Bowie plays himself
Charles M Young • Rolling Stone • 12 January 1978
NEW YORK – I first saw David Bowie about half a year ago, sitting several tables away in a Detroit soul-food restaurant called Mama’s Palace. I was interviewing Iggy Pop, for whom he was playing keyboards at the time. Bowie wouldn’t talk to me or any other journalist because he wanted all the attention focused on his friend Iggy, who was on his first tour since Bowie helped him out of a quagmire of drugs and debt. I caught Bowie’s eye once, and he half-smiled at me, seeming to say, “I know this is absurd, but you’ll never get me to open my mouth and take any credit.”
Could this have been the Man Who Sold the World, the Man Who Fell to Earth, the man who was always making pronouncements about the future of art in the cosmos, the man who two years ago told Cameron Crowe, “I already consider myself responsible for a whole new school of pretension”?
No, it wasn’t. It was the man who left LA at the beginning of 1976 and beat his ego into submission.
“It is impossible to remain in the circus arena of rock & roll without being addicted to something,” he now says, asked about the tendency of rock stars to mainline egomania. “There is such a lack of substance that your ego becomes the world. You come to think the only defence is ‘believe in yourself.’ The only real defence is to withdraw from the assembly line.”
Bowie is sitting in an RCA recording studio between takes of a recitation of Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev’s chestnut being made into yet another children’s album. Dressed in a grey shirt, black corduroys and green clogs, his hair its natural shade of light brown, he looks as normal and healthy as anyone with Martian features can.
“I was surrounded with people who indulged my ego, who treated me as Ziggy Stardust or one of my other characters, never realizing that David Jones (Bowie’s real name) might be behind it,” he says of the year and a half he spent in Los Angeles. “I had a more-than-platonic relationship with drugs. Actually, I was zonked out of the time. You can do good things with drug, but then comes the long decline. I was skeletal. I was destroying my body.
“I was endowed with a good friend," Bowie continues. “He pulled me off the settee one day, stood me in front of a mirror and said, ‘I’m walking out of your life because you’re not worth the effort.’ Sometimes you can’t see how far you’ve sunk until you’re slapped in the face with it. After that humiliation, I went to me wardrobe closet and locked all my characters inside.”
Three days later, Bowie left Los Angeles, ultimately resettling in Berlin, where he has achieved what for 11 albums he had striven to avoid: anonymity. "They care not a sot for anyone in the music business there,” he says. “I became a person again.”
Taking a sparsely furnished apartment over a carpets shop, Bowie learnt how to run his life again. He bought his own food, cleaned his own house, stopped taking drugs and recorded two albums – Low and “Heroes” – with Brian Eno, the cybernetics expert, wild-mushroom authority and reclusive musician. Both records have met with some critical and popular resistance. Each has a side of songs with no lyrics but lots of weird sounds. Bowie, of course, is no stranger to weirdness, but his past music has generally stayed within recognizable rock and soul formats.
“In LA I fell into the trap of referring back to rock all the time,” he explains. “It blinkered myself to all the other musical possibilities. When I left, I tried to find out more about the world. I discovered how little I knew, how little I had to say. The lack of lyrics on Low reflects that I was literally stuck for words. I was making a new musical language for my life. It’s so personal that I expect to get misinterpreted.”
Bowie has mellowed enough in his pursuit of platinum that the lack of huge sales doesn’t bother him that much. “I’m incredibly happy,” he says. “I don’t care if I’m understood or not. I have less formulated ideas about thus time than ever. It’s probably why I’m enjoying it so much.”