david bowie is...
To celebrate the arrival of the new David Bowie documentary, David Bowie Is, based on the hugely successful V&A show last year, i-D digs deep into the archives for this epic interview between the Thin White Duke himself and i-D Original Mum, Tricia...
"It was the very first interview I ever did..." explains Tricia Jones, "And it happened completely by accident. I was an extra pair of hands at the magazine and there had been a decision to put more established stars on the cover rather than people at the beginning of their careers, like Madonna (who nobody had ever heard of). I offered to help set up certain interviews and Bowie was someone who was suggested to start with. It took ages dealing with his PR, who was friendly, but there did seem to be a lot of red tape. However, finally after two or three months I got a phone call to say that the interview had been approved and would I be able to go to Amsterdam the following week. At this point I said to the guy that there had been a big mistake: it wasn't me that would be going, but Dylan [Jones] who was editor at the time. The message came back 'Very sorry, you've been cleared, it's you doing it or the magazine doesn't get the interview'.
To tell the truth, I wasn't even a big Bowie fan at the time and of course Dylan totally didn't believe me and thought I'd set the whole thing up! It was completely embarrassing and I swear it took years for Dylan to believe my slightly cockeyed but absolutely truthful side to the story. Frankly I was terrified - I agreed to do it but then sat on the plane all by myself feeling like I was going to the dentist. As you can see from the interview Bowie was completely charming. The first two thirds of the questions are obviously mine and the last few more music related ones would have been Dylan's. Bowie kept sending the PR person away so we could go on talking and I ended up with a bit of a crush on a very charismatic man!"
Could you have become David Bowie, the famous rock star, without the different characters, or were you too shy?
No, I don't think I would have had the strength of mind at the time to want to go out and just sing my songs straight off. For me, it's always been about developing an interesting character. But it's not true so much now.
Are you a person who needs other people, or do you need space and time to yourself?
No more than anybody else. It's nice to have neighbours and friends. I'm quite self-contained when I want to be. I like to get away from it all occasionally but I like a social life and I have a good one, so I'd miss that if I didn't have it. The people I see aren't usually involved in my particular career. They're not usually musicians - there's a few contemporaries, I guess, that I'm friendly with, like Iggy [Pop], naturally, and Mick Jagger. Everybody else is on a hello basis. I occasionally run into some of the newer guys. I got to know Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran because we were in the same part of America together earlier this year, and I really quite like them. They're nice lads.
Do you still enjoy fame - is the price ever too high?
Oh gawd! It's how you deal with it, I think - touch wood - I deal with it in a way that affords me as little stress as possible. I don't put myself in situations that you would expect to screw you up. I mean, I don't live in Hollywood. I live in the quietest of countries. I still have established friends in London that I can creep out and see. I'm in London a lot more than people would know, because I'm quite capable of creeping in and out - I've always believed that if you want to be known, and want to be seen, you go out clubbing with some bird on your arm so that you get cameras and you do things to attract attention to yourself. The most I get when I'm going out is, 'Oh, hello David, I didn't expect to see you here.' So it's at that level. I think it becomes a problem when you live the kind of existence that Michael Jackson lives. I'm presuming, I really don't know, but from what one gathers Jackson is incredibly isolated from things. I fell into that, back in the 70s and I know what its like - it's a horror, something that you wouldn't really want to go through again... not ever. I'm too old a hand to let that happen to me again.
What are the compensations of getting older?
I can say what the fuck I really want! [Laughs] When you're young you think that every day-to-day thing you do and say is sacred and important, and when you get older, you realise that one's actions in the scheme of things are virtually undetectable. I think in my case, hopefully there's a certain amount of self-seriousness that evaporates with time and you put yourself in perspective again - which is a lot easier and less stressful.
Are you in complete control of the David Bowie machine?
Oh, there's no machine. It's just me.
You never feel you have to do things because other people want you to?
Occasionally I've done things for the wrong reasons, but I would never blame anybody for manipulating me. I would never say, 'I've been manipulated over the last ten years.' I've made some gross mistakes, but fortunately they're all on my shoulders, so I've had nobody to blame but myself. I've stopped having management and managers and all that kind of thing around 1977.
Would it be presumptuous to ask what the gross mistakes were?
A couple of things. I think making the wrong kind of movies, although I don't see them as a big problem, all I see them as is bad movies... and rushing an album or two that I really should never have done. I was pressured by a record company, but not manipulated.
Which albums do you regret?
Tonight specifically, only because taken individually the tracks are quite good but it doesn't stand up as a cohesive album. That was my fault because I didn't think about it before I went into the studio.
And what about the movies?
Just a Gigolo... I think we have to look back on that with a certain about of irony. I had a wonderful time making that movie because by the second week we looked around at each other and said, 'This is a pile of shit, so let's have a good time!' So we had a good time... but it was an atrocious movie; but all it was was an atrocious movie, I mean it's not the end of the world or anything like that. When one starts out one's career with Laughing Gnome it's very easy to put things down to experience!
Who are your heroes?
I don't have any heroes, none. I can't think of one human being who I could describe as a hero. There are people I admire. Right now, the person I admire ambivalently is Gorbachev, who I think is a possible nomination for Man Of The Year, because of what he's trying to do. And if one can be less cynical about his ulterior motives, I really feel there is a man there who forces the inadmissible introduction of a nuclear catastrophe and is not willing to let it happen. I really sincerely feel that he is not willing to let it happen, and one has to believe that's how he feels. Because if you don't feel that, then you've got two of them out there playing that game, which I think is absolutely terrifying. But one feels that he is part of a new regime in Russia, the like of which they've never seen before, and I think it's knocking everything sideways. If he survives I think he'll bring about some very interesting changes to that country.
What would a favourite non-working day be?
A non working day? Well it depends on the time of year!
Yeah, exactly! If it's anywhere between February and April then that's exactly what I'd be doing. Other times of the year, frankly I work. I don't think I spend a day without jotting something down. Even if it's one sentence. If I go through a week and haven't written a good paragraph or two of ideas I feel as though I've been really lazy.
Do you keep your notebooks?
Oh yeah. But I can't understand a word. I write in shorthand, which means it's ok for a week or two, but then I forget what it means, so it's completely indecipherable!
How has having a son changed your attitude to life?
Immeasurably. But it grew slowly. I had the usual father thing - what's this funny little creature, wandering around, sort of gurgling. It wasn't until he started toddling that I realised what a ray of sunshine had come into my life. You must understand that my ex-wife and I only lived together for two years, even though we were married for such a long time. One day I suddenly knew something had to be done about Joe's life, because he wasn't being looked after in the way he should have been. I decided to take the reigns, so I fought and won custody. As you probably know, it's a very unusual thing for a father to be given custody of his child, especially in Switzerland. Which, without having to say anymore indicates how the maternal side of his life was going. It was tragic. So I took full reign and ever since that time I've had to grow up with him, which has been so delightful and a source of reserve and discipline and energy.
What would be your most important message for life to Joe (aka Zowie) and kids his age?
Never even consider becoming involved with drugs. Something I could never underestimate the importance of. It's absolutely tragic, what it can do to you, and how it can screw you up. That would be the primary piece of advice I could give on a general basis. Yeah, [laughs] and drugs includes alcohol, folks! And cigarettes...
If you had to re-run your life, what are the bits you'd edit out?
I can't think like that. I've made an awful lot of mistakes, and I've done some good things as well. But I can't think in terms of editing it. It's just a bunch of stuff I did and that's me. That's what I've done, all the goonisms as well as the nice bits. I guess, for my own absolution I would edit out me starting to take drugs - again it comes back to that, because so many bad things happened because of it. If I could have edited out that period an awful lot of my life would have been absolutely different, and the next six years of putting it back together again would have changed. That's the other thing people don't realise - it's very hard to just give up.
You go through a lot of dreadful things giving up. A lot of depression, a lot of switching addictions. In my case, I switched to alcohol. And it took an awful long time to shake that one off. It just goes on and on and it's really hard because your metabolism changes and it's been proven fairly well now that if you are addicted to any one thing, transferring to another is quite easy. It's pointless to try to switch people from heroin to a methadone treatment, because methadone is just as addictive as heroin. My problem was cocaine, and then I went from cocaine to alcohol, which is a natural course of events. You have to be lucky enough to have friends around you that want you to succeed. But you also want to have to stop yourself. You have to know in your own mind that you don't want to go on like that. That's the biggest hurdle. And if you can overcome that, then you're ok. Cos once you're addicted, you're addicted for life. Your metabolism has changed like an alcoholic. It just takes one drink and he's gone again. He's out on a binge. For the rest of the weekend, bye bye Bert. And he comes back on Monday full of remorse and guilt and everything. It's dreadful. You cannot take one drink.
Are you materialistic?
I was never actually a material person. Ideas always meant a lot more to me. I never bought a big car. The company bought a big car for me to drive around in once. I had a limo in 1973 and 74 but I'm not a limo person. And I'm not a sports car person. Those kinds of things really aren't something I work for. And I don't get them as a result! Seeing people is lovely. An unexpected person turning up. Somebody out of the blue that I really used to like who I thought had disappeared off the face of the earth. When you run into them and things are just like they used to be, that's a great thing to happen.
Are you ever embarrassed about the things you've done in the past?
Not really. Only the drug thing. I think that's the most horrendous; things that I've been involved with that don't really embarrass me now, so much as worry me that they might influence other people.
Were you dismayed by the critic's rejection of your new LP? Some were pretty nasty.
Not at all. I got my first real hatchet job on Aladdin Sane in 1973 and it's been continuing ever since. So I've not really expected much else. I'm delighted if anybody ever says anything nice about my stuff.
This new LP is your most normal to date - why?
Again, I knew that I wanted something I could tour with on a very ground roots level. I wanted something that would work well with a small band. So it had to logistically be a five-piece band kind of music. I wrote small but energetically.
There was a time when you avoided the mainstream. But now you seem to embrace it.
I don't think I've actually strayed any closer to the mainstream, I just think that nowadays my music is the mainstream; it has become mainstream. I'd like to think of it that way. The stuff that I'm doing on the new album isn't so very different melodically, or musically inherently from Aladdin Sane, or the harder rocking stuff on the Heroes album or Scary Monsters. I think Let's Dance was probably the most commercial. But I don't think this one was intended to be inherently commercial. Otherwise I'd have been doing another Let's Dance.
Apart from the Absolute Beginners single you haven't had a major hit for over three years. Doesn't this worry you?
No, not really, because I haven't put any singles out in Britain other than Day In Day Out. Hits are not something I've gone for either. Dylan, The Rolling Stones, myself, John Lennon, none of us really sold albums, far fewer albums than people would imagine. The big sellers were always bands like Foreigner, Heart, the kind of bands you couldn't put a face to, they always sold masses and masses. There are a lot of us out there, who were maybe musically pretty important, but actually didn't sell vast amounts of albums. I was always quite happy with the amount I sold up until Let's Dance, and when Let's Dance happened I was delighted to say the least. Thatwas the watershed. I have something quite important to say musically and theatrically, and as long as I keep doing that then I'm quite happy.
How much do you monitor what's happening in fashion?
Not at all. I've got no idea. I haven't got a clue about fashion.
How many of the clothes that you wear on stage and at photo sessions are your own? Do you use a stylist?
I choose them. I certainly take the advice of others but then I'm presented with a lot of ideas and carted around a bunch of shops, and usually, luckily enough, with someone who knows what they are talking about. But I choose eventually what I'm going to wear. But if I buy for myself I buy rubbish. [Laughs] I'm a terrible buyer.
What sort of clothes are you happiest in?
Black cords and denim shirts.
Is the way you look as important to you now as it was fifteen years ago?
It depends on what I'm doing. If it's for a character then it's very important and if I'm on stage then it obviously has to suit the atmosphere of the show. It's terribly important, as important as anything else I do. But I look a wreck when I'm not working. I mean you wouldn't look twice thank God, as it helps me get through life!
Is it important to try for eternal youth... or to grow old gracefully?
Oooohhh... I think the most important thing is to actually try and grow old... meaningfully [Laughs].
How would you like to be remembered?
I don't give a fuck. I really don't. It doesn't even occur to me... It's nice to have just got through it all.
Text Tricia Jones
Photography Denis O'Regan/Idols
From The Film Issue, i-D No. 49, July 1987