By Anthony O'Grady, published in the NME, August 1975
"WELL," SAYS David Bowie. "Rock and roll is just a toothless old woman. It really is."
As one Bowie observer (no one you know, just a dedicated and knowledgeable Bowie fan) has said: "You’ve got to understand about Bowie, he’s not like anyone else. Everything he does turns out to be sensible, even though it doesn’t seem like that at the time".
And so it turns out.
For there we were with da tape machine connected to da telephone and, in Los Angeles, in a smog-bound hotel, the messages are being passed from telephone operator to telephone operator to Bowie spokesperson to Bowie assistant. And somewhere at the end of the underwater cable, computer switchboards and those intermediary voices, is... Bowie. We hope.
"WE THINK WE'VE got an audience," says the spokesperson in the Bowie suite. "We're pretty sure the operator will be listening in."
"This is the Los Angeles operator... we think we have a connection and we will not, repeat not, be listening ..."
"They always say that," says the Bowie person.
"A big hullo to all of you people over there from all of me over here. What's happening?"
Eeeeek! It's Dah-aaaah-veeeed!
And what's happening is his voice keeps fading into blurry white noise. (Telephone operators bootlegging the conversation?) As always, he speaks with an accentless clipped tone, very English but very anonymous all at the same time. The sort of voice that goes with whatever personality its owner is wearing at the time. Ziggy Stardust to Diamond Dog to Flame Flared Androgynous Dandy. But it's weird and quite ghostly when you hear it without seeing the visual effect. What you become aware of, more than anything else, is the man's Scarlet Pimpernel-like intelligence. They seek him here, they seek him there...
For Bowie is someone who speaks out strongly, yet won't stay pinned down to any opinion. Or indeed lifestyle. And of late his lifestyles have undergone startling, changes.
Early in the year, there was the Young Americans album which confirmed his flirtation with American soul; it sure was a change from the surrealistic R & B of the previous Diamond Dogs, anyway. About the same time as Young Americans, he upped and left longtime manager Tony De Fries. But soon afterwards there were rumours he was planning a concert tour of Brazil. No Brazil. But he did spend some time recording Detroit street punk artiste, Iggy Pop (the midget who had inspired the Bowie song, 'Jean Genie'. And the next word on Bowie was he was huddled in a room drawing pentangles, burning candles, chanting spells. And then he started work on a film The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Definitely it was a rapid-change program.
MEANWHILE..... back at the telephone receiver.....
David why don't we start talking about the Young Americans album?
"OK. Go Ahead."
Um, well ... the 'Young Americans' track, what's the story behind that one?
"No story. Just young Americans. It's about a newly-wed couple who don't know if they really like each other. Well, they do, but they don't know if they do or don't. It's a bit of a predicament.
"The next track 'Win'. was a 'get up off your backside' sort of song really – a mild, precautionary sort of morality song. It was written about an impression left on me by people who don't work very hard, or do anything much, or think very hard – like don't blame me 'cause I'm in the habit of working hard.
"You know, it's easy – all you got to do is win."
The voice fades into white noise, then comes back.
"'Fascination'? ... there's not much I can say really, it's pretty self-explanatory. . ." And Bowie fades away ... pauses ... comes back. "Like over here, it's bright young Americans, you know, the lilting phrase before the crashing crescendo. In England it's a dirge – the days are all grey over there. It's a bit worrying.
"Like that uncertainty stretches from where I am to where you are. There's literally no economic confidence in any one nation in the world. There's not one confident central source anywhere on this whole damn planet.
"It makes you want to shoot yourself – it's very demoralising. I think we should maybe strengthen up a bit.
"I think the morals should be straightened up for a start. They're disgusting. This whole particular period of civilisation... it's not even decadent. We've never had true decadence yet. It borders on Philistine really.
"If you, like me, believe the current morality... or the signals for each morality really... are pushed by an established power or, media... well, it's really just another way of suppressing or ridiculing the working man, so he has less to look up to in his own life.
"I mean, to put on pornographic movies in a truly free society is one thing; to put on pornographic movies in America is very dangerous because it intimidates and ridicules the average family man. He watches himself being portrayed six inches tall on TV every night, and he wakes up the next morning and he feels six inches tall, he thinks he is six inches tall.
"There's a continual dirge of music on radio. I like music, but... conversation on radio is totally missing, there's no gambit no motivation on the radio any more. It used to happen some years ago on FM radio but it's totally lacking now. With the FM stations in America. If they don't start slipping into a Top 40 format, they go broke, and are then bought by the Church. I think over 45% of the older FM stations are now owned by the church or religious organisations.
"It's absolutely incredible the way media is used over here. With all it's potential power and the vast implications of what could happen, it is confounding. It just repads what is padded. You have absolutely no feedback in America as to what the real situation is by listening to TV, radio, reading newspapers.
"And unfortunately, at this moment, listening to music as well. It's a pretty sorry state."
This is somewhat stunning from a man who has manipulated the media significantly himself.
Like many years ago, there was his coy admission of bisexuality that set English newspapers screaming – a story by the way that probably had little basis – Bowie has certainly denied any bisexual leanings since.
Then there was his prediction that a major rock star, maybe himself would certainly die on stage within the next few years. And yet, after a year's retirement from stage performances he returned with a wilder more frantic act yet. Scalding audiences into a frenzy.
And now, David The Guardian of Morality. One thing for sure – or rather – four or five things for sure – Bowie is a rapid change chameleon. It's always been part of his appeal. The new Bowie though is more than a little startling. It's almost a Saul/St. Paul type change ...
"I just want to do some things I want to do," he says. "I've recently gone through some pretty interesting changes" (He ain't kidding).
"I'd like to do something that's actively concerned with trying to clear up the mess. I have an idea, but I'd rather do it than say it. But as it is, the situation's just nonsensical, it goes round in never decreasing circles. Rock and roll certainly hasn't fulfilled its original promise.
"Like the original aim of rock and roll when it first came out was to establish an alternative media speak voice for people who had neither the power nor advantage to infiltrate any other media or carry any weight and cornily enough, people really needed rock and roll.
"And what we said was that we were only using rock and roll to express our vehement arguments against the conditions we find ourselves in, and we promise that we will do something to change the world from how it was. We will use rock and roll as a springboard.
"But it's just become one more whirling deity, right? Going round that never-decreasing circle. And rock and roll is dead."
Does he really believe that?
"Absolutely. It's a toothless old woman. It's really embarrassing."
So what's the next step?
"Dictatorship," says Bowie. "There will be a political figure in the not too distant future who'll sweep this part of the world like early rock and roll did.
"You probably hope I'm not right. But I am. My predictions are very accurate ... always."
Actually, Jean Dixon, the religious clairvoyant who predicted John F. Kennedy's and Robert Kennedy's assassinations – has predicted very much the same thing. Only thing is, Jean's political figure rises in the East and presents a grave threat to Western democracy.
On the other hand, Jean Dixon also foretold Nixon's Watergate troubles, but prophesised Tricky Dick would squirm through OK.
But back to Rent-An-Apocalypse...
"You've got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up. Then you can get a new form of liberalism.
"There's some form of ghost force liberalism permeating the air in America, but it's got to go, because it's got no foundation at all, apart from a set of laws that were established way back in the bloody 50s and early 60s and have no bearing at all in the 70s. (The Supreme Court in America was at its most liberal in the late 50s, early 60s)
"So the best thing that can happen is for an extreme right Government to come. It'll do something positive at least to the cause commotion in people and they'll either accept the dictatorship or get rid of it.
"It's like a kaleidoscope," says Bowie. "No matter how many little colours you put in it, that kaleidoscope will make those colours have a pattern... and that's what happens with TV – it doesn't matter who puts what in the TV, by the end of the year there's a whole format that the TV put together. The TV puts over its own plan.
"Who says the space people have got no eyes? You have – you've got one in every living room in the world. That's theoretical of course..."
Not to mention very disassociated... bordering on dislocation.
On the subject of Bowie's own chameleon character...
"Well, I never had much luck telling people I was an actor, so I let everyone else figure it out. I don't really want to go into any of that. It's been chewed around and boiled around, I mean a man does what he has to do.
"Whatever thing I was doing at the time, I adopted a character for it. I've said that so many times now, I'm getting used to trotting it out. I might look like Zsa Zsa Gabor next month, or Marlon Brando, you never can tell, 'cause I don't know what I will feel like then.
"If anything maybe I've helped establish that rock and roll is a pose. My statement is very pointed – except it's very ambiguous. My statement is rock and roll is walking all over everybody'"
"Yes, really. Like, I tried to do a little stretch of how it feels musically in this country, which is sort of... the relentless plastic soul basically. That's what the last album was."
Would you repeat that?
"What?" says David. "The relentless plastic soul? But, Christ, that's what decadence is... talking about one's album. Who needs to hear another bloody artist talking about another album. Come on!"
But it is a business. This never decreasing circle that is rock and roll. And talking about your albums helps sell them.
"I know," says Bowie. "And I don't help at all. I'm afraid. I'm not the most manageable artist in the world."
Ex-manager Tony De Fries agrees, in case you're wondering.
"Anyway," continues Bowie. "I think what we've talked about is more interesting quite honestly, and I think it's more interesting to you."
"Actually, I want to say a few things on the album.
"Like 'Right' is putting a positive drone over. People forget what the sound of Man's instinct is – it's a drone, a mantra. And people, say: 'Why are so many things popular that just drone on and on'. But that's the point really. It reaches a particular vibration, not necessarily a musical level."
And that's what 'Right' is...
"Oh, alright... let's talk about the rest of the album. Very decadent this is (laughs). 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' is a 'Watch out mate, Hitler's on his way back'... it's your rock and roll sociological bit.
"And 'Across The Universe', which was a flower power sort of thing John Lennon wrote. I always thought it was fabulous, but very watery in the original, and I hammered the hell out of it. Not many people like it. I like it a lot and I think I sing very well at end of it.
"People say I used John Lennon on the track... but let me tell you... no one uses John Lennon. John just came and played on it. He was lovely.
"'Can You Hear Me' was written for somebody but I'm not telling you who it is. That is a real love song. I kid you not. And the end of the thing is 'Fame' which was more or less sung about what we're doing now."
Bowie seems less than bubbly about his latest collection. He is even less so about the chances of himself performing again.
"Frankly, I've just started this film, and after that, I'm going to do some directing. Unless I see a particular reason for going out on stage and getting involved in another dramatis personae there, then I won't bother. It has to serve a constructive purpose."
Ah yes, the movie, The Man Who Fell To Earth...
"Yeah, that's right, it's being made by Nick Roeg. (He did Performance and a film called Don't Look Now.) This film's about Howard Hughes I think. Well, it might be, might not be. I play the starring role. How about that for a piece. Isn't he a jammy bugger that Bowie. I don't know... in the business five minutes and he's taking work away from veterans!"
Bowie's been in the acting business a few years longer than five minutes. What happened about the role Liz Taylor wanted to use him for?
"No way, that was a rotten film she wanted me to do. And a rotten part. She's finding out about it now. She's in Russia stuck out there. The thing she's in is called Bluebird, a very dry, high French fairytale with nothing to say. It is being directed by a wonderful director.
"But the whole film stinks and I turned it down."
Has Bowie seen Tommy?
"No I haven't."
Does he intend to?
"No I don't."
"Yeah. I don't like rock and roll very much."
Well what do you think of Ken Russell as a director?
"I don't like him at all. He's...no we'd better skip that."
One of the things Bowie may do after The Man Who Fell is to produce-direct himself in an original screenplay.
"I've done nine screenplays over the past year. I spend so much time on that damn road, and I do things like write films. I've got a lot to get on with. Well, I have, but I don't know which one to do.
"I'll probably do the one I wrote for myself and lggy Pop and Joan Stanton. I haven't even got a title for it yet and I don't really want to go into the story. But it's very violent and depressing, it's not gonna be a happy film. It'll probably bomb miserably, I'm sure.
"I want to make it in black and white to boot. I like films made before the '30's – they seemed to have a lot more genuine expression."
It could have continued for hours. The operators could have bootlegged a lot longer and Bowie himself was warmed up and running nicely. However...
"Hey,' says Bowie cheerfully. "They're taking me away – truncheons and tommy guns – and they're saying 'Come with us, David'. I'll speak to you next time I've got an album or something else and we'll talk about something else..."
© Anthony O'Grady, 1975