Playboy - February 1975
By Cameron Crowe
An outrageous conversation with the actor, rock singer and sexual switch-hitter
He was once a scruffy, honey-haired folk singer. Then an adamantly bisexual balladeer. Then a spacy, cropped-red-haried androgynous guitarist backed by a band called the Spiders from Mars. Then a soul singer. Then a movie actor... and finally, a smartly conservative, entertainer. David Bowie, it's safe to say, would do anything to make it. And how that he has made it, he'll do anything to stay there.
At 29, David Bowie is far more than another rock star. He is a self-designed media manipulator who knows neither tact or intimidation. There is but one objective to his bizarrely eclectic rear-attention. Without it, he would surely wither and die. Before a crowd of paying customers, if possible.
In April 1975, Bowie splashily announced he had given up on rock. "I've rocked my roll," is the way he put it. "It's a boring dead end. There will be no more rock and roll records or tours from me. The last thing I want to be is some useless fucking rock singer." That was the second time he'd made such a statement. He had first announced a rock retirement during his encore at a huge outdoor London concert in 1973, after which he went on to release "Diamond Dogs" and to book a three-month American tour.
This time, Bowie ate his words of farewell even more spectacularly. Last November, he arranged an interview by satellite from his Los Angeles home with England's most popular talk-show host. Russell Harty, to explain that he had, a new album of double-fisted rock and roll, "Station To Station." What's more, Bowie rambled on, he would soon embarking on a six-month world-wide concert blitz. The government of Spain, meanwhile, demanded emergency use of the satellite to tell the world that Generalissimo Franco had died, Bowie, always the bad boy, refused to give it up.
Bowie is not the most loved man in the music business. Still, he has made his mark. When he first appeared on an American stage in 1972, he was humping his guitarist, wearing full make-up and sporting lavishly feminine costumes. He instantly created a new genre - glamour rock - that yanked rock out of its innocence. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Alice Cooper, Todd Rundgren, Lou Reed and a host of glitter bands, such as Queen, Roxy Music, Slade, T.Rex and Cockney Rebel, followed suit.
Once Bowie had turned everybody's hand on that first U.S. tour, it wasn't long before his then-current LP about a doomed rock demigod, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars," shot to the top of the charts. His three previous albums - all stiffs in their day - began selling wildly. The press leaped to proclaim Bowie the Next Big Thing we'd all been craving since the demise of the Beatles. Just as quickly, it turned, it turned to attack the phenomenon. There was, it seemed, something about Bowie's bisexual band wagon that wasn't quite... healthy.
Musicians and critics banded together to revolt against Bowie's decadence. But Bowie had already assumed a new, equally ludicrous facade-disco soul. Suddenly, this frail, faggy hard rocker was bumping and grinding out rhythm-and-blues. And it worked. Bowie racked up two huge hits, "Young Americans" and "Fame." Then came the ultimate acceptance: He became one of the very few whites ever to be invited to appear on "Soul Train."
To accommodate the wide base of his success, Bowie has since assumed the posture of grand old entertainer, wearing black formal trousers and vest over a white shirt. "Station To Station" reached the sacred gold status of $500,000 worth sold. His subsequent world tour, just completed, was a sellout at every stop.
Now, in Bowie's biggest year yet, the one time glitter king / queen of rock is threatening to keep a promise for once. He has always claimed to be a genuine film star, and his performance in Nicolas ("Walkabout") "Don't Look Now," "Performance") Roeg's recent release, "The Man Who Fell To Earth," has won lavish praise. The choice of Bowie to The New York Times, "inspired. Mr. Bowie gives an extraordinary performance.
We figured it was about time to catch up with Bowie's crusade - as he has explained it - to rule the world. Freelance journalist and Rolling Stone contributing editor Cameron Crowe was sent to visit with the most arrogant superstar to invade the media in the seventies. His report:
"My talks with Bowie began as far back as early 1975. Few of our sessions were marathon affairs. No matter how stimulating the conversation, after any longer than an hour of sitting still, Bowie could barely contain himself. 'Can we just take a short break?' he'd blurt. Not waiting for reply, he would then shoot to his feet and dart in another direction: sometimes to write a song or two, other times to dash off a painting. In one instance, he ended a session by asking for a random list of 20 items. I gave it to him. He studied the list for ten seconds handed it back and recited it from memory. Backward and forward.
"Bowie is expertly charming, whether in the company of a stuffy film executive, another musician or a complete stranger. He is fully aware that he is a sensational quote machine. The more shocking his revelation, from his homosexual encounters to his fascist leanings, the wider his grin. He knows exactly what interviewers consider good copy; and he gives them precisely that. The truth is probably inconsequential."
Playboy: Let's start with the one question you've always seemed to hedge: How much of your bisexuality is fact and how much is gimmick?
Bowie: It's true - I am a bisexual. But I can't deny that I've used that fact very well. I suppose it's the best thing that ever happened to me. Fun, too. We'll talk all about it.
Playboy: Why do you say it's the best thing that ever happened to you?
Bowie: Well, for one thing, girls are always presuming that I've kept my heterosexual virginity for some reason. So I've had all these girls try to get me over to the other side again: "C'mon, David, it isn't all that bad. I'll show you." Or, better yet, "We'll show you." I always play dumb. On the other hand - I'm sure you want to know about the other hand as well - when I was 14, sex suddenly became all-important to me. It didn't really matter who or what it was with, as long as it was a sexual experience. So it was some very pretty boy in class in some school or other that I took home and neatly fucked on my bed upstairs. And that was it. My first thought was, Well, if I ever get sent to prison, I'll know how to keep happy.
Playboy: Which wouldn't give much slack to your straighter cell mates.
Bowie: I've always been very chauvinistic, even in my boy-obsessed days. But I was always a gentleman. I always treated my boys like real ladies. Always escorted them properly and, in fact, I suppose if I were a lot older - like 40 or 50 - I'd be a wonderful sugar daddy to some little queen down in Kensington. I'd have a houseboy named Richard to order around.
Playboy: How much of that are we supposed to believe? Your former publicist, the celebrated ex-groupie Cherry Vanilla, says she's slept with you and that you're not gay at all. She says you just let people think you like guys.
Bowie: Oh, I'd love to meet this impostor she's talking about. It sure ain't me. That's actually a lovely quote. Cherry's almost as good as I am at using the media.
Playboy: Yet the fact remains that you've never been seen with a male lover. Why?
Bowie: Oh, Lord, I got over being a queen quite a long time ago. For a while, it was pretty much 50-50; and now the only time it tempts me is when I go over to Japan. There are such beautiful looking boys over there. Little boys? Not that little. About 18 or 19. They have a wonderful sort of mentality. They're all queens until they reach 25, then suddenly they become Samurai, get married and have thousands of children. I love it.
Playboy: Why, at a time when nobody else in rock would have dared allude to it, did you choose to exploit bisexuality.
Bowie: I would say that America forced me into it. Someone asked me in an interview once - I believe it was in '71 - if I were gay. I said, "No I'm bisexual." The guy, a writer for one of the English traders, had no idea what the term meant. So I explained it to him. It was all printed - and that's where it started. It's so nostalgic now, isn't it? 'Seventy-one was a good American year. Sex was still shocking. Everybody wanted to see the freak. But they were so ignorant about what I was doing. There was very little talk of bisexuality or gay power before I came along. Unwittingly, I really brought that whole thing over. I never, ever saw the word gay when I first got over here to America. It took a bit of exposure and a few heavy rumours about me before the gay said, "We disown David Bowie." And they did. Of course. They knew that I wasn't what they were fighting for. Nobody understood the European way of dressing and adopting the asexual, androgynous everyman pose. People all went screaming, "He's got make-up on and he's wearing stuff that looks like dresses!" I wasn't the first one, though, to publicise bisexuality.
Playboy: Who was?
Bowie: Dean. James Dean did, very subtly and very well. I have some insight on it. Dean was probably very much like me. Elizabeth Taylor told me that once. Dean was calculating. He wasn't careless. He was not the rebel he portrayed so successfully. He didn't want to die. But he did believe in the premise of taking yourself to extremes, just to add a deeper cut to one's personality. James Dean epitomized the very thing that is so cam ?????oily respectable today - the male hustler. It was part of his incredible magnetism. You know, that he was... a whore. He used to stand on Times Square to earn money so he could go to Lee Strasberg and learn how to be Marlon Brando. He had quite a sordid little reputation. I admire him immensely - that should take care of any question you may have about whatever or not I have any heroes.
Playboy: Thanks. Now what about your posing in drag for the cover of the English album of The Man Who Sold The World?
Bowie: Funnily enough, and you'll never believe me, it was a parody of Gabriel Rossetti. Slightly askew, obviously. So when they told me that a drag-queen cult was forming behind me, I said. "Fine, don't try to explain it; nobody is going to bother to try to understand it." I'll play along, absolutely anything to break me through. Because of everybody's thirst for scandal - look at how big People is - they gave me a big chance. All the papers wrote volumes about how sick I was, how I was helping to kill off true art. In the meantime, they used up all the space they could have given over to true artists. That is really pretty indicative of how compelling pretension is, that it commanded that amount of bloody writing about what color my hair was gonna be next week. I want to know why they wasted all that time and effort and paper on my cloths and my pose. Why? Because I was a dangerous statement. The follow-up to that, now that I've decided to talk a little more - if only to you - was, "How dare he have such a strenuous ego?" That, in itself, seemed a danger to some people. Am I, as a human being, worth talking about? I frankly think, Yes, I am. I've got to carry through with the conviction that I am also my own medium. The only way I can be effective as a person is to be this confoundedly arrogant and forthright with my point of view. That's the way I am. I believe myself with the utmost sincerity.
Playboy: But aren't you having trouble getting other people to believe you? Take, for example, your well-publicised farewells to showbiz. You've retired twice, swearing you'd never have another thing to do with rock 'n' roll. Yet you've just finished a six-month world concert tour, promoting your newest rock 'n' roll album, Station To Station. How do you rationalize these contradictions?
Bowie: I lie. It's quite easy to do. Nothing matters except whatever it is I'm doing at the moment. I can't keep track of everything I say. I don't give a shit. I can't even remember how much I believe and how much I don't believe. The point is to grow into the person you grow into. I haven't a clue where I'm gonna be in a year. A raving nut, a flower child or a dictator, some kind of reverend - I don't know. That's what keeps me from getting bored.
Playboy: What else do you do to keep from getting bored?
Bowie: You name it.
Playboy: How about drugs?
Bowie: What year is it now? "Seventy-six? I suppose I've been knocking on heaven's door for about 11 years now, with one sort of high or another. The only kinds of drugs I use, though, are ones that keep me working for longer periods of time. I haven't gotten involved in anything heavy since '68. I had a silly flirtation with smack then, but it was only for the mystery and enigma of trying it. I never really enjoyed it at all. I like fast drugs. I've said that many times. I hate falling out, where I can't stand up and stuff. It seems like such a waste of time. I hate downs and slow drugs like grass. I hate sleep. I would much prefer staying up, just working, all the time. It makes me so mad that we can't do anything about sleep or the common cold.
Playboy: Do you remember the first time you got stoned?
Bowie: On grass? I'd done a lot of pills ever since I was a kid. Thirteen or fourteen. But the first time I got stoned on grass was with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin many, many years ago, when he was still a bass player on Herman's Hermits records. We'd been talking to Ramblin' Jack Elliot somewhere and Jonesy said to me, "Come over and I'll turn you on to grass." I thought about it and said, "Sure, I'll give it a whirl." We went over to his flat - he had a huge room, with nothing in it except this huge vast Hammond organ, right next door to the Police department. I had done cocaine before but never grass. I don't know why it should have happened in that order, probably because I knew a couple of merchant seamen who used to bring it back from the docks. I had been doing it with them. And they loathed grass. So I watched in wonder while Jonesy rolled these three fat joints. And we got stoned on all of them. I became incredibly high and it turned into an in-fucking-credible hunger. I ate two loaves of bread. Then the telephone rang. Jonesy said, "Go and answer that for me, will you?" So I went downstairs to answer the phone and kept on walking right out into the street. I never went back. I just got intensely fascinated with the cracks in the pavement.
Playboy: Did you ever get into acid?
Bowie: I did three times. It was very colourful, but I thought my own imagination was already richer. Naturally. And more meaningful to me. Acid only gives people a link with their own imagery. I already had it. It was nothing new to me. It just sort of made a lot of fancy colours. Flashy lights and things. "Oh, look. I see God in the window." So what? I never needed acid to make music, either.
Playboy: How much have drugs affected your music?
Bowie: The music is just an extension of me, so the question really is, what have drugs done to me? They've fucked me up, I think. Fucked me up nicely and I've quite enjoyed seeing what it was like being fucked up.
Playboy: Then you agree with the reviewer who called your Young Americans album "a fucked-up LP from a fucked-up rock star?
Bowie: Well, The Man Who Sold The World is actually the most drug-oriented album I've made. That was when I was the most fucked up. Young Americans probably is a close second, but that is from my current drug period. The Man Who Sold The World was when I was holding onto some kind of flag for hashish. As soon as I stopped using that drug, I realised it dampened my imagination. End of slow drugs!
Playboy: That doesn't sound much like the guy who was recently busted in Upstate New York for possession of eight ounces of marijuana.
Bowie: Rest assured the stuff was not mine. I can't say much more, but it did belong to the others in the room that were busted in. Bloody potheads. What a dreadful irony - me popped for grass. The stuff sickens me. I haven't touched it in a decade.
Playboy: In the song Station To Station though, you do refer to cocaine?
Bowie: Yes, yes. The line is, "It's not the side effects of the cocaine... I'm thinking that it must be love." Do the radio stations bleep it out?
Playboy: None that we've heard. Did you have any reservations about using the line in the song?
Bowie: None whatsoever.
Playboy: One might easily construe it as advocating the use of cocaine, Or is that the message?
Bowie: I have no message whatsoever. I really have nothing to say, no suggestions or advice, nothing. All I do is suggest some ideas that will keep people listening a bit longer. And out of it all, maybe they'll come up with a message and save me the work. My career has kind of been like that. I get away with murder.
Playboy: You claim you like to work all the time, yet you release only one album a year. What exactly do you do between recording sessions?
Bowie: I write songs and screenplays and poems, I paint, I do Kurlien photography, I manage myself. I act, I produce, I record, sometimes I tour. I could give you five new and unreleased David Bowie albums right now. I could just hand them over. I've got an incredible backlog of material. Work, work, work...
Playboy: Do you ever relax?
Bowie: If you're asking whatever or not I take vacations, the answer is no. I find all my relaxation within the context of work; I'm very serious about that. I've always thought the only thing to do was to try to go through life as Superman, right from the word go. I felt far too insignificant as just another person. I couldn't exist thinking all that was important was to be a good person. I thought, Fuck that; I don't want to be just another honest Joe. I want to be a supersuperbeing and improve all the equipment that I've been given to where it works 300 percent better. I find that it's possible to do it.
Playboy: Would you give us some examples of your self-improvement?
Bowie: When I started writing, I couldn't put more than three or four words together. Now I think I write very well. I'm finding that if I just look at something and think, A man did that, I realize I can do it, too. And probably better. I didn't know anything about films, either. I mean, nothing at all. So I went out, got hold of a lot of the greatest films and worked it all out for myself. Very logically done. Now I have an excellent knowledge of the art. I became a bloody good actor, I'll tell you. And I'll be a superb film maker as well. It's only a matter of deciding what you want to do.
Playboy: Surely, you doubt yourself sometimes?
Bowie: Not so much anymore. About two years ago, I realized I had become a total product of my concept character Ziggy Stardust. So I set out on a very successful crusade to re-establish my own identity. I stripped myself down and took myself down and took myself apart, layer by layer. I used to sit in bed and pick on one thing a week that I either didn't like or couldn't understand. And during the course of the week, I'd try to kill it off.
Playboy: What was the first thing you attacked?
Bowie: I think my lack of humour was the first thing I picked on. Then prissiness. Why did I feel that I was superior to people? I had to come to some conclusion. I haven't yet, but I dug into myself. That was very good therapy. I spewed myself up. I'm still doing it. I seem to know exactly what makes me sad.
Playboy: Doesn't taking yourself apart all the time tend to make you a little schizophrenic?
Bowie: The four of me will have to talk about that. Am I a schizophrenic? One side of me probably is, but the other side is right down the middle, solid as a rock. Actually, I'm not schizophrenic at all. I think that my thought forms are fragmented a lot, that much is obvious. I often think of six things at one time. They all sort of interrupt one another. Not very good when I'm driving.
Playboy: Do you ever have trouble deciding which is the real you?
Bowie: I've learned to flow with myself. I honestly don't know where the real David Jones is. It's like playing the shell game. Except I've got so many shells I've forgotten what the pea looks like. I wouldn't know it if I found it. Being famous helps put off the problems of discovering myself. I mean that. That's the main reason I've always been so keen on being accepted, why I've striven so hard to put my brain to artistic use. I want to make a mark. In my early stuff, I made it through on sheer pretension. I consider myself responsible for a whole new school of pretensions - they know who they are. Don't you, Elton? Just kidding. No I'm not. See what I mean? That was a thoroughly pretentious statement. True or not, I bet you'll print that. Show someone something where intellectual analysis or analytical thought has been applied and people will yawn. But something that's pretentious - that keeps you riveted. It's also the only thing that shocks anymore. It shocks as much as the Dylan thing did 14 years ago. As much as sex shocked many years ago.
Playboy: You're saying sex is no longer shocking?
Bowie: Oh, come on. Sorry, Hugh. Sex has never really been shocking, it was just the people who performing sex. Now nobody really cares. Everybody fucks everybody. The the only thing that shocks now is an extreme. Like me running my mouth off, jacking myself off. Unless you do that, nobody will pay attention to you. Not for long. You have to hit them on the head.
Playboy: Is that the Bowie success formula?
Bowie: That's always been it. It's never really changed. For instance, what I did with my Ziggy Stardust was package a totally credible, plastic rock 'n' roll singer - much better then the Monkees could ever fabricate. I mean, my plastic rock 'n' roller was much more plastic than anybody's. And that was what was needed at the time. And it still is. Most people still want their idols and gods to be shallow, like cheap toys. Why do you think teenagers are the way they are? They run around like ants, chewing gum and fitting onto a certain style of dressing for a day; that's as deep as they wish to go. It's no surprise that Ziggy was a huge success.
Playboy: Is that why you said you become Ziggy at one point?
Bowie: Without even thinking about it. At first, I just assumed that character onstage. Then everybody started to treat me as they treated Ziggy: as though I were the Next Big Thing, as though I moved masses of people. I became convinced I was a messiah. Very scary. I woke up fairly quickly.
Playboy: Do you ever worry about your fan's giving up on you - not wanting to hear Bowie as a soul singer or whatever?
Bowie: Well, they must understand what my trip was in the beginning. I've never been a musician.
Playboy: What have you been?
Bowie: The unfortunate thing is that I've always wanted to be a film director. And the two media got unconsciously amalgamated, so I was doing films on record. That creates your basic concept album, which becomes a bit of a slow pack horse in the end. Now I know that if I'm going to make albums, I've got to make albums that I enjoy musically, or else just make the fucking film. A lot of my concept albums, like Aladdin Sane, Ziggy and Diamond Dogs, were only 50 percent there. They should have been visual as well. I think that some of the most talented actors around are in rock. I think a whole renaissance in film making is gonna come from rock. Not because of it, though, despite it.
Playboy: But you've said that you find rock depressing and sterile, even evil.
Bowie: It is depressing and sterile and, yes, ultimately evil. Anything that contributes to stagnation is evil. When it has familiarity, it's no longer rock 'n' roll. It's white noise. Dirge. Just look at disco music - the endless numb beat. It's really dangerous. So I've moved on. I've established the fact that I am an entertainer, David Bowie, not just another boring rock singer. I've got a film out, Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth. And I'll be doing a lot more, taking a lot of chances. The minute you know you're finished. It's over. The last thing I want is to be established. I want to go to bed every night saying, "If I never wake again, I certainly will have lived while I was alive.
Playboy: Let's go back to disco music. You say it's a dirge, yet you had the biggest disco hit of last year in Fame and you scored again this year with Golden Years. How do you explain that?
Bowie: I love disco. It's a lively escapist's way out. I quite like it, as long as it's not on the radio night and day - which it is so much these days. Fame was an incredible bluff that worked. Very flattering. I'll do anything until I fail. And when I succeed, I quit, too. I'm really knocked out that people actually dance to my records, though. But let's be honest; my rhythm and blues are thoroughly plastic. Young Americans, the album Fame is from, is, I would say, the definitive plastic soul record. It's the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey. If you had played Young Americans to me five years ago and said, "This is an R&B album," I would have laughed. Hysterically.
Playboy: How about if we had said, "This is going to be your album five years from now"?
Bowie: I would have thrown you and the record out of my house.
Playboy: What did you think of Barbara Streisand's recording your song 'Life On Mars'?
Bowie: Bloody awful. Sorry, Barb, but it was atrocious.
Playboy: You're not noted for cordial relationship with other artists. Yet there was the rumour that you flew to Europe to spend a sabbatical with Bob Dylan. What about it?
Bowie: That's a beaut. I haven't even left this bloody country in years. I saw Dylan in New York seven, eight months ago. We don't have a lot to talk about. We're not great friends. Actually, I think he hates me.
Playboy: Under what circumstances did you meet?
Bowie: Very bad ones. We went back to somebody's house after some gig at a club. We had all gone to see someone, I can't remember who, and Dylan was there. I was in a very, sort of... verbose frame of mind. And I just talked at him for hours and hours, and whatever I amused him or scared him or repulsed him, I really don't know. I didn't wait for any answers. I just went on and on about everything. And then I said good night. He never phoned me.
Playboy: Did he impress you?
Bowie: Not really. I'd just like to know what the young chap thought of me. I was quite convinced that what I had to say was important, which I seem to feel all the time. It's been quite a while since somebody really impressed me, though.
Playboy: Could another musician impress you?
Bowie: Gil Evans; Ricky Ricardo, maybe. I like meeting other artists, but they rarely impress me. Regular people do, people who aren't playing power games. I know power plays immediately and I'm better at it than most of them, so I discount them in a flash.
Playboy: How did you become a rock 'n' roller, anyway?
Bowie: Truth? I was broke. I got into rock because it was enjoyable way of making my money and taking four or five years to puzzle my next move out. I was a painter before that, studying commercial art at Bromley Technical High School. I tried advertising and that was just awful. The lowest. But I was well into my little saxophone, so I left advertising and thought, Let's give rock a try. You can have a good time doing that and usually have at least enough money to live on. Especially then. It was the Mod days; nice clothes were half the battle.
Playboy: But nice clothes cost money:
Bowie: At the time, not necessarily. I lived out of the dustbins on the back streets of Carnaby. Carnaby Street was actually, at one time, quite fashionable - before it became known to everybody in London. The very best young designers were down there and because they were very expensive Italians, if any of the shirts had a button of or anything like that, it would go in the dustbin. We'd go around and nick all the stuff out of the dustbins. Entire wardrobes of clothes for, well, nothing. All you had to do was sew a button on or stitch a sleeve. I remember when I used to steal everything. Had to look fashionable. We all were caught up in that game of wanting to be the next Elvis Presley, hopping from tinny band to tinny band. I went through a group called David Jones and the Buzz, another called David Jones and the Lower Third, even a mime troupe called Feathers.
Playboy: What was it like to be a mime?
Bowie: Oh, listen, it's very easy to be a mime. There wasn't much competition. I was only reasonably good. My technique was quite poor, actually, but nobody really knew. I've got a very good body and it does things I want it to do, but I'm still not disciplined enough to ever compete with a Marcel Marceau. Mime helped me learn a lot about body language.
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