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Cover Story Excerpt: David Bowie

David Bowie made rock & roll safe for glitter gods and space oddities - but he was really trying to hold on to his sanity.

January 18, 2012 8:00 AM ET
david bowie 1149
David Bowie on the cover of Rolling Stone Issue 1149.
Illustration by Tim O'Brien for RollingStone.com

The following is an excerpt of the David Bowie cover story in the February 2nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, on stands January 19th.

"Ziggy Stardust" beleaguered Bowie for a long time. It became what he thought he had to live down, or surpass. He hoped he could relinquish the character yet hold on to the growing audience that the image had won for him. But Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs were essentially continuations: The music got deeper, riskier, more complicated, meaner; the viewpoint, more toxic. But it was still the world and character of Ziggy Stardust.

In 1974, Bowie launched an elaborate tour of North America. This time, musicians were relegated behind a screen, unseen, as Bowie commanded the stage with brilliant choreography and cumbersome props, such as a cherry-picker crane that malfunctioned once, leaving him suspended far above an arena floor for many minutes. His singing was, if anything, better – he had astonishing range and control – but he grew bored with the tour midway through. He wanted to revise his sound, to make it soulful and funky. He brought in guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had worked at Harlem's Apollo Theater and had played with James Brown, and he recruited Luther Vandross to arrange backing vocals. He met John Lennon, and the two wrote and recorded "Fame," for Bowie's 1975 Young Americans. The song and album were Bowie's first massive hits in the U.S. Bowie also developed an obsession with cocaine during this period, and it took him into frenzy, delusion and terror. He lived for a time in a Manhattan town house, but after a tense conflict there one night with Jimmy Page, Bowie believed that the Led Zeppelin guitarist – who owned the English home of late black-magic philosopher Aleister Crowley – had put his soul in peril. He moved to Los Angeles and continued to disintegrate, staying up for days without sleep, sustaining himself on a diet of milk, peppers and cocaine, studying occult literature and practices. He phoned Angela in London, asking for her help: Witches intended for him to impregnate one during Walpurgis Night. He later said Satan was living in his indoor swimming pool. David needed an exorcism ("I really walked into other worlds," he later said), and Angela got him one – though it was by way of a long-distance phone call. "David was never insane," Angela wrote. "The really crazy stuff coincided precisely with his ingestion of enormous amounts of cocaine, alcohol and whatever other drugs." In any event, the rite may have helped break Bowie's fear of a fiend possessing him. "It was time to get out of this terrible lifestyle I'd put myself into, and get healthy," he later said. "It was time to pull myself together."

Photos: David Bowie Through The Years

In late 1976, following a suggestion by writer Christopher Isherwood, Bowie moved to West Berlin, with his friend Iggy Pop. For a time the retreat only relocated Bowie's troubles. He became a heavy drinker. He threw up in alleys at night. He reportedly called out to people, "Please help me." He also did worse: He became intrigued by Third Reich history and Nazi mythology. He had said years earlier in an interview, "I believe very strongly in fascism." In 1974 he told Playboy, "Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger." In Strange Fascination, Buckley reports that customs officers detained Bowie at the Russian-Polish border in April 1976, and seized a collection of Nazi memorabilia. When an assistant later criticized him for his interest, Bowie grew infuriated. "Fuck you," he said. "I changed the world! Kiss my arse" – then broke down and cried. The worst moment came in 1976, when Bowie arrived in an open-top Mercedes-Benz convertible at London's Victoria Station and was photographed giving what some people wrongly thought was a Nazi salute. The reaction in England was furious. Bowie was sickened when he saw the photo. "I'm NOT a fascist...," he told Melody Maker in October 1977. "That didn't happen... I just WAVED... On the life of my child, I waved." The longer Bowie stayed in Berlin, the more he came to understand the ruin that fascism had done to Germany and Europe. He was repelled by nationalists and racists, and was horrified to see his name made into a swastika in graffiti. He later called his interests "ghastly," and said he had been coming out of a year of terrible duress. "I was out of my mind, totally, completely crazed."

Sound and Vision: Five Decades of David Bowie Videos

Yet Bowie still made exceptional music in the post-Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars years. The title track of Station to Station (1976) sounded like a battle for the soul between a locked-down, authoritarian structure and raging, anarchic guitars. With 1977's Low – recorded with the input of avant-gardist and former Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno – Bowie devised a new language of music from fragments, accidents and dreamed-up textures. At first Bowie's label, RCA, did not want to release Low; however, along with Heroes from that same year, the album went on to inspire a generation – or more – of new artists, from Joy Division to Trent Reznor, and proved Bowie's most sonically influential work.

To read the rest of this cover story, pick up the February 2nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, on stands and in Rolling Stone All Access January 20th.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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