THE "GLASS SPIDER" WEAVES HIS MUSICAL MAGIC AROUND THE WORLD
David Bowie is riding high. His hit single, "Never Let Me Down," from the album of the same title, is romping up the charts. The North American segment of his "Glass Spider" tour (the tour started in Europe and will play around the world) is playing to sellout crowds at arenas around the country, and at the end of the year he will return to the movie studios to make two new moviesone with Mick Jagger, tentatively titled, "Rocket Boys," and the other in a Tony Scott movie. Scott has made such movies as "Top Gun," "Beverly Hills Cop II," and "The Hunger," in which Bowie had a featured role.
The popular British rock entertainer recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his new album, his tour, songwriting, and the music industry in general. "Never Let Me Down" is his first major writing and recording effort since 1984, and the "Glass Spider" tour is designed in part as a support vehicle for the album. Bowie has shelled out $10 million of his own money to underwrite this tour, with the Pepsi Cola Company picking up a small percentage of the rest of the cost.
W&M: This is the first time since 1984 that youve returned to the studio to make your own album. Was there a specific motivation?
BOWIE: My motivation is always to make records. I am first and foremost a writer, singer and musician. I find the record-making process euphoric, depressing and utterly fascinating. When Im recording I want out, when Im not Im looking for any chance to get back into the studio.
W&M: Was your approach to, or execution of "Never Let Me Down," different from your previous musical efforts?
BOWIE: My last album ("Tonight") had huge audience reaction. It increased my audience to a size that I never imagined was possible. Up until that time I had only performed in 10,000 seat auditoriums. That was my level, and we suddenly found ourselves in stadiums of up to 70,000. One of the initial shows on that tour was 250,000 people, which is a lot of people. I was kind of flabbergasted. I didnt quite know what to do with it all.
So, I started writing for myself. I concentrated on doing sound tracks, and I worked with a couple of other artists including Iggy Pop. During that process I found that I really wanted to write again. So, I approached it from the point of view of having a slow year in a band, and getting back to a rock n roll feel that I fundamentally enjoy.
W&M: Your "Serious Moonlight" tour in 1983 coincided with the release of that album, and the entire presentation was reminiscent of a greatest hits style package. Am I right?
BOWIE: Yes, very much so. It was styled that way. Like I said, my audience had increased from around 10,000 to 70,000, and I suddenly realized that there were 60,000 people unaccounted for that probably had just come along out of curiosity because of the "Lets Dance" single (which was a monster hit). If that was the case I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce them to all the songs Id written over the past 20 years. Hey, listen, Ive written some pretty good stuff. You may not have known it was me singing them or in fact, writing them. Anyway, we anticipate getting similar size crowds this time, and I decided I would introduce something further back from my career and reflect on the kinds of theatrical things that I do.
W&M: Talking about "Lets Dance," that single was such a monster hit, it left a lot of people expecting another dance-oriented album. How come you went for a different sound?
BOWIE: Well I didnt want to get trapped in that kind of period piece. I didnt want to start off in the 1980s and just be the "Lets Dance" guy, and carrying on trotting out that kind of music. Its not what I wanted to do. It was a fluke single, and Im happy with it, but I dont expect to have another single like that kind of success or sound.
BOWIE: Ive always been a big fan of rock n roll, and rock n roll artists. I found that their influences have kept me buoyant, I like being impressed by what other are doing, and I thought it might be nice to sort of includes, in this album, references to all the other artists that Ive enjoyed over the years. There are some aspects of Prince and Smokey Robinson, and I incorporate those sorts of attitudes into my way of writing songs. Generally, when I do an album I concentrate on a single songwriting style. However on this one I seem to tap into all the styles in which Ive written over the years.
W&M: Was Little Richard a big influence on your music?
BOWIE: Little Richard and John Lee Hooker, but Richard was my Patron Saint. I heard his records for the first time when I was a kid. My father brought them home. I couldnt play them properly because we had only a 78 (rpm) windup, and they were 45s with holes in the middle, so I spent hours trying to find something that would fit on the spindle so that I could play them. Of course they played fast, but I found a way to play them slowly, and thought, Gosh! These are great! So I ordered 78s through the record shop down the street. Those were the records that England was playing at the time. We didnt get 45s until quite a few years later. Little Richard, at that age, was the one who influenced me the most mainly because of the dynamics of his energy and the sax lineup which he had. He had two baritones and tenors which impressed me a lot. So I bought a tenor saxophone. Thats how my musical career got started.
W&M: How would you describe your lyric writing style?
BOWIE: My early writing was very fragmented. However, I believe that today I am writing in a much more linear, narrative fashion, but I do depend on the idea of juxtaposing several images together to create a new piece of information. Ive always been enamored of that way of writing, ever since I read people like William Burroughs, and some of the best poets and writers of the late 1950s and 60s. They also influenced my writing style predominantly, even more that other rock writers. I think my input came generally from a literary era rather than a rock era. I might be wrong, but it certainly feels that way.
W&M: Do you have a favorite song on the new album?
BOWIE: I am very instinctive as an entertainer and a writer, and I never quite know what Im doing until Ive done it. When I finished the album, I really liked "Never Let Me Down," I thought that was a really great song. Now that weve started playing things live and in rehearsal, there are quite a few things that are coming up. "Time Will Crawl," is among my other favorites.
W&M: What is it about "Time Will Crawl that makes it a favorite?
BOWIE: There is a rudeness about it musically. It doesnt do very much. It just sort of plows through. However, its got great momentum, and its tough. Its got a nice toughness to it. It was very quickly written.
W&M: There appears to be a dimension to "Time Will Crawl" that goes beyond its musicality, am I right?
BOWIE: I think its the closest thing Ive written to a protest song. That seems to be something I only recently discovered in myself. I dont think Ive done it very well, because Ive never done it before. A lot of songs on the album are far more pertinent socially than Ive written for a long time, if ever. Up until now my works were very impressionistic, and had an ambient feel to them. A lot of the stuff on this album is much more direct.
BOWIE: "Blue Jean" is a piece of sexist rock n roll. Its about picking up birds. Its not very cerebral. Then youve got "time Will Crawl" which is, of course, terribly cerebral. Laden with images, one over the other. It deals with the idea that somebody in ones own community could turn out to be the man whos responsible for blowing out the world.
W&M: It must be refreshing that you can still experiment and not have to rely on nostalgia to attract your audiences.
BOWIE: Absolutely. It might have gotten to the point where I would have had to go out and do greatest hits before "Serious Moonlight," and end up like a lot of other artists who simply go out and their biggest hits because theyve got to keep the money coming in. Im not forced into that corner, and I feel for artists who are, especially if they get the urge to go with new stuff, new material and everything, but cant guarantee that theyve got an audience. Fortunately Ive been able to keep on moving.
W&M: Are you disappointed that "Never Let Me Down" has not done better on the charts as an album?
BOWIE: Not really. Ive made about 20 albums during my career, and so far this is my third biggest seller. So I cant be that disappointed, yet, it is a letdown that it hasnt been as buoyant as it should be.
W&M: The release of "Never Let Down" coincided with the merger of EMI/America/Manhattan. Do you think it may have suffered because of those circumstances?
BOWIE: I think that probably had an awful lot to do with it. EMI may well have felt unsteady as a company long before it released this album. So it has not been entirely the best year on that side. But I dont really feel that negative about it. As far as Im concerned its one of the better albums Ive made. As Ive said. "Never Let Down" has been a pretty big seller for me. So Im quite happy.
W&M: Maybe interest will pick up now that the tour has started and the title cut has been released as single.
BOWIE: Yes. Were all expecting to see greater momentum on the charts with the tour to support the album.
W&M: Was "Never Let Down" your first choice for release as a single?
BOWIE: More or less. I was also strong on "Making My Love," but the final say was with EMI.
W&M: And they decided to go with "Never Let Me Down?"
BOWIE: Yes. You see I really wouldnt know a single if it hit me in the face. Ive never been a single-oriented personnot for my own stuff anyway. I know if an albums good, but as far as singles go, I have no idea what they (consumers) are buying.
W&M: From your perspective, what changes do you see happening in rock n roll? Where is it going, and where do you fit into it?
BOWIE: Touring is beginning to change, interestingly enough. Other bands are getting the kind of work that they used to get, just on the strength of having a hit single or having a big video, and I think the emphasis is back on trying to make the live performance interesting. I think of a lot of hard work is coming back into bands, in terms of performance, which I think has got to be good. Its nice to see an emphasis on live shows again. It had sort of petered out for a while. I think now there is a new energy back in live performances. The energy seems to be refocused on the live performance, which I for one am very happy about.
W&M: Can you equate musical proficiency with the energy in rock?
BOWIE: I dont know about that, Ive never been one for the virtuoso. I mean as long as the energy, at least a summoned anger is present, that for me is enough. I dont care whether the guy cant play more than three chords. Its the attitude that he has when he plays them.
W&M: Do anger, energy and enthusiasm characterize you on stage?
BOWIE: I think my performance on stage sums up my excitement and exuberance for living, and its tempered by bitterness and anger. Its all part of a rock n roll message.
W&M: Do you see music in the 1980s as a tool to effect social change?
BOWIE: I doubt whether thats necessarily rocks purpose, or its singular purpose. First and foremost rock has always represented the feeling of the younger generation. Thats inevitably how it makes its first impact. The thing is, a lot of us are growing older, thats what changing. But a lot of us are still playing rock n roll, and are listening to it when not involved in music. So its changed its generation scope. It now goes from age 15 or 16 through to my kind of age. Nonetheless I still feel it can be represented But it has proved, throughout the years that it can affect social change, in a certain way or at least refurbish peoples attention to different areas of society. Still, its not its primary purpose.
W&M: Youre in the middle of a world tour with your album. What sort of a challenge is it?
BOWIE: This is a very theatrical tour for me. But the theatrics dont necessarily mean characterization or relying on gimmicks, sets or whatever. This tour certainly has a massive set.* It also has a fair amount of very sophisticated lighting; but the idea was to enhance what we were doing on stage. It really is about mixed media, and a relentless energy, rather than characterization. I havent done anything like this for years. The preparation has been quite a physical show, which is good for me. Musically I delved into areas of songs which the public wouldnt be expecting. Its not a greatest hits show by any means. There are a few songs in there that people know. A lot of them will be quite obscure, but quite as interesting as my better known tunes, in a different way. The songs have been chosen to flush out the show, rather than the show being there to show off the songs.
W&M: Are there any specific problems with touring a show with sets that big?
BOWIE: Well, for one thing we cannot play indoors anywhere. The tour was halfway through Europe before I found that out. It would cost me between $500,000 and $600,000 to alter the sets enough to bring the show indoors. Still, I would like to play an arena like New Yorks Madison Square Garden, so I may decide to have a smaller "indoor" set made somewhere during the tour.
W&M: Does the Glass Spider tour have a theme? I mean, is there anything different or special that we should be looking for?
BOWIE: What Ive really done is put together two or three songs around a particular thematic device, and that changes throughout the show. It takes you from one area and from one mood to another quite rapidly. Its a big set, but its not particularly the predominant feature. Its what happens on stage physically that makes it interesting.
W&M: How do you prepare for a tour?
BOWIE: I think I screen out just about everything else. I mean its really hard for me to concentrate on just about anything during the process of the show. I prepare the days work when I get up in the morning, and then I go in around 10 oclock (a.m.) for rehearsals. Then its constant rehearsals, both the visual side and the musical side, through about 8 oclock (p.m.). At around 8 p.m. I look at the video tapes of what weve been doing during the day, and make adjustments if necessary. So there really isnt time to do anything else at all except Sundays, and then I sleep for most of the day. Its very intensive rehearsals, and physically its quite demanding.
W&M: How do you handle the rigors of life on the road?
BOWIE: Actually I find stress is far greater during rehearsals than it is during the performance, because Im anticipating whether what Im doing is any good, whether mistakes are being made, and whether they can be sorted out. Thats the high stress area. After the first night I know whether or not the show is any good. I think then it becomes a lot easier. The day to day aspects tend to get mundane and boring. The performance is the only light at the end of the tunnel. I am anticipating that on the next tour Ill be about to take a lot more advantage of being in different cities. Ill try to find ways of getting out and around the town, to have a look around and find out what its like. Im going to many new places I havent been to before. Madrid and Rome are among them. Itll be sort of an adventure.
W&M: What sort of a response do you expect from your audience?
BOWIE: I either want a bad response or a good response. I hate something in the middle. I mean, if its too politely received then its a total failure for me. I want to have some reaction.
W&M: What do you think your audience expects from you?
BOWIE: I guess that they come along to see whether Ill fall down or something. I really dont know. I know that they get what they consider is a really good performance. I think that over the years Ive proved that I do my best to provide them with some new vision of musical information on the stage. So I think theres probably that element in it, but I couldnt go any further than that. I really dont know what they want from me. Ive never really been able to write for them. Ive only written and performed that which interests me. So essentially they have an agreement with me and thats great. I mean, Ive lost audiences many times over the years, and theyve come back again for one reason or another. Ive sort of got that mutual agreement with them. If its not going very well then they stay away. Which is fair enough, you know.
W&M: What do you want from your audience on this tour?
BOWIE: I think Im going to make them work harder on this tour. Well all be working together. Its a tough show to go to. Its pretty abstract and not easy for an audience to follow. Which is exciting. Its quite radical in a way. Its not the sort of show where the audience can sit back and be entertained that way. They have to work. They have to focus hard, but I open it up towards the end, and make it a lot simple to follow.
W&M: Of all the characters youve portrayed as a musician and actor, do you have a favorite?
BOWIE: I cant help but have a soft spot for Ziggy Stardust. Not that Id ever want to portray him again, but it certainly was sort of fun at the time. I inevitably like the thing that Im doing at the moment. I like what were playing musically at the moment. I like the way the tour is going. So I guess this is my first favorite. In terms of anything Ive done on film, I quite like the old vampire play ("The Hunger"), and I liked the little John Landis cameo that I did.
W&M: Musicians dont get the chance to change personae without confusing their audience. How have you managed it?
BOWIE: Its very hard to convince people that you can be quite different on offstage. Its part of the wider principles of rock that the person himself is really and truly expressing what he feels from there. That applies to a lot of artists, but to me it doesnt. It never did. I always saw it as a theatrical experience.
W&M: What direction do you see music videos taking today?
BOWIE: Im not sure where that will go. I hope that they would harden up and become more creatively responsible. Theres an awful lot of fashion show quality to them. I never really wanted to do that. I guess I probably did, on a couple of things. "Life On Mars," was one such project. Generally, I try to get my videos to have an equal balance to the song that Im interpreting, and I try to make them constructive and interesting and make them say something. At the moment music videos have got sort of vacuous and flaccid, flabby. They need hardening up. It will happen.
W&M: Do you have a current favorite band?
BOWIE: Theres an English band I like very much. Nobody seems to have heard of them. Theyre called The Screaming Blue Messiahs and Im pushing them like mad. I think theyre really good. Theres an element of The Clash in them that I really like. But theres something else there. Im not really sure what it is. Theres an exciting guitar player. Hes a sort of new wave guitar player, but theyre an angry mob from London.
W&M: Is there an artistic renaissance flourishing in Europe?
BOWIE: I know its bubbling. I dont think its very evident at the moment. I know there are certain things coming out of Spain. Spain is becoming a really interesting place, with new music, architecture, painting. I think, unfortunately, in every case when a country becomes economically depressed it usually produces its best artist, and one of course sees that happening in Europe. I would guess that the economic strife that started to happen in America will also reflect itself in a new strength of cultural expression.
*Editors Note: The sets for the "Glass Spider" tour are ambitious, to say the least. They weigh 360 tons and take between four and five days to assemble. Because of their massive size, and assembly time required, two identical sets were created a cost of $10 million each for the U.S. tour. This was necessary in order to maintain a schedule of about three shows a week. The way it is handled is that while one set is being used for one show, the other is being assembled in preparation for another. Now Bowie is talking of constructing a third set that will enable him to play some indoor venues.