Soma Magazine - Volume 13: Issue 8 - 2000

Portrait of the Artist: David Bowie

He makes music. He acts. He paints. He makes sculptures. David Bowie sits and talks for 'hours...' with Stefan Chirazi about how it all comes together in one extraordinary life.

Text: Stefan Chirazi

David Bowie's loud, rasping laugh echoes around the long, austere conference room at his record label's offices in New York. "Y'know those guys that get old frying pans and tinfoil and make these monstrously fantastic statues out of crap?" He grins, taking a drag of his cigarette, a sip of espresso, and settling into the story as if an old pair of slippers. "Well, I have great empathy with them because I know what they're doing."

He quickly jumps out of the chair to further augment the story. "When I first started sculpting as a kid, I did something just like that without knowing what I was doing. It was this 15-foot sculpture of a man holding a baby with his foot through a huge globe" (these details are passionately intoned as he half-crouches, drama-stepping his foot slowly into a 'thing,' arms cradling the air). "I made him out of cellophane and polythene, his vertebrae were made from 3-D postcards, his penis was made out of cotton reels with one of these little 3-D TV pencil sharpeners at the end, and his hips were made of 45 rpm records. And I had piano wire from the rafters to him, so he was like this huge puppet."

Bowie pauses for a moment, reflecting on the image. "His whole body was made of STUFF," he roars with unbridled amusement. "He was transparent so you could see his inner-self and it was made up of bric-a-brac. If I'd have known about myself then what I know now, it's exactly the same fucking thing as I do with music. I naturally 'magpie' things, I see them and I bring them back to myself."

He might well be many things to many people, but the truth is that talking with David Bowie feels like chin-wagging with an old friend over late-morning coffee. Technically, of course, we're not even distant acquaintances, but Bowie's not one to let small details get in the way of a good old natter.

Indeed, like the many other arts Bowie has mastered (music, film, stage, painting, and sculpting), he has great conversation sewn up. One minute we're laughing over a picture in the paper with two cows painting in a field ("I'm a collector of their work y'know!"), the next we're pushing around contemporary concepts of faith and God whilst there's still time to mention video games and Lara Croft's 'tits'. He even looks like an old pal, shoulder-length unkempt flaxen hair, slightly rumpled shirt, black spacey boots, and slivery-gray stubble, the only difference being a sense of natural style that makes it all look like an instant Fall classic.

Perhaps the greatest touch, however, is the way in which David Bowie controls his own aura. He has, during an enormously iconoclastic 30-year career which has seen generations of pop culture following his lead, become acutely aware of the aura he radiates. Maturity, not to mention a deeper self-confidence, sees Bowie keeping that aura turned lower these days in the interest of maintaining comfortable room temperatures.

"Over the years I've become a very buoyant, happy character," he explains. "1989 was the period I really realized for the first time in my life that I was an exceptionally lucky man. Many things, such as meeting my wife (Bowie has been happily married to former model Iman for nearly a decade), made me realize that I should bless every damn moment I am alive because I was having, and have, an extraordinary life. The last thing I should do, ever, is whine. My problems pale into nothingness relative to other people's, and the only thing that would be a significant problem for me and my family, is illness."

It hasn't always been easy for Bowie to view matters with such equilibrium. Born David Jones on January 8, 1947 in Brixton, South London, the heights of fame Bowie reached during his '70s Glam Rock phase brought with them the inevitable warp factor that affects young recipients of megastardom. There was also divorce (from Angie Bowie), drug and depression problems, as well as an ex-business partner who left Bowie broke, all experienced by the time 1980 arrived.

"One thing one always has to work at is relationships, and it wasn't until the late '80s that I started to become more open," he says philosophically of his current comfort. "Someone told me that you reach a certain age and either completely diminish as a person or become the person you always should've been. Age brings one of two things: either a feeling of complete and utter defeat or understanding that it's about living the moment. If you harness yourself to that energy of enjoying the day as it comes along and put yourself to bed at night knowing that you did everything to the best of your abilities, didn't hurt anybody, and continue to cement relationships between yourself, friends, and family, then you're all the better for it. And an accumulation of days like that gives you a real sense of fulfillment."

Given his state of almost continual epiphany throughout the '90s, it would be easy to assume that hours..., Bowie's twenty-third album which was written and recorded in Bermuda, is an autobiographical set of musically-interpreted memoirs. Instead, it is a semi-fictional composite of the thoughts and reflections someone in their early 50s might have.

"I felt that I needed to develop a real emotional character," he explains. "I took the idea of me being over 50 now, and said, 'let's talk about my generation.' So I started writing songs from the viewpoint of a 50, 55 year old who hadn't fulfilled things in his life, never reached his potential, and had disastrous relationships.

"I drew upon things that had happened in my own life obviously, but also, the bridge between my own young life led to people I knew where things didn't work out too well. So the conclusions to these stories were often bridges between my younger, and their present, selves. Because there's nothing worse than hearing an album from someone saying, 'life is really great!'" he chuckles. "It's like, 'well, fuck you, I'm sooo pleased for you.' I never buy albums like that and neither, I don't think, does anybody else."

Despite its older perspective, hours... has more than enough tales of lost life and love for any generation to find empathy with it. "My son [Duncan] said he liked this one because he felt it reflected a lot of the things he'd been through," says Bowie with obvious pride. "At 27! Been through all that?!" So in that sense it does cut across all age groups and manages to become a representation of certain states of mind we get ourselves into. For all of us, there's a certain kind of atmosphere and anguish that we all feel at times in our lives. You can feel as walked on and fucked over at 21 as you do at 60, it's the general 'me' feeling. But if you express it at twenty-one it tends to be a bit histrionic because you feel it's 'never happened to anyone else ever in the history of the world.'"

Bowie is eager to point out that he won't be upset if people still take hours... to be all about him. "Not at all, I'm sort of the same," he starts quickly. "I kind of care what the author, or artist, intended but I'm more interested in what their work brings up in me and how I can use it. 'How do I use that painting or how do I use this music, what kind of thing does it put on the table which makes me think about something I haven't thought about for a long time, but should've?' I think the audience finishes off the story," he says strongly. "I'm a major believer in that. I can only put into my work what I know, but once you put it into a public situation, it's finished by them."

Over the years, Bowie, the effervescent canvas, has involved himself in a rich array of unique colors and brushes. Film director Nicolas Roeg, playwright Bertolt Brecht, guitarists Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, and Reeves Gabrels, composer/producer Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, as well as Martin Scorcese, David Lynch, artist Julian Schnabel, and John Lennon, underscore the quality behind so many of Bowie's collaborations.

The results (albums such as "Heroes" and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, films like The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Last Temptation of Christ and stage work like The Elephant Man) have helped establish Bowie's legend and place him as one of the modern era's most important artistic catalysts.

"Now I know what it is I do," he offers. "I didn't know what I was doing as a kid and I certainly didn't know why I was doing it. I only knew certain things: that I was uncomfortable as a blues singer, that I was not comfortable as a soul singer, and that time after time, it struck me that I was uncomfortable being in any genre. I didn't feel a natural 'anything.' And then, when I suddenly started taking bits of things and putting them together in a new way, mixing all the colors, mixing some blues with folk with artistic ideas in books about Japan, I realized I was a guy who did collages. I was a collagist! I was good at hybridization, at juxtaposing things that shouldn't, and often didn't, make sense.

"I was always interested in the guys that didn't fit into the mainstream," he continues excitedly. "Like Harry Parch with experimental music, Jack Kerouac who was writing from this strange beat place, William Burroughs because it was just weird the way he'd put sentences together... these became my inspirations. And because I'm a populist-minded person-I'm not some avant-gardist intellectual that strives to be high-minded-I found I naturally became a high-art/low-brow bridge because I had my feet firmly planted in both. So I could bring these eccentric ideas to the mainstream and people would listen to me. I could take Japanese Kabuki theater and put it on Ziggy Stardust and it made sense. I could take what some considered really strange ideas and make them accessible to larger amounts of people. That's what I found I was really good at doing and, most importantly, what I really enjoyed doing."

Of course, without Bowie's unique ability to express so clearly with music, not to mention an undeniable gift for harmony and song-arrangement, the influences wouldn't have meant much. "I have natural talent for melody and I have a natural talent for putting words together," he says, briskly moving beyond the territory of self-appreciation. "But I do produce music in a collagist fashion. I have no musical loyalty, there's not one kind of music that makes my say, for example, 'I'm a rhythm and blues man.' None of that. For me, all music of any nature is open season," he cackles loudly. "If I hear something that's great, I'll say 'I want to use that,' but then I'll think it'd be great to put this Indian harmony over it and use these kinds of words. It's very similar to sculpting something."

Bowie explains that his creativity has been expressed through both music and art since his early 20s. "I think sometimes they're helping devices for each other," he muses. "If one's weighing me down, I'll try a similar approach with the other. I don't see the arts as being too separate anyway, probably because I was rude enough to blur the lines a bit when I was younger. But I suppose confidence is everything in order to achieve that. I think if you get this idea that 'this is what you are' and 'you shouldn't do anything else,' then you never get the confidence to move and try other things."

Only once, during a confusing spell in the mid-'80s, where sales were soaring, did Bowie ignore the true nature of his work. "When I saw I was packing huge places full of people at concerts, I felt it was my duty to provide them with what I thought they wanted," he sighs. "I remember thinking that their record collections must be different than mine, that I have stuff they probably didn't have, that they probably had Phil Collins in their collections, and so I found myself writing to their expectations. It was a colossal failure on my part, a total misunderstanding of what I did, what I enjoyed, and why I even started doing what I was doing.

"The crazy thing is I could've been Mr. Mainstream for the rest of my life, because the two albums after Let's Dance are, unfortunately, amongst my best-sellers. So I did know what people wanted, but I was letting down myself personally, and also he hardcore people who followed me religiously because they always know I believed in what I was doing. And once I sorted that out, again at the turn of the last decade, that's when the balance returned to my life again and I became happier."

For many reasons, David Bowie is the perfect millennial male, having flirted with the ideas of "space" and "cyber" throughout his career. In the'70s, he created the spaceman Ziggy Stardust, and in 1994, he conceived the computer art detective Nathan Adler on the Outside project, a concept album revolving around a series of art crimes in the cybernetic world of 1999. A year ago, Bowie went headlong into cyberspace, founding his own Internet service provider, Bowienet, and providing a cutting-edge website for his fans.

On Outside, the character of Adler makes a series of grim discoveries about the state of society on New Year's Eve 1999: in retrospect, Bowie doesn't feel the coming millennium will be nearly as foreboding.

"Perhaps the one through-line between some of the stuff in Outside and the coming millennium is this new Pagan worship, this whole search for a new spiritual life that's going on," he explains. "Because of the way we've demolished the idea of God with that triumverate at the beginning of the century, Nietzsche, Einstein, and Freud. They really demolished everything we believed. 'Time bends, God is dead, the inner-self is made of many personalities'... wow, where the fuck are we?

"I wonder if we have realized that the only thing we could create as 'God' was the hydrogen bomb and that the fall-out from the realization that as gods we can only seem to produce disaster is people trying to find some spiritual bonding and universality with a real nurtured inner-life. But there is also this positivism that you find now which really wasn't there at the end of the last century.

"Then, the general catch phrase among the artistic and literary community was that it was the end of the world," he says gravely. "They really felt that in 1899 there was nothing else, that only complete disaster could follow. It isn't like that now. We may be a little wary or jittery about what's around the corner, but there's no feeling of everything's going to end in the year 2000. Instead, there's almost a celebratory feeling of 'right, at least we can get cracking and really pull it all together.'"

Given the amount of time he dedicates to keeping his website on the cutting edge of Internet technology, plus his boyish enthusiasm for both collaborating on, and playing with, video games ("There's this one game I was asked to write music for, Nomad Soul, where it would take you 220 consecutive hours to just go through the city!"), it is unsurprising that Bowie is such an ardent supporter of the world wide web.

"There's a breakthrough happening where there's an on-line community," he states firmly. "Nobody's quite sure what this animal is and what characteristics it's going to have. It's being born, so there will be as many downsides as upsides, and the fact that we should be comfortable with this fragmented and chaotic universe is only just starting to come in. It's only dawned on us in the last 20-30 years that this universe is not black and white with clear-cut rules, ways of doing things, and established patterns and traditions. It's an existence we've never gauged before, and I really feel this creature will be our next quantum leap, this creature can almost surf through life in a way we didn't know was possible before."

Acutely aware as he is of the politics behind access to this virtual community ("One of the major problems right now is between the haves and the have-nots, and ownership of knowledge is always frightening..."), Bowie remains unshakably loyal to his long-term belief that the web will eventually reach all global corners. "When the telephone was first invented around the late 1800's, the President said, "this is an extraordinary invention! I foresee the day when every town will have one!"

He lets loose another roar of laughter. "They didn't see beyond the point when every town would have a telephone. The short-sightedness of that comment applies very much to what's happening right now."

Like it's been in David Bowie's career for 30 years, the prospect of fiddling with these continual discoveries and developments are the things which have him so excited about the future of cyberspace (hours... will have been available for complete download via participating retailers prior to its October store release date, the first time any major artist has done such a thing). "We really have absolutely no knowledge of how exponentially things grow," he says indignantly. "We have no idea what we have started by creating the Internet. We can only take stupid flying guesses that are pre-conceived by what we already know about it. We don't even know the beginning, all we have is the tip of the iceberg which will change our existence. I think it's fantastic, it's revolution. But let me just say this," he concludes, smiling. "The revolution will be televised!"

As ever, with that timeless combination of skill and enthusiasm, David Bowie is in the perfect position to lead the charge.