Words and Music

David Bowie on 9/11 and God

Bob Guccione Jr. Talks to David Bowie About the Future of Rock ‘N’ Roll—Not to Mention God, 9/11 and Ozzy.

01.16.16 5:01 AM ET

David Bowie both does and does not exist. Born David Jones in London in 1947, he changed his name when he became a recording artist because there was already a David Jones in entertainment, the pixie-sized frontman of the Monkees, and he was huge.

Bowie’s fifth album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, released in 1972, helped shape the then soft clay of rock ‘n’ roll, and created the transforming offshoot known as Glam Rock. Over the following decades, Bowie reincarnated his image more times than an enlightened Indian Brahma. And never got boring. Not once. He came close with Tin Machine, it must be said, but even there, ultimately, he acquitted himself—he wasn’t boring, or unlistenable, even if the music has long since evaporated from memory.

Many of Bowie’s contemporaries from the 60s—actually, a frighteningly high number, and they keep coming out of the woodwork, materializing out of thin air, dusting themselves off, and announcing their reunion tours—still release new records, but only a couple release good ones. And no one but Bowie has done it consistently throughout the last 35 years, always been fresh, and almost always ahead of the musical and performance curve.

Incredibly—as in improbably but also substantially—his new album perpetuates the streak. Heathen is a beautiful, exciting, fresh-as-a-coolglass-of-spring-water collection of nine originals, and covers of The Pixie’s “Cactus,” and “Gemini Spacecraft” by Norman Odam, a.k.a. the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, a glorious loony on whom Bowie based Ziggy Stardust. The singing is transporting, the music buoyant, confident, probing. One or two tracks I felt would’ve been better served a little rawer, more stripped down, perhaps less arranged, but what do I know? Judging from the blank stares I got from the Columbia executives to whom I made this observation, not much.

I met David Bowie at a rehearsal studio in nondescript lower midtown Manhattan. He arrived (punctually, maybe rock is dead) from his boxing workout. In our banter before I turned on my decrepit tape recorder, he told me the next theatrical project he’d like to do is a oneman play of the life of British comic Peter Cook, and we discussed the Mid-East situation (as one does) and where he, long a resident New Yorker, was on 9/11: upstate New York, recording Heathen, while his wife lman and their daughter were in their downtown apartment, close to Ground Zero. After watching the second plane fly into the World Trade Center, they fled uptown, returning a couple of days later, believing, as lman put it, that “lightning doesn’t strike three times.”

“I was back by the weekend,” says Bowie. “I had a hole in my stomach for a week or so, and had maddening depression. Strangely, we never once thought of moving out of New York.”

Heathen sounds like it was recorded post 9/11, but it was recorded before then, wasn’t it?
The exact period was July, August, and the middle of September. Then we came back to New York for a bit of instrumental overlay, but lyrically and melodically, the thing was completely finished before 9/11. You know, it’s about context, it’s like this confluence of ideas, there has been anxiety in the air 10, 15 years now. There’s a burden of expectations and disappointments, especially when we came into the 21st century. We’ve created such a terrible set of potential scenarios for the destruction of everything that we hold dear and love. And it’s like we’ve become immune to the idea of the bomb. I remember the Cuban [missile] crisis when I was a kid and how it upset my mother, and Dad would come and console her. I was terrified, really terrified.

And I think my writings came together, were refined by the circumstances of our having our daughter. It certainly reduced the amount of questions that I had to ones that had more importance than others. Basically, what are we supposed to be doing here, how long have you got? And who is going to look after my family when I’m not around? You only draw blanks at the end anyway. I mean, they remain questions.

Do you think artists aren’t necessarily meant to have the answers, just the questions?
Well, yes. I think it’s not bad for artists to continually ask those questions in some way or shape because it does keep referring people back to the fact that we have to live with each other. I have all the admiration in the world for somebody like Bono, who really puts himself on the line, and tries actively to do something about our world situation. I’m crap at doing stuff like that. [Laughs] I’m not one of those guys that has a great worldview. I kind of deal with terror and fear and isolation and abandonment. I seem to have this basket of fairly negative takes on existence that I continually go back to and circle around and question from a different way. In unleashing those fears, hopefully it makes people look back. I don’t do it for a reason. I don’t give a fuck what they do with the information. I’m writing it for me and I’m just glad I’ve still got an audience at 55. All art really does is keep you focused on questions of humanity and it really is about how do we get on with our maker. Culture can also be used for war, for patriotism, jingoism, nationalism, all those things. It’s the way you apply your art. 

Let’s go back to what you said about the anxiety of the last 15 years. What do you think is the root of that? How much of it is a lack of spirituality?

For me, very strongly, the one thing I felt before everything just got so, ooh, just dreadfully messy at the end of the 60s was there was an aspect to the 60s that was the mission to find what one’s spirituality was, and basically, all my life, every album I’ve made, whatever it seemed ostensibly about, under all of those things there was always a certain angle: How do I locate my spirituality? What is it? I mean, my mother was Catholic, my father was Protestant. There was always a debate going on at home—I think in those days we called them arguments—about who was right and who was wrong. “I’m going to hell because I married a Protestant and I got divorced, and the Devil will be getting me,” and quite that kind of talk and it was really so English, working class mothers with their “Oh, God’s going to pay you back for that.” [Laughs] It’s always over your head and it was terrible. And for a long time in my teens, I escaped off into kind of a wilderness of Buddhism and anything that got me out of the trap and the clutches of the Judeo-Christian thing. Actually it’s a continual endeavor to find what is the essence of all the different religions, to see where they link up, and is it something that one can have faith in? Is it something that contains a believability that is going to provide a resolution to your life and optimistically present a conclusion that you are going to be comfortable with? [Pause] No. [Laughs] But you can’t but try. You continue to go back to it.

It’s so hard to speak generally, I don’t know what the kid on the street thinks. But I don’t feel that there’s any particular question going on spiritually. I think there’s a lot of people that are not even really aware that they have the potential for one. An emphasis on material goods has kind of displaced that. The way we paint our celebrities. Kids killing kids for a pair of shoes, the whole feeling that material goods will give you status and happiness.  And I guess it keeps going back to spirituality. I think one has to—in whatever struggle—try and develop a complete picture of what a human being is. Not just a physical side of a person. What space he or she occupies more universally. How one’s actions can affect the next person.

Maybe because of my Buddhistic leanings I tend to work not on such a big plane—I tend to work on: if I’m good to and for my family and my immediate friends, then the ripples from those actions will be beneficial. I really find it tough to think of some person from Yugoslavia and have my heart bleed for them. It’s a cold thing to say, but—I just can’t. I can’t do it. In a general fashion I understand. The most extraordinary footage helps. It does bring it home. I guess connection is really important to keep bringing those things up.

It struck me growing up in the 60s, that the 60s generation had an amazing optimism. First of all, is that true? B, is that what gave the music its fantastic energy, and C, is that optimism missing today?

I think there is optimism. I look at my son, for instance, and I find an optimism, but there’s not the high expectation that people my age had in the 60s. The expectations

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have definitely been lowered. I think the optimism is for about the next year or two, at the most, it doesn’t have a long reach. It’s a qualified optimism, which is kind of sad. I think it’s real tough for a kid who doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to do. There were ways of opting out in the 60s that don’t seem to exist anymore. Kids could just run off and be artists and be in bands and a lot of people took advantage of that. Today, it’s much more about staying home, doing E or rolling for the night—it’s a different kind of optimism. I would’ve thought the Internet would’ve opened up a wider network being a communication technology. I would’ve thought there’d be a lot more protest of the ways things are.

One of the songs on the new album is called “Afraid.” I use the line “I believe in Beatles” for precisely the same point. The Beatles could‘ve been anybody—they’re just the most obvious symbol. So I’m using that “I believe in Beatles” as being like, Why can’t we have something like that now? I’m just afraid that the only way I can do it now is by corrupting or perverting all I really feel and then I’ll be able to exist. I won’t be afraid.

What is the root of this cynicism? There was a song by Graham Nash in the early 70s, “We Can Change the World,” sung completely unironically and we believed it! Today if somebody put that song out, they’d be lampooned.

Well, we’ll buy it if it’s attached to Nike. I think we believe in the brands. We associate a song with the brand. It has more integrity, in a way, than ever displayed as an autonomous piece. I think because it’s hard for anyone to develop any type of overview of anything because of the abundance of information. You can’t take it all in. And there is no help available to hone in on the pieces of information that you should be taking on board. So there’s wonderful stuff to learn and there’s all this crap to learn and it’s all mixed up. You don’t know what to take on, so you don’t take anything. And when you start not taking anything, history ceases to exist. And when you’ve got no past, you’ve got no future. Because the two are metaphysically linked with each other. So you’re just in this crashing now place, that doesn’t seem to have any doors to be opened. And you’re trapped in this terrible little rowboat on this sea of chaos and anxiety and terror and it’s like, “well fuck the lot of you, I’m just gonna get stoned.”

I’m a real self-educated kind of guy. I read voraciously. Every book I ever bought, I have. I can’t throw it away. It’s physically impossible to leave my hand! Some of them are in warehouses. I’ve got a library that I keep the ones I really really like. I look around my library some nights and I do these terrible things to myself—I count up the books and think, how long I might have to live and think, “Fuck, I can’t read 2/3 of these books.” It overwhelms me with sadness.’

Is rock, or even pop music, a medium that a musician can grow in? Should musical growth even be an expectation of rock ‘n’ roll?

It has been and it always will, as long as there are people who cannot physically stop making music. I don’t mean those who see it as a means to be famous, there are quite enough of those, but folk who cannot get through a day without attempting to create something that wasn’t there before. And as long as there is a need on the part of the writer to expand and change the inner motor of the music, the vocabulary so to speak, there will be an evolving form.

Having said that, not much of consequence is going to happen, on a broader scale, if the industry tilts toward unreasonable profit over nurture. And the record industry has followed the film industry over the last few years. If an album is not massive “out of the box,” the company moves on immediately to the next piece. This kills off a lot of new talent before it’s had a chance to even crawl. More people will become involved in creating their own music from the “bits” found on the net, for instance, mash-ups, the combination of two or three or sometimes up to thirty or forty different songs in one piece.

Has film passed music as the most daring artistic-statement medium?

I’m not the person to ask. I’m hardly a film buff and I really don’t think it possible to compare the two. I don’t see film as that innovative recently. Only in terms of technique, but in general that seems to be applied to the most banal and mediocre narrative forms. Digi-film has produced some interesting moments such as the Dogme movement. I think Lars Von Triers is fascinating, his project of shooting three minutes of film every year at a different location for his projected 2024 release is an extraordinary undertaking. Christopher Nolan of Memento fame is also playing around with some lethal and intriguing ideas, applying technique to great stories and philosophical ideas. Billy Liar is still a basket of future film in my book.  Schlessinger really got it right in that one. Almost everything that comes out of Hollywood is crap.

There is reasonable cause to suggest that music is way ahead of film on several fronts. Sampling alone is something the film world has not been near yet, except in the most syrupy fashion, Forrest Gump, say. I would love to see a mission to create a full head-on movie assembled with only pieces of existing movies, combining Citizen Kane, Pi and some Borsalino. It would be an exhilarating process for anyone brave enough to attempt. But what do we get? A re-make of Tarkovsky’s Safaris with George Clooney.

Where did you record Heathen?

It was called ‘Allaire and it’s past Woodstock on top of a mountain. It’s the last kind of place I’d expect to work, ‘cause I’m a real city person. I love writing and working and recording and being and socializing in a city. All my life, I’m city oriented. The studio was a paint industrialist’s summer estate, the only property on the top of this mountain overlooking, like, 50 miles, 180 degrees, everything. It was built in the 20s. It has a kind of nautical flavor to it. There’s a lot of varnished wood like you see on those old yachts in that period. The ceilings are maybe 40 feet high, and maybe 25-foot windows. Looking up in those windows at six, seven in the morning—I get up incredibly early, I’m in there working at 6 in the morning, just playing the synthesizer, the piano, and working on what we’re going to do that day—and I’m looking out at the deer and I don’t believe this is happening to me, the serenity and the majesty of it. How beautiful the world is. And it all started coming in and I was honing in on what it is I really had to say about my life. It was magical. Now I’ve done that, I don’t know if I could ever repeat that experience.

I’m quite buoyant and cheerful and always on the go and I was suddenly—uh, oh—reflecting and it wasn’t really me. But I reflected with such intensity and it came over me like a wave. It really did. Some mornings I was literally crying when I was writing a song.

Which place has been the best for you artistically?

I think every album has been directly influenced by the place I was focusing in on at the time. Even though, ironically, Low was pretty much recorded in France, it smacks of Berlin. In those days that city left an indelible impression and I had been mesmerized by it. The sense of abandonment, the tight strangled feel of a community under siege, time had stopped somehow. Kyoto should also get a mention, I think. I never recorded there but the serenity I found on my frequent visits has always stimulated a new approach in some way. London and Ziggy, of

course, go hand in hand. [Laughs] It is such a British album in retrospect. You can really hear a sea change by the time I got to America and came to record “Jean Genie.” And yes, Heathen could not have sounded the way it sounds had we not recorded it at Allaire.

I once saw a documentary on Marc Chagall and was struck by the fire in his eyes at 90—he was still curious and so engaged by life. You seem to have the same insatiable drive. Do you?

Oh, absolutely. You know, Bill Wyman started growing wine when he was living in the South ofFrance, he had a few plots and some vineyards and he said, “I ‘ve got this artist who lives next door and I called on him—‘Mr. Chiggle’—and I asked him if he’d do the labels for my bottle. And the old fellow said, ‘Yeah I’d love to do it. ‘ And he’s given me all these different ideas for labels on my bottle. I only just found out it was Marc Chagall! ‘You draw, don’t you? Could you do me a label for my bottle?”‘ [Laughs]

In London they’re just setting up the Picasso-Matisse show. It’s the first time that they’re being pitted against each other in a big retrospective for 100 years, a very precious Matisse and the wild bohemian Picasso. Matisse got a letter in the first World War saying that camouflage had just been invented by the French, and they

got the idea from the Cubists and they had only Cubist artists do their camouflage because obviously Cubists understand breaking form. Matisse’s letter from one of his mates on the front said, “You know, you’ll never believe this, but they’ve taken one of your rabbits and one of Picasso’s rabbits and they put them on the camouflage and all these fights have been breaking out amongst soldiers about which rabbit is better and then that suddenly became arguments about who’s the better painter.” You’re on the front line, shells exploding everywhere and you’ve got

French soldiers discussing the merits of Matisse and Picasso. The great thing is the debate is still raging today. When that show goes up it will happen all over again. “Who’s the better painter?!” Does it fucking matter? Yes it does. Yes it does: It’s good to take good long drinks from the past and understand what made us who we are, how we are and how we tested ourselves in certain situations and from the proof of that, define our lives now and see our way to the future. That’s what pisses me off about people who don’t have any interest in the history of our culture or any culture and learning from ones’ mistakes.

A lot of music today expresses hopelessness or resignation. Where is the hope? What is it?

I have to bring it down to my own little brief on this album. Ostensibly what might be a relationship song between a woman and a man is mainly addressed to a spiritual intelligence. Let’s leave it at that. I’m so useless at actually describing what it is I am talking to—is it life itself? Is it God? So a universal agent—intelligence—that ‘s what it’s really addressed to. I can only, for me, in my life, work out a kind of a morality that I’m comfortable living with that does not harm anybody else. This is such a complicated world that I don’t think I can make it anymore complicated. The easiest and most simplified version of doing good things for me is living a full day and saying, “Now, was I an asshole to anyone today? Should I apologize to anyone today? Did I do the right thing?” If I can do that, then I don’t think I’m fucking up.

I really like the writing on Heathen. For instance, “Afraid”: “What made my life so wonderful, what made me feel so bad? I used to wake up to the ocean, I used to walk on clouds, if I put faith in medication, if I can smile a crooked smile, if I can talk on television, if I can walk an empty mile, then I won’t feel afraid, no I won’t feel afraid.” What are you getting at?

I think that “an empty mile” is a journey with no purpose. It’s a journey because that’s the road that everybody’s supposed to walk. It’s like being in the army, sometimes being in society—do this, do that. And then you find out that the authority didn’t really have a reason, but felt they ought to tell you to do something. But if we do this, everything ‘s going to be fine fun. There is no reward.

What is “I used to wake up the ocean?”

I guess it’s a really obscure reference to [King] Canute—who said he could push the ocean back. I corrupted it a little bit. I kind of made it, well, if I can make the ocean dance I have such a creative and life control. Something like that. I’ve lost that kind of control. Now I’ve got to be medicated to go through this world. Not that I am.

“I got so lost on the shore” you sing in “Afraid.” Where do you get lost?

Well, again, I have to qualify the song in as much as it’s probably as much “faction” as it is autobiographical. It’s trying to harness little things that have happened in my life to a fictional situation. But probably this album is a lot less fiction and a lot more of the facts. In this one, I think I’m just using the idea that we do lose our way in our lives. I’ve gotten frustrated and irritated and sometimes angry with the way life is at the moment and you feel so vulnerable and kind of small. I just wish I could cope better is really what I’m saying.

The thing with songs is that it’s so hard to take them as just pieces of poetry because they work as a vehicle for an expression of an idea as the combination of the music, the sound, the feel of the music and the lyric that gives it its power. Sometimes you can just look at the lyric and say, “This is tosh.” But when I heard him sing that, I knew exactly what he meant! Wow, did he describe that situation so well!

But it’s not particularly me. I’m just rearranging a little. I’m feeling for a guy who felt that once upon a time he had some kind of understanding of what was going on and now he’s terrified ‘cause everything is all coming in on him. And the only way he can see to surviving is to just do whatever he’s told to do. And he can’t be himself anymore. Just going down this awful ugly road through life.

What’s your favorite song you ever wrote and is there a particular reason it’s the favorite?

Sheesh! Right now I would say the song “Heathen.” It came pouring out one morning at the studio up in Woodstock. I had little or no control over it. It had me in tears as I sang it. It felt like it was being plucked from my very being. An epiphany of sorts. It seems to be a summation of some kind and I think will become a personal milestone of some sort to me. It contains for me a strong indication of how beautiful and wonderful life is and how I regret that I will have to relinquish my hold upon it. I could only have written it at my present age.

Likewise, “Absolute Beginners” has an uncontrolled passion within it—I’m really showing my emotional map here aren’t I? It is the best of very few love songs that I’ve written and means a lot to me, a song I still really enjoy singing.

Is there a song you regret writing on any level?

Apart from just crap songs? Possibly, I don’t know. There was a very nasty period in my life, around Station to Station, when I was going through a lot of really bad, dark, negative, nasty, nasty black shit—it was horrible—and I wrote this song, “Station to Station” about this particular period because it was so tied to Cabalism and magic and all that. It was just horrible. I was really falling into an abyss. That was a make or break point of my life. I could’ve died through that. I was in terrible, serious physical decline through drugs. I was just out of my mind. And when I’m on drugs you wouldn’t want to know me. I’m hyper at the best of times. I mean, you want to see me on fucking speedballs! Oh man, I was impossible. I also know, “Station to Station” is one of the best pieces that I wrote structurally—it ‘s really an exciting piece. It’s that I’m very ambivalent about the lyric—no, I’m not ambivalent about the lyric. It’s a very nasty lyric. It’s not a good lyric. I started playing it on stage recently and it’s not the most pleasant thing I’ve picked to sing. Maybe I’m talking myself out of doing it again on my next tour.

TVC15” is one of my favorite songs and “Stay,” and they’re both on that album.

You know that “TVC15” was written before Poltergeist. Several years before. It’s exactly the same scenario, my girlfriend is being sucked into the television, she exists in the television. I should’ve written that film!

Has rock ‘n’ roll lost its ability to be novel, to surprise, to define a moment in time?

I think it can still surprise, still be novel, but unfortunately I don’t think the weight of its currency is as important anymore. And it saddens me only because the passing of anything is sad—until you accept that all things pass—but I think as a vocabulary, for the description of rebellion and creating dialogue about change, I think it doesn’t have that weight anymore because it’s been turned into a commodity. Not that a commodity is a bad thing either. I think popular music is just not what it was at first—how it first evolved. It was a force for change, for fun and for excitement, and so hard to get hold of in the beginning. Now that it is so accessible and there are 35 thousand albums released a year, it occupies a different space in kids ‘ lives. And I’m not sure if there is a replacement for it, I don’t know if there has to be a replacement for it. It is what it is. The Internet is going to change it even further. The 70s was the beginning of a change—the 80s was really when the change kicked in. But it’s got to be intimate if it’s gonna act as the Guttenberg press of our time. Guttenberg realized

that the word could be taken away from the priests’ control, that it wasn’t manna from Heaven anymore. The word—this priceless thing—could be disseminated in such a way that everybody on earth could not only receive the word but exchange it and interrelate with each other and have dialogue and all that. The word changed

completely and irrevocably and I think the Internet is going to do that with music. Kids are downloading pieces and remixing them and sending them off to a friend who’s sending them back and I’m sitting here—the author—am I still the author? It wouldn’t surprise me within 10 years if there was no copyright and absolutely no recording industry. The recording industry has no idea what to do. And the Internet,

by the month, is getting more sophisticated, faster and when everybody has broadband—which has to happen—woe betide anybody who thinks the music business is a place where they can clean up financially. It won’t exist.

Maybe it will be just about putting music out to advertise the fact that you’re doing shows somewhere. I’ll be 66! I’m tired, man! That’s all that I can do? Write music to inform people that I’ve got a show coming up? I mean, Ozzy! Maybe that’s not what I’ll be doing, because he’s just become this junk culture thing. What is he for? It’s amazing. It’s really odd. What a phenomenon. That massive and overwhelming kind of publicity, does that exponentially do anything to the album? I wonder because now he’s a cultural icon, which actually is a real difficult thing to do anything with.

You become Pamela Anderson. And you don’t actually do anything but you’re HUGE. I can ‘t tell whether he’s done himself a favor or something that’s going to negate his being a musician and a rock artist as well. He might have divorced himself from that.

 

Who do you think is making really interesting, fresh music these days?

That changes from month to month. I love Mouse On Mars and Hangedup, also God Speed You Black Emperor are very interesting. I have a big thing for both Dandy Warhols and Grandaddy as they have elements that remind me of my own youth. Mercury Rev is always worth a listen. Visconti, of course, did the string arrangements for them. I love lndia.Arie.

Is there ever a private moment when you talk to David Jones, the self you left behind 35 years ago?

I’ve not ever been asked that quite in that way before. I’ve really had to reflect upon how much I’ve been absorbed into the David Bowie persona. It’s such a funny thing to answer. Is it more than just a name change or have I symbolically—by changing my name so early on—have I given myself permission to completely change the way my life would’ve gone? Have I given myself permission to not be who I thought I might have turned into? Or have I, in fact, actually just turned into the person I always should’ve been? Because I’ve been through so much. I sometimes wonder, “You know, your Dad would’ve been okay with what you are now.” He couldn’t have put up with a lot of what happened before. I ask myself, “Would Dad like me now?” And I kind of keep saying, “Yeah, I think he’d like me now.” Is this what David Jones turned into, or did David Bowie allow David Jones to become this? Would I turn into this anyway? I don’t know!

All our lives split every day, in miniscule ways, but your life really split! Was David Jones on his way to be a shop salesman, or a bad boxer?

No, he was on his way to being a bad visualizer at an advertising agency. My first love was art. I just found myself as a commercial artist—soul-destroying work. We had a product called “Aids.” It was a slimming biscuit. I actually did paste-ups for Aids. Then there was a raincoat that [former British Prime Minister] Harold Wilson used to wear. It came from up North. Anyway, we had the account. I thought, what am I doing? I wanted to be Matisse or Picasso—one of those guys. This is awful! I was doing rock at night and there was a point where it would be the same amount of money—well I’m doing great with both jobs, if I just had one of them I might make a real breakthrough. So I tossed the commercial artist job! I could’ve done a Saatchi. I know I could. I’m great with ideas—I can see things. If I had stayed in advertising, I might well have had a New Bond St. agency. That’d be very funny.