David Bowie may be in his fifties, but he's no slouch when it comes to new technologies. Take BowieNet - it's his very own internet service provider and it's so exciting that he phoned us from Bermuda just to tell us all about it. And tinned poo. Interview: Peter Paphides.
Like the character in Space Oddity, he is a disembodied voice, straining to be heard from a gigantic distance. Grappling with space-age machinery in a bid to manipulate it to some greater end. Whether or not he'll achieve it though, is another matter. David! David! Can you hear me? Ground control to Thin White Duke! Is anyone out there? Hello!
'Get down, yer bastard!'
'Oh, ' chirrups the voice in the distance. 'I was just downloading some mail.'
David Bowie's computer seems to have a voice-activated mail facility, because the next thing we hear is a little cyberchipmunk squeaking 'You've got mail and you've got charisma!'
Bowie: 'Ho ho ho!'
Your correspondent: 'That's nice!'
Bowie: 'I think I'd rather have mail than charisma!'
It's not just any old afternoon which sees an American woman called Eileen phoning you up and telling you that David Bowie would like to have a word from his home in Bermuda. And when she does, there's usually a reason. Not content with nestling in our collective subconscious as a snaggle-toothed alien bloke with funny eyes and loads of hits about hanging around in space pretending to be a camp robot, David's been recently reinventing himself even more comprehensively: as a flesh and bone commodity floating on the stock exchange; a cutting edge mover on the art scene; and a drum'n'bass convert. However, it's none of these things that David wants to talk about today. You may have already heard about BowieNet, his grand new internet service provider (ISP) venture. BowieNet was only launched this week, but it's already been valued in excess of $500 million. David laughs in the face of such figures
'Well, yes, but in terms of what we're actually making, I can't buy a packet of cigarettes on it! Believe me!'
His enthusiasm remains undimmed, however. So excited was Dave about the imminent launch of BowieNet that on September 30 he decided to host a live chatroom via his website, with former Tin Machine chap and general BowieMate Reeves Gabrel [sic]. This was indeed a momentous occasion: David Bowie, out there in cyberspace. A real proper starman! Waiting for us in the sky! He'd like to come and meet us! And now he can!
'Ho ho ho!' chuckles the man who even kept a straight face singing with Bing Crosby. 'I tell you what. I think you might be overegging the cake just a little!'
And you know, he might be right. After all, the transcription of that history-making September afternoon makes for bizarrely depressing reading. Think about it: you, a BowieFan, have your hero (and admittedly, his BowieMate) in front of you! And playing in your head are all those One-2-One ads where you're sitting next to Dave in his space podule having a great old chinwag! And what do you ask him?! Do you ask him about all the drugs he took in Berlin? Do you ask him about what made the Laughing Gnome laugh so much? Do you ask him what the fuck he was playing at on the 'Dancing in the Street' video? [quick reminder: 'South Americaaaaaaaaa!!!'] Do you hell! You ask him when he's going to play Oklahoma, whether or not he plans to write with Roger Waters and in the case of some total psychopath going by the clever-clever BowieJoke pseudonym of Nathan Adler, you ignore him completely and ask BowieMate how he wrote a guitar solo. USELESS! USELESS! USELESS! David, do you sometimes despair of your fans?
'What do you mean?'
Well, they all seem a bit frightening.
'But you don't feel as though you're talking in a world that's unfamiliar to you. What on earth could be frightening about it?'
They're all like people you see in the queue at the Hard Rock Café.
'I think that's pretty much accurate! But then, that's a microcosm of what Europe's like.'
In a way, it's no surprise that David has seen fit to reinvent himself as The Man Who Sold The World An Internet Service Provider. Babyboomers will see him as a brand name they can trust, and they've jumped at the chance to have an e-mail address which ends in '@davidbowie.com'. More than that though, it's actually the logical realisation of the Ziggy Stardust ethos: that gender and identity and sexuality are all boundaries which are there to be blurred. Thanks to chatrooms - surely the ultimate forum for self-reinvention - we can all be heroes just for one day! Sort of! Or even better, if you're David Bowie, you can be a zero, something he's recently discovered to his evident delight: he 'crawls around' taking part in other people's conversations anonymously.
Have you ever pretended to hate yourself, as it were?
'Yes. Um, I've often raised the topic that some of David Bowie's actions have been questionable, yes But they just say, "Oh don't be such a stuffy bastard! Everything he does is great!" [quick reminder that this isn't strictly true: "South Americaaaaaaa!"] I go on them about three or four times a week. But back to the point about all this being quite prophetic. Someone did remind the other day about a song I wrote called Saviour Machine, which was about a computer which dealt with all the world's problems. And this machine did such a good job that, to create something for itself to do, it had to make things bad again. I think, without knowing it, that the Internet was something I was always absolutely desperate to get involved with.'
To such a degree, in fact, that David says he doubts if he would have even gone into music had the internet been around in 1968. Such an assertion shames those of us who agree that the infosuperhighway has changed the world completely, and yet - when it really comes down to it - do little more than use it to look at pictures of Jayne Mansfield's decapitated head and mangled Mercedes cars in Paris underpasses. Thankfully, The Webmaster himself has been finding similar distractions.
'Have you seen "Slap a Spice Girl" yet? That's pretty cool! Their heads pop up and you smash 'em one! Hahahahah! It's one of the cruellest sites on the net. I've seen a few Clinton ones too, involving cigars.'
So which Spice Girl did you slap first?
'What?' comes the mock-indignant response. 'I wouldn't dream of doing that!'
Oh come on. Of course you would!
'I wouldn't dream of it! How could you even ask me such a question?'
Look. Cyberspace is one of the few realms of life where your actions have no moral consequences, and you're telling me you didn't take advantage of this?
'Hahahahahahaa! If that's the truth, then I'm indifferent to it!'
That's outrageously diplomatic, David.
'Outrageous, at any rate!'
So would you have really not become a pop star if the internet had been around?
'Almost certainly,' he explains. 'When I was a kid, music was the fascinating alternative future. But not it's just another career choice such as banking or being a travel rep [in among other places. South Americaaaaa]. However, I feel the internet is at the stage where the information and how you can manipulate it and play around with it is still the exciting part of it.'
Indeed, you could take a lead from Prince and bypass the entire record company process by selling your records direct through your website.
'Well,' ponders the only prisoner-of-war camp inmate in 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' with a really great hairdresser, 'Public Enemy recently put out an entire album's worth of material with MPEG3 [non-boffins: MPEG3s transmit sound files over the net] which was a great idea, but looking at the news today, I noticed that what they didn't do was ask their record company's permission. So they've had to take it all down again, which was a rather unfortunate bump in the manifesto.'
Many people have said that this potential for cutting out the middle man will revolutionise the way music is consumed. But David isn't so sure. He reckons the technology will soon be co-opted by record companies.
'We're soon undergoing a total demystification of product!' he declares triumphantly. 'In years to come, record companies will save a load of money on packaging. They'll just make different versions of artwork available on screen and you'll just print them up according to what songs you want to go on the record.'
David's on a big demystification tip at the moment. One of the big attractions available on BowieNet will be the Full View Camera - a 360-degrss camera with 'amazing picture quality' which enable you to home in on a scene live from any angle.
'The idea,' he enthuses 'is that, say I'm in the studio and you want to go in close on my nostril, you can do that. You can virtually direct your own viewing.'
Isn't there a possibility of too much demystification? What if you forget to switch it off and David Bowie's sat there in his pants smelling his belly-button fluff in front of global audience?
'Well, that's what you get!' he chuckles. 'Anything that muddles the parameters is to be embraced completely.'
It's that philosophy which lies at the heart of Bowie's next big project. Having recently discovered a whole load of outtakes and residual songs from 'Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars', he's planning some kind of crazy multimedia 'project' which seems set to leave the Bowie and Iggy-inspired 'Velvet Goldmine' looking like a rainy night in with Suede's mum. Possibly.
'Well,' he teases. 'I don't want to give too much away, but it's not just going to come out in one form. And it was never an intention for it be primarily be a film. Somehow or other, I wanted to attack it in a multimedia way. So let's just say the overall goal is to present Ziggy in various forms - all of which are autonomously interesting - but all the parts taken together present him as a whole.'
What the fuck are you on about?
Actually, I didn't say that at all. You don't say that to David Bowie. Instead, I nod sagely and tell him about a not-strictly-true project I'm working on called Software. Who knows? If he likes it, he might send us 50 grand to put it out.
'What's that then?' he enquires.
A friend and I have written an entire ultrasonic album. The only way you can listen to it is through your dog. It's sort of intended to play around with conventional notions of software. Also though, no 50 grand is forthcoming.
'Oh! I think that's wonderful! Very Dada! Although, it does have its precedents, you know.'
Oh good. Not only won't David give me any money, but someone else already has my idea.
'I remember Pink Floyd messing around in the 60s with black noise. They were trying to get the audience to debowel themselves during the performance. A whole audience shitting themselves! Matter of fact, I saw a similar thing recently in the entrance to the last Saatchi show. Some guy actually created a bowel-moving machine and out it in the entrance. When I saw that, I thought: An old idea is hard to leave alone.'
Isn't that a bit messy? A bowel-moving machine in an art gallery?
'Oh, I'm sure in an art gallery you could probably sell it! In fact, that was done by Manzoni in the 60s. He put his own excrement in tins and then he sold it. Very successfully too. They still sell at extraordinary prices.'
That's a very eco-friendly way of going to the toilet, isn't it? Unless you miss, of course.
'Hahahahaa! You'd have to eat a lot too, depending on how many you made.'
If you were going to write a song about it, you could sing "Here is my floater in a tin can"
'Hahahaaha! That whole relationship of art with bodily functions has yielded some amazing stuff. Many many years ago, I got to know William Burroughs, and he told me that one day he went into the French patenting office, and for approximately $5, he bought himself a copy of all the plans for making a black noise bomb. What is it? Well, it works on the principle of the opera singer and the glass - that there's always a note that will destroy physical substances. And this guy had devised a method that reduces flesh to mush and leaves the building standing. It was not far removed from the frequencies that Pink Floyd were playing around with. When you hear things like that, you wonder why the human race hasn't been wiped out. But then, there are so many ways the world could end now.'
Indeed, planet earth is blue and there's nothing we can do. So to speak.
'Hyeeeurrgh! Absolutely!' confirms David, who addressed the problem memorably in 'Five Years'. 'Especially with the 2YK problem!'
The what problem?
'The year 2000? Do you know about this?'
Oh, you mean the millennium bug!
'Yes, that'll be right. They call it 2YK over here [surely Y2K? - Ed], which sounds almost like a .um, well never mind. But really I'm not sure how to play this one. Personally I don't think I'll be anywhere near aeroplanes or elevators on that day, that's for sure. There are two or three well known techheads who have already set up their own multi-year supplies of store cabins in the desert. They've actually taken guns and they're preparing for the breakdown of society as we know it.'
I trust you've stocked up on Pot Noodles, then .
'Heh-heh-heh! To be honest, I haven't even considered where I'm going to be.'
How about South Americaaaaaaa?
'I suppose Bermuda is a good a bet as any. I guess they're all pretty worried about it over in Britain too, yeah?'
You could say that. After all, most people are still trying to get to grips with setting the video.
'Jesus! Is that so?' David's 50-a-day cockney drawl modulates into instant haughtiness. He can't stand the idea of the Brits as a nation of technophobes. 'It's crazy, isn't it? You still come across people who make out like the internet is a passing fad. Don't they realise that the entire communications process is undergoing the most drastic revolution that we have ever encountered?'
You can just imagine. David getting similarly strident on the inevitable Branson-style TV ads for his new enterprise. An exclusive foray into pages on his website accessible only though BowieNet shows a zealous desire to reveal his innermost thoughts with fellow 'techheads' on a variety of subjects. Why, he even keeps a journal everywhere he goes. Negotiating the windy streets of New York, we get Bowie pondering how, in a parallel life, 'I could be back in Bromley, pushing the grandchildren's pram, forgetting to pick up a carton of milk.' Click onto another icon, and you get pics of Dave with a variety of trendy celeb friends such as Goldie! But you don't need a modem and a special top-secret password to notice his evangelical allegiance to this brave new world. That much is obvious to anybody within yards of his rather delightful cybermusing. Especially the lovely Iman.
'I do find the net incredibly addictive,' muses David. 'So much so, in fact, that one has to be a bit careful about it. Otherwise I think one can put oneself in the position of losing wives! Hahahahahah!'
There's an exclusive!
'Well, I tell you what! Do you know what was the first thing I did after the first month or two of being on-line? I banned myself from working late at night, because I'd just get carried away with it. And if there's one surefire way to break up a happy household '
So your dinner was in the dog?
'It kind of gets like that. Talking of which '
David suddenly realises he's been on the phone for an hour. His exotic missus must be a stern taskmistress, because quick as a flash he's saying his goodbyes. Woah there! Just one thing before you go, David .
'Oh, go on, then!'
Well, it's just that this is running in our Christmas issue. Any chance of a seasonal greeting for Time Out readers?
'Oh, you're being serious! Um. "Sign up, sign up for Jesus!" Hahahaha It's a beautiful sentiment, isn't it?'
Very reminiscent of the Bing Crosby thing.
'Ah yes! That old chestnut! Yes. He'd have approved!'
And with one final gravelly chuckle, he's gone. Time it seems, waits for no Iman.
Fangs for the memory
What's David Bowie been up to since we last spoke to him?
1. Having his teeth fixed!
'The problem was that the two that were kind of fangy had gradually been pushed out by all the other teeth. And I was finding out that whenever I'd woken up with my face down on the pillow, my top lip would be bleeding. I'd lived with them quite comfortably all my life, and I was never really bothered with them. But once they actually became an impractical piece of equipment, I had then ripped out and replaced. At first it felt a bit weird, because for weeks I was just rubbing my tongue on them wondering where they'd gone. It felt like a little bit of me was missing! Hyeeeeeuuurrrghk!'
2. Passing judgement on new versions of his songs!
I heard Oasis's version of 'Heroes' last year. I didn't think it was very good. That was the first thing I thought about it. And then, if I remember rightly, I didn't think about it much again. It felt like a very end-of-the-night-in-the-pub kind of thing, which is I'm sure how it was produced. The Aphex Twin did a much better version. They [David seems unaware that The Aphex Twin is just one bloke] do some really extraordinary things. Phenomenal! Anyway, if you were going to recreate 'Heroes' in the 90s, I think The Aphex Twin's version is more in line with what one ought to do.'
3. Doing some journalism!
'I've started doing book reviews for Barnes & Noble. They saw that I did a lot of book reviews on the site, and they figured that it might not be a bad thing if they got me to do some for them as well. I gave them five categories I'd be interested in reviewing, from art through fiction to music. The first one I've done is 'Glam' by Barney Hoskins. What's it like? Excellent. It's good that everybody gets more equal space in it than they usually get - by which I mean Marc Bolan and Roxy Music. And of course, the great thing about doing these reviews is that now I get a whole load of books every month!'
© Time Out, 1998