Ringing the changes
Chris Charlesworth • Melody Maker • 13 March 1976
"I'm just doing this tour for the money. I never earned any money before, but this time I'm going to make some. I think I deserve it, don't you?"
David Bowie is balanced delicately in an armchair in suite 1604 in the Pontchartrain Hotel in Detroit, his legs bent and hunched up, gazing absently at his bare feet which, like the rest of him, look remarkably clean. In his blue tracksuit he looks healthy and, although he could add a few pounds in weight, his brain is as trim as his figure.
His hair, blond at the front and red at the back, has been groomed by his personal hairdresser. It is swept up in a quiff and held in place with water. His classic, Aryan features alternate between expressions of genuine warmth and cold contempt whenever he senses troubled waters.
His left eye is still strangely immobile, a legacy from the childhood injury he received, and it adds an incongruous touch to a rather aristocratic appearance. Even if David Bowie never opened his mouth, he would have found some niche in life purely on the strength of his looks.
With the possible exception of Bryan Ferry, no other contemporary musician is as much preoccupied with his image as Bowie. But, while Ferry remains the same, Bowie changes his with regularity, not only from tour to tour, but from month to month. One can never really tell, either, whether his replies to any interviewer are fact or fiction; his views on various subjects change according to whim.
A few months ago he was widely quoted as saying he never wanted to tour again, yet his current US tour is now in its third week and, according to the star of the show, things are going very nicely, thank you. Other interviews suggested that Bowie was becoming interested in radical right-wing politics, statements that he now shrugs off by explaining that he made them up to satisfy the interviewer's need for a sensational story.
Shock value, I guess. Perhaps he intended to jolt me by making the point that he was only touring for the money, a point he reiterated more than once during a 45-minute conversation in his hotel suite.
So let's get one thing straight from the very start. The views and opinions of David Bowie as quoted below represent his statements made between 6.45 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. US Eastern Standard time on Monday, March 1, 1976. What he's said before that date and what he might say afterwards, may vary considerably.
We began by talking about the current tour, the staging of which is a massive departure from the elaborate Diamond Dogs presentation two years ago. Simplicity is the keynote this time around, right down to the "white lights" effect designed by Scottish tour manager Eric Barrett. As I saw for myself later the same evening, it is wonderfully effective; quite stunning in fact.
"It's more theatrical than Diamond Dogs ever was," said Bowie, toying with an unlit Gitane and a glass of Heineken. "It's by suggestion rather than by over-propping. It relies on modern 20th century theatre concepts of lighting, and I think it comes over as being very theatrical. Whether the audiences are aware of it, I don't know. It doesn't look like a theatrical production, but it certainly is."
Was it getting out of hand before?
"No, it was just boring after a while. Once I got to Los Angeles and did the shows in the Amphitheatre there, I'd already done 30 of them and it was terrible. There's nothing more boring than a stylised show, because there was no spontaneity and no freedom of movement. Everything was totally choreographed and it was very stiff. It didn't look it if you went and saw the show once. The first time it was probably a gas, but there's nothing much in it if you are doing it every night. It just becomes repetition. I can't speak as an audience but certainly, as a performer, it was hard to keep it up, trekking all over the country doing the same thing night after night.
"This one changes almost every night. It's a lot looser. The only thing we have is a running-order, but I even change that around. The lighting guys have lighting cues, but that's on spec as well."
It seems he has changed his onstage image yet again.
"So I hear. I've heard I look like a cabaret performer, but I've never seen a cabaret performer so I wouldn't know. The reaction is a lot better, and I guess that is because I'm still giving them theatre, but whether they want that or not I don't know and I don't really care. The audiences are about a tour behind me, but then they always are. I'd get worried if they turned up in outfits I'd never seen before. I'd think I was a tour behind."
For the Diamond Dogs tour Bowie relegated his musicians to a position of scant importance, never even acknowledging their presence on stage. This time around the musicians stand behind him, and towards the end of the show are introduced. For the record they are guitarist Carlos Alomar, who worked on Station To Station; Stacey Heydon, who came in at the last minute to replace Earl Slick; bassist George Murray, and drummer Dennis Davis, both from the Station To Station sessions; and keyboard player Tony Kaye, late of Badger and Yes, another last-minute addition.
"There are three blacks and three whites, including myself, and that's a good mixture," said Bowie. "They're all good musicians. Carlos and Dennis have been with me for two years, but the rest we assembled in eight days of rehearsal before the tour. The band will stay with me for the duration of the tour, but I won't need them when we've finished.
"I haven't kept a band together since the Spiders, and I don't want the responsibility of keeping one. It's too much money, anyway, to keep a band together, a lot of problems that I don't need."
Musically Bowie has veered towards black music over the past two years, especially with Young Americans. He readily admits he has been copying what he's heard on the radio in a deliberate attempt to be commercial.
"I don't listen to it very much now, though," he said. "I don't like it very much now. It was a phase. I don't like very much music at all now, actually. I like performing with a band, but listening...not really. I've listened to a lot of Kraftwerk and any kind of, er, cute music like that, but there's very little happening musically that interests me now.
"My own recent music has been good, plastic soul, I think. It's not very complex, but it's enjoyable to write. I did most of it in the studio. It doesn't take very long to write...about ten, 15 minutes a song. I mean, with Young Americans I thought I'd better make a hit album to cement myself over here, so I went in and did it. It wasn't too hard, really."
Was John Lennon an important contributor to Fame?
"No, not really. I think he appreciates that. It was more the influence of having him in the studio that helped. There's always a lot of adrenalin flowing when John is around, but his chief addition to it all was the high-pitched singing of Fame. The riff came from Carlos, and the melody and most of the lyrics came from me, but it wouldn't have happened if John hadn't been there. He was the energy, and that's why he's got a credit for writing it; he was the inspiration."
Roy Bittan, Bruce Springsteen's pianist, played on Station To Station. How did that come about?
"It was Eric Barrett, my road manager, who saw him and recommended him. I needed a pianist because Tony wasn't around and Mike Garson was off being a scientologist somewhere, so I needed him. He impressed me a lot, but I've never seen him with Springsteen. I once saw Springsteen when he was just forming everything, at Max's in New York, and I was impressed by him but I didn't like the band. That was when I recorded three of his songs, but they were never released. At the time I was intending to do an album of songs by New York people that I liked, but I never finished it."
In three years Bowie hasn't set foot in England. Any particular reason?
"I just haven't got around to it," he confessed. "Most of my affairs have been messed up so badly that I just hadn't time. There were plans at one time to take the Diamond Dogs tour to England, but I doubt if ever that show will see the light of day again. I've still got the scenery stored away in New York, so there's always a chance."
That tour must have been extraordinarily expensive to stage.
"Apparently so. I never saw any money from that tour. I'm only making money now. That's why I wanted to simplify things this time around, to make money. I'm managing myself now, simply because I've got fed up with managers that I've known.
How were relations between himself and Tony Defries?
"I haven't seen him since the day I left him. I wouldn't know. Is the still in the business? I honestly don't know."
Bowie seemed a little reluctant to enlarge on this point, so I mentioned that Defries was still managing Mick Ronson and asked whether Bowie had any opinions on Ronson's role in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. He seemed disinterested.
"Yeah, I heard all about that. I don't have any opinions. I honestly can't remember Mick that well nowadays. It's a long time ago. He's just like any other band member that I've had. Maybe I should react more than I should react. Anyway, I'm not a great Dylan fan. I think he's a prick, so I'm not that interested."
As his own manager, Bowie has honed his entourage down to three key people: Pat Gibbons (acting manager), Corinne Schwab (secretary), and Barbara De Witt (press relations).
"My office is a suitcase that stays in my room. It's far better than before when I never knew what was going on, and this is how I used to do it back in England before. My last manager was Michael Lippman and he didn't cope very well. I think it was an experience for him, though. You'd better ask Michael Lippman why Earl Slick left me on the eve of this tour. He's managing him now."
Talk turned to films and Bowie brightened up considerably, Bowie no longer sees himself as only a rock star, so I asked him whether movies would become his prime interest.
"No. Making a bit of money is my prime interest. I'm an artist and anything that makes money is okay. I don't know whether I'm an actor or not, and I won't know until I see the movie (The Man Who Fell To Earth) in a cinema with people around me. That'll be the test. I want to watch myself in that context. I acted or non-acted as best as I could in that film. It required non-acting because the character of Newton that I played is a very cold, unexpressive person. The thing he learns on earth is emotion, which comes hard to him and reduces him to an alcoholic.
"I'd been offered a lot of scripts but I chose this one because it was the only one where I didn't have to sing or look like David Bowie. Now I think David Bowie looks like Newton. One thing that Nic Roeg (the film's director) is good at doing is seducing people into a role, and he seduced me completely. He told me after we'd finished it would take me a long time to get out of the role and he was dead right. After four months playing the role I was Newton for six months afterwards, and now I'm gradually becoming Max Radl for the next one."
Bowie's next movie in fact, as exclusively reported in MM, is likely to be based on Jack Higgins' best selling novel, The Eagle Has Landed, which is based on a fictitious plot to kidnap Winston Churchill during the last war. Bowie is cast as Max Radl, a German officer who organises the kidnap attempt from inside Germany.
"I'm getting into my Nazi bit for this one," he continued. "I have an inert left hand and a patch over my left eye for the part. Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland are in it, too, so it'll be one hell of a film. Sutherland is the reason that I chose to do it – Sutherland has the money.
"If it wasn't for Sutherland and the money I wouldn't be interested. As it is, I'm more interested in a Bergman film called The Serpent's Egg which is coming up, and I'd do that for nothing, just to work with Bergman."
Would he drop music in favour of acting if his career blossomed?
"Er, no, I don't think so. I just do anything as it comes up. I've learned to find a much calmer level of intensity these days. I don't push for much, but I seem to move a lot faster when I do things this way. I think I've done the bit that I needed to do in rock and roll. I've made my contribution to rock and roll, and the only thing I can do now, if I stay in rock and roll, is to have a rock and roll career. Not being very career-minded, I don't want a career in rock and roll.
"I couldn't do anything but survive now. Once you've made that initial boom, what else do you have to do? So I'm just resting around and picking up on all the things that have fascinated me. I've become interested in art over the last two years and I've done several silk screens and lithographs."
Was it that he was frightened of repeating himself rock?
"It's not that so much. I didn't want my enthusiasm for rock and roll being mixed up with my own dissatisfaction with becoming a rock and roll careerist. In rock and roll the artist quickly becomes an archetype, and as soon as he becomes an archetype he has served his purpose.
"I don't believe it's possible for an artist to say more than two new things in rock and roll. One artist has one thing to say and it's such an ephemeral sort of culture that after he's said it, it's just a question of staying around. If you do strive to say something new, it gets interpreted as just another way of staying around. They're doing it to Dylan at the moment, and poor old Bruce Springsteen has hardly started before they're saying it to him. And whether Patti Smith will ever get there, they're saying it about her. It's not that interesting after a certain point, anyway.
"I'm not disenchanted because I always believed when I started that Ziggy, for me, was what it was all about. I said it with Ziggy five years ago and I believe that you can go up or come down or be carried along by the tide for a few years. The only thing to do, if you want to contribute to culture, or politics, or music, or whatever, is to utilise your own persona rather than just music. The best way to do this is to diversify and become a nuisance everywhere."
But it must have been satisfying to have a massive US hit with Fame.
"Well, it kind of put the cap on things. It told me I could finish now, pack it all in now. That meant I had done the two things I was supposed to do, which is to conquer this market and conquer the British market. Once you've done that you can pretend to rest on your laurels and all the other cliches you can do when you hit the top. You can forget longevity and all the things that make you stay there, as far as I'm concerned. All that staying at the top is just a heartache for me. I just want to do what I want to do, and first, that's make some money with this tour and enjoy making it at the same time.
"I wanted to use a new kind of staging, and I think this staging will become one of the most important ever. It will affect every kind of rock and roll act from now on, because it's the most stabilised move that I've ever seen in rock and roll. I've reverted to pure Brechtian theatre and I've never seen Brechtian theatre used like this since Morrison and the Doors, and even then Morrison never used white light like I do.
"I think it looks like a corrupted version of the Thirties German theatre, what with the waistcoat, which has always been a favourite with me. I should have had a watch-chain to make it perfect. I'm trying to put over the idea of the European movement with the Dali film (before he arrives on stage, the Dali-Luis Bunel film, Un Chien Andalou, is shown) and playing Kraftwerk over the speakers. I'd like to get my hands on the new Eno album to play, actually. I think side one is absolutely fabulous."
His sets change from night to night but all the songs from Station To Station are played, along with half a dozen songs from Bowie's past. Bowie says he's never been as loose on stage since the early days of the Spiders, and he's enjoying the experience. Despite his appearance onstage – severe and formal – he denies he's the "Thin White Duke" referred to on the album. It's someone else and he won't say who.
I asked which of the old songs he still liked to sing. "I think Jean Genie is a gas. I like that one. I still love Changes. All the songs I still do I still like, but I'm not doing Golden Years or Space Oddity. I've really been very radical for this show and I won't do any hits for the sake of doing hits.
"I think people look on the show as an honest appearance, and that's why they develop such a strong empathy for it. For the first few minutes they are absolutely alarmed at what they are seeing, they don't understand it, but there's one point when it breaks out and people realise what it is all about. It's not honest, really, but then I've never been a let-it-all-hang-out entertertainer. One thing I do is fabricate a personality for a stage. I was never a rock and roll singer. I was clumsy as a rock and roll singer, but I do have a certain penchant for fabricating a character and portraying a cold, unemotional feeling.
"I'm still giving them a persona, but that persona out there is possibly an exaggeration of all the things I feel about me. Maybe it's some aspect of me as a person blown-up to lifesize. A lot of the other characters were blow-ups of other rock and rollers that I saw around. I'm more approachable onstage this time around, unlike the last time when the character I played was a paranoid refugee of New York City. That was about the collapse of a major city and I think I was right to be remote, don't you?"
I agree. But was it necessary not even to acknowledge the presence of the audience or his group?
"Oh yes. That character was in a world of his own. This time I at least say 'good evening' to the people. Now you know that I'm not the warmest performer onstage, and I never have been, but that's because I feel too shy about talking to people onstage. I've never felt comfortable talking on stage. With Diamond Dogs I even wanted to have the band in an orchestra pit.
"If ever I have the audacity to do a Diamond Dogs tour again, I think I know how I would do it, and I will do it properly because of everything I've learned over the past few years. You know, unless you make some big mistakes you are never going to grow, you've got to make mistakes. I've made one a week, and if you don't make them then you won't become a self-invented man. I've got to learn to make mistakes to understand the character that I am clawing the air for. People like watching people who make mistakes, but they prefer watching a man who survives his mistakes. To make a mistake in life, and survive it, is the biggest kick of all.
"The so-called rebel figures are not popular because they're rebels, but because they've made mistakes and got over them. I think audiences go to rock concerts to obtain information and the artist is the one who provides that information. I don't know what the information is but it is something to do with survival. I'm sure that rock and roll has something to do with survival, and that survival instinct transcends the music, the words and everything else."
It wasn't long ago, I mentioned, that Bowie stated he wasn't going to tour again.
He shrugged. "Oh yes, I did, but I don't feel that way now. I love it. The other tours were misery, so painful. I had amazing amounts of people on the road with me. I had a management system that had no idea what it was doing and was totally self-interested and pompous. They never dealt with the people on the road, so I was getting all those problems.
"I was getting all the problems every night. 10 or 15 people would be coming to see me and laying their problems on me because the management couldn't or wouldn't deal with it. For me touring was no fun, no fun at all. They were little problems, but to each individual they were important. I understood all their problems but I couldn't cope with them all, so the two major tours I did were horrendous experiences. I hated every minute of them, so I used to say I'd never tour again. Then I would be talked into doing it again to make somebody some money.
"This time, though, I will be touring again. We've got it down to a sensible number and it works. It's the most efficient tour I've been on, and I can truthfully say it's the most efficient tour I've seen. Everybody on this tour is in a wonderful mood, and we're well through half the tour. This time no one comes to me with problems, so we get together as people instead, and I actually find I'm spending time with the band, which is rare. I've actually written on the road this time. The band and I have written three things and I've never been able to do that before.
"If I'm in charge I'll tour again, whereas before I always thought there was somebody better at doing this kind of thing. It wasn't until Lennon pointed it out to me that I realised maybe the artist is as good at managing as anybody else. It was John that sorted me out all the way down the line. He took me on one side, sat down, and told me what it was all about, and I realised I was very naive. I still thought you had to have somebody else who dealt with these things called contracts, but now I have a better understanding of show-business business."
And the right wing politics I had read about?
"Oh, that was just bullshit, something I said off the cuff. Some paper wanted me to say something and I didn't have much to say so I made things up. They took it all in."
Why had he chosen to live in the US for the past three years?
"Because I didn't have any money to get out. I was told I couldn't go back to England because I had tax problems there and didn't have the money to pay them, but now I do, so I'm going back. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to live in Switzerland, because I want to keep my money. I'd like to live in England because I don't like America at all as a place to live, except maybe New Mexico.
"I haven't lived properly in America. I've been here but I haven't lived. I've been in Los Angeles, coping with a town that I consider to be the most repulsive wart on the backside of humanity. I'd rather live here in Detroit than in Los Angeles."
Bowie has formed his own film production company, Bewlay Brothers Ltd., Which will handle his movie business in the future and, he hopes, produce films of its own, especially films of artistic, rather than commercial, merit. He plans on sinking his money earned in rock into the film company.
"I've been trained in a career as a rock and roll singer and I now see that I do that very well. Therefore, like any good chap who has a career, I should utilise my talents and the training that I've got and make some money out of it. You have to own up to that after while.
"It's all very well being number one protest kid for a while, but you have to consider whether you are just protesting to stay around or whether you really mean to protest. If that's the case you won't be at the top of the hit parade all the time, but if you think your protest lies elsewhere you'll change horses and quickly earn some money out of the business you are good at. That's what I'm doing now, but I'll only do it if I'm enjoying the stuff that I'm doing.
"I'm enjoying this tour so I'll do some more tours. Albums? I'll make some commercial albums and I'll make some albums that possibly aren't as commercial. I'll probably keep alternating, providing myself with a hit album to make the money to do the next album, which probably won't sell as well."
At that point Bowie wanted to finish, but some quick probing revealed that he has completed an electronic album ("without vocals that you'd recognise"). Also, he still has plans to produce a record with Iggy Pop, who was at the hotel and seemed in much better health than usual. ("I'm a good lad. I look after him" – Bowie). And exactly the same show will be coming to London, though probably with some additional numbers.
As a parting shot I asked David whether he still professed to be bisexual. Momentary shock.
"Oh Lord, no. Positively not. That was just a lie. They gave me that image so I stuck to it pretty well for a few years. I never adopted that stance. It was given to me. I've never done a bisexual action in my life, onstage, record or anywhere else. I don't think I even had a gay following much. A few glitter queens, maybe.
"You know the funniest thing of all," he continued, talking like a conspirator, "I'd never heard of Lou Reed until somebody said my stuff was influenced by him. So when I heard that, I started saying it myself, that my songs were influenced by Lou Reed. It seemed the obvious thing to say, and that's when I started getting interested in Lou. The same with Iggy. It wasn't until people told me my music was very sort of Detroity that I happened to discover Iggy Pop and the Stooges. I thought 'what a great name', and although I'd never heard them, I used to tell everybody who asked that I liked them a lot. Then I got around to meeting Iggy, but it wasn't until months later that I actually heard anything he'd written.
"It's marvellous. A lot of people provide me with quotes. They suggest all kinds of things to say and I do, because, really, I'm not very hip at all. Then I go away and spout it all out and that makes it easier for people to classify me. People dissect the songs and say that's influenced by someone or other, but I don't know whether I'm influenced. All I know is I'm drinking a beer and enjoying myself."
With that Bowie retired to be made-up for the evening's concert – just a light dab of eyeliner to accentuate his features, and plenty of water to keep the hair in place.
The concert was a huge success, capped with a couple of encores, and pretty much the same as has been described in detail in previous issues of the Melody Maker. All the material from Station To Station was aired, along with choice selections like Changes, Fame, Jean Genie, Diamond Dogs and, most appropriately, Panic In Detroit. The highlight of the show was definitely Five Years, though, which soared to a climax as the band poured on layers of power chords behind Bowie's agonised vocals.
Dressed in black pants, waistcoat, and a crisp white shirt, Bowie still seemed cold and formal, but towards the end he loosened up, grinning and flashing asides, casually smoking Gitanes, and playing deliberately to the front rows which, because of the abundance of bright white lights, were as illuminated as the stage.
A picture of health and happiness. It's hard to believe.