The second part of my interview with David Bowie, Detroit, March 1976.
Musically David Bowie has veered towards black music over the past two years, especially with last year’s Young Americans. He readily admits he has been copying what he’s heard on the radio in a deliberate attempt to be commercial.
“I don’t listen to it very much now, though,” he said. “I don’t like it very much now. It was a phase. I don’t like very much music at all now, actually. I like performing with a band, but listening... not really. I’ve listened to a lot of Kraftwerk and any kind of, er, cute music like that, but there’s very little happening musically that interests me now.
“My own recent music has been good, plastic soul, I think. It’s not very complex, but it’s enjoyable to write. I did most of it in the studio. It doesn’t take very long to write... about ten, 15 minutes a song. I mean, with Young Americans I thought I’d better make a hit album to cement myself over here, so I went in and did it. It wasn’t too hard, really.”
Was John Lennon an important contributor to ‘Fame’? “No, not really. I think he appreciates that. It was more the influence of having him in the studio that helped. There’s always a lot of adrenalin flowing when John is around, but his chief addition to it all was the high-pitched singing of ‘Fame’. The riff came from Carlos, and the melody and most of the lyrics came from me, but it wouldn’t have happened if John hadn’t been there. He was the energy, and that’s why he’s got a credit for writing it; he was the inspiration.”
Roy Bittan, Bruce Springsteen’s pianist, played on Station To Station. How did that come about? “It was Eric Barrett, my road manager, who saw him and recommended him. I needed a pianist because Tony wasn’t around and Mike Garson was off being a scientologist somewhere, so I needed him. He impressed me a lot, but I’ve never seen him with Springsteen. I once saw Springsteen when he was just forming everything, at Max’s in New York, and I was impressed by him but I didn’t like the band. That was when I recorded three of his songs, but they were never released. At the time I was intending to do an album of songs by New York people that I liked, but I never finished it.”
In three years Bowie hasn’t set foot in England. Any particular reason? “I just haven’t got around to it,” he confessed. “Most of my affairs have been messed up so badly that I just hadn’t time. There were plans at one time to take the Diamond Dogs tour to England, but I doubt if ever that show will see the light of day again. I’ve still got the scenery stored away in New York, so there’s always a chance.”
That tour must have been extraordinarily expensive to stage. “Apparently so. I never saw any money from that tour. I’m only making money now. That’s why I wanted to simplify things this time around, to make money. I’m managing myself now, simply because I’ve got fed up with managers that I’ve known.
How were relations between himself and Tony De Fries? “I haven’t seen him since the day I left him. I wouldn’t know. Is the still in the business? I honestly don’t know.”
Bowie seemed a little reluctant to enlarge on this point, so I mentioned that De Fries was still managing Mick Ronson and asked whether Bowie had any opinions on Ronson’s role in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. He seemed disinterested. “Yeah, I heard all about that. I don’t have any opinions. I honestly can’t remember Mick that well nowadays. It’s a long time ago. He’s just like any other band member that I’ve had. Maybe I should react more than I should react. Anyway, I’m not a great Dylan fan. I think he’s a prick, so I’m not that interested.”
As his own manager, Bowie has honed his entourage down to three key people: Pat Gibbons (acting manager), Corinne Schwab (secretary), and Barbara De Witt (press relations). “My office is a suitcase that stays in my room. It’s far better than before when I never knew what was going on, and this is how I used to do it back in England before. My last manager was Michael Lippman and he didn’t cope very well. I think it was an experience for him, though. You’d better ask Michael Lippman why Earl Slick left me on the eve of this tour. He’s managing him now.”
Talk turned to films and Bowie brightened up considerably, Bowie no longer sees himself as only a rock star, so I asked him whether movies would become his prime interest.
“No. Making a bit of money is my prime interest. I’m an artist and anything that makes money is okay. I don’t know whether I’m an actor or not, and I won’t know until I see the movie (The Man Who Fell To Earth) in a cinema with people around me. That’ll be the test. I want to watch myself in that context. I acted or non-acted as best as I could in that film. It required non-acting because the character of Newton that I played is a very cold, unexpressive person. The thing he learns on earth is emotion, which comes hard to him and reduces him to an alcoholic.
“I’d been offered a lot of scripts but I chose this one because it was the only one where I didn’t have to sing or look like David Bowie. Now I think David Bowie looks like Newton. One thing that Nick Roeg (the film’s director) is good at doing is seducing people into a role, and he seduced me completely. He told me after we’d finished it would take me a long time to get out of the role and he was dead right. After four months playing the role I was Newton for six months afterwards, and now I’m gradually becoming Max Radl for the next one.”
Bowie’s next movie in fact, as exclusively reported in MM, is likely to be based on Jack Higgins’ best-selling novel, The Eagle Has Landed, which is based on a fictitious plot to kidnap Winston Churchill during the last war. Bowie is cast as Max Radl, a German officer who organises the kidnap attempt from inside Germany.
“I’m getting into my Nazi bit for this one,” he continued. “I have an inert left hand and a patch over my left eye for the part. Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland are in it, too, so it’ll be one hell of a film. Sutherland is the reason that I chose to do it – Sutherland has the money.
“If it wasn’t for Sutherland and the money I wouldn’t be interested. As it is, I’m more interested in a Bergman film called The Serpent’s Egg which is coming up, and I’d do that for nothing, just to work with Bergman.” [In the event Bowie did not appear in this movie, his part being taken by Robert Duvall.]
Would he drop music in favour of acting if his career blossomed “Er, no, I don’t think so. I just do anything as it comes up. I’ve learned to find a much calmer level of intensity these days. I don’t push for much, but I seem to move a lot faster when I do things this way. I think I’ve done the bit that I needed to do in rock and roll. I’ve made my contribution to rock and roll, and the only thing I can do now, if I stay in rock and roll, is to have a rock and roll career. Not being very career-minded, I don’t want a career in rock and roll.
“I couldn’t do anything but survive now. Once you’ve made that initial boom, what else do you have to do? So I’m just resting around and picking up on all the things that have fascinated me. I’ve become interested in art over the last two years and I’ve done several silk screens and lithographs.”
Was it that he was frightened of repeating himself rock? “It’s not that so much. I didn’t want my enthusiasm for rock and roll being mixed up with my own dissatisfaction with becoming a rock and roll careerist. In rock and roll the artist quickly becomes an archetype, and as soon as he becomes an archetype he has served his purpose.
“I don’t believe it’s possible for an artist to say more than two new things in rock and roll. One artist has one thing to say and it’s such an ephemeral sort of culture that after he’s said it, it’s just a question of staying around. If you do strive to say something new, it gets interpreted as just another way of staying around. They’re doing it to Dylan at the moment, and poor old Bruce Springsteen has hardly started before they’re saying it to him. And whether Patti Smith will ever get there, they’re saying it about her. It’s not that interesting after a certain point, anyway.
“I’m not disenchanted because I always believed when I started that Ziggy, for me, was what it was all about. I said it with Ziggy five years ago and I believe that you can go up or come down or be carried along by the tide for a few years. The only thing to do, if you want to contribute to culture, or politics, or music, or whatever, is to utilise your own persona rather than just music. The best way to do this is to diversify and become a nuisance everywhere.”
But it must have been satisfying to have a massive US hit with ‘Fame’. “Well, it kind of put the cap on things. It told me I could finish now, pack it all in now. That meant I had done the two things I was supposed to do, which is to conquer this market and conquer the British market. Once you’ve done that you can pretend to rest on your laurels and all the other cliches you can do when you hit the top. You can forget longevity and all the things that make you stay there, as far as I’m concerned. All that staying at the top is just a heartache for me. I just want to do what I want to do, and first, that’s make some money with this tour and enjoy making it at the same time.
“I wanted to use a new kind of staging, and I think this staging will become one of the most important ever. It will affect every kind of rock and roll act from now on, because it’s the most stabilised move that I’ve ever seen in rock and roll. I’ve reverted to pure Brechtian theatre and I’ve never seen Brechtian theatre used like this since Morrison and the Doors, and even then Morrison never used white light like I do.“I think it looks like a corrupted version of the Thirties German theatre, what with the waistcoat, which has always been a favourite with me. I should have had a watch-chain to make it perfect. I’m trying to put over the idea of the European movement with the Dali film (before he arrives on stage, the Dali-Luis Bunel film, Un Chien Andalou, is shown) and playing Kraftwerk over the speakers. I’d like to get my hands on the new Eno album to play, actually. I think side one is absolutely fabulous.”