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 — Free-wheelin’, 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 “Inch-worm,” 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.