Teenage Wildlife

Musician - May 1983

Pictures and text transcribed by Ben

This article is divided into three sections:
main interview   |   Nile Rodgers   |   saxophone sidebar

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David Bowie, a.k.a Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Aladdin Sane, had made a career of startling and shaking people's preconceptions. Timothy White's close encounter in a Manhattan diner takes the ubiquitous Bowie from the oversell of Ziggy the dark obsessions of L.A. fame, from the musical reawakenings his Berlin years to the brand new brassy boogie of of Let's Dance.
Ziggy Gigolo Ziggy
Ziggy Stardust, victim of hypersell and unwelcome entourages Cinematic sin: Bowie in the title role of Just A Gigolo Even hardy party-er Keith Richards (shown with Tina Turner) was floored by Bowie's ability to stay up for days on end.

Fat horns, strident and clipped, bray in unison against the dusk, paced by the cool crack of metallic percussion. It sounds like the opening salvo of "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," the 1946 jump blues hit by Louis Jordan, one of the founding fathers of R&B. But the honkers and shouters out jamming on this early winter evening in Manhattan are just victims of traffic gridlock outside of a truckers' diner in the lonely factory district near the Lincoln Tunnel. Behind the beanery's greasy windows, the wizened waitress tugs at her hair net and slaps several more pairs of silverware against formica as the horns subside and the hollering stops.

"I'd like a bowl of that clear soup with rice on the bottom," says a willowy, blond-haired young man as he angles himself into a snug back booth. His tone is meek, his manner demure. The waitress' mouth wrinkles in a maternal smile. The grin her customer returns is disconcerting, jagged milky teeth flashed with vampire grace. The sight is canceled so quickly one shudders, wondering whether it was ever there at all, an unwelcome glimpse at a secret best left intact. "Oh, yes," he adds, gently recapturing the woman's crimped confidence, "and I'll have one of your lovely chicken pot pies-and a glass of milk."

Turn and face the strange: thirty-six-year-old David Bowie, dressed like a librarian in crisp blue shirt, sleeveless argyle sweater and khaki slacks, his bleached hair schoolboy-short. Savoring his lunch, he enthusiastically discusses the aftermath of the Superbowl, and is coddled by the frumpy counterlady-"Don't let your soup get cold, hon!"

When she drifts off, he blushes a waxy pink and says he's been coming to this diner for almost ten years, dating back to when hew had an apartment in the West 20s during his days Ziggy Stardust. He adds that he had bet on the Miami Dolphins even though he's a Redskins fan, and dropped ten dollars in the process. Such admissions seem suspect. One tries to envision the Magus of Glam-Rock wolfing down homey roadhouse fare, his attention glued to some American football on the tube, but memories of his spectral warpaint and sci-fi drag demeanor make it difficult.

Predictably, it all later checks out: the management of the lunch counter confirms that Bowie is indeed a semi-regular customer of long standing; and the musicians of Let's Dance, his first all-new LP in almost three years, explains that they got their boss hooked on the playoffs (and attempted to mold him into a Jets fan) while recording this winter at New York's Power Station Studios.

It's always been an entertainingly strenuous chore separating the man from the image, and there have been so many versions of the latter over the last decade that his predilection for elaborate reinvention has long surpassed mere calculation or ritual self-parody. If only by virtue of its crazy-quilt staying power, the concept of David Bowie has achieved an integrity all its own. Lon Chaney would have been envious. Kafka might've been inspired to recast The Metamorphosis along rock 'n' roll lines. But not really. Art usually celebrates/imitates life, not artifice. Yet David Bowie has brought artifice within striking distance of art.

There was a time when such goals were a good deal more than Bowie, a.k.a. David Robert Jones of Brixton, South London, could have dared hoped for.

In the beginning, glitter rock and grotesque grandstanding were not uppermost in his mind. Thinking back to before there was the swishy blunt-cut Beau Brummel on the cover of the 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World or the Veronica Lake look-alike of the 1971 Honky Dory LP, recalling an era pre-dating pop messiah-stud Ziggy Stardust, Dada dandy Aladdin Sane and the leering Aryan dilettante the Thin White Duke, David Bowie makes a frank admission about the origins of his exhibitionism: "As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn't really have the nerve to sing my songs onstage and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn't have to actually go through the humiliation of going onstage and being myself. I continued designing characters with their own complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me! Rather than be me-which must be incredibly boring to anyone-I'd take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do."

And it nearly proved to be Bowie's undoing, as he suffered through what was essentially the drugs-assisted unraveling of a "hurt, broken mentality; a fractured person," while living in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, the period of his greatest commercial success. David says there is a history of mental illness in his family-close relations prone to sudden unexplained disappearances, aunts and cousins who have been hospitalized after been found wandering the streets. He is still haunted by the tragic passage of his stepbrother, Terry, who when in his early twenties returned from service in the Royal Air Force greatly disturbed. David, who was sixteen years old at the time, watched as the ultra-intelligent brother slowly shut out the world, eventually declining to talk. Vanishing for a few years, Terry turned up in a mental ward and had spent considerable time in institutions since then.

In the aftermath of his own L.A.-aggravated mental traumas, Bowie resettled in Berlin in 1977, renting a spartan apartment over an auto parts shop and collaborating on two raw, highly impressionistic electronic albums (Low, Heroes) with Brian Eno while he convalesced. "Slowly gaining control over me again," as he puts it, he moved to Switzerland in 1979, where he and Eno completed their trilogy with Lodger, a tribute to human restlessness in all its forms. In 1980, Bowie dipped back into his nightmares again with Scary Monster(And Super Creeps), but this time he appeared to rule the shadow creatures rather than the other way round.
1980 1980

He bowed out of music for a spell in order to act, debuting on Broadway as The Elephant Man and on television in Bertolt Brecht's Baal. He also landed leading roles in two soon to be released movies. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima (creator of the controversial 1976 erotic film, In The Realm of the Senses), is a study of captives and captors in a Japanese P.O.W. camp in Java in 1942, with Bowie cast as a tough-willed Lieutenant-Colonel who refuses to break under torture. The Hunger has Bowie playing opposite Catherine Deneuve; she is an immortal siren who needs human blood to survive, and he is her lover of nearly three hundred years, who is abruptly-and rapidly-aging.

Now an extended hiatus from recording has been ended with Let's Dance, a buoyantly commercial effort that heralds Bowie's signing (for a reported seventeen and a half million) with EMI, a long-term deal that presumably will also allow David to exploit his new company's extensive video and film involvements. In spirit, the new records is a distillation of the R&B craze that swept England in the early 1960', golden years of exceptional black music that captivated David Jones and his mates. In content, Let's Dance, which was co-produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers, owed a debt to Louis Jordan and a host of other jump blues giants, but the Asbury Jukes horn section and the hard Texas blues riffing of Stevie Ray Vaughn combined with its other components to forge an original party-funk cum big bass drum sound greater than the sum of its influences.

"To tell you the truth, I was not very familiar with David's music when he asked me to play on the sessions," admits the twenty-eight-year-old Vaughn, an Austin based virtuoso whose blues group, Double Trouble, is known as one of the city's best. His 1959 Stratocaster burns with "a passion straight out of T-Bone Walker; Bowie apparently has damn good taste in guitarist," says veteran R&B producer Jerry Wexler, who arranged the Double Trouble gig at the 1981 Montreux Jazz Festival, where Vaughn and Bowie first met.

"David and I talked for hours and hours about our music, about funky Texas blues and its roots-I was amazed at how interested he was," says Vaughn (whose brother Jimmy is one of the Fabulous Thunderbirds). "At Montreux, he said something about being in touch and then tracked me down in California, months and months later, calling at 4:30 in the morning. It was get-up-and-make-sense-quick time! That's sort of the way on which the album came together, actually. It was the most fun I've had in my life. David works quickly because he knows exactly what he wants."

And what Bowie wanted was a sleek, stylish record that rocked with a soul swagger; one that rekindled the joy of R&B which had long ago helped pull a timid Brixton boy out of himself. Peter Meaden, the renowned British mod who discovers the Who and defined the natty, R&B-cum-amphetamines lifestyle of the trig London teens of the early 60s, once offered a terse description of the mod's nocturnal mission: "Becoming neat, sharp and cool; and all-white Soho negro of the night." That line fits Let's Dance and this year's David Bowie to a "T". The title track, "Modern Love," and "Ricochet" are incendiary ballroom raveups, and the new version of Bowie and Giorgio Moroder's "putting Out The Fire" (from the soundtrack of the 1982 film Cat People) is a sensual sizzler.

David Jones and David Bowie have finally merged, organically, admirably. But the old artifice dies hard. As with virtually all interviews Bowie has granted throughout his career, this one lasted exactly one hour-to the minute (he never even had to check his watch).

He flew into the diner with a flourish, whipping off his bulky tan raincoat and offering a hale and hearty handshake. "Let's make this as formless as possible!" he exulted. He lit a cigarette, handling it as if it were a conductor's baton. The wispy smoke and the steam from his piping hot lunch swirled around his pale face, the skin so translucent it seemed you could see the blood coursing underneath. The thin lips and pointy, vaguely vulpine teeth punctuate various jests and pronouncements with their secret smile. He was in jocund spirits; he seemed at ease. And when he'd talked enough, he withdrew with a strategic suddeness that was masterful in its deft execution.

Without a doubt, David Bowie is once again in control.

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