson, looking hawk-like and talking loudly with the flat Lincolnshire accent; Stuart the bodyguard chuckling throatily; Aynsley Dunbar, new to the outfit; engineer Andy Scott, a resident at the chateau; a distinguished-looking Frenchman of about thirty-five, I suppose, with grey hair and moustache who sat gravely without saying a word that I heard other than "Far out" after playing the Doobie Brothers, and Suzy with the smile, sewing a satin shirt for Mick.
David told me that everybody was at a bit of a loose end. His engineer [and co-producer] Ken Scott (no relation to Andy) had hot-footed it back to England because his wife was having a baby, and Trevor Bolder and Mike Garson had both taken the opportunity to slide off to see their "prospective ladies" [sic], leaving the party in a sort of suspended animation.
To be strictly accurate, this is no party. I have arrived bang in the middle of a lull in a period of intense creativity, which is why an atmosphere of almost-boredom hangs in the air, as though cut short by a knock on the door. I am soon to find out what happens when Bowie is at work: nobody, but nobody other than those immediately concerned, is permitted to enter the studio.
But this evening David is free to savour his leisure. He seems strangely detached. When dinner is served, he strolls in alone, apart from the party, and sits at a separate table, eats not a thing. He studies with ferocious avidity that day’s Evening Standard. "What's wrong, David, in one of those moods are you?" asks the forthright Aynsley Dunbar. Bowie agrees: he goes on reading the paper. Occasionally he reads out a particularly striking story - notably one about the new biography of Janis Joplin [Buried Alive]. In what strange ways does fame live on! How time changes remembrance.
Time figures strongly in Bowie's songs. In the past I have taxed him on this subject, but he is masterful at turning the conversation away from subjects too painfully close. His strongest statement on the theme he gave to Mott The Hoople – well David did get kicked in the head when he was – er, actually twenty-six. But I do happen to think that here lies the key to David Bowie's recorded work, past present and future. Like the brief but timeless love encounters in Nabokov’s novels, each recorded work stands against time, taking timeless moments out of the flow of time and freezing them into a fixed present which has no past or future.
So now to listen to the album of the moment, from whence spring these high-flown observations. There have been a few wild stabs in the dark at the identity of Pinups. Here is the track listing, in no particular order other than that of the tape.
Where Have All The Good Times Gone (The Kinks), I Wish You Would (Yardbirds), Rosalyn (The Pretty Things), Sorrow (The Merseybeats), I Can't Explain (The Who), Here Comes the Night (Them), Shape of Things (The Yardbirds), See Emily Play (Pink Floyd), Don't Bring Me Down (The Pretty Things), Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (The Who), Friday on My Mind (The Easybeats), Everything's Alright (The Mojos)
And there will be a lot of people who remember all these, that's for sure. Like myself, for example, to whom these records were common currency during what they call a formative period. One thing, though: the latest date any of these singles was released is 1967, which means for most of the people to whom these songs come with a thrill of recognition will be at the present time not less than twenty years old, that is older than the majority of David Bowie's Ziggy fans.
So these songs are being recycled - with the aid of the very considerable intervening improvement of studio technology and overlaid with the personality of David Bowie.
Taking the songs out of time, you see, giving another generation of rock fans a glimpse of what David Bowie himself, when a lad on the other side of the stage, was digging - who his pinups were. And putting out again some of these songs which are now moldering in dusty second-hand shops, when at one time you switched on your radio and they choked the pirated airwaves.
"These are all songs which really meant a lot to me then - they'll all very dear to me," David told me, sitting behind the control desk of the studio. For no apparent reason he'd donned a pair of white framed, very dark shades. "These are all bands which I used to go and hear play down The Marquee between 1964 and 1967. It's my London of the time."
Reinforcing the evocation of times past is the linking theme of Bowie's old song The London Boys. Probably half a verse will be used between songs. It will be a newly recorded version. "That dates from the first Deram album. It's about a young boy who comes up to London, gets pilled out of his head, all those things." David's observation are personal - these are his own experiences. "I used to do that – get dressed up, go up to town on Friday night, see what was going on, stay for the night."
He proves an ardent fan of the scene centred around Eel Pie Island and talks of seeing one week the Stones, the next the Yardbirds. He proves to be an ardent fan of Syd Barrett who, had he been so minded, I feel sure could be where Bowie is now. "I only met him on a couple of occasions," muses the younger man, "and then we didn't get on all that well. But I'm a great fan of his."
The assembled track list here could well serve as a tribute to David Bowie's influences in developing the rock style, which emerged around the time of Ziggy Stardust, when he started to perform again. "That's what I liked so much about Mott the Hoople - they're very up front about their influences. I'm upfront about my influences too, that's why we got on so well."
The guessing game as the tracks came up on the machine was a true pleasure. Most of the songs have so far only reached the stage of rough mixes and some do not even have a rough vocal - the backing track arrangement of Them's Here Comes the Night I would never have guessed. But what is there already is extremely good - and I would be the first to carp were Bowie's re-creation of these gems of encapsulated time past an empty travesty.
They're done with skill, with style, and with a real feel for a period when everything seemed to be new and the future lay in front of the British groups. No letters in the music papers then, bemoaning repetition and stagnation!
Bowie has started to flex his musical muscles a little, too. On this record he can be heard on Moog synthesiser and saxophone. The swooping Moog additions on the Yardbirds’ I Wish You Would is particularly effective as is the horn arrangement on Here Comes The Night, where Bowie is joined by Ken Fordham on baritone sax - "We were particularly pleased with that - we got a real Atlantic horn sound."
How had they set about recording these tunes? "I've got all these records back at home, but we don't have them here or anything. We just took down the basic chord structures and worked from there. Some of them don't even need any working on - like Rosalyn for example. But most of the arranging I have done by myself and Mick… and Aynsley too."
He [Dunbar] was introduced then, presumably because his experience went right back to those days? Bowie demurs, fiddles with his glasses. An embarrassing question, yes. Always difficult to talk about reasons for dropping anyone, particularly after scraping through the hard times together; there could be any number of reasons for Woody Woodmansey's departure, but he is not going to say. That's his right, I guess. We don't have any right to demand definitive truths, and truth is a fool's game anyway.
David asks engineer Andy to run up a quick mix of the next project. Now this is really the one – the next album of Bowie's own original material. "There are no vocals on it yet - just my la-la-la-ing. It's going to be a musical in one act called Tragic Moments probably running straight through two sides."
We listen to perhaps seven minutes of music. I am confused. The contrast between Tragic Moments and Pin Ups could not be greater. The former is a highly arranged, subtly shifting music with just a touch of vaudeville: Mike Garson's piano flashes through like quicksilver. Perhaps the closest approximation to what has gone before would be the title track of Aladdin Sane.
"This is something I've always wanted to do. You'll see the start of it in the Deram album. I envisage a scenario first, then the music." But, though I press him, he is not willing to reveal either the theme or the possibility - indeed, knowing Bowie's predilection for the theatre and his contacts, it must be a future possibility - of its taking the form on the public stage.
I mention in this connection The Who, and David says something about feeling better equipped to deal with theatrically-base composition: its difficult to ascertain exactly what he means by this, for David is a great respecter of those he really digs, and you will notice there are two songs of Townshend's on Pin Ups.
Now to that thorniest of questions which must be asked. Why did he quit when things were looking so good, after all that work put in, when America looked ripe for the picking?
David smiles secretly. I know that I'm going to get no change from this. "Having done the British tour, I know I could have done the American tour." Here we must read between the lines. If David Bowie felt he could have done that tour when all the right factors seemed to have combine for him, why did he cancel? Because it would not have been his management surely, who had gone to such lengths to set up premier venues.
The answer must lie in the scene at the Château. A pause in the headlong rush of time, which consumes superstar's as their admirers grow out of their glitter. Time to shape up the incomparable experiences of the last two years into a new form, to freeze it, encapsulate moments which will never been repeated. My visit to the Château convinced me that Bowie's quitting [of] the rock forum is neither through exhaustion nor tactics.
It is because he wishes to remain, purely and simply, an artist. He has taken one form to its conclusion, and though there's money to be made in the States, there is his art to be made here, in the Château, and wherever else it may take him. And that art has no future: only a continued present. Which is why David Bowie no more knows what his "plans" are than he can be a London Boy again. Perhaps something like that runs through his mind, along with a million other thoughts, as he sits quietly by the fire apparently dozing off.
POSTSCRIPT: "Ah well, another day at the Château", says Aynsley Dunbar over lunch, and belches loudly to reinforce his point. Mick Ronson is wearing his new white satin shirt and looked a bit peaky. He's working on a couple of string arrangements. "A piece of cake," he reckons. Stu is still chuckling and drinking beer: he's been up all morning, and his mate Anton the chef has just arrived from London.
There is a feeling of vague unease. The girl from RCA International has brought a load of crisp French banknotes, but she's been driven away by Stu's constant attentions. David is inconspicuous by his absence. My invitation to talk some more is refused. David thinks there is no need for further discussion, his charming and efficient secretary tells me.
I spend the afternoon sitting at a cafe by the River Oise in some small town, watching the barges roll down to Paris, drinking beer and musing on the events at the fortress of Hérouville, wondering how they can all sit in there while the sun shines and rural France goes on its old-age way.
On the way back to Paris, I mention to Geoff the conga player, to whom I'm giving a lift, that it seemed impossible really to get close to David Bowie. In surprise, not malice, he returns: "But do you really want to know David?" This from his oldest mate. Bowie is a more private person than anyone would have guessed.