Soma - Volume 17 / Issue 5, July 2003
DAVID BOWIE - LIFE ON EARTH
By Ken Scrudato
You know how I know it's the end of the world, Lenny? Because everything's been done. Every kinda music, every government, every hairstyle. How we gonna make it another thousand years for christsake?" - Max Peltier in Strange Days
We almost manage to fool ourselves, don't we with all of this earnest blather about cutting-edge contemporary art and culture? But if you actually asked someone the last time that art/music/film/whatever truly altered their perceptions of the world, you'd doubtless get but a few wishy-washy answers... on a good day. And anyone who thinks Radiohead and David Lynch have changed the world might do well to find a time machine that can blast them into a front row seat at the debut of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" or pull up a Dadaist chair next to Hugo Ball at Cafe Voltaire in Zurich, 1916... and discover what it actually meant to subvert the status quo. Or maybe one could just throw on Ziggy Stardust and pretend 31 years haven't passed.
Sorry. This IS supposed to be about David Bowie. And the inevitable final judgment of the man who in actuality no more fell to earth than sold the world will be a strained one. Is he a hero, because he dared take us to Mars when actual astronauts had barely set foot on the moon, and because he desecrated, decimated, and dismantled that second most sacred of all human realities: sexual identity? Or is he to be scolded for going too far too fast, and leaving everyone, including himself, with nothing left to do?
Well, there's actually little doubt that the former is true and the latter is something that he likely had no desire to obstruct. "I'm responsible for starting a whole new school of pretension," he once and brilliantly put it. No kidding, that. Bowie meant it.
Unfortunately though, no manner of blame-gaming is going to halt the horrific postmodernist beast as he spirals us into a hopeless nostalgia for culture that once upon a time changed our perceptions of the world. Nay, the beast also mocks us with such agonies as Lillith Fair. Bastard. No wonder the drugs of choice are now Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft. How else would that innocuous bilge actually sound okay?
What's most striking about David Bowie, twenty-first century Boy Edition, is his absolute dignity. He himself admits that he's no longer doing anything that he hasn't done before; thus, he cannot be counted among the blathering ones. And if it's true that, as Camus put it, "Art does not tolerate reason," Bowie is still the consummate artist, whatever the context.
As Herr Bowie is at it again, I was given the peculiar privilege of holing up with him in a room at Looking Glass Studios; there he played for me new music from his upcoming album, Reality, due out in September. He was courting me! How bizarre. (He also later apologized for having a bad hair day. Bad hair?!!! You must be kidding David.) Not surprisingly, he didn't have to try all that hard to convince me of his continued relevance. I could hear it from the first song, a ferocious post-punk-space-rock steamroller that sounded like it might have been accidentally left off Lodger. ("So, this won't be your all ballads album, then," I cleverly remarked.) A haunting, Teutonic dirge followed, then a spooky cover of Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso," and a few more clattery, futuristic rock songs. It was powerful and unpredictable stuff; and yes, relevant.
But I wasn't there to waste the opportunity talking about guitar sounds and producers. Let the muso mags concern themselves with such things. (Okay, he did work with Tony Visconti again on this album). What I wanted to know was this: David, in this dismaying, disappointing new postmodernist world, why, and how, are you still bloody doing this?
You're continuing to confound, musically. Are you confounding yourself as well?
"I'm very happy that it sounds like what my intention was, which was to make an album that reflected being here in New York. I mean, I've been in New York on and off for ten years now... I'm a New Yorker! Iman and I have lived here for eight of them. Apart from a brief sojourn in L.A....
"Oh, sorry about that.
"... which I still can't get. I don't get it, I really don't get it. We made immediate efforts to get back here again (laughs). Because I do miss it when I'm not here. You know, I've lived here longer than I have any other city. It's really bizarre."
You came into your own at a time when there was an active exploration of artifice and pretense. And you readily explored your pretenses where others would think that was not the proper way to conduct one's self of an artist.
"Yes, absolutely, sure."
You escaped into these characters that were able to speak for you...
"I'll qualify that, but yeah."
Could you have stood on a stage before 20,000 people at any point in your life, and told them what you wanted to say without the...
"Well I've always told them what I wanted to say."
But could you have told them without something to channel it through?
"Without a character? Yeah, I really stopped writing them for myself, anyway. I went through such a traumatic period in the late '70s that it really changed my path. I just haven't written in that sort of narrative way [of late]. Well, I suppose there was something of that sort in the Outside album.
That was Brian [Eno] and I going off on some kind of strange tangent; we wanted to kind of lay down a manifesto of what the early '90s was about. I think it was right on the money."
One of my favorite albums.
"Thank you very much. I must say that my core of fans, those that really know my albums, really liked it. It had a whole host of characters, and had I the motivation and the attention span, it would have been nice to have carried it out more fully. We did record an awful lot of stuff, and there really is every intention of going through it and putting out Part II and Part III. The second title was Contamination, and boy was that accurate. And it would have been nice to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don't have the patience. I think Brian would have the patience."
It's his job to have patience with genius.
"Well, he's one himself."
Culture as we knew it to be able to affect the world in other than a very straightforward emotional way is, essentially, finished...
"Well, yeah, that's the postmodernist thinking. The end of culture has arrived. I think really the intention of what they were saying is more that we'd be repeating in different ways everything that has gone before. I'm not so sure that the culture itself is finished, but it won't produce anything new."
But the Internet is not finished.
"It is as far as I'm concerned. (laughs hard) Have you ever tried to buy anything lately online?"
Yeah, but that's just credit card problems. If you've seen some of the stuff that's been unleashed... it's got an underlying quality of subversion. It has given voice to people that have never, ever had any concept of having twenty, fifty, a thousand others hear what they have to say.
"Yeah, yeah, absolutely! But in a way, you're still as hidden on the Internet. There must be a million bands on the internet now; and how many are you gonna stumble across?"
"I don't know, I think the more worrisome part is that there's so much that one can find out through the Internet; but I don't think people take advantage of it in quite the right way."
People are afraid of certain information.
"Yeah. For instance, I'm a big pusher of a site called TruthOut.com which I think is a fantastic collection of essays and articles of politics and world affairs. It's really a fabulous storehouse of information of what's written in the alternative press, or the rest of the world's press, that never really sees the light of day here. I know that not that many people go to it, and it seems a great shame."
Back to your music, with the way things have evolved, clearly you do it now just for the joy of it. You must, however, have a sense of the recontextualization of what you do. Because there was the idea in '77 that music could change the world, and no one gets that privilege anymore as a rock band... to change the world. So, does it feel daunting now?
"Hmm, I just think that maybe there were several of us dealing in this newly found pluralistic vocabulary, this whole George Steiner-ism of life, you know? (note: Steiner is the author of a 1971 book titled 'In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards The Redefinition Of Culture') But I think that the world caught up really quickly, and everybody is so totally aware of the kind of vocabulary that we were throwing around at that time, that one feels kind of superfluous now. I still enjoy what I do. But I don't think what I do is terribly necessary... at all. And I'm really not doing much that's terribly different from what I was doing back then. But it's for..."
For the love of it.
"Yeah, yeah. Absolutely."
Well, when you look at even contemporary conceptual art, is it hard not to feel a sense of futility?
"Yes! Of course! But I'd rather turn that futility into... well, I think it becomes a futility if you give credit to the idea that we are evolving, or supposed to be evolving. It looks like futility if you think that there is some system that we should be standing by. A religious system, or one of civilization's philosophies, something that we should hold by and say this will get us through and all that. But I think if you can accept - and it's a big leap - if you accept that we live in absolute chaos, it doesn't look like futility anymore. It only looks like futility if you believe in this bang up structure we've created called "God," and all. It's like, don't tell me that the whole system is crumbling; there's nothing there to crumble. All these structures were self-created, just to survive, that's all. We only have a moral code because, overall, it helps us survive. It wasn't handed down to us from anywhere."
Well, there is that story...
"I know. I've heard that story (laughs)."
Mankind has God for hope. We trade faith for hope.
"I know. It's a kind of a tragedy, and it's probably a hindrance, really. I think what we're going through right now, what people are beginning to feel, is that there's a transition taking place. We're leaving all those old structures behind, whether we like it or not; they are all crumbling. And it's not a moral decay. This is the way the world is evolving, the way we are changing."
I wonder sometimes if we're just supposed to destroy the world; that we don't possess the ability not to.
"I don't think we are. I don't think we are going to destroy it at all. I'm not that pessimistic. I just believe we're going through a transition where we will become a humankind that accepts chaos as our basic premise. Accepts that it's how we exist. And I think that we're halfway between the structures and the chaos theory at the moment. You really see it evolving."
But I'm not sure the Earth can hold up to it. It may actually not survive our progress.
"Oh, shucks" (laughs)"
Oh, but you and I will be long gone!
"Well, I'm not going to tell my daughter that. I'm going to tell her that she's going to have a great life, and it's a terrific world, and that she should embrace all experiences... carefully. You see, I HAVE to do that. It's really important for me to work hard on developing a positive attitude. Because it's not for me anymore, and I'm very keenly aware of that. I just can't get that selfish. And it's very, very easy for me to vacillate over into the more depressing, nihilistic, and dark side of life. It's always been too easy for me to do that; and I just don't need to do that right now. It comes through in my writing because it's the only space I allow myself to function in that particular way."
It's where you're working it out.
"Yeah. And it's like that old adage that Brian uses: In art you can crash your plane and just walk away from it, which you can't do in real life, of course. You present a darker picture for yourself to look at, and then reject it, all in the process of writing. There are some songs on [the new album] that I just don't agree with. The fact is, I've written them. It's come out."
It's like you're having a dialogue with yourself.
"And I think that's what's left for me with music. I thought I had something to say before; I must have had something to say. I was young! (laughs) And I knew everything then. Now I really find that I address things with myself. And that's what I DO. Where would I focus if I couldn't do what I do? If I hadn't been able to write songs and sing them, it wouldn't have mattered what I did. I really feel that. I HAD to do this.!"
That's very existentialist. Which is something that I've always gotten from your work. People will tend to focus on the nihilism in your work...
"But it is more existential than nihilist."
I've always seen you as embracing the idea that your possibilities are your own.
"I've always felt comfortable with writers like Camus. But people would read that as being so negative. And it wasn't! It is just made absolute sense, what he had to say."
They say that there's no actual human nature, that human nature is just this mountain of everything what we've ever done.
"Yeah. A style mountain! (laughs) We are about style. Style is our choosing what we wish to have represent us. And that will make us who we are. It's such a peculiar thing. I don't want the table with metal legs, I want wood legs. And it goes from the table to your philosophy of everything you do and touch. You make a choice about the style of it."
But going back to your period of exploring different levels of pretense, people would tend to see you as someone who was afraid of the world. And instead, I saw you as someone who was not afraid of going as far into yourself as possible to discover those choices.
"I thought it was very courageous, yeah. At the time, I didn't really realize how deep in it I was. But in immediate retrospect, I would think, fuck, I'm really pushing myself out on the boat. But I was just going my own way. The only people I knew were strange, anyway, Iggy and all. There weren't too many good ol' boys around me."
So, you're doing a massive tour for this record.
"Yes. And it's going to be really tough, because I haven't been on a big tour for a long, long time. And this tour coming up in September is going to be pretty huge. The luxury of my situation is that I can and will be able to take my wife and baby with me. When it's fair, when I can put them in a house in Europe and fly in and out. Which is actually quite feasible in Europe, because nothing is very far away."
So, how do you still manage all of this? How do you just keep on going?
"I'm still not sure how many I've got left, you know? But making music is really still at the top of my pile. I really enjoy it so much; I love writing it, and I love creating it. And I think we all have a longing for something that can engage our systems, and that we can nurture ourselves with - a romance of life. It becomes harder and harder to plug into that particular feeling, I think. But what else would I do other than what I do?"
TO CLOSE WINDOW