Teenage Wildlife

Dave In, Dave Out

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David Richards Production | Bowie on Never Let Me Down

Pasted to the front of the Pacific Grand Hotel, located in one of the seediest areas of downtown Los Angeles, the roughly scrawled sign reads, "If You Don’t Live Here, Stay Out." The hotel–whose rooms can be had for $25 a night, no questions asked–seems like an unlikely place to find David Bowie. But there he is in the lobby, amid a Dickensian crowd of derelicts, gliding by on a pair of roller skates, an electric guitar in hand, looking for all the world like a blackleather angel without wings.

Such is the location for Bowie’s newest video, "Day In, Day Out," which accompanies the release of his new EMI/America album, Never Let Me Down. Bowie calls "Day In, Day Out" his "indictment of an uncaring society." In truth, it is about the homeless–and not just the homeless of L.A. "What happens here generally happens elsewhere," remarks Bowie, skidding to a halt between takes. "It’s not that far from the situation in London or even Delhi. There are homeless everywhere." Initially he had no more intention for the video to become so localized, but after he saw what was going on down here," in East L.A., it was only a matter of time before he had crew and director together on 13 different locations.

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Standing by in a pair of natty black-and-white striped trousers and a leather jacket is director Julien Temple (who also directed Bowie in Absolute Beginners and the video "Jazzin’ for Blue Jean"). He watches abstractly, no doubt praying his star won’t fall and break his leg. "You’ll have to do a bit better than that!" he jokes as Bowie executes a perfect turn. Bowie grins. He’s making it look easier than it is, but then he’s an old hand at mastering new arts of illusion.

It is 40 years since David Bowie was born David Jones in Brixton, London, and 15 years since he created the persona of Ziggy Stardust. Characters have come and gone since then, but the boyish man sitting in his trailer today exhibits no trace of his exotic past. He has been called many things–a poet, a prophet, a mystic, a chameleon, enigmatic, aloof, isolated, innovative, shy and a normal bloke. And no doubt, he’ll redefine himself again. But in the words of the great anthropologist Louis Leakey, "It matters much more where we are today, then where we came from." In chipper mood, blond hair slicked back from a sleek jawline, a tiny tear painted under his right eye, Bowie takes off his beat-up flight jacket, lights a Marlboro and settles down to talk about Never Let Me Down.

"It’s a pompous little title, isn’t it?" he laughs, drawing on his cigarette. "Seen out of context it’s quite abrasive, but in the context of the song and songs on the album I think it’s rather tongue-in-cheek to use it as the title. Also there’s a vaudevillian thing about the cover. The two combined are kind of comical".

Indeed, much of the new album seems like a terrific tribute to his musical influences. "Yeah, it started off as an unconscious thing. I’m such a fan of music that I can be with someone a week, and if I get to like them I’ll take on all their attributes until the fascination wears off. I’m very sponge-like that way." He fingers the cross hanging round his neck, choosing his words carefully. "On some songs, it’s more obvious than the others, but if just felt right. I’m at an age where it’s important for me to know who my influences were all through what I’ve been doing. It’s a nod of my head and a tip of my hat."

One very distinct tip of the hat goes to Iggy Pop, whose song "Bang Bang" is covered on the album. "Yeah, other bands cover Presley or the Velvet Underground; I cover Iggy Pop. I think he’s getting better and better as a songwriter, substantially as a lyricist. There’s a fabulous maturity around what he’s doing. He’s my favorite contemporary songwriter." The two have been friends since the early Seventies wwhen they met at Max’s Kansas City, a meeting Bowie remembers with a chuckle: "Me, Iggy and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other. Just looking at each other’s eye make-up." Such inauspicious beginnings, however, developed into real friendship. "We both went through similar drug problems in the Seventies and tried to keep each other together during that period. We just became real close buddies. We’re very different from each other. That probaply has a lot to do with it, because there’s no boredom and similarity that you often get if you’re too close together in your ideas. That’s probably why our relationship’s lasted so long.

Inadvertantly, Pop was responsible for the way in Bowie recorded Never Let Me Down. "I was working with Iggy writing the songs for his album, recalls Bowie. "We went to Gstaad with our respected women and had a skiing holiday which went on for three months. It was fantastic, but in the evenings we were able to write. I took a four-track up there. We wrote in the evenings and skied in the day, and then went down to Montraux and recorder Blah Blah Blah there. It worked out so well that I thought I’d record my album the same way." Bowie stayed on in Switzerland, where he lives, and wrote and recorded his own album, with Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, Erdal Kizilcay on drum, keyboards, bass, violin and trumpet and Carmine Rojas on additional bass. They were joined in the studio by lead guitarist Peter Frampton. Those four musicians will be joined on tour by Alan Childs on drums and Richard Cottle on keyboards and synthesizer.

The extensive Glass Spider Tour kicks off in Holland in May and continues worldwide until December. Bowie describes the tour as "a revue in style. It will incorporate a lot of elements, movement, dialogue, fragments of film, projected images. Ultra-theatrical. It’s what used to be called multi-media in the Sixties." He plans to play several characters and play material he’s never performed on stage before. "The show has a slight narrative form that’s tenuous to say the least; it’s almost what I believe a modern musical should look like. It has a lot to do with the audience and how they perceive rock music and all those cliches and stereotypes. It’ll come out in a surrealistic manner, I think, just by the fact that we’re playing such huge places."

Arenas and stadiums must present quite a problem for an artist such as Bowie, for whom the visual effect of performance is so important. "It’s all new to me," he concurs. "The last tour [1983] was the first time I’ve done really huge stadiums, 60,000 people and more, places like that. It started to become nonsensical to me after 15,000. It’s just hugeness, so you exaggerate every movement and, at a certain point, you have to use a screen."

Is it hard to come up with something new and different each time he tours? "No, because there’s about four years in between. I don’t like going on tour every year. I think it’s creatively very stagnating. It’s not enough just to play my songs. I’d rather not tour and then do something really special when I do. The least special in terms of theatricality was the Serious Moonlight tour, I suppose, because I knew there was a big audience coming up for that one, so I thought I’d formulate everything around the idea of me being a singer-songwriter, so that they could accept me as that firstly, and then bring theater back in again, which is what I’m doing on this tour.

Bowie is interrupted by his long-time friend and personal assistant Coco Schwab presenting storyboards and location stills for his approval. Bowie takes a keen interest in the production details of every video he makes, right down to the storyboarding, where his early training in art comes in handy. "I do the original drawings, the main shot for every situation, and then the storyboardist puts them into sequence, storyboarding backwards and forwards from that. Then I put in the major camera angles that I think would be interesting or different. And Julien puts in his input. I started working this way on the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video with David Mallet. It was my first real big attempt and it won awards at the time for being a new way of doing videos…."

He stops himself, as one senses a sliver of well-deserved yet modest pride in his voice. "I’ve found that the videos I put into other people’s hands have always been a mistake. Because of my lack of interest, I didn’t get that involved with things like ‘Underground’ which I did for Labyrinth. I just left it up, and the result is just not my kind of video. I was a bit lax there. I didn’t feel involved."

One exception to this rule is the video he’ll make for the French director Jean-Baptiste Mondino. "That’s an experiment; I’m really putting myself in his hands. It’s for the song ‘Never Let Me Down.’ I think if I did it, it would be very abrasive, and I’m not quite sure if that’s how I want the song to come off visually. In concert it will be abrasive; it won’t have the sane quality as the video. But I really think Mondino is a fantastic video maker. He just knows that this is his genre. He’s like a craftsman and that’s what he’s trying to perfect, this craft of making his five minutes work."

Back on the Orwellian set, midst the prop litter, polythene tents and fake trashcan fires, 200 extras behave like seasoned professionals. The majority of them are actually recruited from the homeless living on the streets of downtown L. A. and they seem completely unperturbed by Bowie’s presence. An easy camaraderie exists, and it seems to stem directly from Bowie, who moves freely amongst the crowd, chatting, lighting cigarettes, occasionally picking up a child or signing an autograph. Some of the extras are from the theater group City Stage, formed to tell people what life is like on the street.

A few hours later, Bowie waxes eloquent about the cast: "They’re very talented. There’s an amazing amount of courage and dignity that they hold. It’s quite numbing that they’re treated in such a shabby way –billions are spent on armaments, on getting a few guys back from the Middle East, when just a few dollars would help out so much. But I suppose that’s the difference between social care and wanting to be re-elected."

His voice trails off, as if weighing up the world’s injustice, man’s inhumanity to man. "I feel far happier qualifying my work in some social context. I think that’s equally important, and it’s what I do best. My work will never be as pointedly singular as the work of, say, Dylan, Lennon or the Clash; it’s far more surreal than any of those artists. But I think it’ s fairly strong in the statements it does make." He grins, breaking the seriousness of mood. "I’ve said it before, but can’t change it ‘cause I still feel the same way–I really feel I can only be seen in the context of what else has happened. I don’t think you can take me on my own!"

He laughs off the pun and shifts position: I’m not very valuable when you put me in the context of rock generally where I think I take on more interesting properties, I really do! A lot of my stuff is so fabricated and overlaid with the history of rock and the feeling of rock; rather than being a burning force myself…I’m quite mirror-like…"

This chameleon, mirror-like quality has taken Bowie in some other directions as well. Since his starring debut in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976, he has played many roles on the big screen. The next logical step must be to direct a feature film. "I think I will do that," he says. "I’ve bought a book that I want to direct, although I see it as about two years down the line. It’s a marvelous book, and I feel that as long as I’ve got the right director of photography, the right set designer and all the other elements I feel are the key to making a great movie, I should be able to get my vision of this book on the screen. Every time I work I think, ‘Now when I make my feature, that guy is the guy I want for the position,’ so I’ve almost put together in my mind my crew and what they’re going to be like, and they’re fabulous! As long as I prepare the storyboards as well as I do on the videos, I should have something that’s really okay."

Behind everything Bowie does–acting, singing, songwriting, storyboarding and even producing–one senses the eye of the painter. Indeed, one of his few regrets is that he’s "never had the time to take painting more seriously," though his early training in that art has stood him in good stead. "I see the whole of what I do in terms of painting. I’ve always thought they were very close. A lot of the songs I’ve written are, for me, paintings in words. A lot of the more embellished pieces, the ones really loaded with sound–where there are lots of things to listen to on repeated play–came from the idea of building up layers of paint so that you see something new each time. That’s why the stage thing comes so easily to me in terms of what it should look like. I always have a vision of it first and then try to apply words and music to that situation."

Later, when Bowie turns around with his makeup removed, one becomes far more aware of his odd-colored eyes–one green, one blue–the result of a teenage fight. As he puts on his leather jacket, preparing to face the outside world, he also appears to don the mantle of his more public persona. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s something many stars have in common–a kind of unleashing of emotional electricity.

While driving back toward the Harbor Freeway, I pass the makeshift "town" called Justiceville that the homeless have built near the steps of city hall, past derelicts lying on the sidewalks outside the mission and old men holding brown paper bags to their lips. The last scene of "Day In, Day Out" has the police bulldozers tearing down the little house within which a mother and child have at last found some respite. Building blocks that spell "Luck" and "Mum" lie scattered in the final shot, while two angels–holding video cameras–film the event from above. As always, Bowie makes his point visually.

"Something I once heard, when I was quite young–and it’s been the bane of my creative existence–is that the worst trick God could play on you is to give you artistic talent, but only enough artistic talent so that you’re mediocre," he says. "It’s something I keep coming back to. I keep thinking ‘God, I wish I was more talented.’ So much of the time I feel that inadequate, but I think every artist feels that. It’s a horrible thought–frightening! That’s why I opted out of painting, because I always thought how utterly mediocre I was! I couldn’t stand the idea of being just mediocre.

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This document last updated Saturday, 03-Apr-1999 17:18:49 EST
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