Bowie holds court
Gordon Burn • The Sunday Times Magazine • 30 November
We had seen the dress rehearsals of The Elephant
Man and The Elephant Man itself. We had played our complementary
copies of Scary Monsters, David's new record, paying particular
attention to the words ("Put a bullet in my brain/And it makes all
the papers" - not many of us had missed that). We'd digested our
press kits and our photocopy raves of David's Broadway debut - 'shockingly
good" (New York Post), "preternaturally wise" (New York Times),
"piercing and haunted" (Daily News) and been suitably impressed.
We'd put our hands up and received handsomely packed pictures of
David's paintings, and we'd watched the videos where we'd seen David
playing Glenda Jackson playing Stevie Smith singing a song called
Boys Keep Swinging ("When you're a boy, you can wear a uniform/When
you're a boy, other boys check you out.") We'd turned up to interview
David on Tuesday only to be told he was indisposed until Thursday.
We'd come back on Thursday and now here he was. Here, too, was the
PR person from his record company; Mr and Mrs de Witt, who handle
his personal PR; his personal make-up lady and personal photographer
plus assistant, and a technical adviser whose job it also was to
pull the plugs on any crew overrunning their allotted 15 minutes.
Not that anybody would get a chance to overrun their
allotted 15 minutes with Mr and Mrs de Witt around. There were five
TV interviews to do for five European stations whose separate camera
setups around the hall - a studio, in fact, in the RCA building
on Sixth Avenue - made it look like the Electrical and Allied Trades
Like clockwork, one crew was ushered in by Mr de
Witt as his wife hustled the previous one out and David had the
perspiration blotted away. This was the schedule before lunch. "Printed
media" he'd take on after. In the evening, he'd be bundled through
the police barriers and uniformed security at the Booth Theatre
to change into a nappy and play the Elephant Man.
In the course of their briefing, each country had
been handed a chart and invited to choose a colour for the "No-seam"
stiffened paper the interview would take place in front of. France,
who were second in after the Italians, had opted for the black,
a choice that wasn't lost on David. "This is so Left Bank. And theirs
was so Milan," he said, while the camera was being reloaded. "What's
The French interviewer had kicked off with the question
everybody would kick off with - "Why do you play ze Elephant Man
on Broadway?" - and he'd got the stock answer: (a) "because somebody
asked me to go "legit" and I'd always been meaning to try it," and
(b) "because I"ve always had a thing about freaks and isolationists
and alienated people." Then, very quickly, the Frenchman had got
metaphysical. "Are you the last rock star?" Panicky looks from the
"In my family, certainly."
Laughter. Relief. But the Frenchman was pressing
on, regardless. "What is your idea on ze beauty?"
This was more up David's street. He looked eager,
the way contestants often do on quiz shows when they think they"ve
got the answer: "I think it was Dame Edith Evans when she went to
Los Angeles for the first time. She went to the observatory, to
the same one that was in Rebel Without a Cause as a matter of fact,
where she was taken into the depths, led along these dark, doomy
corridors by the curator. At last they stopped in front of a refrigerator
and from it the curator removed two pieces of glass between which
was a snowflake. "This snowflake," he said, "fell on Los Angeles
in 1935." I think that's beauty."
David was wearing a cowl-neck sweater, possibly a
lady's, jeans and brown leather shoes with odd little zips up the
front. Nothing fancy. And yet, even without any of the props he
has used in the past to "reinvent" himself, he was effortlessly
and unsettlingly androgynous, suggesting both Lauren Bacall, say,
and Johan Cruyff, caught in a sort of flicker-frame. Sworn off the
drugs he feels nearly did for him in California in the early seventies
when he reached what he calls 'the low-point of a tormented lifestyle",
he chain-smoked Marlboros and, to start with at least, seemed very
nervous. By the time the Austrians were wheeled in, though, he had
found his stride.
He crouched in the chair with both feet under him,
in his padded-cell pose, one of his favourites, and faced the long-haired
young man from AMM Music who wanted to know all about the flirtation
with Nazi ideology – "infantile," admitted David. "That was quickly
blown away by meeting members of the far Left while I was living
in Berlin" – and whether he still intended playing Egon Schiele
in a film. He also wanted to draw him out on why being just a rock
star had obviously proved in the end to be so frustrating.
"Being a paragon of rock 'n' roll intensity proved
to be not quite as fulfilling as one might have hoped," David set
off, ploughing a familiar furrow. "I make a point now of going for
the most unlikely things that come along. If I know the vocabulary
of what I'm doing too well, I …" The camera had started to make
belching noises and it was distracting him. He called a halt until
it was corrected. The de Witts fiddled with their watches.
"I"ve just had the most coruscating interview with
a woman from Stern. All she did was attack me about my 'decadent'
audiences." It was after lunch and David had been transported to
a hotel suite uptown full of artistically arranged rent-a-blooms.
This was no less a set than the 'No-seam' had been. The impression
that we were on stage was reinforced by the knowledge that there
were people lurking in the 'wings'. The de Witts were hovering in
the bathroom, and the makeup girl must have been on the scene somewhere
because, although the armpits of David's sweater were dark with
perspiration, his forehead was freshly powdered and dry. He was
on his third packet of Marlboros.
After all the exhaustive priming and the morning's
mini-marathon there seemed only one question left to ask him: "Why?"
Why, after years of relative seclusion, had he suddenly been made
so available? Two answers, of course, had already suggested themselves.
David Lynch's film version of The Elephant Man, the by now well-known
story of a Victorian freak, John Merrick, sometimes said to have
been the ugliest man ever, was opening that week in Manhattan, and
the Bowie blitz would minimise the effectiveness of all their "promo".
Second, after a string of albums that had had him experimenting
with electronics and 'difficult" neumusik, Scary Monsters was regarded
by RCA Records as a return to the mainstream and they were going
to milk it for all it was worth.
"I keep telling myself every time I finish one of
these forays into the public eye, never again. Because I feel fettered
by cliché all the time, and become quite parrot-like. I don't help
myself at all."
His manner, as it had been in one or two of the television
interviews, is flirtatious. He breaks out of "character" all the
time to crack a smile that is amused but rather chilling. His eyes
are what he gives as his distinguishing feature, but he's wrong.
His mouth is. He has eye-teeth like fangs.
"Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming"
is the slogan David coined to promote one of his albums, and nobody
has ever been able to accuse him of not keeping his ear to the ground.
His problem, however, is that he has always wanted to have a genius
for more than just keeping one step ahead. He has always wanted
to be part of the international avant-garde. Coming from Beckenham
is, as he is the first to acknowledge, what goes on keeping him
out. He has talked in the past about 'the ball-and-chain of middle-classness'
that he is doomed to trail around, and agrees now, although it at
first raises a giggle, that a good word to describe him might be
'sensible'. Even while discussing the reasons why he'll never be
what he would most like to be, which is another Duchamp, most modem
of the modems, who chose to produce nothing in his last forty years,
David's background - or maybe just his Englishness - trips him up.
"I could never play chess like Duchamp, so that rules me out." Said
with all the conviction of a guest at one of Robert Robinson's excruciating
dinner parties without dinner on Radio 4.
"Oh, I know. I know. Don't tell me. That always happens
to me in conversation." Again he's laughing, but it's possible that
it has struck a nerve. "I have so many streaks of sensibleness that
it's frightening. I keep getting drawn back to such a logical, conservative
me, but it wears me out trying to fight it. And fighting it used
to lead me into that very rough, drug-oriented, forceful kind of
lifestyle which makes one on edge all the time. Now, having beaten
that back, I'm confronted with the basic facts of where I came from
and who I am. I'm not playing a part constantly any more, the way
I used to. I used to be very protective - very protective - of what
I considered to be my "real" self. I would dress it up or disguise
it to the point where I was beginning to lose it myself. At the
minute I'm trying to deal as best I can with that and present my
awkward perception of the small part of the world that I know. But
I am still, as you can see, fighting."
David is far too big these days for London, where
he still has 'that peculiar sort of following one gets in those
kinds of cities", meaning the acolytes now half his age who, brought
up on the sexual ambiguity and Weimar "camp" he pioneered, mobilize
themselves into an entourage that he can't shake off. In America,
of course, he is no less a celebrity, as the "A list" turnout -
Isherwood, Hockney, Radziwill, Warhol, Aaron Copland, Diana Vreeland,
etc. - for his first night of The Elephant Man had proved. The difference
is that, in America, he is nobody's patron saint.
Even so, after a hundred performances of The Elephant
Man and three months in New York, he'd be off, to the Far East again,
or Africa, anywhere where he can be "an anonymous presence". He
has no permanent address and keeps on the move so that he never
again becomes cocooned -"what happens when a rock star gets surrounded
by that particular killing kind of sycophancy" - the way he once
was in Los Angeles.
But Tim Rice and the BBC, who were next on, were waiting.
Twice Mrs de Witt had approached purposefully from the bathroom,
and twice David had prevailed on her for a few minutes more. This
time, though, Mr de Witt appeared simultaneously from the bedroom.
This time they meant business. Mrs de Witt broke into the conversation
as elegantly as possible; her husband led me firmly by the elbow
to the door. A backward glance seemed to confirm that people were
coming out of the woodwork now, seeing to it that David got through
this very busy day.