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Bowie finds his voice

Robert Hilburn • Melody Maker • 14 September 1974

 

"I really shouldn't do this", teased David Bowie as he walked across the room of his Beverly Hills hotel suite toward a mound of tape equipment. I had come to talk to him and hear his new live album (a two-record set from his current United States tour), but there was something else he wanted to play first.

"This isn't the new album, but the one after it, and the record company doesn't like me to do that. They want me to talk about the new one, the live one that'll be out soon. But I'm so excited about this one. We cut it in a week in Philadelphia and it can tell you more about where I am now than anything I could say."

This was Bowie's first interview since he began his massive US tour last June, a tour that included such ambitious staging that many reviewers have hailed it as the most spectacular rock show ever.

Bowie doesn't like interviews and rarely does them anymore. They are, he feels, unnecessary links between him and his audience.

Like so many, he feels his music conveys everything he wants to say. Besides, he hates to read later when his views on a subject may have changed drastically.

And David's views - he's the first to admit - do change often and drastically.

He was a bit nervous when he entered the room. He simply walked over to the tape equipment and rummaged through some boxes until he found the right one, and began threading the machine and adjusting the controls.

For those who still take note of his fashion, he now parts his hair down the side - a bit like the 1930s look.

The popular Ziggy hairstyle is gone. He was wearing black tux trousers, a blue and white check shirt and bold white suspenders. His shoes were black, rather like a conservative banker might wear. No platforms.

Satisfied the tape equipment was working properly, he moved to a chair and listened as the music came from the speakers.

From the opening track (a new version of John, I'm Only Dancing) it was clear some changes had been made in Bowie's style.

The musical backing featured a strong touch of rhythm and blues, but mainly it was the confidence, increased shading and range of his voice. It was far less one-dimensional than in the past. More human and "authentic".

The next track - Somebody Up There Likes Me - was even more telling. It was a socio-political commentary, very direct in its lyrics.

The other tracks - including a ballad about love having slipped through one's grasp, and a lament about the loss of emotion in this era that contains the line, "Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?" - were also more direct and accessible than much of Bowie's previous work. There's no resort to science fiction or indirect statement.

When the tape ended, there was less nervousness in Bowie's manner. He was obviously delighted with the new album. It was as if the music gave him greater confidence.

Later, the nervousness would reappear from time to time and when it did he would usually end his comment with a nervous laugh as if to underscore his uncertainty about the particular answer.

"I think it is the closest thing I've ever done on record to being very, very me," he said. "I always said that on most albums I was acting. It was a role generally.

"And this one is the nearest to actually meeting me since that very first Space Oddity album, which was quite personal. I'm really excited about it."

There seemed to be much less tension and more focus in the new album - tentatively titled One Damn Song - than in the recent Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs albums.

I asked him about that. He said he had been through a strain on both of those albums.

"Aladdin Sane was a result of my paranoia with America at the time," he said. "I hadn't come to terms with it, then. I have now, I know the areas I like best in America.

"I know the kind of people I like. I've been here a long time - since April. I've had a chance to clarify my feelings. And I'm quite happy over here. I found different people.

"But I ran into a very strange type of paranoid person when I was doing Aladdin. Very mixed up people, and I got very upset. It resulted in Aladdin … And I know I didn't have very much more to say about rock'n'roll.

"I mean Ziggy really said as much as I meant to say all along. Aladdin was really Ziggy in America. Again, it was just looking around, seeing what's in my head.

"The Pin Ups album was a pleasure. And I knew the band (the Spiders) was over. It was a last farewell to them in a way. Diamond Dogs was the start of this new album, actually.

"Things like Rock 'N' Roll With Me and 1984 were embryonic of what I wanted to do. I tried all kinds of things. It' was not a concept album. It was a collection of things.

"And I didn't have a band. So that's where the tension came in. I couldn't believe I had finished it when I did. I had done so much of it myself. I never want to be in that position again.

"It was frightening trying to make an album with no support behind you. I was very much on my own. It was my most difficult album. It was a relief that it did so well."

Was he worried during Diamond Dogs about where he was going next musically?

"No, I knew it was toward this album. Even then. The songs on Diamond Dogs that I got the biggest kick out of - like Rock 'N' Roll With Me and 1984 - gave me the knowledge there was another album at least inside of me that I was going to be happy with.

"I mean, if I can't make albums that I'm happy with, I'll not make them. I won't just go in and knock off dozens of albums. They must mean something to me.

"It just happens that I write very fast. I write a lot. That's why I seem to have so many bloody albums out."

Though the new album, then, is a departure for Bowie, he gave clues to it all along. Even during the peak success of Ziggy Stardust he had said he was not interested in just being a rock 'n' roller.

He wanted a broader, more multi-directional career. While the new album, is the boldest step in that direction, songs like Time on Aladdin Sane gave hints of his future.

"Exactly," he said, "it has always been there. It was just a question of when I was going to come out of my particular closet. The answer, obviously, was when I had the confidence to. Presumably, the next album will be a further graduation. But, maybe, it'll be a retrostep. We'll see." The nervous laughter popped up briefly.

I asked him about the rhythm and blues influence. Was it something new?

"No. But it's only now that I've got the necessary confidence to sing like that. That's the kind of music I've always wanted to sing.

I mean those are my favourite artists… the Jackie Wilsons, that type. That was one of the great things about this trip. I could go to any black place in America and not be recognised. And that was really fantastic. The only time, really, we got any kind of recognition on a large scale was at the Jackson 5 concert because there was a younger audience. But at most of the R&B shows, they're married couples, not kids, so it was marvellous for me to be able to go out and rave and yell. I went to the Apollo a lot, saw dozens of people."

When did the vocal confidence come to him?

"When I started rehearsing with the band for this tour, I suddenly realised I was enjoying singing again. I hadn't enjoyed it in a long time. It was just a way to get my songs across. But when I started rehearsing I began enjoying it and I found I actually had a voice.

"That's really exciting for me. My voice has improved in leaps and bounds. I've been flattered by some of the things the musicians have said about my singing. I'd really like to be recognised as a singer. I'd love that."

Was singing always a goal?

"I don't know," he smiled. "Once upon a time when I was very young like 22 or something… I had my eye on that, but I never really took it seriously. I didn't have any sort of faith in my voice. I knew that I had an individual voice, but how I'm beginning to believe it's good as well. Maybe I just want to be a crooner… "

That laughter popped up again. One of the most interesting songs on the new album is Somebody Up There Likes Me, a warning about the danger of hero worship.

"There are several things on this album that lead front other things I've done," he said. "Really, I'm a very one track person. What I've said for years under various guises is that 'Watch Out, the West is going to have a Hitler!' I've said it in a thousand different ways. That song is yet another way.

"I just feel we are very open to… " he continued, then paused and broke off his thought by saying he hates to pontificate in that way. He just feels, he said, we all have a temptation to let others make our decisions for us - to lead us. "That's what Ziggy was. That's what they all are… all the little characters I come up with."

Wasn't it ironic, then, I suggested, that so many of Bowie's own fans look to him as a leader - someone give them answers.

"That's just it," he said. "That's what I said in Rock 'N' Roll With Me. I mean, the verse of that talks about that… you're doing it to me. Stop it."

Again, the nervous laugh.

"That's why I'm happy my music is going in the new direction. It's responsible music. I mean, one could play an enormous game with people, but I am not prepared to do it. I could see how easy it was to get a whole rally thing going.

"There were times, frankly, when I could have told the audience to do anything, and that's frightening. Well, I've got that responsibility so I've got to be very careful about what I do with it. It needs a bit of forethought."

How does he feel his audience will respond to this new album?

"When we were recording, a bunch of kids stayed outside the studio all night until 10 o'clock in the morning, so we let them in and played some things from the album and they loved it, which was amazing. Fabulous, because I really didn't know what they'd think about the change in direction."

What about the absence of science fiction in the new album? Was that part of his increased confidence.

"Yes it is in a way. I used a lot of science fiction patterns because I was trying to put forward concepts, ideas and theories, but this album hasn't anything to do with that. "It's just emotional drive. 'It's one of the first albums I've done that bounds along on emotional impact. There's not a concept in sight."

He'd felt a concept was important?

"Yes, very much so. That's what I felt my area as a writer was, but I've obviously changed. When I finished this album, I felt. 'My God, I'm a different writer than I used to be.' Before you put it all together, you don't know what you've really got - just bits and pieces.

"But then when we listened to it all together, it was obvious that I had really, really changed. Far more than I had thought. Every time I play a finished album I get a shock. I think - wow, is that where I am now?"

It seemed like a good time for Bowie to put on another tape. This one was the live album, which is due to be released this month (September). Titled David Live, it contains 17 songs, most of them vastly redesigned instrumentally from the original album versions, and sung with the greater character and texture of Bowie's improved style.

The first track - 1984 - burst into the room, and again he settled back in a chair to listen. While the album was playing, several of the musicians travelling with him and some of the MainMan staff came into the room to hear it. Bowie was very much a musician, not a "personality" in the manner of so many rock stars when they listen to their own music. He was like a fan pointing out special touches - some crisp guitar lick or a particularly hot saxophone solo - that delighted him. There were, quite justifiably, many reasons far his delight. Though it is a bit dangerous making such judgements on the basis of a single listening, David Live is quite possibly the best live rock album I've ever heard - an urgent, highly accessible, brilliantly performed collection.

One of its special features is the absence of the long delays (for crowd applause) between songs. Just as one song dies down another begins. The result is a lively continuing pulse.

As with Dylan and Before The Flood, David Live updates Bowie's material - even though some of it is only a few months old - in a way that almost makes the original version irrelevant.

Bowie's vocals give all sort of new insights and interpretations to the lyrics, particularly on songs like Changes and All The Young Dudes. The album's only non-Bowie song is Knock On Wood, the old R&B hit.

Here is the order of songs on the album:

SIDE ONE: 1984, Rebel Rebel, Moonage Daydream, Sweet Thing

SIDE TWO: Changes, Suffragette City, Aladdin Sane, All The Young Dudes, Cracked Actor

SIDE THREE: Rock 'N' Roll With Me, Watch That Man, Knock On Wood, Diamond Dogs

SIDE FOUR: Big Brother, The Width Of A Circle, The Jean Genie, Rock 'N' Roll Suicide

The album, clearly is a testament to a phase in Bowie's career that is as satisfying as the Rock of Ages album is to the first phase of The Band's career. And Bowie does, quite definitely, feel it is the end of a phase of his career.

When someone suggested the live album could be subtitled David Bowie Vol.1 he smiled in agreement.

The first step in the new phase - even before the arrival of the next studio album - is the termination of his elaborate stage show. When his Los Angeles concerts are finished, he'll recross the US with another tour, but this one, without the huge staging, will be a fairly straight concert.

"I think I always know when to stop doing something," he said. "It's when the enjoyment is gone. That's why I've changed so much. I've never been of the opinion that it's necessarily a wise thing to keep on a successful streak if you're just duplicating all the time.

"That's why I tend to be erratic. It's not a matter of being indulgent, I don't think. It's just a case of making sure I'm not bored, because if I'm bored then people can see it. I don't hide it very well.

"Everything I do I get bored with eventually. It's knowing where to stop.

"I have now done what I wanted to do three or four years ago. Stage an elaborate, colourful show… a fantasy … and I don't think I want to go any further with it because I know it can be done.

"I know I could do an even bigger, grander kind of production. But when I know it can be done, I don't have to do it any more.

"Doing a straight show is very exciting to me now, suddenly jumping into a new kind of tour after this one. Couldn't imagine just doing the same show over and over again. It would be terribly boring. That's why I gave up the last time. That's why I 'retired' last time."

"Besides the new musical direction, Bowie's current enthusiasm is boosted by some new musicians who'll be joining him later in the year.

He feels he finally has a band again. Andy Newmark, a drummer with Sly & The Family Stone, and Willie Weeks, a bassist who has worked with Aretha Franklin among many, will join him as soon as their present obligations are finished.

Both men worked with Bowie on the new studio album and, like many who have read so much about the controversial Bowie Image, they approached the project with a bit of uncertainty.

"When Andy, and Willie came to see me in the studio, they were very wary," Bowie admits with a smile. "They didn't know what to expect. They came in looking for silver capes and all, I imagine.

"But once we started playing the songs, it worked itself out. It ended in a very, very solid friendship and a group that is going to work with me."

Thus Bowie, as he prepares to recross the US seemed more confident and enthusiastic than on his first two visits here. He agreed things were going well. It might be just the kind of quote that'll make him shudder in some future moment of depression, but now it fits.

"Yes, I really am more confident. I'm not sure it is supreme confidence or anything, but I am happier."

 

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this page updated October 29, 2018