I first saw David Bowie about half a year ago, sitting several tables away in a Detroit soul-food restaurant called Mama’s Palace. I was interviewing Iggy Pop, for whom he was playing keyboards at the time. Bowie wouldn’t talk to me or any other journalist because he wanted all the attention focused on his friend Iggy, who was on his first tour since Bowie helped him out of a quagmire of drugs and debt. I caught Bowie’s eye once, and he half-smiled at me, seeming to say, “I know this is absurd, but you’ll never get me to open my mouth and take any credit.”
Could this have been the Man Who Sold the World, the Man Who Fell to Earth, the man who was always making pronouncements about the future of art in the cosmos, the man who two years ago told Cameron Crowe, “I already consider myself responsible for a whole new school of pretension”?
No, it wasn’t. It was the man who left L.A. at the beginning of 1976 and beat his ego into submission.
“It is impossible to remain in the circus arena of rock & roll without being addicted to something,” he now says, asked about the tendency of rock stars to mainline egomania. “There is such a lack of substance that your ego becomes the world. You come to think the only defense is to believe in yourself. The real defense is to withdraw from the assembly line.”
Bowie is sitting in an RCA studio between takes of a recitation of Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev’s chestnut being made into yet another children’s album. Dressed in a gray shirt, black corduroys and green clogs, his hair its natural shade of light brown, he looks as normal and healthy as anyone with Martian features can.
“I was surrounded with people who indulged my ego, who treated me as Ziggy Stardust or one of my other characters, never realizing that David Jones [Bowie’s original name] might be behind it,” he says of the year and a half he spent in Los Angeles. “I had a more-than-platonic relationship with drugs. Actually, I was zonked out of my mind most of the time. You can do good things with drugs, but then comes the long decline. I was skeletal. I was destroying my body.”
He also “destroyed” his Bel Air house and built fifteen-foot “superman” sculptures of polyethylene that he blew up with a bicycle pump. (One sculpture had its foot stuck through a world globe, a baby in its arms and a penis constructed of 3-D post cards with a Mickey Mouse pencil sharpener at the end.)
“I was endowed with a good friend,” Bowie continues. “He pulled me off the settee one day, stood me in front of a mirror and said, ‘I’m walking out of your life because you’re not worth the effort.’ Sometimes you can’t see how far you’ve sunk until you’re slapped in the face with it. After that humiliation, I went to my wardrobe closet and locked all my characters inside.”
Three days later, Bowie left Los Angeles, ultimately resettling in Berlin, where he achieved what for eleven albums he had striven to avoid: anonymity. “They care not a sot for anyone in the music business there,” he says. “I became a person again.”
Taking a sparsely furnished apartment over a car-parts shop, Bowie relearned how to run his life. He bought his own food, cleaned his own house, stopped taking drugs and recorded two albums — Low and the recently released Heroes — with Brian Eno, cybernetics expert, wild-mushroom authority and reclusive musician. Both records have met with some critical and popular resistance. Each has a side of songs with weird lyrics and a side with no lyrics but lots of weird sounds. Bowie, of course, is no stranger to weirdness, but his past music generally had stayed within recognizable rock and soul formats.
“In L.A., I fell into the trap of referring back to rock all the time,” he explains. “It was incestuous. I had blinkered myself to all the other musical possibilities. When I left, I tried to find out more about the world. I discovered how little I knew, how little I have to say. The lack of lyrics on Low reflects that I was literally stuck for words. I was making a new musical language for my new life. It’s so personal that I expect to be misinterpreted.”
If mass acceptance for his new language is not forthcoming, Bowie has mellowed enough in his pursuit of platinum to accept his fate. “I’m getting older now,” he says. “I have a son. I don’t want to throw my sanity into art and end up forsaking the people around me. I’d rather stay alive until I’m fifty. What I need is to gain a foothold on why I wanted to write in the first place.”
So why, I ask, did he want to write in the first place?
“At nineteen, I thought I had something important to say,” he replies. “Now, I find it important to communicate with myself. I haven’t met David Jones for such a long time that I have to get to know him all over again.”
And what is the average David Bowie fan supposed to derive from the records if David Bowie is talking to himself?
“I don’t know,” Bowie says. “What should I do, make them and not release them?”
Could it be that, having gone cold turkey on egomania, he is now injecting solipsism into his veins?
“That’s possible. The prospect doesn’t bother me, though. I’m incredibly happy. Really. Everything is okay.”
Does he expect the albums to be understood in a few years?
“I don’t care. I have less formulated ideas about this time than ever. It’s probably why I’m enjoying it so much.”
Unlike Captain Beefheart weirdness or Yoko Ono weirdness, Low and Heroes are actually quite listenable. Neither will inspire guests to wreck furniture at a beer party, but they are capable of shifting your moods as they shift from aural texture to aural texture. Though Low sold poorly, Heroes is doing better. The increase in sales is probably because of the title track, a catchy tune that is receiving FM airplay but has lyrics that can stand some explanation:
“When I was in Berlin, I saw two kids — about nineteen or twenty — meeting at the Wall under a gun turret every day,” says Bowie. “They were obviously having an affair of some kind. Berlin is two-thirds woods and rivers. There are much pleasanter places to meet, so why did they choose the gun turret? I assumed their motive was guilt, thus the act of heroism in facing it. Of course, it could just be my wonderful imagination. Probably their offices were nearby. ‘Heroes’ is the only narrative song.”
Bowie says the album would have taken only three days to record if he, Eno and Robert Fripp (once of King Crimson) had been able to stop laughing. As soon as someone would begin to theorize, someone else would say they were all charlatans, and they’d launch into absurdly involved conversations using only clichés. “There were strings of irony running through everything,” he says.
As for the future: Bowie will be producing Devo, a bizzarro New Wave band from Akron, in Japan; he will not be getting a divorce, contrary to rumor, but neither will he be seeing much of wife Angela; he will star next summer in Wally, a movie about Expressionist painter Egon Schiele; and in February he will launch a world tour in Japan that will come to the States in the spring.
Not that Bowie is completely at ease with the idea of touring, however. “I don’t blame Brian [Eno] for never going on tour,” he says. “I get bored myself after the first twelve gigs. I have no characters to do this time, so I’ll have to go out and just sing my songs and play my music. God knows how that will be accepted. I have no wish to tart it up … if I play music, it’s going to be straight and I’ll take the consequences. I have a commitment to do the old songs, but I don’t know how I’ll do them yet without the characters.”
The producer’s voice comes over the loudspeaker from the glass booth and asks Bowie to resume Peter and the Wolf. (It is his six-year-old son Zowie’s favorite piece of music. When RCA had recorded the orchestra and was looking for a narrator, he jumped at the chance.) He steps to the microphone and reads from the script in a cozy voice: “Each character in this tale is represented by a different instrument. The bird by a flute [tweet, tweet], the duck by an oboe [quack, quack], the wolf by the french horns [snarl, snarl]…. Did we decide what to do about the rifles? The hunters would have shot the wolf with shotguns.”
“Well, whatever the kids will believe,” says the producer.
“I don’t want to twist your arm,” says Bowie, “but I think the shotguns sound better.”
“Shotguns it is,” says the producer.
“… the blast of the shotguns by the kettle drums [boom, boom].”
Several hours later, with the wolf safely captured by Peter (and the duck tragically quacking from the wolf’s belly), Bowie winds up the session by thanking everyone in the control booth.
“Look, David,” I say, “before I go, I have to know one thing: if your life was so great in Germany, and your records are going to be misunderstood anyway, why are you returning to the circus?”
“Very simple,” he answers. “I need the money.”