In August 1980, as RCA’s Press Officer in London, I was assigned to take two journalists, one from New Musical Express and the other from the Sunday Times, to Chicago where Bowie was appearing on stage at the Blackstone Theatre as John Merrick, the Elephant Man. The following month his album Scary Monster (And Super Creeps) was scheduled for release, and David had agreed to do two UK interviews to promote it. NME had promised me front page, and the Sunday Times front page of the magazine section. Our party was to stay in Chicago, at the luxurious Whitehall Hotel, from Monday to Friday.
When we arrived in Chicago I was informed in no uncertain terms by ‘Bowie’s people’ that each journalist would be allotted just one hour in which to talk with him. This seemed not to be a problem for the Sunday Times man but it sat uneasily with Angus McKinnon from NME, who was aghast that he’d come all this way and was staying for four days in Chicago for a one hour audience with DB. Additionally, McKinnon – unbeknownst to me – had brought along the Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn to take pictures exclusively for NME. This, said Bowie’s people, was out of the question.
I thus found myself in the middle of a politically charged battle. On the one hand I was expected to respect the wishes of Bowie’s people, who represented the interests of RCA’s biggest star (and money-earner), yet at the same time I was beholden to the journalists who might renege on their page one agreements if the interviews were slight. This would put me in hot water with the hierarchy of RCA in London who had funded this expensive jaunt.
“It’s up to you,” I told McKinnon. “If you can engage David in an interesting, stimulating interview and along the way make it clear to him that you need to talk for more than an hour, he might just overrule his minders. But if you bore him you’ll only get an hour. Oh – and mention Anton to him yourself.”
So McKinnon did just that and David granted him not only extra time on the day of the interview but a further two hours the following day. And he agreed to pose for Corbijn, both in his Elephant Man costume backstage at the theatre and in a bar where McKinnon’s interview took place.
Bowie’s ‘people’ were furious with me for having been a party to this deception, but I couldn’t care less. Next week’s NME had a Corbijn picture of DB on the cover and five pages of McKinnon’s interview inside, and a month or two later DB in his Elephant Man loincloth graced the front page of the Sunday Times colour magazine. The point of the story is that David knew better than his advisors how to achieve maximum coverage.
Bernard Docherty, who worked as Bowie’s PR man from 1982 to 1988 at Rogers & Cowan, seems to have understood this well. “He is a very, very bright individual, and he reads and reads,” he says. “He absorbs the media. He always had his finger on culture, painters, film-makers, music. He always had something interesting to talk about when he did meet the media. He was even interesting when he did something that the critics didn’t like, like Tin Machine.
“I didn’t think he was a manipulator in the way that other people were advising him. He just gave interviewees a good chat and appeared interested in them too. He would ask interviewers what they thought, what albums they’d been listening to, what painters they liked and what books they read.
“He never sat me down and said, ‘How are we going to work the media’. It just came naturally to him. He just gave good interview. He wasn’t just stuck on himself.”
Biographer David Buckley agrees: “He is one of the few rock stars who can consistently give good copy, always has something new and interesting to say, and is, by all accounts, urbane and charming to his interviewers. Some people have said that he goes in with six or seven stock answers or ideas that he currently wants to talk about, and then moves (or manipulates) the conversation to hit on his checklist. And he’s a talker! Some people who have met him though detect that the new bonhomie is as much a mask as his 1970’s personae, and that, deep down, he’s still rather distant and alienated.
“I think he is able to set the agenda in many interviews; he cleverly steers the conversation into comfortable areas, and very few interviewees are bold enough to really tackle the more controversial areas (and, there are many).”
And like Bernard Docherty, Buckley believes Bowie gets good press simply because he’s brighter than his peers. “He’s simply cleverer than virtually any other pop star. He’s better read, has up-to-the-minute opinions on everything from The Office to the new Blur album. He thinks very quickly under pressure. He’s completely spontaneous. And, he can be very funny. At his best, there’s almost a sort of surreal stand-up quality to him. Very few, if any pop star have this mixture of fierce intelligence in a media environment, and, what seems like utter self-belief!”
Ken Pitt acknowledges this but cites Bowie’s penchant for change too. “I think the reason why DB has managed to maintain such a good relationship with the media is his ability to reinvent himself,” says his former manager.
Most Bowie-observers reckon he cares a great deal about the press he receives, probably far more than most. “I think he’s obviously keen to portray himself as 1. Cutting-edge and 2. Liberal of persuasion,” says Buckley. “I think the recent switch away from talking about the Internet, and of course, from acting in movies (most of which haven’t been successful) have focused attention on the music, and him as musician. That’s why he’s now successful again, as he’s being branded not so much as a media genre-hopper, but as a serious musician.”