Filter - Issue Six: July/August 2003
Such a perfect day
Age, youth, music, death, charm, grace, godlessness, hope and lipstick with David Bowie
By Mikel Jollett
IT WAS ALL VERY STRANGE. Great, but strange. I was sitting there in David Bowie's studio in Soho, on a little leather chair in front of these two huge speakers taking notes on the songs from his new album (Reality) while he was sitting behind me on a couch flipping through a magazine, glancing up every now and then to check my expression. I had a little red notepad and an old pen and I kept thinking "Jesus, I hope I don't run out of ink." And then out of nowhere, Bowie (and Ziggy, and the Thin White Duke, etc...) jumped up (he's all smiles and nervous energy, that guy) and said with a grin, "Hope you don't mind if I read your notes..." I stuttered. He laughed and went back to the couch. I looked down at my notepad which read:
Thought 1: This song is going to get a lot of airplay.
Thought 2: He's going to make a serious comeback.
Thought 3: I love my job.
The song was called "Loneliest Guy," a theatrical piano ballad filled with sadness and longing. It ended. He jumped up again, turned to the engineer (a youngish dude with Creed hair and a pasty tech-guy expression), and said, "All right, Mario. How about we cue up 'Pablo Picasso'?" I grinned. He grinned. He knew he had something good. I was giddy. "Pablo Picasso" started, a loosely electro-synth, British-rocky cover of the Jonathan Richman song. The speakers rumbled, Bowie's voice all gritty and chopped down, "The girls would turn the color of an avocado, as he would drive down the street in his El Dorado." There was a build up as flamenco guitars washed in and out of the mix, and then it all fell away when the voice said, "Some guys try to pick up girls and get called an asshole, this did not happen to Pablo Picasso." Which was great. Because it meant at least two things. One, that David Bowie was in a good mood in life and back to making music for the sake of making music - just f**king enjoying it. Two, that we were about to have a really nice chat because it was clear that I loved the songs and (despite the fact that he is considered by many to be among the most influential musicians of the 20th century), he was a nervous, frenetic, and utterly insecure artist first. And he wanted to be told that his songs were good. And I was the guy to tell him. That was the strange part. Well, there's more.
The songs continued to play - six in all - and he continued to stand up and smile with his hands on his hips saying things like, "Oh this one's based on this author who wrote rather bad science fiction stories," and "You hear that? That's David Torn on guitar. Doesn't sound like one, eh?" He was rather short (about 5-foot-9) and bubbling with energy. A shadow of gray stubble fell over his chin while wisps of towhead blonde hair tumbled to his eyes - a striking juxtaposition of age and agelessness. I mostly sat there in a chair and wrote things, realizing that this was a rare moment in life - a moment in which one must try with all diligence not to f**k up.
It's easy to get caught up in such things: the New York studios, the cross-country plane rides, the major-label publicists who usher you to and fro. It's more than a little overwhelming. And very easy to be intimidated. But sitting there with David Bowie, I got the sense that he felt that way about it too. And I was surprised to notice - through his comments, his gestures, his school-chummy quips - an uncanny sincerity. And it wasn't because he was relaxed. Most rock stars are relaxed in their lair. It was because he was nervous. He was trying to win me over because he could tell I was nervous too. He was, um, cool. (As in "Is James a nice guy? Yeah, he's cool.") Which is a preternaturally bizarre way for a person to be when they've sold more albums than Britney Spears and have more money than the Queen.
"THERE'S NOTHING WORSE than when you play your own album, and you really hate it. It's happened in my past before. I think, 'Why am I doing this? Why am I playing this? I've got to remix everything.'" He laughed as he said this presumably because he didn't feel that way this time around. The listening session was over and we were now sitting alone in the studio on the couch nine stories above the shops, street vendors, hipsters and sidewalk construction of New York City. There was a certain swishiness to him as he brushed the hair from his forehead, with his legs tucked under his torso. It was not hard to imagine him taking on the persona of an androgynous, bisexual, rock star from outer space - as he did in 1973. Not because he was weird. He wasn't. But because he seemed one of those people who would try anything. Again, cool.
"I wrote it here in New York," he said as he stood to look out the window, his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Fire escapes and brick buildings framed his figure against the glass and the light engulfed him, "There's a certain kind of energy that you get here. I really felt the sidewalk. There's a twang when the foot hits the ground. I knew what it sounded like. And that's what I wanted to get onto the vinyl."
He sat back down on the couch and looked up brightly, "I've had a sentimental attachment to this city since I was, like, 17. It's because around that time, I'd bought the second Bob Dylan album - the one where he's walking down, I believe it's Bleecker Street. And he's got the girlfriend with him. And I thought, 'this guy is so cool looking.' (Then as an aside, to me) It's always the clothes first, right? (We both laughed.) Well, I'm English. What do you want? Then I played the album. I loved the music. And it was absolute dynamite. It was like this 60 year old guy voice in this young kid. I thought, 'This is the Beats. It's everything that's great about America in one album.' So I was already nostalgic for Bleecker Street and all that."
I tried to ask a question about playing Andy Warhol in the film Basquiat, but he interrupted the official flow of the interview (as was his habit) rather suddenly by saying, "I can't believe I'm sitting here doing an interview with no product in my hair. (He laughed hard. Bowie knew Bowie jokes, it seemed. He's insecure and looking for approval, wanting me to take part in the joy of being around him.) I feel like a dork. (I tried to console him, telling him 'No, it looks good.') Oh, I hate my hair. I've got that hair where if I don't have half a pound of lard in it, it's just horrible."
Which led quite naturally to a short discussion of Andy Warhol. Another monumentally influential artist. One with whom Bowie was often said to have an affinity. "Like anybody else," he said, "I never knew him. I mean, what was there to know? It was very hard with Andy. To this day, I don't know if there was anything going on in his mind. Apart from the superficial things that he threw out. Whether that was hiding something deeper, I really don't know. Or whether he was just one of those really canny queens who got the zeitgeist, but not cerebrally. Everything he said was like, (Intoning in a dead-on Andy Warhol queeny drawl) 'Wow, did you see who's here?' And it was never any deeper than that level. (Again, the drawl) 'Gosh, she looks great. How old is she now?' Lou (Reed) knew Andy, of course, much much better. And he always said that there was an awful lot happening in his mind. But I never saw it."
The original point of the discussion had been lost, David's flair for jumping about from idea to idea being what it is. I was trying to find out what it must be like to play the role of a person he'd known who'd become a historical figure. I was about to circle wagons and re-present the question (a socially-awkward ploy for the erstwhile journalist) when it occurred to me that someone might feel the same way about playing him. He sat up, getting excited and said, "Velvet Goldmine was that. The guy in that movie was supposed to be me, apparently. I'll tell you what, (His voice dropped an octave to a tone in which one leans over to reveal something) I thought he was as charismatic as a glass of water. I thought surely I've got more zing than that. He was more Warhol than me being Warhol, that guy. He was a good-looking kid and all that and I thought, 'Whoa, thank you.' Obviously they didn't see the teeth that I had back then.
"The thing is, that film came from a distinctly American perspective. And glam never happened in America. It was so intrinsically a British thing. You had to understand the idea of these bricklayers and blokes like that who suddenly put on make-up. It was just funny." The strange thing about all this was that David Bowie generally resents questions about that era of his career. It was short. One incarnation of many. There was Ziggy Stardust, yes - in 1973 - for a little over a year. But there was also the mod singles on Pye records in the late '60s, then the trippy singer / songwriter of "Space Oddity" (not to mention the professional mime who'd founded his own company) and the long-haired sweeping stylistic melange of Hunky Dory in 1971. Then, after Ziggy, there was the plastic-soul obsession of Young Americans in 1975, followed by the introduction of the soul-obsessed avant-garde persona of the Thin White Duke with Station To Station... the cocaine paranoia which led to a trip to Berlin and a newfound love of electronic experimentation found on the late '70s Brian Eno-produced albums Low, "Heroes", and Lodger ...the danse pop a la Let's Dance in 1983... and of course the actor, the record producer (for Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, among others), the front man of Tin Machine (inspired by the Pixies and Sonic Youth)... and so on and so on and so on. (And that list doesn't even include the various pursuits of the '90s chronicled on page 55).
But, of all his incarnations, Ziggy Stardust seems to be the one that just won't go away. Which isn't to say that he still hadn't a certain pride of authorship for the lipstick-soaked beast he'd unleashed upon the world, "The other thing of course is that it only lasted for 18 months. From beginning to end. The entire movement. We'd all moved on - Roxy (Music) and I moved on. Of course there were the Johnny-come-latelys the Jerry Glitters and all that. They were awful anyway. We didn't like them. We were very snobby about it. There were three of us: T.Rex, Roxy, and me. That was it. That was the entire glam rock school. It wasn't even a movement."
Which brings us to the core paradox at the heart of David Bowie's career. Over 40 years and 25 albums, having been through the operatic grunge and electronic music (first German electro, then dub 'n' bass), gray business suits and ladies dresses, massive live productions and an intimate tour of tiny clubs in the five boroughs of New York City - he is at once the most influenced and most influential musician in rock and roll. Everybody wants to be Bowie and Bowie wants to be everybody. Which may be a statement about art and transience and channeling and the lack of authorship which is the foundation of post-modern thought - or it may simply be a statement about a guy who's really f**king into music.
I presented this paradox to him there on that couch inside his studio on the ninth floor of that building in New York. He thought for a long time, sort of looking down, scratching his head, and said, "I guess I soak up everything I listen to. I'm the hugest fan of music. I still to this day... a band like Grandaddy still excites me to go and see. (I interjected: 'I love Grandaddy.' He animated, raising his voice, sounding like a big geeky fan.) I haven't gotten the new album, it just came out, Sumday. (I tell him I would have brought him a copy - and this is perhaps the most surreal thought in a day of surreal thoughts: that I would be bringing David Bowie a copy of an album so he could have it - like I would for anyone. And that is his appeal. He's still excited by it. He's still in the mix.) Oh man, I've been pushing them for two or three years solidly. Because I'm so tired of them not being recognized by anybody. A discovery like that - like a Grandaddy or a Pavement - there are certain bands that you think, 'Oh, that's exactly what I want to say.' Or rather, 'That's how I want to say things.' You know, you feel a kindred spirit with these people."
He was really into it at this point, building momentum, "My pool of references was so diverse, that what I put out was always tainted by very odd things. That sort of facility I've had has helped me to understand music. (And then, in a grand oratorical style, coming to a conclusion) I never cut anything out... (followed immediately, as an aside, under his breath with)... except country and western, of course. (He laughed because I laughed so hard. He looked at me with a smile, cracking up.) It's true, isn't it? Aw f**k. Don't you hate that f**king music? Dreadful. I cannot bear it. And I love America. I love everything about America. But that thing - I never got it. When Mick (Jagger) said, 'Oh, I love it.' I said, 'What do you see in that stuff?' It's like all these hick - (catching himself) oh, I should shut-up."
AND THAT'S WHEN THE clocks began to melt. We'd moved on to a discussion of the end of rock and roll. The fact that rock music was now caught in this self-referential spiral in which new artists no longer merely referenced older ones, but straight-up copied them - the exact same sort of denouement suffered by jazz and classical music, two art forms far more obsessed with their past than with their present or future. And just then, the publicist leaned in through the door, looked at me, pointed discreetly at her watch. The time was almost up. And it occurred to me that it was all ending too soon: the interview, rock and roll, David Bowie. And so it was at that point when we were discussing it, and at this point when we are documenting it, when it is perhaps best to get out of the way, and simply let the man speak, because he says great things and there is precious little time left...
"Let's put it down to post-modernism. It's almost like the cat is really set among the pigeons. When Nietzsche said, 'There is no God.' That really disturbed the 20th century. And it f**ked everything up - philosophically and spiritually - when he said that. And I think when the post-modernists in the early '60s put around the idea that nothing new will ever be devised again, it kind of f**ked things up too. It's a trickle down thing. That idea has definitely become part of our way of thinking. (He paused here, sensing a change in theme. A crossing over:) And you know, you do start to wonder: Radiohead, as much as I love them, is it basically a kind of Aphex Twin with a backbeat? You know, I mean, how new is that? And is that important anymore, I wonder. Should we not be quite so keen to think that the original is the be all and the end all? Our culture is put together... it's style, not fashion - I'm very emphatic about that - style is how we put our culture together. It's why we choose a chair. Because it looks a certain way. I mean, why bother? Why do we have a choice of chairs? We need to have that to kind of say so much about ourselves."
He was staring down at his hands, folding a piece of paper, caught up in it. "But that's what's interesting about it. I'm older and the sense of idealism was so clear-cut in the '60s. I remember when I was 16 or 17 years old. I was such an idealist about what could happen in the future and all that. I just don't know. I can't read whether younger people - and I won't say "young people" because I would include you as "younger people" (he looked up at me) - actually can feel that sense of idealism in the same way that I probably felt it back in the '60s. (So here was this odd little paternal moment between me and David Bowie. And it occurred to me that it could have been with just about anyone who reads Filter. I just happened to be there. He was thinking, and he kind of looked up and said) Is it harder for you guys to feel that there definitely are certain things that we should abide by?"
I answered him. It's not important what I said. Feel free to fill in your own answer here:
"Yeah, the contradiction really f**ks you all up doesn't it?" is his reply.
You could probably mail your answer to him. I'm sure he'd love to hear from you. Because Jesus, the guy is a sponge for the zeitgeist - chaos theory in mathematics, the search for a unification theory in physics (to no avail), the evolution of post-modernism to post-post-modernism to a return to a classicism and a search for meaning. I don't know if he reads these books or talks to these people or if he's just the sort of person that senses such things when he walks down the street - but one way or another, he knows it. He gets it. He's soaked it up.
"I think now, we don't have a God. We don't have a trust in any kind of politics. We are completely and totally at sea, philosophically. And I don't think we want new things. I think we're kind of scrounging around among the things we know to see if we can salvage some kind of civilization which will help us endure and survive into the future. We don't need new. (And then, emphatically) We are f**ked. We've got enough new. Enough! (He yelled into the ceiling. This is the moment, remember it.) I think we will feel a lot more content when we are able to accept that life is chaos. I think it was an awful thought 10 or 15 years ago. But I think we are beginning to become more comfortable with the idea that life is chaos and it's as simple as that: it is chaos. There is no structure. There is no plan. We are not evolving. We have to make the best of what we got. And if we can become happy about that, I think we ought to be able to establish a lifestyle in which we are more content."
He paused for a second while the intellectual dust settled, then sort of perked up and blurted out with a laugh, "What did I just say?"
I began to review, but then the time was up. He said - "It's lovely to have talked with you. I'm so sorry we don't have longer..."
A SIX-SONG PEEK AT THE NEW BOWIE ALBUM: REALITY
"NEW KILLER STAR"
Driven by a sort of oompa-pop head-bobbing rock quality, it's obvious from the opening notes of "New Killer Star" that Bowie is in a less cerebral mood these days. Gone is the atmospheric lament he's been working on for the past few albums. It's very musical and catchy - but not in a lame way. When he says, "Never said I'm better than you," you wonder: why not?
What's great about this tune is that Bowie's voice is way out in front. It's a pretty song with some piano (and a little too much production in the background). But still it's a ballad and you know he's going to deliver. Imagine an earnest and melodic and heartfelt Bowie coming out from behind the veil of his intellectual songwriting.
Flamenco guitars skip into the song prompting this big Ministry-esque rock electro thing that's cool and catchy as hell. Plus it's a Jonathan Richman cover about what a cool motherf**ker Pablo Picasso was. Somewhere between Spiritualized, BRMC, and the album the Dandy Warhols should have made, you get the sense that Bowie gets this music.
"WOOD JACKSON" [sic]
Named for an obscure science fiction novelist, this will probably be the best track on the album (we only got to hear six, so we can't be sure). Rhythm guitars are replaced by an organ line and there is an '80s rock feel running throughout. Sure, that sound is very of the moment, but isn't that a good thing? Besides, it's a f**king great song, and anyway, he invented this sound to begin with.
"LOOKING FOR WATER"
Imagine a theatrical (well, a more theatrical) Joy Division pushed along by a discordant guitar at the core of a well-arranged rhythm track. The guitars loop and ring and Bowie's singing in this lo-fied scratch of a voice which isn't a stretch in the least.
"NEVER GET OLD"
Considering the above title, you might wonder if this is a sad song. Well, it's not. It's a f**k-all celebratory dirge with big reverby drums and Bowie's vocals stacked on top of each other, four of five dubs deep. Talking Heads meets Queen meets the Velvet Underground meets the fear of death and a good mood. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good description of the entire album so far.
TO CLOSE WINDOW