Q&A: Bowie's Heroes

On Beck, Lennon and music that makes him cry

October 2, 2003 12:00 AM ET

Ever since I was about seventeen, I had the hots to come to New York City," says David Bowie, 56, now a full-time resident. "It represented everything that was culturally interesting to me -- Freewheelin', the Beats, Allen Ginsberg." On his twenty-sixth album, Reality, Bowie addresses life as a New Yorker. But instead of wallowing in a world of terror alerts and blackouts, Reality reflects a more optimistic view, which he attributes to the birth of his daughter Alexandria, now three years old. "When the blackout happened the other day," says Bowie, who launches a U.S. tour at the end of the year, "there were two guys who took a harpsichord from their practice pad down to the street and did a little classical concert for the whole neighborhood. Things like that were happening all over town. I was really very proud to be a New Yorker."

What is your earliest musical memory?

There was a piece of religious music that was always played on the radio on Sunday called "O for the Wings of a Dove." I must have been about six. Not so far after that I heard "Inchworm," by Danny Kaye. They are the first two pieces of music that made any impression on me. And they both have the same weight of sadness about them. For some reason I really empathized with that.

Your first instrument was the saxophone. Why the sax?

My brother was a huge jazz fan. He played me way-out stuff like Eric Dolphy and Coltrane. I wanted a baritone, but I got an alto sax.

Did you take lessons?

Ronnie Ross -- who was featured in Downbeat as one of the great baritone players -- lived locally, so I looked in the telephone book, and I rung him up. I said, "Hi, my name is David Jones, and I'm twelve years old, and I want to play the saxophone. Can you give me lessons?" He sounded like Keith [Richards], and he said no. But I begged until he said, "If you can get yourself over here Saturday morning, I'll have a look at you." He was so cool. Much later on, when I was producing Lou Reed, we decided we needed a sax solo on the end of "Walk on the Wild Side." So I got the agent to book Ronnie Ross. He pulled out a wonderful solo in one take. Afterward I said, "Thanks, Ron. Should I come over to your house on Saturday morning?" He said, "I don't fucking believe it! You're Ziggy Stardust?"

Do you have a big collection of musical artifacts?

I've lost and broken so much -- it really pisses me off. The only thing I've got that is even vaguely interesting is my Stylophone from the 1969 Space Oddity days. Over the years, I've given a lot to charity. You know, you think, "Oh, I can be big about this." Afterward you think, "What the fuck was I thinking?"

What instruments are you worst at playing?

Guitar, sax and piano [laughs]. And if you want proof, ask my band. I'm fairly good on a rhythm basis, but for the life of me, I couldn't play lead guitar. I stumble and bumble and make an absolute ass of myself.

Who's your favorite Beatle?

Hands down, John. He reflected everything that I wanted to do in terms of his adventurousness; he kept going out on the edge. I liked the approach of the songwriting as well, the anger just under the lid.

What musicians impress you the most now?

Beck is tremendous, the chances he takes. And I feel that when [Trent] Reznor produces his next piece, it will be really magnificent. The Dandy Warhols -- they've got to be the funniest band around. Courtney [Taylor] has me in a fit from the moment he opens his mouth. When he walks into the room, I just want to put my beads on, you know?

When was the last time music made you cry?

There is one piece of music that puts me in a place that no other music does. It's called Four Last Songs, written by Richard Strauss. Particularly a performance by Gundula Janowitz. It can definitely bring me to tears.

Do you immediately put on music when you wake up?

Yeah, I do. I still go back to vinyl. After throwing a lot away, I must have about 2,000 albums. It's the cream of everything I've ever collected. My God, it's diverse. Everything from Delta blues to Jacques Brel. There is very little music that I don't like some aspect of -- except I cannot stand country & western.

What was the last great performance that you saw?

This year, I saw Radiohead at the Beacon Theatre [in New York]. I had a shrewd suspicion that they were the best band around, and that convinced me. But I also saw Lou Reed at Town Hall. I thought that was magnificent. There was something so fundamental about what he was doing, and it gave him so much room to weave anecdotes and witticisms -- things Lou is very good at. That's stimulating, because it means it doesn't matter about the age - it's about intention, integrity and the power to move people.

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