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by Charles Shaar Murray - New Musical Express (27 January 1973)
Two days in the life of David Bowie - A rare interview
and preview of his new album...
January 17, London Weekend South Bank Studios
As the cab pulls up outside London Weekend South Bank studios, its possible to see the "David Bowie Travelling Cosmic Circus" elegantly disembarking from a limo about 50 yards up the road. That fluffy scarlet head of hair lights up the grey South Banks as the fluorescent crocodile of exotic humanity ducks into a side entrance, not to be seen for some little while. In Studio Three, an organ and electric piano are set up, apparently unconnected to anything vaguely resembling an amplifier. Floor managers, camera operators and directors are milling about excitedly, and a token audience is lolling unconcernedly in their display racks. After what is apparently considered a decent interval, Georgie Fame appears behind the piano. Evidently its rock n roll day on London Weekends Russell Harty Plus Show. In rapid succession Fame and Price, David Bowie and Elton John are being wheeled in, put behind microphones and wheeled out. So anyway, Fame's looking very smooth and Talk of The Townish, grinning hugely, and Price looks morose in his black suit. They crank up the backing track, and Fame begins to sing this abysmal little song presumably their new single, and every so often Price leans into his microphone to mime the backing vocals. They run it through a couple of more times and then tape it. No one applauds. They leave. Why are musicians that good playing music that bad? Instant bustle. The piano and organ are muscled off, and the Floor manager starts worrying about where Russell Harty's chair is going to be placed during Bowie's segment.
"These boys move around a lot they tell me", he says to another head-phoned soul as a silver drum kit and a brace of Marshall amps make an appearance. Now there's a stir over at the corner of the studio as Bowie and his entourage enter at the side. David is looking more than somewhat bizarre in a green quilted tuxedo and yellow trousers, waistcoat and boots. His eyebrows have vanished replaced by finely sketched red lines. He's wearing red eye shadow, which makes him look faintly insect-like. He's thinner than ever. With him Trevor Bolder, with sideboards yet un-silvered, looking faintly bemused; Mick Ronson with his second best Les Paul and striped satin jacket; and Woody Woodmansey in a city gent outfit that contrasts oddly with his extravagantly deranged blond coiffure. While David gets aquainted with the directors, rejecters, inspectors, dejectors, neglecters, collectors and lesser flora and fauna, a snatch of the backing track to which the man and his arachnid companions are to mime, is played back by the technicians. Strange electronic whooshings and burblings, very weird.
Then David is securely behind his microphone, the Spiders are in position and the backing track comes up again. Well, who'd thought it - its 'Drive in Saturday'; premiered a few months back in Fort Lauderdale, Florida - all arranged and produced and tied up and coming straight atcha for the new single. Almost immediately, Bowie stops the proceedings and requests that the backing track is played louder. It's pumped up to the maximum volume, and he goes through it again. Its a slow, intense song, more like 'Five Years' or 'Rock n Roll Suicide' than 'Jean Genie' or 'Suffragette City', and you're going to be humming it for the next six months. The second song is a solo number, for which amps and drums vanish. Sandwiched between the two numbers is an interview, and Bowie's descent from the stage to the tandem armchairs in which Russell Harty will interview him is meticulously rehearsed. The stool and dual mic are set up on the stage, and Bowie's up there sitting behind his curiously unwieldy Harptone guitar, performing Jacques Brels 'My Death'. The exceptional nature of David Bowie's gifts as a composer occasionally tend to blind one to his excellence as an interpreter of the work of others. His performance of 'My Death' is riveting, dramatic without ever intruding into the treacherous realms of hamminess, showing a devastating empathy with the lyrics. Even the technicians have stopped fussing around with the lights, carrying ladders and muttering into their headsets. They're listening to this bizarre creature singing a song by a French composer of whom maybe only half of them have heard. As Bowie approaches the last section, one of his guitar strings gives way under the strain and hangs away from the neck, one razor then silver streak under the lights. He cracks up the entire studio by announcing the calamity in the song, and then finishing perfectly. "Cat Stevens would have given up", mutters a member of the audience in the opposite tier. Break, Bowie and co vanish to their dressing room.
"Silly" said David, limp wristed
After allowing a discreet interval, I wend my way up to find David in the process of getting made up and getting into his stage suit. The dazzling outfit that freaked out the entire studio was it appears merely his street garb. As ever, Sue Fussey is ministering to his hair, now longer on top and at the back, pushed behind his ears at the side. A gentleman named Pierre La Roche is tending to his makeup and the man behind his clothes, Fred of East End, is there as well. Fred resembles a young lady who had taken it into her head to impersonate Leslie Howard. His clothing firm, he informs me, is known to the world and points east as "Play It Cool And Play It Loud". David's clothes are mostly from the "cool" section. Greetings and small talk are swapped and its agreed that after the taping Bowie will have a microphone pushed into his face so that we can discuss the state of the world (and point's east).
He vanishes to reappear moments later in full splendour in more than somewhat mind-snapping outfit which he is to describe as "a parody of a suit and tie". A solitary ornate earring dangles from one ear.
The interview with Harty is moderately amusing, as Mr. H concentrates mainly on Bowie's appearance and outrage quotient. It is, it appears, too much of a technicality to actually discuss music. But David despite being uncharacteristically nervous, holds his end up brilliantly, making his points and still managing to play it for laughs, like asking "where's the camera" in the middle of a long and serious rap, or reproving Harty for his obsessive interest in Bowie's stockings with a limp-wristed, "Silly!" Then its time to tape 'My Death'. During the recording, many of the audience are watching the monitor screens rather than the glittering figure on stage. Maybe the televised image seems more real. Strange, because in the soft focus, Bowie's face bears an unnerving resemblance to that of Marlene Dietrich in her prime. When the false ending comes up, the floor manager whips the audience into applauding. The clapping fades into an embarrassing silence when Bowie sings the penultimate line. And after the last line there's still a little hesitation before everybody assures themselves the song has finally ended.
Velvet caps, jewelled shirts, - incredibly sinister stuff - DAVID IN STUDIO
A few minutes later in the midst of a cluttering cafeteria, amid eating and conversational noises and a welter of PA announcements requesting various people to report to various places - at once, thank you - a David Bowie interview takes place. It begins with a somewhat impertinent comparison of the newly expanded Spiders-plus line-up with the Elvis Presley Roadshow - as if they'd let a freaky pinko faggot like my main man David plays Gods own city, gawddamn.
Its a nine piece, not quite as large as Elvis's, I would imagine. I think Elvis travels with a heavy string section and everything. I would like to get one thing straight: it's not an additional Spider. The Spiders are still Trevor, Mick and Woody. Weve just got in some back-up men on tenor Saxes and piano and voices. I read in some of the papers that the Spiders were expanding - no way. It's three Spiders, back-up musicians and me.
Does this increased instrumentation imply an equivalent visual enhancement?
Again I'm concentrating mainly on the music and I shall work on the theatrics of the thing if I have enough time, because I never believe that time can be eaten away as quickly as it is when we working as we are at the moment. Our next gig is on the 14th of February at Radio City in New York. Before then we have to finish the present album on the 24th of this month, which is next week, then I sail, and as soon as I get to New York, I've got ten days to rehearse the whole thing. We were kept very much to ourselves in America, and we were very wary of Marciea the first time. Next time we may be able to get out and about a bit more. WE were very paranoid about that.
Was the paranoia justified?
I never can tell, because I'd quite got to like it by the time I was leaving. I quite adore the feeling of being in New York.
Mentally, if not physically David Bowie enjoys living dangerously.
I enjoy being on a tightrope. It gives me an excitement that I need in life.
But could he live on that tightrope if he wasn't an artist?
Probably not, but there was never a point in my life when I wasn't living on a tightrope, and I was always playing music in some way or another. I don't know - I suppose that if I wasn't working in music, Id still be travelling. I'm very fond of travelling - moving from one society to another.
One of the most unnerving aspects of sitting and talking to David Bowie is that you dont really know at what point in time the conversation is taking place. In an article of two or three months ago , Id described Bowie as "a man in the 70s looking back on the 80's from a position somewhere in the next century".
Thats exactly how I feel a lot of the time. I think its probably a forced position, but its a position that I wish to adopt to keep my writing intact and to progress in the direction I'd like.
When Ziggy Stardust is quietly cast aside to that particular mental attic where old alter egos are put out to pasture, who, I asked will emerge in his pace?
A person called Aladdin Sane, Aladdin is really just a track. The album was written in America. The numbers were not supposed to form a concept album, but looking back on them, there seems to be definite linkage from number to number. There's no order; they were written in different cities, and there's a general feeling on the album which at the moment I can't put my finger on. Its a feeling I've never yet produced on an album; I think its the most interesting album that I've written, musically as interesting as any of the things I've written. 'Drive in Saturday' is one of the more commercial numbers. I think everybody wants another 'Jean Genie' but we're bringing out 'Drive in Saturday' as a single.
Some of the letters concerning David that go through the NMEs extraordinary complex fling system seem to regard David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust as being virtually interchangeable and some of them refer to Ziggy without even mentioning David himself. A lot of them, therefore regard Ziggy Stardust as being more important than his creator.
Yes they probably right as well. I don't think David Bowie at all important. I think the concept and the atmosphere, which is created by the music that I write is more important than I am. I've always felt like a vehicle for something else, but then I've never really sorted out what that was. I think everybody, at one time or another, gets that kind of feeling; that they arent just here for themselves and more often than not they turn to the Bible and agree that its probably Jesus and God and all of that section of religion. There's a feeling that we are here for another purpose. And in me its very strong. Its a question of probabilities I work out probabilities. I see things that are happening at the moment and try and direct them to some focal point where they meet in the future. I usually pick different eras and go back and pick incidents that happen in the 30s and 40s and push them through to the 80s and see what conclusion could come from what happened then.
Psychic co-ordinates, yes thats very good. There's another word and I cant think of it, but I saw on television the other night someone who'd written a book on the subject and its done with computers now, apparently. But I'm just a writer. I couldnt get involved writing with a computer. I would feel I was completely null and void, and I enjoy writing and putting my own theory of probability into it. It wouldn't necessarily be very accurate. And I'm sure that a computer would come up with a different answer to me.
The question of black holes is another concept that Bowie finds intriguing.
Yes, absolutely fabulous. There's one just outside New York.
Elizabeth, New Jersey, no doubt. I inform Bowie that I became antimatter myself, after passing through this fearsome town in the late summer of 1970.
Yes really? You went through it? There must have been quite a few losses.
David's smooth acceptance of this particular bizarre flight of fantasy threw me so completely that I forgot my next question, a fact which he noted with conceived amusement. You get nervous doing chat shows I told him
I get nervous doing interviews. I was more than somewhat on the defensive. I get nervous doing interviews he replied because I get scared of incessantly repeating myself, like a broken record.
Another mention of Aladdin Sane causes him to warm once again to his theme.
I don't think Aladdin is as clearly cut and defined a character as Ziggy was. Ziggy was meant to be clearly cut and well defined with areas for interplay, whereas Aladdin is pretty ephemeral. He's also a situation as opposed to just being an individual. I think he encompasses situations as well as just being a personality.
Was whoever sang 'Space Oddity' less of an assumed character than whoever it is who sings 'Jean Genie'?
I can't really relate to that man at all, because he was undergoing adventures back then which I've not come across for a number of years. His way of life is very different to mine, very, very different. I can't connect with him or relate to him at all. I can't think how he was thinking. The only link is 'Space Oddity'. Thats the only number to come out of all of that period that I still have a feeling for. The 'Cygnet Committee' is the only other one.
'Space Oddity' was, of course the first of Bowie's songs to use a particularly neat device, that of changing the role of the narrator around the pun of "Here (am I sitting in my tin can) and (Can you) hear me major Tom?. He admits:
I must own up to The Beatles for creating that kind of feeling. The only thing that I really adored about Lennon's writing was his use of the pun, which was exceedingly good. I don't think anyone has ever bettered Lennon's use of the pun, I played on it more; Lennon would throw it away in one line, I tend to build a song upon it. I treat my puns a lot more seriously.
Bowies other major cop from Lennon was pinching the backing vocal line from 'Lovely Rita' (from Sgt. Pepper) and incorporating it into 'Star' (on the Ziggy album).
I have to interplay with other writers, because I've always been a fan. If I wasn't a fan, Id probably be far more individual - the other kind of individuality where its very, very ingrained in the self. Because I'm very involved with society on my level, I have to use the tools that the present society has been created with, musically. Thats why, I lift from, and use and am intrigued by other writers and their music.
But this recycling of past devices, I ventured, makes it all too easy for certain uncharitable souls in the press to brand Bowie a mere pasticheur.
I think I know the one you mean. That was the heaviest piece I've ever seen, and I noted that he's changed his attitude since that piece of writing. I was more incensed because he was talking about the Lou Reed album, and he was basically complaining about the mix of the album which I had very little to do with myself. I was very brought down by it. I just tried to do what I could for Lou. I must explain that I don't necessarily know what I'm talking about in my writing. All I try to do in my writing is assemble points of interest me and puzzle through it, and that becomes a song and other people who listen to that song must take what they can get from it and see if information that they've assembled fits in with anything I've assembled and what can we do now? All I can say is say 'have' you noticed that and 'have' you noticed that and - what does it mean? Thats all I can do with a song. I cannot say, this is where it's at. I cannot do that because I dont know I don't know! All I can do is assemble information that I've received. I've written a new song on the new album which is just called 'Time', and I thought it was about time, and I wrote very heavily about time, and the way I felt about time - at times - and I played it back after we recorded it and my God, it was a gay song! And I'd no intention of writing anything at all gay. When I'd listened to it back I just could not believe it. I thought well, thats the strangest "
At this point a massive steak arrived (Bowie D: for the consumption of). "Charles, lets switch off while I eat".
January 20 Trident Studios London.
David Bowie, Freddi Burretti & Sue Fussey
Saturday Night at Trident studios. The door swings open and the entrant is nearly knocked off his teenage feet by a blast furnace rendition of 'John I'm only Dancing" clawing its way out of the jumbo-sized speakers. Mick Ronson sits in the corner in a bejewelled Marilyn Monroe T-shirt and the ubiquitous Miss Fussey's there as well. David, resplendent in an outside velvet po' boy cap waves an exuberant hello from behind the control panel where he's sitting with Ken Scott, engineer and/or producer to all the nicest and niftiest names. The new cut of 'John' has a murderously high energy level, which by comparison makes the single version sound like one man with a three stringed acoustic. It virtually blisters the ears to make it even more obvious that the Spiders are one of our best bands. All but two cuts from the new album were finished by Saturday - and that particular brace of tunes lacked only vocals. The excellent reason was that Bowie had not yet written the lyrics. The title cut comes up, and he pours over a notebook containing the lyrics. At the top of the page it says "Aladdin Sane: 1913-1938-197? Copyright David Bowie 1972." So there.
Imagine if you will the music that would have been played in a '30's cabaret if the atom bomb had been used during the First World War. "Who'll love Aladdin Sane?" asks the voice, while Mike Garson plays an ornate night club piano that gradually disintegrates into gleaming ice shards of notes. Incredibly sinister stuff, and Garson's work on this album is going to make a lot of people own up about rock keyboards - about who can play, and who can't. Then there's 'Cracked Actor' about an ageing Hollywood star who picks up a young teenybopper for sexual reasons, but the poor fool doesn't realise thats she's only with him because she's a smack head..and thinks that he's her connection. A very Hollywood song, and slightly influenced by Iggy Pop and the Stooges - thought there's some Lou Reed and Randy Newman in there as well. And then there's the aforementioned 'Time' - "Time, he flexes like a whore" and the incessantly repeated line: "We should be on by now."
Apart from the two singles (there's a remixed 'Jean Genie' too), there's 'Watch That Man' which is loud and heavy and you can dance to it, and the lovely 'Prettiest Star', a new version of a song written for his wife Angie, and originally issued as a single as the follow-up to 'Space Oddity'. It died, sadly, a horrible death. Plus as an extra bonus - a fine version of the Stones 'Lets Spend the Night Together', which sounds well, strange coming from David. It figures though. As the thunderous sound screams out only inches away, Ronson is sound asleep on the couch. It is decided that some extra bass parts are needed so Trevor Bolder is hastily summoned, and Ronson stays on to supervise. As he's tired the Mercedes is summoned to take Bowie back to Beckenham. And by the same token, a tube takes me back to Islington. As he leaves, I notice that the astray matches his boots. "Who'll love Aladdin Sane?" Easy one, chillun. You will. Aladdin Sane is coming to getcha. And you gonna love every moment of it.
---This page last modified: 11 Dec 2018---