Glitter Rock’s Movie Nut
Rex Reed • The Baltimore Sun • 20 June 1976
David Bowie’s Fleetwood Cadillac lunges through the rainy night forty miles form Los Alamos, past atomic bomb sites, solar furnaces, Aztec ruins, inactive volcanoes, and discarded Coors beer cans. In the backseat, the androgynous rock star who is making his spectacular movie debut as a creature from a distant planet in The Man Who Fell To Earth lies in a crumpled heap of black kamikaze silk, drinking straight tequila gold from a paper bag. He’s wearing a space suit and a Crimean war hat. His bare prehensile feet are stretched out over the bar.
He peers inquisitively at me while I try to interview him through pink aviator glasses. His flaming orange hair turns lemon yellow around the widow’s peak, like Elsa Lanchester in The Bride Of Frankenstein, and his milk-white anaemic-looking skin tone occasionally turns baby-pink when he laughs.
With him are his chauffeur, a burly ex-hood in a ten-gallon Stetson named Tony, and Corinne Schwab, his buffer-secretary-travelling companion who keeps the wolves away. Corinne was born in Bloomingdales’ basement. “I found her in a want ad. I rang her up and asked her, ‘Do you want to work for me?’”
“I never heard of him,” Corinne says. “I hate rock and roll.”
So do I. In fact, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I guess I thought I was coming along to meet a rock freak who made good. Instead, I am amazed to discover that David Bowie is astoundingly literate, fantastically well read, creative and professional. He has written nine screenplays, a book of poems and essays, a novel and collection of short stories. He carries around a 16mm newsreel camera, which he uses to photograph everything around him.
He’s been a Buddhist, he studied music with a Dalai Lama in Tibet, he plays the tenor sax beautifully, he’s into mysticism and numerology, and he’s knowledgeable about everything in movies before 1933. “Then I stopped going. I’ve been most influenced by Keaton and the German impressionist films of Fritz Lang, Murnau and Pabst.” He wants to direct films and get out of the rock music business forever. It’s hardly what I expected.
“I have never considered myself a rock freak,” he says. “In fact, hitting the rock scene was just a way of becoming enough of a force to say what I wanted to say. I always felt I would make a quick flash, like a comet, flare, shine very bright, then fade away and never be seen again. Otherwise, it becomes a career, and who wants a career in rock and roll? I’m not a rock musician. It was only a grand means to an end. I’ve always wanted to be a film director.
“All of my concept albums, from Ziggy Stardust down, were ideas for films, but I couldn’t get anyone to perform the stuff I wrote, so I did it myself. To keep from getting bored on tours, I always made my acts as theatrical as possible. The whole bisexual chic, which I’m credited with originating, started five years ago as an answer to an impertinent interviewer about my sex life. I’ve always been an original, sort of a rock and roll guinea pig. But I was an actor first.
“I was a mime artist for 2˝ years with Lindsay Kemp, and that’s how I became fascinated with Genet. The androgynous, the neuter, the Everyman theme – I used all of that mime experience in rock music the way Buster Keaton did in films. I’ve finished with it now.
“I don’t always wear green eyelashes, glitter pants and feather boas. Sometimes I wear Kabuki samurai robes and platform boots. Sometimes I wear entire wardrobes purchased from Sears & Roebuck. I can be 100 different people. I’ve always been an actor. I’ve never been David Bowie, the person, in front of an audience. That would be scary!”
Because he guards is private persona so aggressively, he avoids interviews like the plague. “I’m terribly self conscious. And the ignorance of journalists amazes me. They’re rude and dumb, and it’s a waster of time. I don’t travel in the rock world. They are tiresome people. Mick Jagger and John Lennon are the only friends I have in rock. My records are very diverse. I own very few rock recordings.
“My real friends are very loyal, and they’re there for me, and they know how to be with me even if I don’t know how to be with them. I’m not trendy. I will do anything to avoid so-called fashionable people. So they think I’m a tight-lipped little bastard. Not only do I not care, but I don’t know what they’re writing about me, because I don’t read anything that is even vaguely in the rock press.
“I am actually quite down to earth as a person, really. See these pink glasses? They’re just an effect. I have one good eye and one bad eye. Don’t get me confused with Elton John though. I can’t stand him.”
So many bizarre things have been written about his past that nobody knows who David Bowie really is. But tonight, In this wild car ride through the mesas of New Mexico, he’s in a talkative mood.
“I grew up in South London. It was like Harlem. I was very butch in those days. I was in street brawls and everything. My father was a gambler and a drinker and a layabout for most of his life. I have one brother and one sister that I know about. There may be more. We’re all illegitimate. After I was born, they made it all legal, and my father went straight. He worked in a children’s home.
“But I was really out of place as a child. I’ve literally wiped that whole period out of my life. It’s like a nightmare. One reason I’ve never been in analysis is that I’ve always been afraid of what I’d find out. My brother is in a psychiatric hospital, and madness has always run through our family. I have a terrible fear it’s genetic.”
The equally dangerous game of submerging himself into too many fake disguises for the public doesn’t seem to bother him. “It’s OK if, after you play all the roles, you’re happy with the person you take home at night.” Then he adds with an evil giggle “some nights are better than others.”
The person he does not always take home at night is his wife, the equally outrageous Angela Bowie, whose escapades often share space in the gossip columns with David’s.
“She’s remarkable, funny, totally independent, decisive in her love-hate tastes. She was born in Cyprus. Her father ran a mine. What is it he mined, Corinne?”
“Whatever it is they mine is Cyprus,” shrugs Corinne.
The Bowies have a five-year-old son named Zooey Bowie, named after JD Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” – “super and ever so funny and very precocious” – but continue to live distinctly separate lifestyles.
“I’m not a leader of the Gay Liberation movement or anything like that,” David says, “but I have nothing to hide. It’s in my music. I like men, I like black girls, I can be 100 different people in 100 different scenes.”
He says his tours have never made money because they’re so expensive (“70 people in the company and sets and lights by Jules Fisher”), but he’s still rich. “I’m moving to Bhutan to escape the British taxes so I’ll have more. I don’t own material things except for books, videotape machines, tools and machines, which I’m fascinated by, and a Jeep and the Fleetwood, which I take on tour. I never drive, I never bothered to get a licence, I can’t put my hands on any of my money, but it’s there. I’ve got to have money to afford my wife.
Home at the moment is a reconverted brownstone across from an 1830 church on West 20th Street in Manhattan. “I store my costumes in storage trunks. I love New York because I’m anonymous there. I’ve come to love the gang fights in the streets too. Makes me feel like I’m a child again in London slums. I hate Los Angeles because it’s not a city and not a town and I can’t abide anything that can’t make up its mind about itself. You know where you are in New York.”
I express surprise that he is able to walk the streets of New York without being recognised by screaming fans. “I’ve never had any trouble walking down any street in the world unrecognised if I plan it that way. Except Tokyo. You can’t go around with orange hair in Tokyo without looking different.”
He once toured Russia on a train and was the first person ever allowed to take a camera to Siberia.
“I’ve written a novel about it which I’m publishing this year. They thought I was a circus clown. You can get away with murder in Russia if you have orange hair.”
His great ambition is to give a rock concert in China. He’s working on it. He’s also been promised an exhibition of his paintings and sculptures by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Although The Man Who Fell To Earth is his first film, he says with supreme self-confidence that it will not be his last. “I never read the script, I never had any anxiety about my songs, concerts or acting ability. I have total self-confidence. Is that awful?”
The producers of the film originally wanted Peter O’Toole. “If we’d hired him he’d have been forced to act it. It was much easier for David to be it, he’s weird enough already. Nobody can prove he’s not from outer-space.”
In the film, David has no fingernails or toenails. He has cat eyes covered with a membrane to look human. “The hardest part was the make-up. It took five hours to remove the sex organs, navel and ears. I walked into a hotel lobby in Santa Fe, and grown men screamed. The hours and hours of work and pain involved were incredible.
“People who go expecting science fiction movie with super hits will be disappointed. To me it’s a love story. I don’t feel like a creature from outer space, I felt very romantic.
“Some really freaky things happened. We shot in the Aztec burial grounds where no white man has ever been and certainly no movie crew has ever shot a film before. I knew form my years as a Buddhist that something was wrong. One day I was drinking a glass of milk and I tasted something bitter. I looked into the glass and saw some gold liquid swimming around in shiny swirls inside the glass. Suddenly the pain in my stomach was incredible.
“Corinne rushed me to the hospital and they said I’d been poisoned. They gave me an emetic and I vomited everything up and was out of the picture for two days. They sent the milk to a lab in Albuquerque to be tested and no trace of any foreign element could be found. Six people saw this eerie mess in the milk, so I know I’m not crazy. Also, Steve Schapiro, the photographer, had his camera jammed and nothing came out on film. It was very bad karma.”
For another scene, Bowie went to Carlsbad Caverns and saw the famous bat cave. “It was completely dark except for one hole in the top. Suddenly there was a whistling sound like rats screaming. Thousands of bats flew out from the rocks and up through the hole. They return every morning at 4 a.m. I’d love to do my next concert there, with thousands of vampire bats descending on the audience’s heads.”
Whether The Man Who Fell To Earth survives to critics or not, David Bowie will surely survive the movies with a fertile imagination and a healthy ego. “I get so much fan mail it has to be handled by a computer. I’m an instant star,” he adds with a slug of tequila and a Dracula grin – “just add water and stir.”