David Bowie

Posted: February 25th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Background note: The following interview was conducted on October 23, 2001, for an album preview for Alternative Press, which named Bowie’s Heathen one of 2002’s most anticipated releases. The phone interview left me with considerably more content than the brief assignment required, but since the discussion revolved around probes concerning the sound of a then-unheard album the world would soon hear, the transcription remained spooled away on my hard drive for over a decade. Until now.

I recently revisited the transcription (only lightly edited here for clarity) and realized I’d caught Bowie at an interesting time, mere weeks after his adopted hometown had been rocked by the September 11th attacks, and mere days after he’d performed two songs at The Concert for New York City, entertaining the local ladder that protected his family. In essence, there was more of human interest than I’d remembered.

So… ten years after the fact, here’s my “lost” Bowie interview, followed by a review I penned of the album upon its release. Hope you enjoy.

I guess your performance went well the other night, judging from the reviews.

The audience was really quite amazing. It was quite an extraordinary event to have done. And I guess because I’m in lower Manhattan, not that far away, I felt duty-bound to do something.

Was it more of an emotional experience because the beneficiaries were in the audience?

It was, because my local ladder were there and I knew that. I’d walk past them with my little girl every week, so we kind of know the guys down there. And they lost 14, or something like that. So it was an emotionally impacted thing to do. I think everyone was great. They really knocked themselves out. It was a real… I don’t know, it was a very chummy gig to do. It was a nice gig. The same kind of feeling as Live Aid way back in the ’80s. It was different doing it for people you live around, or who live in your own community, than doing it for people in another country.

How is this affecting your music for this new album? Have you written any new tunes since September 11?

No. We’d pretty much gotten down all our tracks before. I’m recording with Tony Visconti. Which is exciting. The nucleus of the band is Matt Chamberlain on drums. He’s got to be one of the most inventive drummers I’ve worked with, in the way that he was creating a lot of tapes and loop things that we were throwing into what we were doing. It’s just a great way of working. And his choice of percussive instruments is just a scream. There’s lots of dustbins and saucepan lids and bits of old metal he’s found and hacksaw blades—just the most incredible collection of things he hits. He’s so solid.

And then we’ve got David Torn on the majority of guitar, who I’m also a huge fan of. And Tony Visconti, primarily on bass and few other things, like recorders and things like that. A lot of the other stuff I’m playing myself, nearly all the keyboards, some guitar, saxophone, Stylophone, synth work, programming like a Roland 707 and stuff to use as loops for Matt to work against. Sometimes we’re trebling up on loops.

What inspired you to roll up your sleeves and play that much on an album again?

It wasn’t a pre-thought-out thing. I had done advance writing on this album. I’ve got pretty much 20 to 25 pieces that I really wanted to start working on. It’s when I started playing them in the studio that Tony and I took out five or six days of putting down our ideas on how these things should shape up. I was playing a lot of the parts myself with Tony playing bass. And it just felt right, the way I was playing them. It’s just that my work sounded better in terms of what I needed to have done. It has a sound. I just have a feel for those particular kinds of things.

Pete Townshend came to the studio the other week. And his overall comment was—and this is because he liked the album—he said for him it was like Franz Kafka meets Ed Wood. Which I thought was an immense compliment. I thought, Yes! That’s exactly what I think it sounds like.

Was that because you happened to be wearing a dress that day?

It was the mohair that did it. [Laughs.] But I really got what he meant. There’s a kind of handmade quality to it that I’m really enjoying. And it does kind of harken back to… only in that way does it harken back to what I’ve done before. Diamond Dogs and Low are very different albums, and not even remotely similar. But that element of handmade is within the two of them. And this one indeed has that same quality of handmade. But again, it’s absolutely… I couldn’t compare it to any work that Tony and I have done before. It definitely is a sideways move.

Those are very different albums, but at the same time they’re not very optimistic albums.

This one probably has a spiritual sense of positivism about it, although—and I’m sure I’m not the only artist that this has happened to—but there are quite a number of lyrics on the album that just… they just dropped us after September 11th. There were things that were so kind of appropriate for that particular thing that happened. But again, I think a lot of artists are going to be finding that’s happened to them.

You’ve had that sort of prescience in the past. Did that unnerve you at all?

It scared me more than anything else. The immediate thing one is concerned about is one’s own family. The first thing we did is evacuate Uptown a bit to get out of the way of the Ground Zero area. But two or three days later they insisted to go back again. They’re pretty brave about the thing. But, yeah, I look at the lyrics or hear the lyrics in a very different way than before.

In your early work you had all these apocalyptic images…

Yes. I think they were probably pessimistic without much spiritual life to them. I think that probably the difference is that this one has a way… well [sighs]… I would have to qualify that… there’s a lot of spiritual doubt on this album as well.

Does it resolve on a positive note?

I don’t think so. I don’t think I ever resolve anything on my work. There are inevitably a series of questions in as much as anything else. And they try and capture an atmosphere that I’m living through to a certain extent. And I think in that particular way this album is an unqualified success. I’m very pleased with it in that way.

Have you written a follow-up to “Kooks” for Alexandria?

[Laughs.] Not for public consumption. I must say I’ve written a brand new tune to “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.”

Any lyrics on the album that stand out for you?

Yeah. [Laughs, knowing he’s going to withhold the info]. No, I wouldn’t want to do that at this stage. Also, I wouldn’t want to force the thing too much, “Good god, these were written before the eleventh.” I’d like the album to be viewed much more as a whole than identify a couple lines and have those lines become key lines. ‘Cause I’m not sure that that really is the point of the album.

It sounds like these songs were written more bedsit-style than you have in recent years, where you were kind of working as you went along in the studio.

Exactly. Very little improv in that way. They were pretty much cut and tailored before I went in. But, of course as I always do, I gave the musicians quite wide berth. I gave them a leeway to work and interpret the stuff as they were hearing it. They’re pretty structured in terms of their chordal progressions and the route they’re going to take. I had a pretty firm blueprint of exactly what all that should do. And that was pretty much written out, as far as what are the chords and the key riffs. But I gave David and Matthew free reign to provide the kind of atmosphere that they felt appropriate for the piece we were doing. It’s just a great way to work to ask for that kind of creative generosity from musicians you’re working with. And those two guys are just great and they gave back a lot.

And how did working again with Tony come about?

The last album we physically worked on in a big way was Scary Monsters. We’ve actually talked about doing this for a number of years now, but I didn’t feel the opportunity and the material was absolutely right for what I knew I could pull out of him. I usually work with people and I know what they’d be good at doing. And there was just this certain series of songs that I knew Tony would really get behind. And to have him work on these particular songs was the right chemistry at the right time. Sometimes you have to be patient until that particular kind of creative window comes up.

At the same time, you’re an artist who doesn’t like to backtrack.


Was that tough decision, then, to bring someone in who’s had such an impact on your previous work?

Not really. Because, in a way, nothing that Tony and I have really done together… with the possible exception of the three Eno albums… but they had a similarity only by virtue of the kinds of people that were working on them, more than anything else. But nothing else that we ever did together has sounded the same. The diversity of material from Young Americans to Low to Scary Monsters, it’s all very different stuff. And I just knew that neither of us had the patience to re-create something we’d already done before. So I knew that whatever we did would be pretty adventurous and fairly brave.

Since he knows you so well, is he more likely to argue a point he feels strongly about?

Oh, absolutely. Though that hasn’t actually occurred on this one. We’ve been in absolute sympathy with each other’s views on what exactly we were doing here.

So, will you tour this album?

It’s looking good, if we can find something that doesn’t fly [to travel in]. [Laughs.]

You were never a big fan of planes.

[Laughs.] Less of a fan now than I was a few weeks ago.

David Bowie, Heathen (Columbia)
Early word on Heathen delivered promising news for lapsing Bowie fans. The rock pioneer was working once again with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, the producer and multi-instrumentalist behind such diverse classics as Diamond Dogs, Low and “Heroes.” The new album had what Bowie called a “handmade” quality to it, in part because Bowie was playing more guitar, sax and “Space Oddity”-famed Stylophone than he had in decades. And he’d also brought in guest musicians such as the Who’s Pete Townshend, who claimed the album was “like [existentialist author] Franz Kafka meets [cross-dressing B-movie director] Ed Wood—and that was because he liked it,” according to Bowie.

By my count, 1980′s Scary Monsters was the icon’s last consistently great album on which he sounded completely invested as a writer, player, arranger. It was also his last produced by Visconti, and featured a cameo by Townshend on “Because You’re Young.” One hoped the chemistry would yield similar results this time around.

When I interviewed the icon last fall for a preview piece, though, he was reluctant to provide details about the lyrics. The interview took place on October 23, days after he performed two songs at The Concert For New York City. He was still shaken by the events in his adopted hometown, claiming he’d like to tour the new album, but if only he could find an alternative to air travel. The former messiah from Mars has always had a fear of flying, and he joked that he was “less of a fan of planes now than I was a few weeks ago.”

Having mostly completed the album before September, he was also viewing his words in a different light. “There are quite a number of lyrics on the album that just dropped us after September 11,” he said. “But I think a lot of artists are going to find that’s happened to them.” For that reason, he wouldn’t offer any examples, because “I’d like the album to be viewed more as a whole rather than identify a couple lines and have those become key lines. I’m not sure that that really is the point of the album.”

Listening to Heathen now, the lyrics he alluded to are easy to spot, present in at least half of the album’s nine original songs (he also interprets the Pixies, Neil Young, and early psychobilly artist the Legendary Stardust Cowboy):

“Sunday”: “Nothing remains. We could run when the rain slows. Look for the cars or signs of life. Where the heat goes… It’s the beginning of an end. And nothing has changed. And everything has changed.”

“Slow Burn”: “There’s fear overhead. There’s fear over ground.”

“A Better Future”: “Please don’t tear this world asunder. Please take back this fear we’re under.”

“Heathen (The Rays)”: “Steel on the skyline. Sky made of glass. Made for a real world. All things must pass.”

Bowie has since concluded that the lines are pure coincidence, saying in recent interviews that “the songs came out of a general feeling of anxiety I’ve had in America for a number of years,” and claiming that he’s always had a talent for expressing dread.

True enough. Play any of his best albums, and they, too, seem relevant to recent events. This writer, for one, had Ziggy Stardust‘s apocalyptic “Five Years” running through his head in the days following the attacks: “News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in.”

What the lyrics do mean is that Bowie, at 55, is plugged into the zeitgeist once again—and conveying it in his classic tuneful, inventive style. This time, however, he’s not just expressing dread, he’s confronting its abstract source and demanding change.

On the pneumatic-rhythmed “I Would Be Your Slave,” he speaks to a higher power, requesting that it manifest itself in a two-way conversation: “Open up your heart to me. I would be your slave.” And on the Martian lullaby, “A Better Future,” he makes a litany of requests—”please make sure we get tomorrow… give my children sunny smiles”—and threatens to stop loving Him/Her if the demands aren’t met.

Yes, the songs may not have been directly influenced by the events of September 11. But one aspect of the work puts some heavy punctuation on the above-cited lyrics. The album hadn’t been named when I’d spoken with Bowie in October. The title Heathen suggests terminal disappointment in the higher power’s response to the singer’s demands and a turning away, a belief that maybe we won’t have a tomorrow, much less a better tomorrow.

Let’s hope it was just a fleeting, linear-time-based expression of pessimism, and not another foreshadowing of events. “Five years, that’s all we’ve got”?

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