David Bowie: Stardust Memories
FOR FIFTEEN YEARS, David Bowie has been the ring-master of rock style, whipping up new fashions and attitudes with every flick of his public image. A prodigy of self-invention, he has been at various intervals Art Man, Dance Man and Pioneer Androgyne. Today he’s just plain David, but the contemporary urban clubscape is still littered with Bowie replicants bearing painted witness to the lingering influence of his past personas: whole ribes of bleached and preening Ziggys, plucked and pallid Aladdins, sleek, cadaverous Euro-lizards. But the man behind those masks has long since moved on.
As he sat down for an interview in a suite at a Westwood hotel one recent afternoon, Bowie was wearing simple black jeans, a snug tank-top T-shirt and steel-toed Gaultier brogues, it was February, one month after his fortieth birthday, and Bowie was in Los Angeles to shoot videos for his seventeenth studio album, Never Let Me Down. Cleareyed and lightly tanned beneath a generous thatch of blond-plus hair, he looked astonishingly fit and professed his eagerness to wade back into the rock-biz fray. He’ll kick off a world tour in June, performing songs drawn from the breadth of his twenty-year recording career, backed by a band featuring his old pal Peter Frampton – the son of Bowie’s high school art teacher – on lead. It will, he said, be something special.
The subject was rock style, of which Bowie pretty much the reigning embodiment. Born on January 8th 1947, and raised in districts of Brixton and Bromley, he is old enough to have witnessed firsthand the arrival of rock & roll. As a kid, he marveled at the brawling, zoot-suited antics of the Teddy boys, England’s first rock-oriented youth cult. In the Sixties, he took up the saxophone, joined a school band (the Kon-rads) and felt himself drawn toward the clothes-obsessed mods, who shared his musical taste for American R&B. He idolized such British beat legends as the $ély Who and the Yardbirds (whose lead singer, Keith Relf, inspired him to grow his hair down to his shoulders). As Davy Jones, he hacked around with a succession of groups – the King Bees, the Manish Boys, the Lower Third – to little avail. Advised in 1966 that another Davy Jones had hit it big as a member of the Monkees, he adopted the stage name Bowie and went solo. He recorded his first album in 1967 and scored his first hit single – the trippy “Space Oddity” – two years later.
Bowie’s breakthrough came in 1972, with the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, an album of hard, snarling guitar rock pumped out by what may have been the best band he has ever had (lead guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Woody Woodmansey, three musicians from the north of England, with American keyboardist Mike Garson added to the lineup a bit later). The main attraction, though, was Bowie’s pancaked, mock-mincing Ziggy persona – a character that came to define the glitter-rock era of the early Seventies. (Bowie occasionally appeared in public wearing dresses and at one point even told a reporter that he was gay – a statement he disavowed in a 1983 interview with ROLLING STONE.)
Ziggy grew ever more alien over the course of such subsequent LPs as Aladdin Sane and Pin-Ups (a terrific collection of oldie remakes). By the time of 1974’s Diamond Dogs – the cover of which depicted David with the body of a dog – Bowie was feeling burned out: wasted by heavy cocaine use and increasingly isolated by the MainMan organization, a production office set up by his drug-disdaining manager, Tony DeFries, but staffed by high-living trendies recruited from Andy Warhol’s Factory axis, among them ex-groupie Cherry Vanilla and future biographer Tony Zanetta. Weary and confused, he hired a new personal assistant – Corinne “Coco” Schwab, the multilingual daughter of a noted French photographer, who had been raised in India, Haiti and Mexico and thus shared Bowie’s own general sense of statelessness. He then split from MainMan and in 1975, with disco on the rise, suddenly slicked back his hair, suited up and released the ultradanceable Young Americans, an album of what Bowie called “plastic soul.” The following year came Station to Station and yet another new character: the skeletal and decadent Thin White Duke. Bowie also starred in Nicolas Roeg’s movie The Man Who Fell to Earth (inaugurating an erratic film career that includes 1978’s Just a Gigolo, a resounding bomb; 1983’s The Hunger, a campy vampire flick directed by Tony Scott, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a memorable prisoner-of-war movie directed by the esteemed Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima; and 1986’s Labyrinth, a goblin fantasy directed by Jim Henson, and Absolute Beginners, a musical fiasco by video wiz Julien Temple). Bowie moved to Berlin, began listening to such German synthesizer groups as Kraftwerk and in 1977 released the first of a trio of largely brilliant art-rock collaborations with former Roxy Music synth avatar Brian Eno (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger).
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