On March 1, 1976, I was in Detroit to watch David Bowie’s concert at the Cobo Arena and in the afternoon I interviewed him at length in his suite at the Pontchartrain Hotel. Many years later I read an interview with Madonna in which she stated she was at this show. She would have been 17 and for all I know I could have sat next to her.
This was the Station To Station tour, with the black and white feel, DB as a Thin White Duke in black pants, black waistcoat and white shirt, and bright white strip lighting illuminating the stage. The only hint of colour was the blue packet of Gitanes in his pocket from which he plucked cigarettes to smoke between songs. Smoking was cool then. Amazingly, the show was preceded by a screening of the 1929 surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, in which a woman’s eye is slashed by a razor blade; not really the sort of thing US fans would expect at a rock show.
The best interviews I ever did on MM were with Lennon, Townshend and Bowie; all visionaries, all unafraid to speak their minds and all inclined to drop the odd provocative remark or, indeed, deliberate untruth, knowing it would probably make a headline. Whip smart and deeply enlightened, all three were also adept at using the press for their own ends. When I read insufferably bland interviews with modern day rock and pop stars in magazines today, I wonder where it all went wrong.
This interview with David Bowie was quite long, and also quite revealing, if he was telling the truth that is. I’ve divided it up into three parts. Here’s the first, introduced with a bit of scene setting.
“I’M JUST DOING this tour for the money. I never earned any money before, but this time I’m going to make some. I think I deserve it, don’t you?”
David Bowie is balanced delicately in an armchair in suite 1604 in the Pontchartrain Hotel in Detroit, his legs bent and hunched up, gazing absently at his bare feet which, like the rest of him, look remarkably clean. In his blue tracksuit he looks healthy and, although he could add a few pounds in weight, his brain is as trim as his figure.
His hair, blond at the front and red at the back, has been groomed by his personal hairdresser. It is swept up in a quiff and held in place with water. His classic, Aryan features alternate between expressions of genuine warmth and cold contempt whenever he senses troubled waters.
His left eye is still strangely immobile, a legacy from the childhood injury he received, and it adds an incongruous touch to a rather aristocratic appearance. Even if David Bowie never opened his mouth, he would have found some niche in life purely on the strength of his looks.
With the possible exception of Bryan Ferry, no other contemporary musician is as much preoccupied with his image as Bowie. But, while Ferry remains the same, Bowie changes his with regularity, not only from tour to tour, but from month to month. One can never really tell, either, whether his replies to any interviewer are fact or fiction; his views on various subjects change according to whim.
A few months ago he was widely quoted as saying he never wanted to tour again, yet his current US tour is now in its third week and, according to the star of the show, things are going very nicely, thank you. Other interviews suggested that Bowie was becoming interested in radical right-wing politics, statements that he now shrugs off by explaining that he made them up to satisfy the interviewer’s need for a sensational story.
Shock value, I guess. Perhaps he intended to jolt me by making the point that he was only touring for the money, a point he reiterated more than once during a 45-minute conversation in his hotel suite.
So let’s get one thing straight from the very start. The views and opinions of David Bowie as quoted below represent his statements made between 6.45 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. US Eastern Standard time on Monday, March 1, 1976. What he’s said before that date and what he might say afterwards, may vary considerably.
We began by talking about the current tour, the staging of which is a massive departure from the elaborate Diamond Dogs presentation two years ago. Simplicity is the keynote this time around, right down to the “white lights” effect designed by Scottish tour manager Eric Barrett. As I saw for myself later the same evening, it is wonderfully effective; quite stunning in fact.
“It’s more theatrical than Diamond Dogs ever was,” said Bowie, toying with an unlit Gitane and a glass of Heineken. “It’s by suggestion rather than by over-propping. It relies on modern 20th century theatre concepts of lighting, and I think it comes over as being very theatrical. Whether the audiences are aware of it, I don’t know. It doesn’t look like a theatrical production, but it certainly is.”
Was it getting out of hand before? “No, it was just boring after a while. Once I got to Los Angeles and did the shows in the Amphitheatre there, I’d already done 30 of them and it was terrible. There’s nothing more boring than a stylised show, because there was no spontaneity and no freedom of movement. Everything was totally choreographed and it was very stiff. It didn’t look it if you went and saw the show once. The first time it was probably a gas, but there’s nothing much in it if you are doing it every night. It just becomes repetition. I can’t speak as an audience but certainly, as a performer, it was hard to keep it up, treking all over the country doing the same thing night after night.
“This one changes almost every night. It’s a lot looser. The only thing we have is a running-order, but I even change that around. The lighting guys have lighting cues, but that’s on spec as well.”
It seems he has changed his onstage image yet again. “So I hear. I’ve heard I look like a cabaret performer, but I’ve never seen a cabaret performer so I wouldn’t know. The reaction is a lot better, and I guess that is because I’m still giving them theatre, but whether they want that or not I don’t know, and I don’t really care. The audiences are about a tour behind me, but then they always are. I’d get worried if they turned up in outfits I’d never seen before. I’d think I was a tour behind.”
For the Diamond Dogs tour Bowie relegated his musicians to a position of scant importance, never even acknowledging their presence on stage. This time around the musicians stand behind him, and towards the end of the show are introduced. For the record they are guitarist Carlos Alomar, who worked on Station To Station; Stacey Heydon, who came in at the last minute to replace Earl Slick; bassist George Murray, and drummer Dennis Davis, both from the Station To Station sessions; and keyboard player Tony Kaye, late of Badger and Yes, another last-minute addition.
“There are three blacks and three whites, including myself, and that’s a good mixture,” continued Bowie. “They’re all good musicians. Carlos and Dennis have been with me for two years, but the rest we assembled in eight days of rehearsal before the tour. The band will stay with me for the duration of the tour, but I won’t need them when we’ve finished.“I haven’t kept a band together since the Spiders, and I don’t want the responsibility of keeping one. It’s too much money, anyway, to keep a band together, a lot of problems that I don’t need.”