The Observer - Sunday June 9, 2002
After 35 years in the business and endless ch-ch-ch-changes, David Bowie, rock'n'roll's archetypal chameleon, has finally found equilibrium as a clean-living family man. Tim Cooper tracks him down in Manhattan for a sneak preview of his latest album.
By Tim Cooper
'We've got a request from one of the audience tonight,' announces David Bowie. As the band start to play a familiar tune he starts to croon: 'Sometimes you get so lonely...' As he brings 'Be My Wife' to a close, Bowie turns to the audience, grins the widest of grins and leans into the microphone. 'Waddya reckon?' he asks.
'Good innit!' Awe-struck, the entire audience mutely nods its agreement. All three of us.
We're in a tiny Manhattan rehearsal studio and I'm sitting 10ft away from Bowie on a sofa beside Tony Visconti, the man who produced some of his greatest albums, and an equally impressed publicist from London.
'We did good didn't we!' Bowie tells his producer and checks the set list to see what's next. He runs through a short selection from Low and then moves on to try out some numbers from his new album Heathen, which sees him reunited with Visconti for the first time since Scary Monsters in 1980 and is already being acclaimed as his best since then.
It's his first (semi-) public performance of the new songs. Even Visconti has not heard them since Bowie left the recording studio, and he's clapping like a fan. 'Having Tony here is a bit like having your maths master here,' chuckles Bowie. 'Very weird. But I'm having so much fun I feel like a kid in a candy store!'
Bowie's mood of rejuvenation was tangible when we met earlier in the day at a boutique hotel close to the singer's downtown home in SoHo. Despite claiming exhaustion after three days of interviews, the voluble and articulate Bowie glows with health and is clearly excited. He exhibits none of the familiar stand-offishness or control freakery of the superstar interviewee. From the moment he shakes hands he is warm and courteous, retaining a remarkable degree of South London matiness considering he has not lived in London for nearly 30 years. It all conspires to make you feel you're his best chum within minutes of sitting down with him (and may well be calculated to do just that).
In conversation he affects a relaxed and charming air, as eager to discuss his work, health and family as his passions for art, literature and music. An omnivorous reader, consuming several books a week (Martin Amis and Ian McEwan are particular favourites), he has accumulated an impressive vocabulary since leaving school with a solitary O level in woodwork, which can occasionally make him appear pretentious. He often searches for the right word, occasionally locating the wrong one (his lyrics are 'internal feelings becoming exteriorised'?) and sometimes correcting himself pedantically: 'That's my genre - my oeuvre, rather.' His accent remains immune to his many travels: it's the same one we remember from 'Laughing Gnome'.
Whatever his musical relevance in 2002, in a career spanning 35 years Bowie has forged a trail-blazing path as the most innovative and influential artist in rock history. He maintained his mystique by constantly reinventing himself with characters such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke; not to mention his forays into theatre, film, art, the internet and the financial markets. Today, happily married for 10 years to former model Iman, he stands alone of his generation in continuing to generate eager anticipation for each new move.
In addition to Heathen - his 25th studio recording and the first on his own ISO label - there is another, as yet unreleased, album called Toy, which features new versions of his oldest songs. More immediately, he is curating the Meltdown Festival on the South Bank, featuring the likes of Philip Glass (performing symphonic adaptations of Bowie's Low and Heroes), Asian Dub Foundation (performing a live score to accompany the French film La Haine), Coldplay, Suede, Mercury Rev, Television and Badly Drawn Boy, as well as cult artists Daniel Johnston and Bowie's old stable mate The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Bowie will himself appear on the final night to give a performance of Heathen and Low in their entirety on 29 June, with a new live band including old hand Mike Garson on piano, Gail-Ann Dorsey on bass and guitarists Earl Slick, another Bowie veteran, and newcomer Gerry Leonard, an Irishman who creates ambient soundscapes in the style of Eno and Daniel Lanois.
The temperature is soaring into the high 80s in downtown New York as he walks into the hotel at 10am. He has already been up for hours - since abandoning drink and drugs in the mid-80s he has tended to rise soon after 5am - and glistens with perspiration after a sparring session in a nearby boxing gym. He looks fit, no trace of fat on his 55-year-old frame, salt-and-pepper stubble and blond-streaked sandy hair flopping out of a centre parting. He is wearing unseasonal dark-brown cords, a pale-blue T-shirt and deck shoes, none of designer provenance; in fact, he cheerfully confesses, his entire ensemble comes from J Crew, a high-street chain store best known for conservative 'preppy' styles.
Bowie's career has been as notable for his ever-changing style as for his equally diverse music. But, in an iconoclastic admission, he is adamant he has no interest in fashion. 'Not at all,' he insists, 'and I never have done. I rarely buy clothes. I wear them well and people give me stuff and I'm quite keen to wear it for public shows and albums and all that. But I'm not interested in fashion. And my wife's the same. She never goes shopping: she hates shopping with a vengeance. That's the second thing that drew me to her - the first was that she got up at 5am like me. She can shop faster than any other woman I've ever met.'
He may not quite be ready for his pipe and slippers but there's a domestic side to Bowie that one cannot imagine in his contemporaries such as Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, who seem determined to relive their teenage years to the bitter end. Bowie, by contrast, seems content combining hands-on fatherhood with collecting 20th-century British paintings by unfashionable names like Clive Barnes and Derek Boshier, and popping up every couple of years with a new album. Perhaps he's done what rock stars so often fail to do: grown up.
His enduring fitness is attributable to a combination of clean living - the lifelong 60-a-day smoker finally quit last December - and a combination of exercise and meditation. 'I don't work out, but I quite like being fit, especially since my daughter has been around.'
Alexandria was born in August 2000 and her arrival has forced him to reassess his lifestyle. 'One does think about oneself in a slightly different way,' he admits. 'My hold on things is less important than her having a good structure with her and around her, so it's my responsibility to be as good as possible. I don't do gym-type things but I box three times a week.' Somewhat at odds with his louche image, Bowie has kept in shape by sparring since the 80s when he was 'quite a fitness buff'. He's never entered the ring in anger but says it is the technique that interests him most. 'I'm fast and I'm quite agile, so technically I think I'm pretty good,' he says, 'but whether I have any power in my punches or any ability to stay away from the other guy I don't know because I've never been in a fight. My trainer is a huge man who wouldn't dream of even tapping me on the forehead cos it would lay me out.' He also meditates daily, but says: 'I do find the physical activity helps tremendously in terms of clearing my head. It really helps me feel quite sprightly through the day.'
Because of his early-rising regime, he finds that parenthood has impacted less on his lifestyle. 'I still get up before my baby does. It doesn't matter what time I go to bed - two or three in the morning - I still wake up at five. I'm bloody tired the next day but it's like I have an internal clock. So it's not really changed our physical sleeping habits, which I know can be very disruptive for some people. I know some musicians who are used to getting up at noon or 1pm and when they've had children it's totally upset their apple cart and they are bleary-eyed for the rest of the day.'
He likes waking up as dawn breaks and uses the time to plan his day's work and to communicate with Europe - which is already up and working - by email and telephone. But he doesn't change nappies. 'No, I don't! I'm quite old fashioned. I've done that a couple of times and don't like it. Actually I don't need to cos Iman is a pretty natural mother.' The couple have a nanny who comes daily, but does not live in, and Bowie sees his role as being more 'educational' in the raising of his new child. 'I do a lot of reading aloud,' he says, 'and my wife and I take shares in playing with her. We're both active parents and very involved. We both have previous children and we know very much how we want to bring up our child.'
With his daughter only 22 months old, he has already turned down a world tour this year because he does not wish to repeat parental mistakes he made in the past. 'I don't want to start doing what I unfortunately did with my son, inasmuch as I spent an awful lot of time on tour when he was a young child. I really missed those years, and I know he did too. Fortunately we were together by the time he was six and I brought him up from that point on. It was a one-parent family. I don't want to repeat the same mistakes with Lexie.'
Bowie's son is now 30 and working in the film industry in London. He used to be called Zowie but because, understandably, heads turned whenever his parents called out his name, they converted it to Joe, which stuck for many years. 'Then he, at his own compunction, changed it back to Duncan, which is his real name, when he went to university (in Nashville). So be it. He's now Duncan.' Father and son remain close and Bowie is proud that Duncan is making his own way in the film business, which he is 'really quite obsessed about in the same way as I was about what I do', without trading on his father's famous name. 'He's doing it all on his own. He doesn't expect anything from me.' Suddenly, Daddy comes over all misty eyed. 'He's a very nice man, he's lovely. I love him very much indeed, I really do.'
Shortly after the birth of his daughter, Bowie said he could not envisage bringing up his child in America and was contemplating a return to England, where he has not lived for nearly 30 years. Now he is not so sure. 'I don't think we've made the decision,' he says, but London is unlikely to become home again. 'I go there often enough as a visitor for it to quench my thirst for all things English and it gives me enough chance to see the people that I miss and love. However, there are aspects of it I don't like very much.' Such as? His cheery demeanour disappears. 'I think the absolute awe in which celebrity is held over there is kind of jaw dropping. I personally don't want to live like that. I never really have done and I don't see any reason to change it now. And I certainly don't want my daughter or my wife to have to go through that.' He adds: 'My wife knows nothing about England: she's been there on holiday a few times but she doesn't know the experience of living in England.'
By that, he presumably means the experience of living in a country with a celebrity-obsessed culture, reflected in - and fuelled by - the tabloid press, though he is loath to blame them. 'I think it's a national mentality [in England]. They both feed each other - the public and the tabloids.' When I ask him his views on celebrity he snaps back impatiently: 'I don't have views on celebrity, I'm indifferent to it. I think it's absolute crap. I cannot understand anybody who wants to be on the front page of a newspaper all the bloody time if they don't have something to sell.'
Bowie has generally managed to steer clear of tabloid intrusion. And evidently, that's more easily done in New York, where he can take Lexie to the park in her buggy without any minders - and without any fear of appearing in tomorrow's red-tops. 'This town is no problem,' he says. 'There are certain cities - London, LA, Paris - where I don't have a good time. I have a great time here: we can go where we want, eat where we want, walk out with our child, go to the park, ride the subway, do the things that any other family does. I'm very happy with that situation.'
He adds: 'I'd never dream of employing a minder unless I'm working. I have always found that that type of behaviour attracts more attention than anything else.' And when he is spotted in New York, he says, it's less of a big deal than it is in London. 'In London it's more excitable and becomes more event-oriented, but here the recognition is almost at a community level. It's like, "Hi Dave, how ya doing!" It's a very friendly thing over here.'
Despite regular reports to the contrary, his apartment in New York is, he says, the only home he owns. He's lived there for 11 years, and with most of his ambitions fulfilled - he rules out having any more children - he finally seems settled, both geographically and spiritually. What's more, after a career built on multiple changes in character and personality, he seems genuinely to have reached a point in life where he knows who he really is - perhaps for the first time. 'I don't find it a problem being old and I don't mind not thinking like I used to think when I was young,' he says. 'I don't have that thing about "I'm old but I feel like an 18-year-old inside!" I don't. I feel like exactly what I am, which is 55 going on 56, and it seems to be a pretty cool age to be. I've experienced a lot and have a sense of who I am that maybe I didn't have a few years ago.
'There are no yearning ambition any more. There are things I'd like to do but none are crucial. I have a sense that I've become the person that I always should have been. It's been a kind of cyclical, almost elliptical, journey at times but I feel like I've finally arrived at being instead of becoming, which is kind of how I feel about being young - there's always a sense that you're becoming something, that you're going be shocked by something new or discover something or be surprised by what life has in store. I'm still surprised at some things, but I do understand them, I know them. There's a sense that I know where I am now. I recognise life and most of its experiences, and I'm quite comfortable with the idea of the finality of it. But it doesn't stop me trying to continually resolve it: resolve my questions about it. And I probably will. I think I'll still be doing it - hopefully - like Strauss, at 84.'
Following on from his last album, Hours, which found Bowie reflecting on his past, Heathen is a rumination on the uncertain world into which he has brought his daughter. He has said of it that he wanted to write about a world that he felt had let her down, and to plead 'to whoever that higher spirit is' for a remedy to some of its ills, 'because I want a place where my daughter can grow up safely, walking open-eyed into her ambitions - not having to dodge bullets'. One of the new songs states the case openly - 'I Demand A Better Future'.
'I had rosy expectations for the 21st century, I really did,' he says sadly. 'The whole idea was lifting my spirits quite a lot during 1998 and 1999. But it has become something other that what I expected it to be. And it's obviously a pretty typical parental concern to wonder what type of a world you have brought your child into.'
Despite Bowie's homely preoccupations nowadays, he is still a rock star who revolutionised music. For what does he think he'll be remembered? He groans in mock embarrassment. 'Nice trousers, I think I'm supposed to say. Or silly haircuts... Oh fuck, don't do this to me!' he pleads through his laughter. Remaining ambitions? 'I would adore to finish writing a book. I've started so many books, but I peter out.' The definitive Bowie memoirs, perhaps? 'Oh Lord, no!' Regrets? He fixes me with those eyes - one blue and one green - and declares firmly: 'Absolutely none.'
· Heathen is released tomorrow. Meltdown runs from 15-29 June at the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth Halls, South Bank, London SE1 (020 7960 4242).
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