Headlined, “David Bowie: Who Was That (Un)masked Man?”, The New Musical Express cover story in November 1977 – reproduced here in full – is the first time Charles Sharr Murray had come face to face with bowie since HIS famous “who needs this shit” review of ‘Low’. It’s a fascinating encounter all things considered…
Christ, how long has it been? Four years, man, and I set up the tape machine – Bowie attempting to balance the microphone on top of a Carlsberg bottle – and no time to swap small talk because interview time is severely circumscribed, so by the time we’ve both sat down and Bowie’s lit a Gauloise there’s nothing to do but pull the pin and get straight on it.
“Where can we start after four years?” he asks.
Hell we can start anywhere; we both know where it will go.
Why does Heroes – or more accurately “Heroes” – come in quotes? Are the inverted commas actually part of the title?
“Yeah. Firstly – it was quite a silly point really – I thought I’d pick on the only narrative song to use as the title. It was arbitrary, really, because there’s no concept to the album.”
I’d felt that the use of quotes indicate a dimension of irony about the word “Heroes” or about the whole concept of heroism.
“Well, in that example they were, on that title track. The situation that sparked off the whole thing was – I thought – highly ironic. There’s a wall by the studio – the album having been recorded at Hansa by the wall in West Berlin. It’s about 20 or 30 meters away from the studio and the control room looks out onto it. There’s a turret on top of the wall where the guards sit and during the course of lunch break every day, a boy and girl would meet out there and carry on.
“They were obviously having an affair. And I thought of all the places to meet in Berlin, why pick a bench underneath a guard turret on the wall? They’d come from different directions and always meet there… Oh, they were both from the west, but they had always meet right there. And I – using license – presumed that they were feeling somewhat guilty about this affair and so they had imposed this restriction on themselves, thereby giving themselves an excuse for their heroic act.
“I used this as a basis… therefore it is ironic. You’re perfectly right about that, but there was no reason why the album should have been called ‘Heroes’. It could have been called ‘The Sons Of Silent Ages’. It was just a collection of stuff that I and Eno and Fripp had put together. Some of the stuff that was left off was very amusing, but this was the best of the batch, the stuff that knocked us out.”
Do you find that recording in a studio that’s right by the Berlin Wall gives you a sense of being on the edge of something?
“That’s exactly right. I find that I have to put myself in those situations to produce any reasonable good writing. I’ve still got that same thing about when I get to a country or a situation and I have to put myself on a dangerous level, whether emotionally or mentally or physically, and it resolves in things like that: living in Berlin leading what is quite a Spartan life for a person of my means, and in forcing myself to live according to the restrictions of that city.”
So it’s time to move, now that other persons are writing songs about the Berlin Wall? Bowie chuckles into his Special Brew.
“Yes, I have noticed that, actually. I haven’t yet made up my mind, but I have the choice of two places that I’m thinking of going to. One’s Japan and the other is Israel, I don’t know which one’s going to win.”
The sight of the Thin White Duke in a Kibbutz strikes one as being too good a visual to pass up, plus Bowie went through a Japanese phase in 73.
“Yes, and I keep wanting to go back there. I think I’ll plump for Kyoto, because I want something very serene around me for a few months to see if that produces anything. It is also important to my private life that I go to Kyoto.”
We talk about the Japanese mime/dance/theatre troupe Ondekoza who’d just completed a run at Sadlers Wells and who Bowie had missed by a day in Amsterdam. It sounds like a token show for us lot to have a gander at Bowie comments after I’ve described the show:
“But in Japan – when I was travelling though it – there was an awful lot, particularly in the outlying villages and provinces, of very strange ritual performances that I hadn’t seen before. And still, because my knowledge of Japanese is limited – to say the least! – I never really found out what school it came from, or what its origins were. Since the purpose of all ritual must be invocation, what were the rituals designed to invoke.
“Well, a lot of them where from Shintoism, and they talk very liberally about being one of the few countries in the world that tolerate all religions, but you’ll only find about three Christians in the whole of Japan. They’re tolerated,” he laughs harshly, “but everybody else is a Shintoist, mate! So most of their art forms derive from either that or the imperial sources. It’s very sophisticated, but a bit suspicious sometimes.”
Yeah but so is Bowie himself. I think of the koto Bowie plays on ‘Moss Garden’ from side two of ‘Heroes’ and his berserk scream of “I’m under Japanese influence and my honour’s at stake” from ‘Blackout’ on the same album, and reflects that the Kibbutzim probably won’t see DB for a while yet.
So what about China? After all, back in 71, Bowie was something of a Maoist.
“Ahhh, that’s still there. That place continues to intoxicate me. I got a glimpse of it when I was in Hong Kong… it’s strange. There’s no wall there, you see.
“When you move out of Hong Kong into China you can just walk over and often you won’t get shot at. It’s quite feasible to sort of wander into China and just look around, wander around all those villages right near the border.”
Hey, living dangerously is one thing, but recording an album in a situation where one of your musicians was actually liable to get shot is another.
(A sharp chuckle) “I never travel with musicians. I only travel on my own these days.”
A far cry from the times he wouldn’t budge an inch without bodyguard, secretary, personal assistant, travelling companion, hairdresser, PR.
“All my travelling is down on the basis of wanting to get my ideas for writing from real event rather than from going back to a system from whence it came. I am very wary of listening to much music.”
He gestures at the massive stereo set enthroned on the table by the sofa.
“RCA sent all this stuff over and I forgot to ask them for some records, but by the time they deliver any I’ll be gone. It doesn’t really follow me around much. Imagine trying to plug in one of those in Bangkok! My drummer insists on carrying one around with massive headphones and wires sticking out everywhere. I don’t travel like that. I only have a tape machine to use as a notebook.
“No, event, character, situation: they’re my preference for the basis of writing. But at the moment, I’m not even really interested in that. I mean, the last two things have made for a complete re-evaluation of my writing style. It had a lot to do with being bored with the traditional things I’d been writing, and with wanting to put myself in the position of having to come up with a new musical language for myself.”
I mention that ‘Low’ missed me completely.
“Well I’m not surprised,” he says, “a lot of it missed me as well. I don’t understand ‘Heroes’ either. It’s something that’s derived through process and method with absolutely no idea of the consequences and no preconceptions of any kind.”
‘Low’ had seemed to me an album presenting – in an attractive light – withdrawal from the world almost to the point of catatonic schizophrenia. Bowie grimaces and clears his throat a trifle ostentatiously.
“There is more than an element of truth in what you say. For me it was very… I wanted to do that,” he interrupts defiantly. “What you have read from the experience of that album is absolutely accurate. I did achieve something, because there’s very few albums that I haven’t experienced at first hand. You can even tell what city I’ve been to even by listening the albums.
“I’m completely open. I’m so eclectic that complete vulnerability is involved.”
You’ve got no shields, then?
“I’ve never developed them, and I am not too sure that I want to any more because I’m becoming far more satisfied with life… my private life. I’m becoming incredibly straight, level, assertive, moderate… very different from, say, two years ago.”
Two years ago you were an uptight game player with a sore nose.
“Out there on the wall! No, listen, I’d been exposed [he gives the last syllable of the word a savage, ironic twist] to a general LA-ism which, quite frankly, I can’t cope with. It’s the most vile piss-pot in the world.”
LA, I say, is like being trapped in the set of a movie you didn’t want to see in the first place.
“Absolutely! It’s worst than that. It transcends that. It’s a movie that is so corrupt with a script that it is so devious and insidious. It’s the scariest movie ever written. You feel a total victim there, and you know someone’s got the strings on you.”
So, why do people build themselves mansions out there? It must be like voluntary self-imprisonment.
“Oh it is. It’s like going to live in Switzerland to look after your tax money, which is the most incredible thing I ever did. I don’t live there, but I stayed there. I don’t live anywhere. I have never got around to getting myself a piece of land, putting up a house on it and saying this is mine, this is home. If I did that, that would just about ruin everything. I don’t think I’d ever write anything again. I must have complete freedom from bases. If I ever had anything that resembled a base – like a flat on a long lease or anything – I’d feel so incredibly trapped.
“Even if I go away I know that it’s waiting for me – more than that, it’s like it has me on a string, and it’s dragging me back. I don’t foresee that I could live comfortably in any of the cities I go to. Unlike my managerial predecessor, I’m not investment-minded. I still like the idea of making records off the wall. I think that is what one should do, in my case anyway.”
Returning to the subject of the recent waxings, it seems that ‘Heroes’ is an attempt to fight back against the state of mind that ‘Low’ wallows in.
“Do you know something? The hardest thing for me to do is to help you in solving those problems, because all I know is the input of the album. I have as much idea of the – outback?” he laughs, “about what comes back off that album as what you do. Eno is the same. Neither of us understand on a linear level what the thing’s about, but we get a damned good impression of information coming off those two albums that seems very strong, and that was not very intentional.
“The intention was to go in and play around with method and process, but when we’d finished ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’, what we had in our hands was something that actually does give information.
“You’ve described my state of mind at the time of making those two albums very accurately. That’s exactly – on both albums – what I’ve gone through. ‘Low’ was a reaction to having gone through that peculiar dull greenie-grey limelight of America and its repercussions; pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying, for God’s sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place.
“Did you really do it just to clown around in LA? Retire. What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately. Find some people you don’t understand and a place you don’t want to be and just put yourself into it. Force yourself to buy your own groceries.
“And that’s exactly what I do. I have an apartment on top of an auto shop in an area of the town which is quite heavily populated by Turks, and I did that for a bit.”
Two relevant quotes: the novelist Elizabeth Bowen once wrote: “Anywhere, at any time, with anyone, one may be seized by the suspicion of being alien – ease is therefore to be found in a place which nominally is foreign: this shifts the weight”, which is as good a thumbnail sketch of the obsessive traveller as any I’ve encountered.
And the there’s a character of Herbert Stencil in Thomas Pynchon’s ‘V’, like small children at a certain age and ‘The Education Of Henry Adams’, as well as certain autocrats since time out of mind, always referred to himself in the third person.
This “Herbert Stencil” appears as only a personality among a repertoire of identities.
“Forcible disolvation of personality” was what he called the general technique? Which is not exactly the same as “seeing the other person’s point of view”; for it involved, say, wearing clothes that Stencil wouldn’t be caught dead in, eating foods that would have made Stencil gag, living in unfamiliar digs, frequenting bars or cafes of a non-Stencilian character; all this for weeks on end; and why? To keep Stencil in his place: that is, in the third person.
“Ooh, aren’t you well read!” mocks Bowie, but his eyes show a flash of recognition. “I understand that completely! I completely sympathise with the man! I know exactly why he did that, I think! So that initial period in Berlin produced ‘Low’, which is, ‘Isn’t it great to be on your own? Let’s just pull down the blinds and fuck ‘em all’. The first side of ‘Low’ was all about me: ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ and all that self-pitying crap, but side two was more an observation in musical terms: my reaction to seeing the Eastern Bloc, how West Berlin survives in the midst of it, which was something I couldn’t express in words. Rather it required textures, and of all the people that I’ve heard write textures, Brian [Eno] has always appealed to me the most.”
Yeah, but they lack context.
“Brian isn’t interested in context. He’s a man with peculiar notions, some of which I can come to terms with very easily and are most accessible, and some of it way above my head, mate, in terms of his analytical studies of cybernetics and his application of those things to music and his general fine arts approach. It’s something that I’ve known from way back as a general characteristic of a kind of person that I used to know when I was a lot younger.
“I find that very simpatico. All those crazies. But I can’t really talk on his behalf. We spend most of our time joking. Laughing and falling on the floor. I think out of all the time we spent recording, 40 minutes out of every hour was spent just crying with laughter. Do you know Fripp? Have you ever spent time with him in an humorous state? He is incredibly funny. Unbelievable sense of humour. Having the two of them in a studio produces so much random humour – incredible stuff. So anyway, what I’m doing in this wonderful new world of discovery and experimentation, is a refocus about what I’m trying to do.”
We talked a little bit about (you should pardon the expression) punk rock and Bowie opined that the worst thing about punk was the way so many bands were diving gleefully into the category instead of striving to be assessed outside of it.
“That’s the worst thing about it. None of them are fighting it; none of them are saying we are us. They are saying yes we are punk and in so doing they’re putting a boundary on their writing scope, which is a shame because they could be a movement of sorts. But you have to let a movement remain as a subculture for a little while and gain some – I’m wary of using the word ‘maturity’ – gain some recognition of its own relationship with the environment that it lives in. That’s Eno’s Rate Of Change; one of his cybernetics thing, and it’s very interesting. People are more interested in the technical innovations as they happen rather than the rate of change within where they happen.”
Hence gadget obsession?
“Oh, that’s not so bad. I don’t mind that. I welcome any new relationship between man and his machine. I think that’s very optimistic and very good. The average man… see what you have got is a situation where a 100 years ago the average man could fix anything that went wrong in his home. If it went wrong, he could fix it. But how many things does a man have now that are out of the area of his knowledge? If his television goes, he has to get a specialist to fix it. He doesn’t know his immediate environment. This is because we are put under the impression that we are to accept every new technological achievement that is pushed upon us before we readily understand the last lot.”
What’s the last technological innovation that you understood?
“Me! I think the fountain pen. I’m the perfect example of the victim of technology. I think it’s disastrous.”
Change of subject. Did Bowie consider he was being misrepresented when he was tied with fascism last year?
“What I thought was that I’d made some very trite theatrical observations, which in fact backfired. I can’t blame the press for that.”
Did you consider it to be a mistake?
“Oh God, yes, but I thrive on mistakes. If I haven’t made three good mistakes a week, then I’m not worth anything. You only learn from mistakes.”
So what exactly were you trying to say with all that?
“It was an immediate reaction to England, having not seen it for so long. What I said on the continent was based on anticipation, and when I got here I thought I’d got it right. I seem to have a knack for putting myself in those kind of dangerous positions. I’d just dried up and I couldn’t write anything.”
Do you think that, once again, London would be a place that would stimulate your writing?
“It is a very different London, and that is worth consideration. It’s been on my mind the longer I’ve been here, and I’ve been coming back for a couple of days at a time just tentative looks, but there’s so many places that I haven’t been able to get a vibe from.”