David Bowie: Straight Time

No more masks or poses. The singer finally comes up from down under

David Bowie on stage, 1983. Credit: Siemoneit/ullstein bild via Getty

In Australia, David Bowie was a man with-out masks. Open, jokey, very...warm is the only word. Back home –– which for Bowie these days is Switzerland –– March is an unmistakably wintry month; but half-way round the world in Sydney, even as autumn arrived, a brilliant sun still bathed the beaches at Bondi and Manly, and in the clear, caressing night air, the stars seemed like so many crushed diamonds strewn across the antipodean sky. It was a paradise perfectly suited to Bowie's new menschlich mood, his gathering thaw.

"It's not hip to be cool," he said one day, sipping a beer. "It really isn't. I had a heyday with the whole iceman-cometh bit. I'm cooled out, man. I've seen so much cool, it's just left me cold."

He ran a long hand through his bright blond hair, and his laugh was warm and wonderfully out of character. Or characters.

Bowie is thirty-six now. He made his first record –– with a boyhood band called the King Bees –– in 1964, and has been at it ever since. The past, of course, plagues him. All those masks he no longer needs, the old poses –– they keep popping up anew. "The biggest mistake I ever made," he said one night after a couple of cans of Foster's Lager, "was telling that Melody Maker writer that I was bisexual. Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting...."

So: he is not gay, whatever he may have blurted out in 1972. Nor was he ever a transvestite, thank you. Still, American TV –– for want of any more-recent product, it's true –– has kept running his 1979 "Boys Keep Swinging" video, and so total strangers still breathily inquire whether he's doing drag onstage again. ("I've never done drag onstage," he huffs.) Then there were England's New Romantics, who were very big on his cocktail-zombie look for a while, and you wouldn't believe how many Ziggy and Aladdin Sane clones continue to abound. Even in Sydney, the earnest girls who patiently hovered outside the Sebel Town House, where Bowie was known to be staying, invariably included among their daily number at least one copper-shock hairdo from his Pin-Ups period. It was something to see, first thing in the morning.

He's put all that behind him now. Well, all but Ziggy. After a decade in mothballs, Ziggy still refuses to die. So this year, for a laugh, Bowie is bringing him back. He's remixed the soundtrack to the never-released Ziggy concert film ("I don't know what I was on when I mixed it the first time") and will finally unveil it later this year. The movie –– which features Bowie in full glamrock flower, backed for the last time by his classic band, the Spiders from Mars –– was shot by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker at London's Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, and has been gathering dust in Bowie's archives ever since.

"That's something I couldn't look at for years," he says of this near-legendary Ziggy artifact. "I was so fed up with him... it –– all that. But I dragged it out last year and had a look, and I thought: This is a funny film! This boy used to dress like that for a living? My God this is funny! Incredible! Wait till my son sees this!"

As it turned out, Joey liked it. But then Joey likes Captain Sensible, too, and as his dad says, a lot of the new British bands these days "make Ziggy look like a bank clerk." Joey –– dubbed "Zowie" back in the glitter days, when David was still married to Joey's mother, Angela –– is eleven now, a great-looking kid with soft, fair hair and a face full of freckles. Bowie takes him everywhere, and so here he is, nanny in tow, in Australia. Actually, right now he's down the block at a video arcade, pumping away at the ponging consoles while Daddy attends to his art.

Outside, it's another balmy day under the big Australian sun, and up and down the cobbled street, wind chimes tinkle gently in the warm coastal breeze. In the shadow of the great green-and-red pagoda gate that spans the entrance to Sydney's tiny Chinatown district, a camera crew is setting up a dolly shot in front of the well-regarded Ming Wah Restaurant. It is midday, yum cha time, and inside, waitresses wheel among the bustling tables with steaming bamboo baskets of dim sum specialties, proffering pork-filled buns, translucent noodles, savory chicken feet and mysterious meats wrapped in large, green lotus leaves. David Bowie leans over his lunch with an oh-lucky-man grin and confides above the clamor, "Isn't this the greatest profession in the world?"

It's quite a life, all right. Just weeks ago, EMI Records parted with something in the neighborhood of $10 million for the privilege of putting out Bowie's next five albums; and when he informed his happy new label that he wanted to film two promotional videos for the first of those LP's (the just-released Let's Dance) in Australia, of all budget-raping places, EMI –– in a bit of a daze, perhaps –– said sure. "It's an unbelievably wonderful way to live," says Bowie, who loves to travel. "The hardest thing is not to feel guilty about it."

He knows he's one of the lucky ones, flitting from concert stages and recording studios to feature films and straight theater work. In the pop business, he realizes, life at the top can be a trap. Look at poor Mick Jagger.

"Mick really wanted to do something different a few years ago," he says with a sympathetic cluck. "I remember him crying, 'Am I gonna be saddled with the Rolling Stones for the rest of my life?' But I don't know what he'll ever do now. I think you've got to make a move, just do something different. If you miss your chance, then... you settle for what you've got."

Bowie has never settled, never stopped making moves. Metamorphosis has been his métier. But a few years ago, he began wondering: what did it all mean? "I've had a considerable amount of success," he allows, "but some of it left me feeling quite empty. It didn't fill me up again with anything."

In fact, some of it was only a blur. Like those coke-stoked disco-lizard days in Los Angeles in the mid-Seventies –– that whole era's pretty vague. "Incredible losses of memory," he says, hand slapping head. "Whole chunks of my life. I can't remember, for instance, any –– any –– of 1975. Not one minute!" Even the Grammy Awards show –– the night he turned up in wing collar and white tie, looking bloodlessly sleek, and posed cadaverlike for the press with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Simon and Garfunkel –– nada.

"I didn't realize I'd done that until somebody called the office the other day and wanted to run a film clip of it. I said, are you serious? And then I looked back at it and...I mean, I knew I'd worn an evening suit somewhere, but I didn't know it was there.

"Actually," he says, stubbing out a cigarette, "I was amazed I was standing up."

Escaping from LA. probably saved his life, he says. Another turning point came in December 1980, three months after be released his last album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). He was in New York at the time, on Broadway, winding up his well-received tour with The Elephant Man. He still remembers the night –– it was very late –– that he got the awful news from May Pang, John Lennon's former secretary. Lennon had been murdered.

"The handful of performances after that," Bowie says, "were absolutely awful. Just awful. A whole piece of my life seemed to have been taken away; a whole reason for being a singer and songwriter seemed to be removed from me. It was almost like a warning. It was saying: we've got to do something about our situation on earth."

Bowie put his musical persona on lowprofile and set about making a real home for himself and Joey in the pristine countryside near Geneva. He grew reflective. "Having a child to care for points up one's purpose, it really does. To see him grow, and be excired about the future –– and then you think: 'Oh, shit, the future, yes. I'd forgotten about that, old son. Um...I'll see what I can do....'"

It is this sea change, of sorts, that has brought Bowie back to Australia. He first came here in 1978, on his last concert tour, and at each city where he did a show, he would rent a Land Rover or some similarly rugged vehicle and clatter off into the outback, the parched and haunting bush. He was hypnotized: here was a country the size of the United States with a population of some 15 million people. Culturally, it had the upbeat, can-do character of America in the Fifties, before so much went so wrong there; but physically –– with its idyllic, coasts and endless, arid plains, and its singular wildlife –– it was unlike anyplace else on earth.

But, like America, Australia had an ugly racial secret: the policies adopted toward the native Aborigines by the European settlers who began arriving on the continent in the late eighteenth century –– many of them convicts and their keepers –– could most gently be described as genocidal. On what is now the island state of Tasmania, Bowie learned, the indigenous Aboriginal population had been utterly extinguished.

"As much as I love this country," he says, "it's probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world, well in line with South Africa. I mean, in the north, there's unbelievable intolerance. The Aborigines can't even buy their drinks in the same bars –– they have to go round the back and get them through what's called a 'dog hatch.' And then they're forbidden from drinking them on the same side of the street as the bar; they have to go to the other side of the road."

So Australia was ideal for what Bowie now had in mind. "It occurred to me that one doesn't have much time on the planet, you know? And that I could do something more useful in terms of....I know this is very cliché, but I feel that now that I'm thirty-six years old, and I've got a certain position, I want to start utilizing that position to the benefit of my...brotherhood and sisterhood." He winces, but continues. "I've found it's very easy to be successful in other terms, but I think you can't keep on being an artist without actually saying anything more than, 'Well, this is an interesting way of looking at things.'

"There is also a right way of looking at things: there's a lot of injustice. So let's, you know, say something about it. However naff it comes off."

In February, Bowie brought David Mallet, the London-based director with whom he collaborates, to Switzerland to help work up storyboards for the two videos he wanted to do: "Let's Dance," the title track from his new album, and another song on the LP called "China Girl" (which Bowie had written with his friend Iggy Pop in 1977, and which had previously appeared on Pop's album The Idiot). In less than a week, they were in Sydney with an English producer and cameraman, and an Australian crew numbering about a dozen people. Bowie had also secured the services of two students from Sydney's Aboriginal-Islanders Dance Theatre and a young Chinese woman from New Zealand named Geeling, and soon had them racing all over town. One morning, he'd have the Aboriginal pair –– a boy named Terry Roberts and a girl named Joelene King –– clambering up a hand-built "hilltop" on a promontory overlooking Shark Island in Sydney's spectacular harbor; in the afternoon, the whole company would tear across town to a machine shop in the sweltering suburb of Guildford, where Terry would be filmed toiling at a big steel milling machine amid stifling clouds of artificial smoke. (A few days earlier, Bowie'd had Terry actually pulling the machine down a major Sydney thoroughfare while Joelene, on her hands and knees, scrubbed down the intersection with soap brush and water – much to the audible dismay of an army of Saturday drivers.)

Geeling was also exotically occupied, one day "making love" with Bowie on the beach, another romping through Chinatown in a gray silk Mao uniform and red-star cap. Aside from Bowie and Mallet, no one could figure out what the hell was going on.

Both videos, of course, were about racism and oppression. "Very simple, very direct," Bowie explained one afternoon. "They're almost like Russian social realism, very naive. And the message that they have is very simple –– it's wrong to be racist!" He can't help laughing at the sentiment so baldly stated. "But I see no reason to fuck about with that message, you see? I thought, 'Let's try to use the video format as a platform for some kind of social observation, and not just waste it on trotting out and trying to enhance the public image of the singer involved. I mean, these are little movies, and some movies can have a point, so why not try to make some point. This stuff goes out all over the world; it's played on all kinds of programs. I mean – you get free point time!"

It is, as Bowie says, a place of "frankly brute character." Town of Carinda, a close-to-the-ground sheep-country settlement some 400 miles out over the Blue Mountains and down into the sunbaked bush west of Sydney. There's been no useful rainfall in these parts for four years, and the sun beats down with an incendiary power. At 10:30 in the morning, crew members are already estimating the temperature at around 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

As a hard-scrub fantasy of a frontier outpost, Carinda might seem overdrawn even to Sergio Leone. There's no one on the main street except a fly-bitten dog and a town drunk, and at any moment, one expects to see Clint Eastwood stepping out into the glare with a bulge in his poncho, gunning for Lee Van Cleef. Inside the one-room pub in the Carinda Hotel, several large-bellied locals are already lined up at the bar, swatting down schooners of Tooths beer –– leathery men in the bush shorts, T-shirts and sweat-stained slouch hats that are a kind of uniform among the good old boys of the outback. There isn't much to do out here beyond drinking and fighting, and these geezers, apparently, are getting an early start.

No one pays too much attention when Bowie walks in. He's wearing his usual gray shorts, bush boots, short-sleeve shirt and a kind of semisoft fedora known locally as a Snowy River. Even though he lacks the pendulous gut that makes for authenticity in these matters, he's not conspicuous. He looks around at the linoleum floor, the dart board and pool table, the overhead fan, the dustcaked cricket trophies above the bar, the wallboard menu offering chicko rolls and meat pies, and he smothers a chuckle. "I love this place," he says in a discreet whisper.

The locals soon realize that something's up: a lot of impossibly pale-looking people are starting to haul in Arriflex cameras and klieg lights and stun-size audio speakers. They're tacking glare netting over the open doorway, and one of them's starting to squirt smoke around, which is really stinking the place up. They've also brought a pair of Abos with them, which must be some kind of unwished-for first. "Where'd you get the dark couple?" asks one tippler in a flat, chilly tone.

By this point, the entire adult population of Carinda seems to have squeezed into the pub, along with several wild boys who are in town for the feral-pig hunts. (Wall posters offer fifty cents a kilo for boar meat, but according to one well-oiled sport, it's "pretty rank" stuff, given what the beasts are forced to feed on these days; what the hell, though – it's mostly shipped to Germany anyway.)

As the smoke thickens and the temperature inside the pub hits ninety-four degrees, a walloping funk beat comes leaping out of the speakers. It's "Let's Dance," the first single off Bowie's new album. Coproduced by Nile Rodgers of Chic, and featuring various Chic members in the band, the song and the rest of the album are not exactly what fans might have expected from the man who helped inaugurate the current wave of synthesizer-based dance pop. At least Bowie hopes not.

"I think that's what this record came out of. I was sort of disappointed with the way synthesizers have bullied music into a kind of cold place. So much of the music that's being made at the moment is very earnest. It doesn't have that quality of necessity that music used to have; it's become style over content. So in a natural progression, I just went back to the kinds of music that really excited me when I started. I was listening to people like Buddy Guy, Red Prysock, Alan Freed big bands. Stufflike that has such a dynamic, enthusiastic quality; it's the enthusiasm that I actually was looking for."

The album was recorded in three weeks ("I must try to better that next time," Bowie cackles), and simplicity was the keynote all the way. "John Lennon once said to me, 'Look, it's very simple –– say what you mean, make it rhyme and put a backbeat to it.' And he was right: 'Instant karma's gonna get you,' boom. I keep comin' back to that these days. He was right, man. There is no more than that. There is no more."

Simplicity and directness of expression have become a passion for him now, he says. "I've never admitted this before –– because it's never been true before –– but this album is kind of tentative. I mean, I only kind of touched the edge of what I really want to do. I want to go further, much further, with the next one."

And what will that be, then?

"A protest album, I suppose."

As the camera pans past Terry and Joelene, who are dancing on the smoke-filled floor, and then sweeps down the bar for a panorama of sweat-plastered faces, Bowie, wearing freshly pressed cream slacks, a lightly striped shirt and green tie, a pair of delicate white gloves rolled at the wrists, and carrying a cherry-red Stratocaster, takes his place against the front wall, next to an extra who's thumping away on a stand-up bass. By now, some of the locals, seized by the beat, are rolling around on their bar stools, and the owner of the place has waded in to actually take a stab at dancing with the two Aboriginal kids. Smoke is swirling all around, beers are scudding across the bar at a record rate, and not five feet from where Bowie stands mouthing something about "this serious moonlight," the wild-pig boys are wondering what to make of it all. Is it a toothpaste commercial? An advert for little white gloves? Or could it be...some kind of celebrity?

"'Ere," says one of the boar stalkers, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Bowie and the prop bassist, an idea drawning in his sun-soaked brain. "'Ere, who's the group?"

On the final day of shooting, the crew sets out from its motel base in Coonabarabran, on the banks of the Castlereagh River, for the Warrumbungle range, a national preserve located thirty-odd kilometers away. It is a place of surrealistically spectacular sights: rock-topped hills rising in eccentric formations against the enormous blue sky, heat-shattered gum trees clawing the air or keeled over in droves on the arid plains, puff mushrooms bigger than baseballs, meat ants the size of termites and march flies that can chew right through your clothes to the flesh and blood below. There is much rendering of the "Australian salute" in an effort to fend off flying pests, and the heat is an autonomous and oppressive presence.

"What a ridiculous bird!" Bowie shouts delightedly, as an emu –– a kind of bizarre, humpbacked turkey –– goes trotting off through some nearby scrub.

There've been stranger sights out here in the bush, though: Aborigines carried off in helicopters; Geeling in her little Mao suit running back and forth across the dusty plain with a big red banner; Bowie standing tall in a black top hat and tails, muttering in the heat, "I feel like a well-dressed Arab." It's almost a wrap now.

Bowie could be forgiven for feeling beat by this point, but if he is, he doesn't show it. He's in great shape –– and after all, this is only the beginning of what could well be his biggest year ever. His first tour in five years kicks off in Germany on May 20th (arriving in the U.S. for July and August, with a preview performance at the Us Festival in California on May 30th), and he says it will be "a lot warmer than most of the high-powered concerts are these days. It won't have the circus appeal of the Stones or the monolithic value of the Who. It'll be kind of...well, as romantic as you can get in a large-scale arena."

The tour will take up a good six months of his life, but in the interim, he'll also be highly visible at the movies. Apart from the Ziggy Stardust film, there will be The Hunger, a loony rendition of Whitley Strieber's erotic vampire novel, in which Bowie costars with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon; and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a World War II prison-camp drama by the controversial Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, which costars Tom Conti, Jack Thompson (of Breaker Morant) and Riuichi Sakamoto (of Tokyo's Yellow Magic Orchestra), and will premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival in May.

Bowie is a bit ambivalent about The Hunger. He was drawn to the project because of the chance to work with first-time feature-film director Tony Scott (who is the brother of Ridley Scott, the director of Alien and Blade Runner) and by the opportunity to interact with Sarandon, whom he characterizes, most emphatically, as "pure dynamite." The end result, though, gives him pause. "I must say, there's nothing that looks like it on the market. But I'm a bit worried that it's just perversely bloody at some points. I'm not sure I can take any of that anymore," he sighs, waving the whole thing away.

The Oshima film is something else again. The director, best known in America for his startling 1976 sexual odyssey, In the Realm of the Senses, offered Bowie the part of Jack Celliers –– a British soldier imprisoned in a brutal Japanese POW camp on Java in 1942 –– because, after flying to New York to see him in The Elephant Man, Oshima realized that Bowie had the perfect quality for the role: "an inner spirit that is indestructible."

The film was shot on the very remote Polynesian island of Rarotonga (the director had heard it was "the second most beautiful place on earth"), and Oshima's technique, according to Bowie, was as unorthodox as his preparations. "He built maybe two or three acres of camp –– enormous, it was –– which he never shot. And it was beautifully built with vine and bamboo and leaves; there were guard turrets that weren't touched, that nobody ever stood in. He only shot tiny little bits at the corners. I kind of thought it was a waste, but when I saw the movie, it was just so potent –– you could feel the camp there, quite definitely."

That Bowie actually got to see a finished film must have been a happy surprise, given Oshima's methods. "He shot in the camera, in sequence, so it was ready to edit when it came out the other end. And he didn't have any rushes done –– there were no rushes! –– and the stuff was being shipped off from Rarotonga with no safety prints, either. It was all going out of the camera and down to the post office and being wrapped up in brown paper and sent off to Japan. He said, 'There's my film.' And the editor at the other end –– this old man– would take it out, process it, cut it up, put it together –– and by the time Oshima got back to Japan, he had a rough print within four days! I mean, I thought, 'Hey, baby, that's makin' a movie,' you know? Say what you mean, make it rhyme and put it to a backbeat –– no fuckin' about! It was just glorious. And I think it's the most credible performance I've done in a film."

As with his previous feature-film projects –– Nicolas Roeg's enigmatic 1976 opus, The Man Who Fell to Earth ("I'm so pleased I made that, but I didn't really know what was being made at all") and the ludicrous Just a Gigolo, in 1979 –– Bowie looks upon these latest outings as educational experiences as much as anything else. He noses around, picks up tips and hopes one day to do some directing himself. God knows he gets enough scripts in the mail. "Continually –– and absolutely awful. Real shockers, exploiting every known perversity of mankind. Hundreds of treatments of Ziggy have come my way, all colossally awful. And I've got more Martians-who-play-guitar scripts in my house than you'd believe."

His hapless sigh just sort of slips out. "I mean, you wouldn't think that many people wrote about Martians who play guitars, would you?"

The bright red fever ball of the sun has finally set behind the craggy hills, leaving galahs and ground parrots to flap about the gum trees, and the night-loving kangaroos to hop forth in search of food. Seen up close –– and in the gathering dark you can get within three or four feet of them in a car –– the kangaroo would seem to be among the world's gentlest creatures. To the totemistic Aborigines, it was always a kindred spirit, but to the sheep men who now occupy the ancient tribal lands, the 'roos are just another unwelcome mouth to feed in a time of brush fires and browning grass. At night, the wild boys sometimes come in their clapped-out bush buggies, roaring up alongside the startled creatures and lopping off their heads with axes, all for the simple sport of watching the great bloody beasts stagger off, spurting, into the scrub.

Filming has wrapped. It'll be good to get back to Sydney, now, back by the sea. Bowie calls it "the great sparkling city of the New World."

Wherever you go, chances are Bowie's been there first. When the New Romantics arrived on the English music scene four years ago, they were merely moving into artistic premises that Bowie had already vacated. "It's still a bit Me Generation for me," he says. "The whole thing still smacks a bit of 'I'm so important, I've gotta write a song about me, to describe how incredibly precious my feelings are, and I want to impart this to you –– in three minutes and forty-five seconds.'

"But listen, I'll tell you what," he says, so as not to sound callous, "there's some good songwriting around."

He's already moved on, though. He's agreed to play the role of Abraham Lincoln in The Civil War, an avant-garde opera by Robert Wilson that will be performed during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. This has given him some good ideas. He told Wilson he didn't have time to write any music for the show himself, but suggested that he either get David Byrne, of Talking Heads, to compose some material or "put Iggy Pop together with Philip Glass and see what comes up." Wilson is apparently working on this, and Bowie feels it could be the start of something.

"I think there's another format for music onstage," he says. "Usually, you have a Twyla Tharp who pulls in people like David Byrne. But I think maybe if it started from the rock & roll side, and it pulled in the Twyla Tharps, maybe something interesting could come of it. It's always come from the intellectual side first, and I don't think it should for rock & roll. I think it should come from the meaty bit first, and then try to conceptualize it for the stage."

And what about Wilson's original proposal, playing Abraham Lincoln? What exactly will that entail?

"Oh, fallin' out of a balcony, I suspect."

It's quite a life, all right, He is able to do things, go places –– to Africa, to Europe, to Asia. He goes because he can afford it –– or arrange it –– and because there's no one to tie him down. He's arranged that, too. Corinne Schwab –– "Coco," his invaluable aide-de-camp –– has traveled with him for ten years now, but their relationship, while affectionate, is professional and purely platonic, he says. No great loves?

"My son, I think. I don't have any great attachments to anybody. Um...I've got a number of girlfriends that I see around the world –– I'm a bit sailorlike, I suppose. But I wasn't happy with marriage; I went into it wrong. I think I just find it hard to live with anybody. I'm a very solitary person, actually, kind of selfish that way. I like my own company. I like thinking onmy own. I like writing on my own. I find it hard to be perpetually enthusiastic about somebody else's life all the time. And rather than inflict that on someone, I'd just as soon see them more casually."

Mr. Self-Contained! But hey: for him it works, right? So who's to complain? Bowie whips out a bit of wisdom.

"There was one famous old Zen monk who regarded his house as his clothes," he says. "And somebody knocked on his door once, and he wasn't wearing anything. And they said, 'Why aren't you wearing anything?' And he said, 'What're you doing in my trousers?'"