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).
By 1980, a new cult of fashion-crazed kids – the New Romantics – had sprouted up in London. Bowie walked among them (they were his stylistic children, in many ways) and came back with Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), an album that, unfortunately, yielded no major hits. Was he running out of steam? Bowie answered that question with an emphatic no in 1983, when he dropped all his guises and went dance pop with Let’s Dance, the biggest-selling album of his career.
Bowie was married for nearly ten years to Angela Barnet, an Anglo-American woman with whom he had a son, Zowie (now called Joe). Their union, hardly strengthened by David’s dalliance with such girlfriends as black singer Ava Cherry, dissolved in divorce in 1980. Today, David lives with Coco and Joe – who’ll be sixteen in May – in a house in Switzerland, not far from the jet-set resort of Gstaad, where Bowie frequently skis. He also works out and roller-skates in his spare time – of which there’s never much: he remains a workaholic. Despite his now-moneyed seclusion, he remains an artist with one ear – and one shrewd fashion eye – ever cocked toward the street, ever alert for the latest innovations. At last glance, however, no likely usurpers had appeared to challenge Bowie’s position as the king of rock style.
First of all, a belated happy birthday.
Has turning forty made you reflective?
No, not at all. Now I feel I can do and say what I want [laughs].
Were you aware of style as a kid?
Yes, I liked how things went together, and it interested me how it all worked. But I think I was always drawn to the crass [chuckles], so that saved my ass, really: I was never very hot on sophisticated taste when it got too sophisticated. I didn’t mind a sense of elegance and style, but I liked it when things were a bit off – a bit sort of fish-and-chips shop.
Were you aware of the Teds when they appeared?
Yeah. There was a bloke who lived down the road from us who was a Ted – Eric, I think his name was. He had brilliant, curly ginger hair and razor blades in his collar – for purposes of not being molested, I guess, by other Teds. That I found very impressive. But he was slightly potty – he would just stand on the corner for hours, swinging a chain manically.
Were you ever inclined toward Teddishness yourself?
Yeah, a lot of kids my age got into those things. But I didn’t really like the Teddy clothes too much. I liked Italian stuff. I was really early into Italian stuff. I liked the box jackets and the mohair. You could get some of that locally in Bromley, but not very good. You’d have to go right up to Shepherd’s Bush or the East End. And once I’d left school, you could save a little money and go find a tailor who would make it up really well. There were some good tailors. The one I used to go to was the same one that Marc Bolan used to go to, a fairly well known one in Shepherd’s Bush. I remember I saved up and got one suit made there, but that was really all. The rest of my money I put into equipment and saxophones and things.
There’s a picture of you with the Kon-rads where you have this sort of upswept crew cut. . . .
Oh, yes, yes. I loved the hair-style stuff, yeah.
And the band is wearing, like, little candy-striped ties. . . .
We wore gold corduroy jackets, I remember, and brown mohair trousers and green, brown and white ties, I think, and white shirts. Strange coloration.
Was there a particular rock performer who had really turned you on as a kid? Someone you saw and said, “That’s what I want to do”?
Little Richard. I saw him at Brixton Odeon. It must have been 1963, ’cause the Stones opened for him. I’ll tell you who else was on that bill, as well. Oh, it was wonderful, listen: The Stones opened, then there was Bo Diddley and, if I remember rightly, Duane Eddy, and it closed with Sam Cooke. That was the first half. Then the second half . . . Who else was on that thing? Somebody else unbelievable was on, and then Little Richard. And Little Richard was just unreal. Unreal. Man, we’d never seen anything like that. It was still mohair suits then – I mean, just great suits – baggy trousers and all that. And he was workin’ with a British band called Sounds Incorporated – our only horn band, the only band that knew anything about saxophones. There was one other, Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, but they weren’t as good. Sounds Incorporated were the one. And I think it was probably Red Price on tenor sax, guy with dark glasses. I used to love all those sax players, ’cause that’s what I wanted to do. And he led Lord Rockingham’s XI, too [laughs]. Remember them? “Hoots, mon, there’s a moose loose about this hoose!” You don’t remember that?
Anyway, that show was unreal. And the Stones were so funny. They had, like, four fans at that time, who rushed down the aisles to the front. These four chicks in the front there – it was so funny. Keith was dynamite, ’cause he did that aeroplane stuff in those days, whizzing round and round – he really made an entrance. And Brian was kind of dominant in the band then; he really was. It’s amazing the progress that Mick’s made, thinking back, because as stage personalities, Mick and Brian were equal. And some bloke – I’ll never forget this – some bloke in the audience looked at Jagger and said, “Get your hair cut!” And Mick said, “What – and look like you?” It was so funny! I went with the Kon-rads, and we just collapsed in our seats.
What kind of stuff did the Kon-rads play?
Lotta covers. And then . . . the band broke up because of me, actually. Yes, folks, I broke the Kon-rads up – now it can be told!
Why did you do that?
I wanted to do rhythm & blues songs, and nobody was interested. I remember the first one I really tried to get them to do – and I wish we’d done it, ’cause it would’ve done rather well – was “House of the Rising Sun,” off an old blues album that got released in England.
In 1963? You were ahead of your time.
Eh! It was so great, and I wanted to put a beat to it. But I rather got beaten to that.
What about the Manish Boys, that seven-piece group you were in till early 1965?
That was just survival. I didn’t really like that band at all. It was rhythm & blues, but it wasn’t very good.
Nobody ever earned any money. The band was so huge; it was dreadful. And I had to live in Maidstone. That’s where the Manish Boys were from, and so I had to go and live there, because we were gonna rehearse and work outta there. I don’t know if you know Maidstone. Maidstone Prison is one of the biggest in England. It’s all criminals round there – one prison and a few suburban houses. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever been beaten up.
By some ex-prisoner, I suppose. I don’t know. It was just this big herbert walkin’ down the street just knocked me on the pavement, and when I fell down, proceeded to kick the shit outta me. For no reason that I could fathom to this day. I haven’t got many good memories of Maidstone.
That wasn’t a long-lived band, though, the Manish Boys. But I affected a Keith Relf haircut, I believe, at the time. I was quite keen on Keith. I thought he was pretty cool – my favorite R&Ber. I liked the Who’s sound but Keith Relf’s look. I thought, “If I can get that down, wow – watch out world.” [Laughs.]
Was the Lower Third, your next band, a happier affair?
The Lower Third was very Who inspired.
Did you do Who covers?
No, we wrote our own stuff. I was fully into writing by then. I was absolutely convinced that I could write anything as good as anybody else, have a go at it.
And proved yourself right, eventually.
Yeah, that’s right – see, Pete! [Laughs.] I took my first single to Pete Townshend. It was at a Who concert in 1969 – must have been around there – and I took it and I got backstage and I gave it to him. I said, “Play that and let me know what you think of it one day.” And it was many years later he said, “By the way, son, I remember you bringing me that single. I meant to let you know – I did like it.” Lyin’ bastard! [Laughs.]
Were you much of a mod?
Yeah. Oh, absolutely.
I mean, were you deeply into it?
Not deeply into the lifestyle. Superficially. Because I didn’t like riding scooters. And I was never too much of a club guy – never really went clubbing very much.
No. Like once a week or something. Which actually, in that time, was not very much. I mean, those kids used to go every night and hang out till seven in the morning. I liked going to art museums and bits of theater, things like that. I wasn’t really that concerned with that many clubs.
But you picked up on the mod clothes?
Where would you buy them?
Let me see. At that time, I suppose sport shops and things. Like now. See, that’s come back full cycle. A lot of mods used to wear sports clothes – Fred Perry shirts and things like that. Um . . . Carnaby Street was briefly popular, for like a three-month period or something; then it fast became . . .
What it is today – a sort of tourist slum?
Yeah, exactly. And then of course the Kings Road also had its time, you know? But they were all sort of very fast. I didn’t really have a hangout for clothes. I didn’t wear much that was fashionable, actually. I mean, I was quite happy with things like Fred Perrys and a pair of slacks. Not very loud clothes.
Did flower power pretty much sweep everything else away, fashionwise?
Yeah, I think everybody did become psychedelic, at least. I don’t really remember the people that I knew being that affected by the love-and-peace things about it. They were definitely affected by the mushroom aspects, and the colors and all that – the clothes and the psychedelic music. But love and peace, I felt, was very much the American part of it all. It certainly made its impression in the hit parade, but it was very commercial oriented – you know: “If you’re going to San Francisco,” that kind of stuff. And we had bands like the Flowerpot Men. There was a lot of that about. But the best aspects of it were some of the early things that Jeff Beck did, you know? Now, that’s what I liked about it – that was really good stuff.
Your Ziggy Stardust persona was a daring departure for rock. What were those early shows like?
What was quite hard was dragging the rest of the band into wanting to do it.
They were pretty much rock & roll, pub kind of guys?
Yeah, we always had that problem. That was the major problem, that we really didn’t think alike at all. It was like “Jesus, come on, you lot – let’s not just be another rock band, for Christ’s sakes.” [Laughs.] But they were a great little rock band, you know? And they caught on to it as soon as they found that they could pull more girls. Then it was “Hey, they like these boots.” I thought, “Yeah, there you go.” That’s what it needed. God – get a bit of sex into it and they were away, boy. Their hair suddenly got . . . oh, it was every color under the sun. All these guys that wouldn’t get out of denims until two weeks ago [laughs].
Where did the clothes for the Ziggy period come from? Did you design them yourself?
No, that was a designer whose clothes I saw, a guy named Kansai Yamamoto. Now, of course, he’s an international designer, but he was very experimental at that time – his stuff was way off the board. So the very first things were influenced by him, and then I got to know him, and he made all the stuff you really know – the suits, the pull-apart stuff, all those things. He said, “Oh, this band are weird – tee-hee-hee – they wear my clothes.”
How did audiences respond to the early Ziggy shows, before the Ziggy Stardust album actually came out?
There was quite a bit of antagonism. Nothing like, say, the Pistols got when they started. But the first couple of months were not easy. The people did find it very hard, until we had a musical breakthrough. The actual look and everything, I mean, it was “Aw, a bunch of poofters,” you know? Which was kind of fun. I mean, we played it up – well, I did, anyway – played that up a lot. Because it was the most rebellious thing that was happening at the time.
Is it true that when Ziggy and the Spiders played Santa Monica on the first tour, the band went off to a Scientology meeting and got converted?
Well, two of the band are Scientologists now. Mike Garson always was a Scientologist. I mean, Mike was a real hard nut to deal with, a very strange cat. I mean, he spent all his time tryin’ to convert everybody – it was kind of difficult to work with him, you know? And he converted Woody Woodmansey, the drummer. Mike got him. He tried it on me for a bit, until we had a bit of a fight about it. He said, “Oh, well, you’d never understand, you’re a druggie.” I said, “Yeah, that’s it – drugs are keepin’ me away from Scientology.” He was so po-faced. Very serious guy.
You had conceived Ziggy as the ultimate plastic rock star; ironically, the music that “he” made was really great.
I know, I know. It sounds all right now, yeah. I find it ironic when I look at a band, say, like Sigue Sigue Sputnik, where it’s so outré, so absolutely in the Ziggy court, you know? All this time later, it still raises its brightly colored head.
Like psychedelia: it never goes away.
Yeah. That whole period, I guess. They keep recycling all of us – Roxy, me, Gary Glitter, Marc Bolan. I guess those four were the big ones from England, the champions of the early Seventies and all that. But it really seems to have permeated every area of rock now – something that one of us did is somewhere in all modern music. Which is great. I think that’s fabulous.
Like Prince, maybe?
Prince, yeah, sure. I mean, he’s probably the most, eclectic artist I’ve seen since me [laughs]. I think he’s a great stealer.
Was Aladdin Sane meant to be a conscious modulation on the Ziggy character or something completely different?
It was meant to be . . . a crossover: getting out of Ziggy and not really knowing where I was going. It was a little ephemeral, ’cause it was certainly up in the air.
Did you design the Aladdin Sane makeup yourself?
I came up with the flash thing on the face.
What was that meant to be?
Lightning bolt. An electric kind of thing. Instead of, like, the flame of a lamp, I thought he would probably be cracked by lightning. Sort of an obvious-type thing, as he was sort of an electric boy. But the teardrop was Brian Duffy’s, an English artist-photographer. He put that on afterward, just popped it in there. I thought it was rather sweet.
And how did Aladdin Sane then mutate into the Diamond Dogs period?
Christ knows! I know the impetus for Diamond Dogs was both Metropolis and 1984 – those were the two things that went into it. In fact, Diamond Dogs was gonna be a rewrite of 1984 – I wanted to try to get the musical rights for it and turn it into a stage musical for touring. But my office, MainMan, didn’t bother to do anything about it, and then I found out that if I dared touch it, Mrs. George Orwell would sue or something. So I suddenly had to change about in midstream, in the middle of recording, you know? But, I mean . . . well, it wasn’t a real office in those days. Nobody did anything.
In 1973, midway between Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, you released Pin-Ups, a collection of cover versions of your favorite oldies. A lot of people still think it’s one of your best records. Might you ever do another one like it?
Yeah, I’m dying to do that. But I’d want to do it properly, not just as a filler between albums, you know? I really want to do it. ‘Cause I’ve always made lists of things that I want to cover one day, and those lists go on and on and on. So it would be easy to just drop one in. I think the best time to do it would be at the end of a tour, when you’re really up and you’ve still got the energy to do some high-energy performances. I’m so tempted – this is the time.
What songs would you like to cover?
I’m not gonna tell ya! [Laughs.] ‘Cause I’ve got some beauts that nobody’d ever dream of doing.
Young Americans, the studio album that followed Diamond Dogs in 1975, marked a brand-new artistic direction for you – deep into black American dance rhythms. What do you make of the current state of black pop?
There’s nobody that’s knockin’ me out. I’m not in there with Lionel anymore. I liked Cameo’s “Word Up” and then I heard the album and I just went to sleep. Rap is really the only cutting edge at the moment – Run-D.M.C are my favorites. But I have a tough time with a lot of black music now – it’s all a bit dancey, and there’s no real underbelly there, you know? I think Prince is probably the best of the current crop.
Did you see his second movie, Under the Cherry Moon?
Yeahhh . . . I saw it. I’m not gonna say a thing. I mean, I’ve had so many of those myself, I wouldn’t even dream. It’d be the pot callin’ the kettle black, you know? Whoops! [Laughs.]
In 1976, you moved to Berlin, and the following year, you began a new avant-garde period with the release of the Low and “Heroes” albums. What’s your impression of the state of the musical avant-garde today?
Well, in America, it seems to have died.
It does seem very career oriented here.
That’s an interesting thing. There’s Philip Glass, who’s now at the zenith of his professional bit, and Laurie Anderson, who does TV and stage shows. In Germany, that period is over. I think it was starting to fold up on itself just around the time I left Berlin. The stuff that’s coming out of Düsseldorf now is really boring.
What about Kraftwerk? You named one song on “Heroes” after that group’s Florian Schneider. What do you think of its latest music?
It’s its usual pristine self. And it’s good, in its genre. But they’re like craftsmen – they’ve decided they’re gonna make this particular wooden chair that they designed, and each one will be very beautifully made, but it will be the same chair. It’s like a cottage-industry thing. They’re craftsmen.
Despite all the touring you did – and the critical acclaim you amassed – through that early part of your career, you wound up in considerable debt. How come?
It was all the MainMan tribe. Most of them wanted to be stars; so a lot of them were usin’ the money that was comin’ in – if it wasn’t for drugs, it was to put their own stage productions together and things like that. I mean, there were more drugs goin’ around – unbelievable. I thought I was bad, but it was just incredible how many drugs there were. And that’s what happened to all the money.
You finally got the business side of your career together in 1983, when you signed a very lucrative contract with a new label and released your biggest LP, Let’s Dance. How do you look at the music business today – as a game you’ve sort of mastered?
I had a few problems with it a couple of years ago, at the time of Let’s Dance and just after. I suddenly had this huge audience that I’d never had before. I didn’t quite know what I was supposed to do. So I just cut out last year – stayed in Europe, up in the mountains most of the time, writing and working, just doing the things that I really like. And that put me back on course. That’s why I guess this new album sounds so much more . . . as though the continuity hasn’t been broken from Scary Monsters. It’s almost as though Let’s Dance and Tonight were in the way there. And I’m going to do a stage thing this year, which I’m incredibly excited about, ’cause I’m gonna take a chance again.
Can you say what it might be?
No! [Laughs.] Too many other acts are goin’ out. I’ll just be doing what I always did, which is keeping things interesting.
What do you actually do at home in Switzerland? It’s a pretty quiet place, isn’t it?
I work. All me time. If I’m not working, I ski. That’s my only other preoccupation. I paint if I have the time or if I feel in the mood. And I read extensively.
What have you read recently?
I’ve just finished reading Joe Orton’s plays. I also read Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, which is a fabulous short play.
Have you ever met Pinter?
Lord, no. I’d love to meet him. Well, I think I’d like to meet him. Actually, I hate meeting famous people. It’s always a letdown. They’re a lot shorter than they look on television [laughs]. Charlie Sexton’s the only bloke I’ve met recently who’s taller than I thought he was. No, hold on – there’s a Duran who’s like that as well: John Taylor. He’s quite tall, yeah.
What do you make of the Durans? Are you buddies with them?
I had a hard time with them when I first met them a few years ago. I thought they were really sort of a bit arrogant. But I guess we all go through that. They’ve really got okay over the last year or two. Simon seems to have changed an awful lot since he seriously got back into sailing again. And since he changed his hair color [laughs].
Have you read these two recent books about you, Bowie, by Jerry Hopkins, and Stardust, by journalist Henry Edwards and your old MainMan employee Tony Zanetta?
The two books on me? Do you know that at last count there are thirty-seven? Thirty-seven, at the moment. I stopped reading those things after about the fourth or fifth one. Because once one saw the cast of characters, it became obvious that they were making a career out of it. The inevitable names would just keep coming up: the ex-wife, Ava Cherry, Cherry Vanilla, Tony Zanetta. Basically, all the people who had such a good time in the early Seventies and now are broke.
Have you ever been approached about doing your own book?
A million times. For amazing amounts of money.
Ever been tempted to do it?
Not in the least.
You started a feature-film career in 1976 with The Man Who Fell to Earth, and there’ve been five more movies since then. Are there any new films in the works that you can talk about?
Not really. Mick and I are always talkin’ about doing one. I guess that probably will come off, but only if we can arrive at a story that we believe in doing, and not just being put together for an on-the-road movie, or something like that.
You’ve been looking at scripts?
We’re more concerned in writing something. That’s what we’re endeavoring to do. I think we’ve got to play it very carefully. It’s got to be a story of some considerable substance, and inevitably it should have a lot of music in it. But I don’t think it should have performance. Otherwise, it falls into that abyss of, you know, the celebrity rock & roll movie.
It’s a difficult one, but I think we’re cracking it. We are workin’ on something, I’ve got to admit. We’re working in conjunction with a writer that we respect a lot, so we’ll see how it goes.
Is it difficult for someone like you – who deals in masks and personas onstage – to do film acting, to reveal himself to the camera?
No, it’s not difficult for me. I don’t know enough about it, so it’s quite pleasant for me still. I don’t have the burden of thinking, “I’ve got to better my last performance,” you know? [Laughs.] So I just enjoy it.
Were you happy with the way Absolute Beginners came out?
I liked that movie. I see it as another Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was in Tower Video the other day getting a couple of things, and they said that that film is one of the most rented movies. And kids come back sayin’ they’ve learned the entire script of it. If that starts, and it starts goin’ out into those late-night theaters, I can see it becoming one of those kinds of movies.
Well, it’s not like any other movie.
[Laughs] No, it’s not like any other movie. And Julien Temple, like Tony Scott . . . I mean, I had the pleasure of workin’ with Tony on The Hunger – fortunately, we’re still friends – and after The Hunger, he had such a tough time. People wouldn’t even look at him. I mean, nobody ever suspected – least of all him, I think – that he would become the biggest director in America. One Top Gun [snaps fingers] – suddenly he’s got Beverly Hills Cop II, and he’s it! I knew he had incredible talent as a director. And I feel the same way about Julien – Julien will break through.
I always thought The Hunger would become a cult movie.
That rents pretty good, too. It’s in that book, Cult Movies. Along with Absolute Beginners. Listen: Absolute Beginners, The Hunger, The Man Who Fell to Earth – they’re in there, boy. [Laughs] Of course I looked!
Which of your films are your favorites?
The Man Who Fell to Earth I still think is a fascinating movie. And Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, I guess. Those are the two I like the best. Although I do feel quite sympathetically towards The Hunger now. Yeah, there’s some quite interesting stuff in that. I tell you, the first twenty minutes rattle along like hell – it really is a great opening. It loses its way about there, but it’s still an interesting movie.
Everything lives on on video now. I think that’s great.
Yeah. Well, for some it’s great [laughs]. They can lose Just a Gigolo, as far as I’m concerned [laughs].
That’s probably in Cult Movies, isn’t it?
I didn’t even want to gaze at the J section [laughs].
Not a pleasant memory?
Well, it was, actually. I had more fun on that than any of them. Because we all looked at each other after a couple of weeks and said, “This is a piece of shit, isn’t it?” “Yes.” “Okay, let’s just have a good time.” So we had a great time in Berlin for the five or six’weeks. But we knew.
Did you ever meet Rainer Werner Fassbinder during your time in Germany?
I never met him. I saw him once, in a bar.
No, he was all right. He was standing up. With a bunch of really heavy-looking guys. The kind of guys that the Hell’s Angels would stay away from. I mean, he hung with a heavy crowd there – a heavy dude! But he was a fascinating guy. Extraordinary use of film, and the symbolic messages in it. Just incredible. I must say, I do have a penchant for the German filmmakers. Herzog is just fabulous as well.
Tina Sinatra recently said that you and Robert De Niro are the two people she has in mind to play her father, Frank Sinatra, in a film biography she’s doing.
Which part of him would I play?
The English part, I suppose. She said that Frank “respects” you as an artist.
That’s very decent. What an extraordinary thing.
Have you ever been offered the lead in any other biographical films?
Oh, funny things – like Byron, stuff like that. I don’t know, I think Mick would do a better Byron. I’d probably be a better Shelley [laughs]. But I don’t think I’d like to do those kinds of things. I’d much prefer to do originally created stories for the screen – things that I could treat more seriously than some of the stuff I’m offered.
Do you think there are any movies that have really captured rock & roll on film?
I think probably Sid & Nancy, in a strangely macabre way. Those are the aspects that seem to grab people’s attention, and it was a great film in those aspects. I thought the characterizations of some of the people around Sid were awful. I thought Iggy was ridiculous. I mean, did you see that as Iggy? It was incredible. The guy was like Neil Diamond or something, in this big apartment with all these girls round him. I’ve never seen Iggy like that in my life, and I’m sure the Pistols never saw him like that either. And Johnny Rotten was terrible. But Gary Oldman was good as Sid. I only met Sid twice, I think.
How did he strike you as a person?
Just a mindless twerp. I didn’t find anything at all romantic about him, or even interesting. I think he was just completely under the charisma of Rotten. Whatever Johnny said, Sid would jump to it.
Did you ever see the Pistols live?
No. I just saw them because of my involvement with Iggy, on his 1977 tour, when I was playing piano. And Johnny and Sid – they all individually turned up to different shows, you know? ‘Cause, I mean, they just worshiped the ground that Iggy . . . spat on [chuckles].
Ah, the old nihilism. You used to be very apocalyptically minded, it seemed, back in the Diamond Dogs days. Do you still feel that way – that the end is near?
No, I don’t feel that at all. I can’t feel that. I always have to look for some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Having a son does that. You change a lot. I think when you’re young, you feel it’s kind of exciting to have that kind of negative feeling about things. But that changes as you get older. That’s the one thing that does change. The energy doesn’t change; it just gets channeled in a different direction.
Do you think rock & roll has changed?
Rock & roll is for us – it’s not for kids. We wrote it, we play it, we listen to it. We listen to rock. Kids listen to something else – they have a new need for music, in a different way.
Do you think rock is dead?
Purely on release of high spirits, it’s still just as important as it was. But socially, it’s changing its calendar; it’s changing its vocabulary continually. Which is what makes it the most exciting art form, really. Because it is social currency; it actually has a place in society. It’s a living art, and it is undergoing constant reevaluation and change. Which makes it far more interesting than, say, painting, or any of the plastic arts, which are so much for the few. And there’s quite as much money attached to painting these days as there ever was in rock. . . .
I think there’s a refocusing in rock now. I think the emphasis is off videos – which is great – and it’s returning back to stage, to interaction between the audience and the artist. It’s entirely physical and dangerous at the moment, but I think artists and audiences are coming together again in a different way. Video was very much in the way between the artist and the audience over the last few years.
Which is your favorite new band?
The Screaming Blue Messiahs. I love them. I think they’re terrific. . . . And I’ve always had a penchant for the Psychedelic Furs. I think they’re a great band. I’ve always wanted to produce them, and they’ve often asked me to, but I never had the time. I would never be forward enough with most bands to suggest producing them, because I always like what it is they have themselves. It would never occur to me to suggest to, say, the Messiahs that I want to get involved with them. Because they seem to be so right on course with what they’re doing that they need me like a hole in the head.
Does your son turn you on to groups?
Yeah. I got this band I’ve got to listen to, called the Stupids. I never heard of them. It’s a band in England that Joe quite likes. He really liked PiL, until he saw them, which was unfortunate. I thought the last album was great, but we went to a bad show. The whole thing was so tired. There was no enthusiasm in the band or the audience. . . .
I don’t like many of the English bands at the moment. And the older ones, who were exciting, like the Fall . . . I mean, that new album by the Fall is such rubbish, such fourth-form poetry. It’s really sophomoric.
Your own latest album has a certain recherché feel to it, with sitars and Mellotron, even some harmonica. And on one song, “Glass Spider,” the backing vocal sounds remarkably like John Lennon.
Well, actually, the album was reflective in a way, because it covers every style that I’ve ever written in, I think. And also all the influences I’ve had in rock. On one song, “Zeroes,” I wanted to put in every cliché that was around in the Sixties – “letting the love in,” those kinds of lines. But it was done with affection – it’s not supposed to be a snipe. I just wanted the feeling of that particular period, the very late Sixties.
What inspired the title track, “Never Let Me Down”?
It’s basically about Coco, more than anybody else.
Is there a romantic relationship there?
No, it’s platonic. But there is a romance in it, I guess, inasmuch as it’s hard for two people to feel totally at ease in each other’s company for that period of time and not expect too much from each other. Always being prepared to be there if the other one needs someone, you know? There’s not many people you find in life that you can do that with, or feel that way with.
Any other long-term friendships?
Yeah, I’ve got three or four friends that I used to go to school with. One of them I’ve known since I was five. I see them every year. In fact, we all came together again when I was forty – ’cause they’re all gonna be forty, too, you see. So we all met, and we just went back: “Oh, do you remember . . . ?” And “Did you ever think . . . ?” It was really something.
Do you think you’ve changed a lot over the years?
I’m more like I was in 1967 now, say, than I was in 1977. I feel like I am, anyway. I feel as bright and cheerful and optimistic as I was then – as opposed to feeling as depressed and sort of nihilistic as I was in the Seventies. I feel like I’ve come full circle in that particular way.
Well, you don’t wear dresses anymore.
Do you know, the only time I wore dresses . . . There was that funny little white thing with white boots, which was Kansai’s answer to Dick Whittington, if I remember: “It-a Dick-a Whittington-a!” “I see.” “Sorta like-a international-a pantomime.” “It’s a dress, Kansai.” “No, no – it’s got-a boots.” “Yeah – they’re satin. . . . All right, we’ll do it.”
And I did three drags for the “Boys Keep Swinging” video. And I wore a dress on Saturday Night Live, which was based on a John Heartfield photo montage – sort of a Communist Chinese air-hostess look. But I never wore dresses as much as Milton Berle did.
Do you feel relieved that you don’t have the sort of burden of outrageousness on you anymore?
Why, no, not really. It’s a bit of a disappointment [laughs]. I’ll keep tryin’. I’ve got a few things up me sleeve.
Any final fashion statement?
Wide shoulders are the flared trousers of the Eighties.