Blender - August 2002

Dear Superstar: David Bowie

By Clark Collis

The Thin White Duke is happy to answer your questions about cocaine, Ziggy Stardust and Iman. He'd even be happy to talk about the mid-'70s - if only he could remember them.

"A little old lady once said to me, 'Elton, could I have your autograph?' " recalls David Bowie, crying with laughter in a suite at New York's Soho Grand Hotel, just down the road from the apartment he shares with his wife, the supermodel Iman, and their 1-year-old daughter. "I said, 'You may have my autograph, but I'm not Elton John - I'm David Bowie.' She said, 'Good: I hate that bright red hair and all that makeup.' So I was totally lost."

Little old ladies aside, it's difficult to imagine many people will confuse the man who brought us Ziggy Stardust, "Let's Dance" and, ahem, Tin Machine with anyone else. Not only is Bowie releasing a new album - Heathen, which finds him reteaming with Heroes producer Tony Visconti - he's also headlining Moby's Area:2 tour. Before all that, though, he's fielding your queries with minimal complaint and maximum chuckling.

"The biggest misconception about me is that I have no sense of humor," he says. "I probably was a bit [serious] - but only because I 'm very shy. That's probably one of the reasons I got so heavily into drugs: When you're doing coke, you talk enough for several people.... "

When Iggy Pop was in a psychiatric hospital in 1975, is it true that you brought him drugs to cheer him up?

Yeah. [Laughs] Did it work? Of course! Ah, that was so stupid. If I remember right, it was me and Dennis Hopper. We trooped into the hospital with a load of drugs for him. This was very much a leave-your-drugs-at-the-door hospital. We were out of our minds, all of us. He wasn't well; that's all we knew. We thought we should bring him some drugs, because he probably hadn't had any for days!

Who was your first love?

I was absolutely head over heels in love with a girl when I was about 10. She was the first girl in the class to get tits. I went out with her years later, when we were about 18 - but I fucked it up. On our second date, she found out that I'd been with another girl. I could not keep it zipped. All through my youth I was just terrible.

I'm looking forward to seeing you on the Area:2 tour. Will you play "Always Crashing in the Same Car"?

We are learning that, actually. The reason is that for Meltdown [a British music festival Bowie is curating], I'm doing both Heathen and Low in their entirety, two albums back-to-back. We have to learn "Always Crashing," because it's on Low. If you send me a letter telling me which gig you'll be at, I'll make sure I identify you in the crowd and play you that song.

When you wrote "Turn and face the strange" for "Changes," who were you talking to?

[Sings] Turn and face the strange... I don't think it's any more complicated than just a note to self - that the narrator should turn and face the strange. Or, as somebody once said, turn and face the strain. Which sounds like a bathroom exercise.

Could you have imagined that "Let's Dance" was going to become such a huge hit?

The truth is, I told [producer] Nile [Rodgers], "Why on earth you think that's a single, I have no idea." I had serious doubts - I wanted "China Girl" to be the first single. But he said to me, "No, you're wrong. 'Let's Dance' is the one." And he was absolutely right.

What do people say when they see you on the street?

Here in New York, it's "Yo, Bowie!" They're quite civil. In London, it's "Dave!" - always Dave. I want to smack 'em, because my name's David. I hate being called Dave, and I think they know it. But that's the beloved English for you.

How often do you check out Bowienet, your Web site and Internet Service Provider?

I thought you were going to ask how often I check into the hospital! [Laughs] I do it every single morning. If I'd known how much work it was going to be to start that blessed thing... I'd still have done it. But I've cut down my online time, because I realized how much of my life it was taking up. In the mid-'90s, I was an obsessive - I'd surf all the time, just crazed. And apparently there's a lot of porn on the Internet too.

It's January 28, 1972. You're at the Friars, Aylesbury venue in England, about to perform as Ziggy Stardust for the first time. What's going on backstage?

[Spiders From Mars drummer] Woody Woodmansey was saying, "I'm not bloody wearing that!" [Laughs] There were certainly comments, a lot of nerves. Not about the music - I think the guys knew that we rocked. But they were worried about the look. That's what I remember: how uncomfortable they felt in their stage clothes. But when they realized what it did for the birds... The girls were going crazy for them, because they looked like nobody else. So within a couple of days it was, "I'm going to wear the red ones tonight."

Is it true you've quit smoking?

Yeah, but it's one day at a time. I'm not going to talk about how long it's been, because I'm superstitious. At the end of this tour, I need to look down at my hands and see that there isn't a cigarette in them.

How many houses do you own?

How many do people think I own? [Blender guesses seven.] No! Let's just say I've got nowhere near that. I'm not a property person.

What did you think when you heard Nirvana's version of "The Man Who Sold the World?"

I liked it a lot. It was very painful - and I mean that in the kindest possible way. I didn't actually get to see [Kurt Cobain] do that until he was dead. He stumbled a little bit on the guitar, and there was a plaintive quality in his voice that gave the song characteristics that had not been there before. He played it from a very personal point of view; mine was much more diffident. In fact, I had forgotten all about the song, and not long after that I started doing it occasionally onstage. It made me think, "You know, that really is a good song."

You once said that saying you were bisexual was "the biggest mistake I ever made." Do you still believe that?

Interesting. [Long pause] I don't think it was a mistake in Europe, but it was a lot tougher in America. I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual. But I had no inclination to hold any banners or be a representative of any group of people. I knew what I wanted to be, which was a songwriter and a performer, and I felt that [bisexuality] became my headline over here for so long. America is a very puritanical place, and I think it stood in the way of so much I wanted to do.

Do you ever hear yourself on the radio and think it's someone else's music?

When I wish to, yeah. [Laughs] It's funny: I never, ever recognize "The Laughing Gnome."

What's the secret to buying a really good suit?

Always stick with people you can trust. There are only three people I like a lot. One's Alexander McQueen, for when I'm feeling more flamboyant. Smithy [Paul Smith] I wear all the time. And Agnès B. - she does great casual suits. I'm not big on shopping, and Iman hates shopping even more than I do. I will want to window-shop, at least. She doesn't want to spend time in stores. She hates buying clothes. Amazing.

Are you a fan of The Osbournes?

I've seen one episode. It's... all right. I found it amusing, but I'm not sure it will become a staple of my viewing. Once you get the joke, you get the joke. I got over it really fast that he says fuck a lot and that he walks like my grandfather.

Do you follow any sports?

I quite like boxing - but that's only because I use it as a training method. Just recently I've started again. You look at yourself and think [pats stomach] that could go. And boxing's not as boring as pumping bleedin' metal all day, which bores the shit out of me.

Do you think you'll be remembered in a thousand years?

No. Absolutely not. A thousand years... My God, can you imagine? Of course, there's talk of this huge comet explosion in something like 2090. It's within the next hundred years, anyway. I suppose there's a possibility that we might still be around in 3000. But think how much software will have been amassed - who would want to sit down and sift through it all?

Is it true that you once appeared in an ice cream commercial that was made by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott back in the '60s?

Apparently, yeah. It was called Love Lollies or something. I didn't know it was Ridley, though. I found out only last year. I'm sure he's as embarrassed about it as I am.

Is Mick Jagger a good kisser?

[Laughs] You'd have to ask someone else, not me.

Did you really used to live next to Charlie Chaplin in Switzerland?

Yeah, he lived down the road. Well, his corpse lived down the road. It was in the garden, and then it was nicked. A couple of terrorists nicked his corpse and demanded money from the Chaplin family. It was awful. I knew the kids. Nice people.

When was the last time you lost your temper?

You know, I can't remember. I'm not a temper person. Am I passive-aggressive? I don't think so. Earlier in my life, there was more of the bipolar about me - I would vacillate quite aggressively between depressed and euphoric. I think I'm very even. Now I've been doing the pills a bit!

Which of your albums from the 1970s do you least remember making?

Without a doubt, Station to Station [1976]. I have only flashes of making it. I have serious problems about that year or two. I can't remember how I felt; I have no emotional geography. It's all so murky. It was a very, very awful time for me. Very bad. I've probably blanked quite a lot of it out, because I felt so weird and displaced most of the time.

What's your fondest memory of Andy Warhol?

I'm not sure that there's such a thing as a fond memory of Andy Warhol. He was a strange fish. Even people who say they knew him well, I don't think they did. I certainly didn't know him well.

How would your career have been different without cocaine?

I simply have no idea. I was fairly drug-free right up to seventy... four. Ha! Which is not very long, is it? [Laughs] Strangely enough, all the techniques and the things I was trying to do, I got interested in before I started doing drugs. So it's conceivable that I'd try a lot of the same techniques. What the outcome would have been, I don't know. Maybe I would never have touched the darkest corners in quite the same way. Although I know that I can, and do, write fairly strange music without the aid of drugs.

Is it true that you originally wrote "Golden Years" for Elvis Presley?

No. Apparently Elvis heard the demos, because we were both on RCA, and Colonel Tom [Parker, Presley's manager] thought I should write Elvis some songs. There was talk between our offices that I should be introduced to Elvis and maybe start working with him in a production-writer capacity. But it never came to pass. I would have loved to have worked with him. God, I would have adored it. He did send me a note once. [Perfectly imitates Presley's drawl] "All the best, and have a great tour." I still have that note.

What first attracted you to Iman when you met her?

We had an incredible, warm, lovely, intimate and fun night together - at dinner. I just got along with her immediately. [Blender feels obliged to point out that she's also extremely gorgeous.] Yeah, but there have been a few gorgeous women in my life - and none where I went, "Wow, this woman is wonderful."

What's your favorite David Bowie film?

[Laughs] Is there an answer to that? Um, The Virgin Soldiers [an obscure 1969 British comedy]. I don't even remember being in it, but apparently I am. I've yet to see it.

What's the last good joke you heard?

Dopey Dwarf says to the Pope, "Are there any dwarf nuns in Rome?" The Pope says, "No." "Are there any dwarf nuns in Italy?" "No." "Are there any dwarf nuns anywhere in the world?" The Pope says, "I'm sorry, my son - no, there aren't." The rest of the dwarves start singing: "Dopey fucked a penguin! Dopey fucked a penguin!"