Bowie on Bowie: The Rock Icon on the Music Business, Being a Late Bloomer and His Daughter Making Him More Optimistic

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David Bowie photographed in 1983. 

David Bowie was never the easiest interview to get. He gave them sparingly -- that is, before he stopped altogether during the mid-'00s and instead let the (very good) music of 2013's The Next Day and 2016's Blackstar do the talking. But when he did converse, Bowie was exactly what you'd expect -- gracious, intelligent and provocative, always aware of perceptions about it and happy to admit that he himself was often left guessing why he did, or didn't, do certain things. His silence of the last decade or so will leave a gaping hole about an intriguing period of his life and career, but digging into the archives of a half-dozen interviews I conducted with him from the mid-'80s to the mid-'00s -- by phone and in person, during concert tours or to promote albums -- yields plenty of interesting insights about the game-changing musician. 

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On his creative philosophy (1987):
"I've always look for something more out of rock and pop culture. Songs don't have to be about going out on Saturday night and having a good rink-up and driving home and crashing cars. A lot of what I've done is about alienation... about where you fit in society." 

On catching up with himself (1987):
"I'm much happier than I was in my early 20s. At that time, I always felt I should have been older. I've caught up with myself, really." 

On blossoming late (1987):
"I don't find it a problem to use the techniques and styles I've used before, where at one time I thought, 'I can't do that!' I was very into making the Big Artistic Statement -- it had to be innovative, it had to be cutting edge. I was desperately keen on being original. Now I'm not trying so obsessively to be up against the sky. It's almost like I"m find a style -- a David Bowie Sound! (laughs) I just blossom late, I guess." 

On hitting the top 40 (1987):
"Being shoved into the top 40 scene was an unusual experience. It was great I'd become accessible to a huge audience, but not terribly fulfilling. It seemed so easy. It was cheers from the word go. You know how to get a reaction -- play 'Changes,' 'Golden Years' and they'd be up on their feet. You get the reaction, take the money and run away. It seemed too easy. I didn't want to do that again."

On younger artists being a "voice" for him (2003):
"It's harder when you're an older artist. You're not going to be open to much radio play or media attention. You have to work things in a very different way. A lot of it becomes word of mouth, and fortunately for me I've been very lucky with that. There's been a lot of younger artists who admire the stuff I've done over the years and a lot of them have been, like, a voice for me so that other people hear about it."

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On the evolution of his performing style (2003):
"I'm not that concerned with theatrics anymore at all. I haven't been for a long time. I'm wallowing in the whole idea of just being a guy out there with a band, with songs. It's a real enjoyment. I just want to show the band off as much as anything else and just kind of show the songs off. I believe the songs are strong enough where they don't need illuminating that much. There will certainly be something to see, some good video stuff and all that, but no dancing bears -- or very few, anyway."

On remembering his lyrics (2003):
"Y'know, it doesn't feel right. I wish I wasn't so wordy in some of these songs (laughs), but I just don't retain the lyrics, either. I can come off the road and it'll be, like, two weeks later and I can't remember a word. I take a music stand out with me, and it's almost like a superstition; If I don't have the music stand out there and a book of my lyrics on it, I fear I won't remember them, but if I've got the book there I don't often have to refer to them. It's a peculiar thing."

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On writing as "an impressionist" (2003):
"You have to remember that I write as an impressionist. What I tend to do is let a series of events or circumstances kind of press triggers in me and I write from that point of view. So they're not really linear songs."

On writing Black Tie White Noise and music for his wedding to Iman (1993):
"I started looking into myself a lot more than I usually look. Iman's family is all Muslim and was coming over from Africa for the wedding. My family is all Protestant. And the wedding was going to be at a Catholic church in Italy! It dawned on me I would have to do something really quite sweeping and something that would provide a safety area, musically, for both families. A lot of the music was questioning -- like saying, 'What am I doing?' Writing the music drew me into thinking about what was my commitment and why was I making a commitment and why hadn't I made a commitment before?"

On William Burroughs (1987):
"I'm definitely under his spell. That guy messed me up when I first started reading  him in the late '60s, and I've never gotten over it. That kind of writing and performance I can really throw myself into."

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On 9/11's impact on his subsequent music (2003):
"It would be hard to avoid it. The events of 9/11, I think, made a hard black line through the history of New York; nothing could ever be the same after that, not quite the same. It's sort of like a re-arranged world. It's kind of like when there was the Superman and the anti-Superman comics where everything was kind of skewed. So it kind of feels like that, a little bit; everything's not quite what it was. It's like somebody's been in your house and re-arranged the furniture. But in [the] aftermath of 9/11 I really wanted to create a feeling of optimism, too."

On the music business (2003):
"Half of the bane of my relationships with record companies has been their sell-off periods, which are ludicrously long these days. The modern industry is so different from what it used to be in the early days. I was always comfortable with an album a year. It was so more enthusiastic and amateur back then; it was run from a different basis. It really was the music was a priority and if it made money that was fabulous. It really is the other way around now for the corporations; it's the money first, and if some of these artists last, that's great, too. Things have just become more professional, more factory, industrial-oriented and you started finding artists' schedules and they'd find you a place in their schedule, a release schedule, and all that and it just became out of hand. And I would lose songs. I'd lost interest. I tend to be a bit flighty and I lose interest in songs I've written a few months ago most of the time and I'd be working on new songs by the time I got around to do a new album."

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On daughter Lexi's impact on his music (2003):
"Since the birth of my daughter I tend to write aggressively from a more optimistic standpoint, even if the subject matter is kind of dark. I really don't want to cast a dark shadow over her future, subtly or psychologically. It really behooves me to kind of be more positive about things than I might have been before she was born."

On a possible Pin Ups 2 (2003):
"I keep talking... Tony Visconti and I have thought, "Wouldn't it be great to do this song or that song and 'Oh, we could do Pin Ups 2. But then again I keep writing, so that kind of rules out doing another covers album. But I keep plucking songs off the Pin Ups list and putting them on, like 'Pablo Picasso,' one of (Jonathan) Richman's songs I adored, it's such a funny lyric and he's such a great writer. That was on the Pin Ups 2 list. I've got some great things there like 'Wild Dogs of Kentucky' by Nervous Norbert, some really odd things, 'Sure Know A Lot About Love' by the Hollywood Argyles. I've got some beauts, absolute beauts, songs that just killed me. I even wanted to do 'Purple People Eater' by Sheb Wooley, but it's possibly good I never got around to that (laughs)." 

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On working with Tony Visconti (2003):
"I have no idea what it is we do in the studio together that makes things work so well, but they do work so well. It's a little bit like if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and I can't explain it. We work together so great, and we've got this signature sound that we always come up with. I think it's pretty identifiably one of our productions when we finish the work. It just has something that makes it a little bit different from everything else... but doesn't just copy what we've done before." 

On reissues (2003):
"I've got to say, I've got blinders on for a lot of that. I get lost with all that; they seem to be coming out thick and fast. I try so hard to stay in the moment, which is quite easy to do. I'm quite good at ignoring things. So it doesn't have an impact on me at all. Some of the projects I'll say, 'Hey, I want to have a look at what you're doing on this one,' and others come out and I don't really take much notice. I'm not terribly methodical about it."

On making albums (2002):
"That's its own kettle of poison, I think. Writing stuff is a lot more soul-searching. You really kind of dig down a lot, I guess, especially when you're geographically at home in one place and not moving, I think a lot of things come home to roost. You write from a fairly complex series of triggers... Having been a painter once, each album is like a painting to me; You take a look when you're done, and some I don't like at all and never look at again, some I find ideas on and say, 'Let's do that again on the next album,' and some I like just fine."

On becoming a morning person (1993):
"You know what; ever since I gave up booze in the late '80s, my hours changed around almost overnight. I get up regularly about six in the morning. I'm a six o'clock person. I actually like it a lot. I get up, I immediately do my European e-mail, then go work out and I'm just ready for the day."

On finding "enjoyment in interpreting songs" (2003):
"I'm not sure when that happened, but probably since the end of the '90s, the beginning of the 2000s, I suppose. Why this is happening I don't know; maybe it's just the age I'm getting to, but I'm starting to feel, firstly, a real enjoyment in just interpreting songs. And I just feel like being on stage is not a life-threatening situation. It's just there you are, you've got a wonderful band with you, you like the songs you've chosen to do on the show, have a great time. So I'm approaching it from a lot more enthusiastic point of view rather than worrying about things and 'Is it going to go well?'"