Teenage Wildlife

David Bowie - Words On A Wing

December 1998
Rock & Folk Magazine
Interview by Jérome Soligny
Translated by Gwin

Today, Ziggy Stardust goes by David Bowie. He inhabits Earth, which he is getting ready to cover with a web called "BowieNet." "Velvet Goldmine" has brought him back into our consciousness and good memories.

Surprisingly, he has always reflected well on his actions. In order to better understand his own self-perception, he has taken up the habit of letting his own self reflect in the image the public has created of him and from that image, he has drawn his own conclusions. Some people find him cold, others find him calculating. But, at nearly 52 years of age, David Bowie has heard it all. And his natural state, banished since the days of glam (June 6th to be precise - - the date of the release of "TRAFOZSATSFM") did not come back quickly. What does it matter? Poser, conceiver, rapist, thief, Bowie knows that the truth of popular art comes only in lying. Or more precisely in adapting the truth to one's own vision following one's own desires. And thus, now that "Velvet Goldmine" by Todd Haynes has put Glam back on the map, knowing David Bowie's reaction to a film which recognizes him without actually naming him would seem to be crucial. Especially since, as has already been announced, the Man Who Fell To Earth himself is currently developing his own project (which is not allowed to be considered as being similar) on the glitter years and the development of his own Ziggy. But a strong reserve seemed to block all forms of communication on this subject. His first of all, that of a man so forewarned on the journeys of his musical offspring that more and more often, he chooses to remain quiet in order to be heard. And likewise, the reserve of Rock and Folk, desirous of respecting this tacitly imposed law of silence.

Therefore, how was our journalist able to obtain that which others (Rolling Stone, Q, Mojo, Record Collector, etc.) had not been able to? Because. Because David Bowie is like that. Unpredictable, genial, relaxed. To the point that when his assistant Coco Schwab called on October 28th at 7PM to announce that he had accept to talk about the film and glam, we were barely surprised. As if we had already accepted that this man was capable of all. The following exchanges fall from his universe - - and they are dear to us.

Q: Since the beginning of your career, the word 'nostalgia' seems to have been banished from your vocabulary. Do you ever look back on your glitter years with emotion?

A: I re-remember all the periods of my life with emotion but, to be honest, I don't have any particular affection for those years. I know that they were decisive years for (my career) because for the first time, I had a real audience. But at the same time, I really worked hard before 1970.

Q: Why did you refuse to give some of your songs to "Velvet Goldmine"?

A: Two months before even having been approached for this film, my businessmen were in touch with American producers to study the possibility of developing a project based on the story of Ziggy Stardust. As it is now, I can't reveal too much about the exact nature of this project because it may be more complex than a simple film or a simple musical comedy. What is certain was that I was already very excited about the idea of presenting my own vision of the Ziggy years. I know that this will be something extraordinary and that it will see the light of day in 2002.

Q: Have you seen "Velvet Goldmine"?

A: Yes, some time ago.

Q: Your only public comment about the film so far has been that it will serve as a "trailer" for your own project.

A: In effect, that is my opinion and you will understand why when you see it.

Q: What did you think of it?

A: I would like to make a pertinent comment because, far from leaving me indifferent, the film re-awakened really strong feelings in me. Here is what I felt: I would rather not say anything right now because I have the conviction that if I said anything negative about the film as things stand now, it may be construed as being hostile or premeditated. That said, I won't give my opinion before 6 months have gone by (since the release of the film). For the moment my only comment is that people should go see the film to draw their own conclusions. I would rather stick to that then to denigrate it, which is not in my interest because after all, it didn't bother me all that much. I don't want to give the impression that I was annoyed by anything, because frankly, this was not the case.

Human Bridge

Q: In killing off Ziggy Stardust you changed glam rock, up until then a simple musical genre, into a myth. Did you do it on the spot or were you tired and disgusted by glam to the point where only going forward from there interested you?

A: I was certainly not disheartened, but I was tired. Above all, the routine was boring me and, as you know, I've never been very stable artistically. After having created something, I have only one idea in my head - - move on to Another. But I think it would be appropriate to distinguish between two different types of glam rock. What Roxy Music, for example, and I were trying to do was to broaden rock's vocabulary. We were trying to include certain visual aspects in our music, grown out of the fine arts and real theatrical And cinematographic leanings - - in brief, all which was on the exterior of rock. As far as I was concerned, I introduced elements of Dada, and an enormous amount of elements borrowed from Japanese culture. I think we took ourselves for avant-garde explorers, the representatives of an embryonic form of post-modernism. The other type of glam rock was directly borrowed from the rock tradition, the weird clothes and all that. To be quite honest, I think we were very elitist. I can't speak for Roxy Music but, as far as I'm concerned, I was a real snob. More than the Spiders in any case (laughing)...in any case, I believe there were these two kinds of glam, one high and the other...situated lower. I think we were more in the first category (laughing)...we saw ourselves as greater than the others whom I won't name but that you know very well.

Q: At Rock & Folk, we were very conscious of this difference and we would never think to put Roxy Music or T. Rex in the same category as Gary Glitter.

A: It's interesting that bring up Marc (Bolan), who is of a great importance but who, curiously, I don't think he would be pleased to be associated purely with glam rock. For him it was Marc Bolan, T. Rex. I personally saw him as a person who was a transition between a certain hippie culture and a more flamboyant genre, brought about by what he was to become and dressed in satin vests and velour pants. In any case that was a look borrowed from the Rolling Stones except that in addition, he put glitter around his eyes. He introduced the period but I don't feel it was glam because he never would've worn platform boots. He was very happy with his little hippie shoes from Anello & Davide which is actually where I used to buy my dance shoes. But his position was very interesting - - he found himself stuck a bit in the middle, like Johnny Ray between the crooners like Frank Sinatra and rockers like Elvis Presley. Johnny Ray knew that he was there, in the middle, not really a crooner but not yet a rocker...

Q: A sort of human bridge?

A: Exactly, Marc Bolan was a bridge. In truth we even had the chance to talk about that once we became friends. As you know, we were very good friends two or three times in our careers (laughing). The first time was at the very beginning of the 60's, at the end of that same decade and finally during the two years before his tragic death. He didn't see himself as a glam artist but more as something else. The concept of a bridge or of a missing link works well for him - - it's exactly how he felt.

The Ultimate Goal

Q: The glam years were the beginning of sexuality in rock, and the utilization of rock as a media tool which was more and more powerful to the point of total banalization, the beginning of a certain decline...

A: I feel that sexuality was always linked to rock through artists like Little Richard, Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger but suddenly it found itself Articulated for the first time. And above all, it never shut up again. I have never said that the famous interview where I said I was gay gave light to the movement, or was the smartest thing I've ever said, as I've often read in certain revisionist Rock Histories, but it did effectively show that rock could carry both good and bad messages loud and clear.

Q: During our first meeting, you declared that you considered yourself to be a survivor, a fish who has managed to get through all the nets. Mike Garson said that you aren't wary of people until they have stabbed you in the back. You still have many friends from this period. You just worked again with Tony Visconti (the last collaboration was "Scary Monsters" from 1980 - editor's note)...

A: Absolutely, we just finished recording "Mother," the John Lennon song, for a compilation of covers which Yoko is putting together. It was a good excuse for us to get back into the studio. In truth we were looking for a project to do together, and this song, completely autonomously, seemed to fit. We didn't want to run the risk of doing a whole album and then discovering after 3 songs that there was no more current between us. And it worked very well to the point that we are going to work together again in the near future.

Q: Today, from Air to Marilyn Manson passing by the Smashing Pumpkins or Placebo, you are considered as an important influence. We really have the feeling that these musicians are making music because of your influence.

A: It's extraordinary, it's really been phenomenal since the early 90's. To the point where even I, (up until then) thinking that everyone had merely been influenced by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, realized that it had happened. When I had started working, I considered these two groups to be the pioneers. So to find myself on the same list as these prestigious people was really remarkable and flattering. But more than that, it really hit home that I had really succeeded at something completely different on the cultural horizon, which is the goal of all artists. I am especially proud of that. It's fabulous, grandiose. Um, I'm going to get a cigarette, I still smoke...

Q: Too much?

A: Yes, probably.

Young Dudes

Q: You've said many times that you thought highly of Mick Ronson, your colleague during the glam years whom you invited back during the last year of his life to work on "Black Tie White Noise" (in 1991 - Ed. note). There is one question which remains unanswered and Ian Hunter has his own theory on the subject: why were you not at the Mick Ronson Memorial Concert?

(silence)

Q: If this is embarrassing, you don't have to answer.

A: No, it isn't that at all (long silence). I would rather remain silent on this subject. Believe me, there are several good reasons but I'm very happy that you asked me the question because it's going to make me think. I will certainly answer you one day...certainly, there were problems with personality conflicts. The only thing I can say is that Ian doesn't have anything to do with it.

Q: Whatever the reasons are, you don't have to make them known.

A: Let's just say for the moment that I'm the only one who knows the real reason. But everything is fine; I'm used to this kind of situation. It's clear that I'll talk about this absence sooner or later. Truthfully, I wasn't convinced about the real motivations behind this event but, frankly, I'd rather keep quiet for the moment, it's too delicate. Thanks for bringing it up anyway. How is Ian by the way?

Q: Very well, he's included in this special glam issue too. The boxed set for Mott the Hoople just came out and it's really a nice set.

A: I hope everything is going well for him, because I have the feeling there is a lot of resentment towards him.

Q: In any case, he's always been really complimentary when it comes to you (asked about Bowie in 1991, Hunter said to Rock & Folk: 'I'll never say anything bad about him. Once we have crossed paths with a genius, we keep our mouths shut.' - Editor's note). However, he's never held back in his opinion of Tony Defries.

A: Oh, really? I have to say that doesn't really bother me (laughs).

Q: On the subject of Mott the Hoople, don't you find it particularly ironic that having given them "All the Young Dudes" the hymn of this period, it would become an enormous hit for them and not you?

A: Don't talk to be about this -- I know it better than anyone. When I finished writing the song, I knew it would be a hit and I couldn't believe I was about to give it to someone else (laughs).

Q: That must be a horrible feeling...

A: But there's something else which has always shocked me and you should really ask Ian this question: why didn't they want to record "Drive In Saturday" which I wrote for them afterwards? I never understood that because I always thought that it would've been a great single for them, perfect. I do know that Ian hates owing anything to anyone and he found the idea of singing another David Bowie song exasperating. He's very proud and wouldn't want to give anyone the impression that he was depending on me. It's just a supposition but I never really understood why they refused that opportunity.

Q: I think history has shown that Ian's fear in this regard has been justified. When people bring Mott the Hoople up, it's mostly because of "All the Young Dudes."

A: That's just chance, simply chance.

Palette

Q: How is BowieNet going?

A: Very well. We are doing an English launch before the end of the year and the equivalent for Europe at the start of spring. Fort he moment, at the speed of two a month, we have started putting out live bits from the Earthling Tour, and I've also asked all the subscribers to send in their own illustrations, comments, stories, videoclips and tales which will be compiled into a project which currently has the working title "Live & Well." In truth, everything will be done by me and the subscribers to BowieNet. On October 19th we also started a writing contest for a song for which I only wrote the refrain, which I will record soon and which will only be available on the Web. Maybe you could enter the contest yourself..

Q: That would be the beginning of the end...

A: No, use a pseudonym, invent a character (laughs)...create a personality!

Q: Of course, great idea, why not Ziggy Stardust? That sounds pretty good, no?

A: Yes, super - - it would be inspired by my own life (laughs).

Q: And when can we expect a new studio album?

A: Reeves Gabrels and I have been writing enormous amounts of material for several months and it could happen that we will record all this material to see what would come out of it. There will also be many sessions with Tony Visconti but, for the moment, there is no clear concept. We are composing for the sheer pleasure of it and our spectrum is rather vast, going from purely electronic music to acoustic songs. I can't now predict the nature of the next album. The fact is that Reeves and I have worked together for such a long time that we can cover a huge variety of styles together. It's fantastic, it's really like having a gigantic...

Q: Palette?

A: Yes, exactly, and we have nothing to do but put the colors together. But I won't hesitate to keep you informed of the advancing of our work.

Q: And to give us an idea...

A: Well, you know how easily I manipulate the press! (laughs)

Jerome Soligny

© Rock & Folk, 1998

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