BOWIE GOLDEN YEARS

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The First Synthetic Rock Star. There Is No Other

Lisa Robinson • New Musical Express • 7 March 1976

(Edited version. Published in full in Hit Parader, August & September 1976)

 

"Bowie's back, David's great, the show is just a straight rock'n'roll show, he's in such good health, my interview with David was fabulous."

All this and more I heard prior to departing for LA and Phoenix where I was to talk to Bowie for the first time in nearly five years, and to see his current stage show. It had been arranged for me to 1) watch him tape the Dinah Shore TV show; 2) catch his final sold out show at the LA Forum; and 3) Interview the Artiste in Phoenix several days later.

I went with mixed feelings, no illusions, few expectations. I was amused that he was showing Un Chien Andalou before his concert, how naïve, in a way. David would later agree with me that he is naïve, and proud of it. If one views the journalistic/reportage process as confrontation.

We perhaps came out even. There is an honesty about David these days even though it really can't be described as refreshing. It is as carefully acted out as anything he's ever done, and as such, the face of David Bowie presented to me that week was who David Bowie decided to be, February 1976. He's clever, totally aware of his persona, and there's a very determined gleam in his eyes these days.

The Dinah Shore show audience is a mixed lot – housewives with blue hair who wait in line to be a part, somehow, of Hollywood "show business", and more teenagers than usual.

The warmup man leaps out in bright orange turtleneck sweater and beige polyester leisure suit, and hits us with the rap: "We get some nutty audiences on this show, folks… We want you to scream, applaud, do your own thing… Just got back from Lost Wages… yuk, yuk, yuk… "'

"Didja see Day-vee?" shrieks a maniac blond groupie.

("Angela wanted to be here," whispers the publicist, "but she's home cooking for a dinner party they're having later with Alice Cooper and Ray Bradbury.")

"And now - here's someone considered by many to be one of the most influential people in the rock spectrum!!!"

Pix flash on the screen - the Ziggy patterned jumpsuit, the long striped sock, the pink jockstrap, the white suit. About 50 teenagers in the audience scream as a screen is raised and There He Is.

David Bowie sings Stay and out of camera range, co-hosts Nancy Walker and "Fonzie" Winkler tap their toes. Bowie does little disco steps, looks great.

The song over, he sits down with Dinah to "rap".

Dinah: "How do you feel when you hear those screams?"

Dave: "It's my drummer, actually… "

More photos of our boy flash on the screen, big white suit, red suspenders blue and white polka-dot sweater. Dinah elicits remarks from David: "Oh that one, I was living in New York at the time and was influenced by a lot of Puerto Rican clothing. I steal from everybody, you know."

COMMERCIAL BREAK

Switch to Bowie on the couch, sipping tea with Dinah, Nancy and Fonzie. "I have never seen David perform before." Nancy Walker says earnestly. "He's beautiful. But you know I was brought up on Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart… "

"Hoagy Carmichael," David offers.

"David, you're a puzzle to many people," says Dinah. "There are a lot of David Bowies - but is there really only one David Bowie?"

"Well, I started as a painter," Bowie replies, "but I was a natural ham. Rock and roll is superb way of releasing that. I still act the songs rather than sing them. If the French can get away with it, I figure so can I.

"It's the policy of the self-invented man," he continues. "You strip down all the things you don't like about yourself. One thing I didn't like was being very shy. If I gave myself an alarming reputation, then I'd be faced with defending it."

Dinah: "You know, David, we all often do interviews and put people on, but I read where you said — and now I've met your lovely wife Angela - you said 'I've never been in love, thank God… "

David: "I have a vast capacity to love, but the one time I found myself falling in love it was obsessive in a way. The thing about putting a person on a pedestal, it's like what people search for in God. "

"You've said," Dinah continues, "that if you were an original thinker, you would not be in rock'n'roll."

"Oh yes," smiles David.

"But rock'n'roll has been very good to you," she says.

"I've been good for rock'n'roll," he says.

At the end of the show David sings Five Years straight into the camera, tight closeup on his face. That same song, the same face that was in closeup about five years ago when he was on Old Grey Whistle Test.

"I think with the stage show," David would tell me later, "I've put myself in a position of being more like the real David Bowie the audience has wanted. This show is more bisexual, more theatrical than anything I've ever done, I think Ostensibly because it's the most real show I've done.

"Now, I can start work."


ELTON JOHN swoops into the Forum backstage area dressed in brown. He's taken a few hours out of rest and hiding in LA to pay his respects, but doesn't stay long at the concert after his presence begins to attract attention.

In the audience are Linda Blair, David Hockney (who's had a busy week, attending parties for the Spinners, and The Pretty Things) Christopher Isherwood ("Can you imagine?" Angela Bowie gasped after the show, "CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD!!! My idol!!"), and Henry "Fonzie" Winkler.

The taped music of Kraftwerk can be heard over the PA "Radioactivity for you and me," croons writer Cameron Crowe.

Before the screening of Un Chien Andalou, Carole King treks up the aisle with new hippie boyfriend in tow. "You wouldn't believe how crazy it is down there," she shrieks to a friend in her very best Brooklyn yenta voice. I cannot believe how, with all her money, she is wearing a three-dollar Indian shmatah. Cameron Crowe cannot believe I say this. She does however seem very young, and glowingly in love.

At last Bowie comes casually out onstage, singing Station to Station. There's a huge roar, and everyone stands up.

As the show has been reviewed in these pages at length by Ben Edmonds, I'll just add these observations: I didn't much care for the band - too loud, too funky, too much bottom. My seat was reverberating throughout the show - not a pleasant sensation - and Waiting for the Man doesn't really work in its new sultry, nightclubby treatment.

The show is perhaps more theatrical than any that have preceded it, because Bowie's creating the illusion that it's real - just A Man And His Music. Make no mistake: this is a show, not a concert.

Bowie moves like a film actor who knows that standing still in front of a camera often commands more attention. The entire production - from the Kraftwerk, to Un Chien Andalou, to the black and white - is like a film David's directed himself.

It's focused, and the focus is definitely on the Star. No more cute guitarists to go down on, no more shoving the band to the side of the stage in an attempt to be visually rid of them. This band stands behind Bowie, but could just as easily be behind a curtain.

It's fine to hire "excellent musicians", but conceptually, visually, these people have nothing at all to do with Bowie.


("Do you consider this to be your band?" I would ask him later. "Oh no … they'll all probably wander off after the tour and go back to James Brown or wherever they came from," he replied. "I really don't know them … I mean, I know Carlos… ")

One thing I do love in the show is when David stands to the side of the stage during the instrumental solos, nodding his head as if he digging them. Aside from admiring such fine acting, it makes one long for the star's speedy return to centre stage – and don't think David doesn't know that.

But I'm a sucker for the more familiar rock'n'roll numbers like Suffragette City, Jean Genie, Changes, so for me they're the most successful songs in the show. Strangely enough, he leaves out Young Americans and Golden Years, but mercifully he's put Space Oddity to rest, perhaps forever.

The shows lasts about one and a half hours and, after much cheering and lighting of matches, he returns to say: "We're touring the world, and I won't see you for, oh, a year, so we'll leave you with this… "

A great Rebel Rebel.

In the dressing room after the show Bowie chats quietly with Hockney and Isherwood.


Wouldn't you know it would be a full moon in Phoenix - the town where Alice Cooper and The Tubes went to high school. I push open the door to Bowie's suite and, omigod. Iggy is in the room. A perfect Surrealist setting, guaranteed to throw me off guard. There's a definite air of tension…

David, I begin, how are you enjoying this tour?

"I'm a little bored," he replies, quietly.

"I guess I'll have to change the show around. Maybe just the order of songs. I definitely left some numbers out like Time, Space Oddity, precisely for the reason that I'd rather the energy level come from the eye line, rather than an association with any particular piece of theatre.

"I'm doing a lot of unknown songs, which is hard for the audience, so I've compromised and put a few of the more familiar ones in."

Are you doing it for the money?

"Good lord, of course I am."

I ask about his involvement with R&B.

"If you played my records to somebody who was brought up on R&B they'd laugh in your face. "

"TVC 15" sounds a lot like Otis Redding's Hucklebuck.

"Really?" Eyes wide. "It sounds more like Elvis's Girl Went Walking to me. I know Hucklebuck intimately… that's why I know that the music I play is nothing like R&B… "

So what do you think of the album?

"I like it. I wish I'd done it differently though. I compromised in the mixing, I wanted to do a dead mix. It should have been a dry mix. All the way through, no echo.

"All the way through the making of the album I was telling myself I'd do a dry mix. And I gave in, I gave in and added that extra commercial touch. I wish, I wish… I wish I hadn't."

You've said you don't consider yourself a musician…

"No one else would deny that."

But you've managed to write at least one great rock and roll song every year for the past six years.

"Incredible luck and a shrewd mercenary attitude got me that far."

Isn't it hard to write a good rock'n'roll song?

"Not if you're desperate enough. And not if you passionately want to be a rock'n'roll star and be lionised and have eulogies written about yourself. Then you write a bloody good song.

"And if you don't, then you're not going to be a rock'n'roll star. Anyway, I'm not in rock'n'roll. I never thought of this as a 'career' - it's my own field. Now I'm wondering what to do."

When did you first realise that you had a voice?

"I sort of did it all hopping on one foot, hoping I'd get by."

Now really. All this wide-eyed innocence, all this chance stuff - it doesn't convince me one bit. I mean, you were always at least a half step ahead of the others.

When I saw you in January 1971 [sic]* at your birthday party and you made an entrance wearing the grey patterned Ziggy jumpsuit and red vinyl boots, you told me you hadn't seen Clockwork Orange.

"Well, I knew everybody had seen Jason And The Argonauts and knew about the Harpies. That was the most outstanding hairstyle I had ever seen. I suppose I followed my own indulgences to such an extent that it created a field of its own.

"I feel thoroughly responsible for the state of rock'n'roll. As Mick once said, the Grandfather of Glitter Rock." He laughs.

A laugh, by the way, is a performance. The eyes flash, the head is artfully tossed back, the grin is lovely. it is then that I notice the teeth.

Nice new ones?

"What? These? They're my same old fangs."

I thought everyone at MainMan had new teeth.

"I was never at MainMan," Bowie replies with a wicked gleam in his eye. "And I couldn't afford new teeth, I was so busy paying for everybody else's."

How do you view your "competitors"?

"I would hate to be considered that I was put up against other people in rock. Good heavens, no. If I was in it for that kind of reason then I've failed dismally.

"The biggest joy in rock'n'roll is to be able to acknowledge everybody else's talent and be a fan and get by and make a living at the same time … It's terrific."

You're a fan?

"Well, the people in it, not it. The personas. It'll do until I can start directing films. I wish I could direct a show. My perfect gig would be to take all the people I like and drag them onstage. I'd like to direct their shows. I can't do that, so I do mine."

"My albums … most of them I think are too naïve. I thought so at the time. That's one of the most amazing things about rock'n'roll — apart from any message or statement or whatever — the thing that people really, really have empathy with is naïvete. It's the most loving factor of any art form.

"It's nice to know that behind the callous, cold, iceman cometh Bowie he's really probably pretty uncertain about what he's doing. I think that's poignant, and very tender."

Pause.

"I'm a good synthetic. I'm really the first synthetic rock artist. There is no other.

"Everyone else sort of keeps the faith. I try and keep the counters. I'm very good at that. I'm even better than... Oh, you fill that in."

So when did you first discover The Grand Illusion?

"Seeing my brother do coin tricks - making them disappear. Then seeing him do it in front of other people, and seeing their faces. Sixpences appearing under the pillow if you put a tooth under it. That kind of thing."

Tell me about The Man Who Fell To Earth.

"It's a good film. Working with Nicolas (Roeg) was a classic experience. It was one of the more important experiences that I've ever had - not on a film level, on another level that I can't explain in such a brief meeting.

"He has a depth, and a quality as a human being that I admire - and tried to wallow in a much as possible, actually. Tried to soak it up and hope that I took a little of it with me. An excellent man, fabulous.

"Yes… I know where my baskets, and my eggs are, dear." Flash of the eyes, toss of the head, laughter.

Bowie suddenly says, "Oh do put that thing down, my love," (referring to the tape recorder I'm holding), "I mean I don't mind it, but… no matter how many of these things I've done, I'm not in my element.

"I wish I could stay with someone for three weeks, and the sort of… I mean I always fell that afterwards I've done a sorry job. You know, 'Oh, did I tell them enough about myself', 'were they impressed enough', 'do they know I'm a man of many talents'… it's really tiresome.

"Oh well, we've all got our props. You've got that machine, I've got this bottle of beer today."

Then he says: "I wish I was a farmer."

Uhuh?

"Something wholesome and invigorating." he laughs.

Which reminds me … Lou Reed.

"To be honest, I haven't heard the last two albums. I heard Metal Machine Music, he brought it over. But hmmm, Edgar Froese I like. Oh dear, this is going to sound like I'm dropping the ultimate unknown names.

"I mean, who do I like? Christ, it all stinks in general. Eno - I quite like Eno. I'd like him to be in lggy's band, actually. How gauche. No, actually, I'm getting lggy an all-black band of ex-basketball players.

"I like Bryan Ferry. He's much better than I am as a writer, I've not seen him onstage for a while, but I thought he had the makings of a good film actor… I'd love to direct him in a film.'

"I think he's the most talented thing to come out of England, whether he knows it or not. I think oh, he's going to hate this but I think he should lose his band. Quickly. They're holding him back in this country, and he better be fast …

"Bryan, dear. There's nobody else."

Tell me about love, David.

"Oh, they're all so sex mad here." More laughter. "It's all they want to talk about."

No - the religious stuff you were on about on Dinah Shore.

"Well, if I started to preach and spout what I really believed in I would be off the program in fifteen minutes. Pure boredom, and I can never find the words for it anyway.

"I'm terribly emotional. I'm everything. I'm spiteful, I'm tedious, then warm and loving and such great company … debonair and charming and a horror. I go off at the mouth and get very tyrannical and then again I'm very philosophical, with my heads in the clouds.

"Heads," he laughs, "now there's the sign of a schizophrenic… 'got my heads in the cloud'… and I want to keep all those. Anyone wants to take those away from me I'll sue 'em.

"I'm getting used to suing people."

When you look back on your projects, do you feel that they're incomplete? Have you ever felt that's it, you've got it?

"No. I can't even brush my teeth without feeling that I haven't done a good job. I always wish I could do it again… ."

When did you first look into the mirror and realise that you were good looking, honey?

"When I was a couple of weeks old." He laughs loudly. "I'm sorry … I don't know … ahhhhh, I do remember. I'm not telling you though. (Laughs) I was naked at the time. Then I got 'round to looking at my face …

"I'd be scared stiff if I ever felt that one of my projects had been totally right, complete," he continues, seriously. "I would be unbearable if I was at that stage, as a person. Wouldn't I just? I mean wouldn't anybody? If they got to the stage where they thought that everything they did was the cat's asshole … "

What do you think when you look back on your various stages - all those costumes?

"How embarrassing. Actually, it's only embarrassing after about the second or third year. The third year when it came out of being cliche to archetype. Then it started looking good again.

"There was a point where you go through all this haziness about 'God, that's the most dreadful thing I've ever seen in my life, how on earth did I wear it', then you go past that and think, 'how incredibly right I was'.

"It was so tentative all the way through, and looking back on it, I remember a photo. Of the four of us - the Spiders - at a table at an RCA press reception. Four photos of really scared little boys wearing funny clothes, and stark light - in fact, that's where I got the idea of bringing back the old Bertolt Brecht lighting. It was so rivetingly news. It looked like news, I looked like a news story.

"Yes, this is the popular music social condition. This is what popular music felt like, not what it looked like, but what it felt like. This dressup and these faces, all looking out … and the photos were taken right in front of them so it was like boom, boom, boom - big pictures of pretty David Bowie in the back, then these four creatures sitting there, absolutely riveting.

"And that's when I realised just how good it was. Not just it, or me, but the thing - what actually went down. That was what it was all about. It was a film, it really was.

"It's now a long time ago, 1972. And I can now be arrogant and self-pleasing enough about it to look back on it and know that I did what I had intended to do. Which was bringing a new movement.

"Whether I was responsible for it or not, I was at least a spearhead. To recognize, and be able to adopt a position where I would be able to drag it through, makes me feel good.

"I've said this elsewhere, but I feel that my contribution to rock-and roll is all done. That was it, creating a whole era, by being responsible, by being the one to take the plunge. If I had really fucked up, it would have been dismal … where would it have gone??

"If I hadn't come over here in 1969 [sic]** wearing that dress, what would have happened? I mean Alice wouldn't have dressed up - they were a punk band at the time, with a great name. With lyrics all about street fighting.

"Alice and I are very close now, we had dinner the other night. Isn't that lovely," he beams, "having dinner with these people. Because now I do feel like their grandfather. I tell them what to do.

"I never had any competition. Except Marc Bolan, back in England. I had to Find somebody I would have friction with, somebody I could compete with, just to get me off the ground. Someone that would give me motivation to do the thing in the first place.

"So Marc was perfect; a friend, gets there before me. I fought like a madman to beat him. Knowing theoretically there was no race. But wanting passionately to do it.

"Now of course Marc and I are best friends. He's one of my closest friends actually… he's the funniest person I know. I never laugh so much — we're gloriously silly when we're together, you wouldn't recognize either of us. It's lovely, super…

"There are some people in rock'n'roll who are really nice. They relax with me. I don't think they expect somebody to intimidate them as much as I often do. Not purposely, but I have learned how to relax a lot in the past couple of years. And I understand my position and I'm very proud of it, and I think it helps others to relax with me because I know what it is all about.

"I know everything about this business, though how good I am at some aspects of it I don't know. But I know it thoroughly, intimately. And other people no longer have to be anything … and they become different, they don't talk to other people the way they do with me, they open up and bring out these amazing things about themselves. It's fantastic."

The Media, David. Tell me about The Media.

"Oh they're absolute idiots. Well have to get in there and blast open films, television, whatever. Most of it will be done by reversed infiltration and seemingly pandering to a particular aspect, then blowing it apart when you have the position, reputation, prestige, to do that.

To change the media, you've got to own it first, haven't you?

"I've ripped off Picture newspaper, I think it's very good. Good old Andy, he was right, wasn't he? A newspaper with no words.

"I want to bring that out again. Absolutely identical to Picture newspaper, but with different pictures. Mostly of me, at first, until it starts selling. And a lot of whoever's popular at the time.

"And slip in a few things … William Burroughs, Kirlian photography…

"But if I might add eulogy to eulogy, I think the whole theatrical, elusive quality of what's gone down has been the most cutting thing. To cut the shit. It has, and it will - mark my words - produce a new kind of truthfulness.

"Stark. I mean it's stark, for me it's Man Ray … "

Are you putting me on? You know that Richard Robinson and Lenny Kaye formed a band in 1969 called Man Ray. All black and white.

"Oh, that's incredible. But of course, you know that … And the object of my getting around to doing that, to bringing it there … how can you bring it there until you produce an extreme of the opposite psychic movement?

"You can't come out of Dylan into black and white. No way. There's no friction, To cause an art movement, you have to set something up and then destroy it. The whole rock culture has become so self-important that is doesn't realise its incredible strength comes from finding cliches.

"It is now looking for an archetype first; it's looking for a new Dylan, it's looking for a new Lou Reed. It's looking for a new something to prove that it really is a culture. It won't get excited by great mediocrity, because it doesn't understand itself.

"And the only thing to do is what the Dadaists, the surrealists did; complete amateurs who are pretentious as hell and just fuck it up the ass. Cause as much bad, ill feeling as possible, and then you've got a chance of having a movement.

"But you'll only create a movement when you have a rebellious cause, and you can't have any rebellious cause when you're the most well loved person in the country.

"What you've got there is… well, a chance of being the most well loved person in the country."

David wants to play me a tape he's done with lggy. It's fabulous, very tense.

Iggy's voice is amazing, I note.

"Of course," Bowie smiles, pleased. "Why do you think he keeps coming back to me? Iggy's amazing. He really has nothing to do with rock'n'roll, he's in it by accident. He's just the best… "

You must save him, I say to Bowie, with a smile on my face but meaning it. He grasps my hand, nods emphatically. Accompanies me to the door, and in the most charming way, thanks me for coming.

Basically all art, Bowie feels, is a process of destroying what was set up before. So it was with this interview, in a way.

I had no desire to find the real David Bowie. I fully accept that he is whoever he wants to be at the moment, and adapts totally to whoever he's talking to.

At the end of All About Eve, Phoebe — the girl who has idolised Eve Harrington, played chillingly by Anne Baxter — dons Eve's long silver cape, picks up her Sarah Siddons Award, and looks into a three-way mirror.

Hundreds of her own images look out at her, and one feels that director Joseph Mankiewicz is telling us that there are thousands of them out there.

I keep feeling that there must have been a time when David Bowie looked into a three-way mirror and saw how many David Bowies there could be. He's only just begun.

 

* The birthday party was in January 1972

** Bowie's first US trip was in January 1971

 


1974  1975  1976  1977  1978  1979  1980 

DAVID LIVE  |  YOUNG AMERICANS  |  STATION TO STATION  |  LOW  |  HEROES  |  LODGER  |  SCARY MONSTERS

CRACKED ACTOR  |  The Man Who Fell To Earth  |  JUST A GIGOLO  |  THE ELEPHANT MAN

ARTICLES  |  TV APPEARANCES