At 50, that most alien of artists, David Bowie, has finally got his feet firmly on planet Earth. He talks to SAM JOHNSTONE about his travels in and out of the solar system.
We have now grown used to rock stars reaching the age of 50. What once seemed preposterous age for these icons of teenage rebellion, now passes as commonplace.
So it is not in itself surprising that David Bowie has reached his fiftieth year. The man who brought us Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane poured away his war paint a long time ago. What is surprising is that rock's great chameleon has pulled off one last transformation: he has reinvented himself as an eternal youth.
As he strolls into the anteroom of a recording studio in New York, the anticipated years roll away. This man simply does not look his age. It is commonly known that Bowie is a reformed character, a happily married man leading a regular life. Yet he once lived out the rock 'n 'roll dream so hard that it eventually turned into a nightmare. Of these particular years he bears not the slightest trace. His face is largely unlined, except for the occasional crinkles round the eyes when he smiles. he carries not one ounce of surplus fat.
Much later in our conversation, Bowie advances a theory which might conceivably explain this phenomenon. It's actually a response to a question about his old friend and collaborator Lou Reed, and his reputation as a difficult individual. Bowie dismisses this with a wave of the hand, before advancing his theory of age. "It's interesting that the artists who quite possibly led mediocre or sheltered lives seem to fare very badly as they go into older age. It's ironic that those who put themselves through all kinds of extremes and really mess about with their own lives, if they survive at all, then they survive very well. I'm thinking maybe of the older generation: somebody like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was off this mortal coil years ago, Burroughs is still as fit and as in tune and as articulate as he was when I first met him which was 25 years ago. He's an extraordinary old guy and what he hasn't put into his body is nobody's business. It floors me to see some of these guys. You just think, `You should be dead!'. Lou Reed is the same." And so, by unmistakable implication, should David Bowie.
It's been a long time since ground control lost contact with Major Tom, and like this earliest of his alter egos (we shall overlook The Laughing Gnome, for the purposes of this interview), Bowie has been orbiting the pop scene ever since. It is fitting therefore that his latest LP is called Earthling, a form of address for humans used exclusively by aliens. For Bowie is very much an alien in record business terms. He pursues his chosen path with a charming, but utter, disregard for public expectations or the foibles of fashion. The new LP is not what one would expect to follow its predecessor, Outside. And nothing prepared the world for his excursion with the group Tin Machine, resoundingly canned by the critics, but defiantly justified by Bowie: "That was the best thing I ever did, one of the most freeing experiences I've ever had."
Interesting to report that the real David Bowie lives not on Mars but in Lausanne in Switzerland. It's probably not the place that you'd guess he'd choose for a domicile, indeed a most unlikely place for this man to fall to earth. I asked him about the attractions of his adopted city. "It's an old city which has roots in the eleventh century and is very attractive -- unlike Geneva which is all modern, anonymous, skyscrapery buildings. By contrast, Lausanne has a lovely French feel to it. It's on the lake about 40 minutes from Geneva and about 40 minutes away from the mountains. So it strikes a good, intermediate balance between big city and country life." His reason for choosing Switzerland in the first place is more surprising: "I went there in the late seventies because I was extremely broke." I express surprise at this, but he is adamant. "That's broke as in no money whatsoever", he snaps with finality.
The story of his finances is by no means unusual in his profession. Huge album sales and sell-out tours were no guarantee of money in the bank, in a business where money had magical properties, one of which involved disappearing. Bowie is philosophical about this, blaming no-one but himself for his financial mess. "I'm not very good at business, so I had very bad dealings with it. I just seemed not to be able to hold on to it. It's an archetypal story and one learns from one's mistakes. I decided at that point in the late seventies to stop being managed by people and started managing my own affairs. I found out that the decisions I had to make were really very easy: `Do you want to do this show?' And `How much do you want for it?' If these were the only decision I had to make, then why would I want to give huge sums of money away for people to make those decisions for me?"
Bowie's lack of solvency in the late seventies also had another result: it forced him to resort to air travel, which he famously disliked. I ask him what his feelings about aeroplanes are these days. He immediately lights a cigarette. "You see what happens when you mention aeroplanes", he laughs, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "Yes, I'm still not a good flyer. But I want to travel to so many places that are so far away, that I take flights now all the time and just grin and bear it." He is a good example to phobics everywhere: and his life is a lot easier. Before he stopped being able to afford them, Bowie traveled everywhere by boat. He laughs at the memory: "I cruised all the way through the seventies, so to speak!"
Aside from his touring activities, David Bowie is an inveterate traveler. He adores the Far East and he has another theory: "I don't know why, but I think all British travelers share this feeling, I feel so comfortable in exotic places." He feels particularly at home in Indonesia which he visits repeatedly, and also has a special affection for Japan, particularly the island, Kyushu Province, the South and Kyoto. He has also visited Africa a number of times, but has not so far traveled to his wife Iman's homeland of Somalia, a situation which will be rectified on the occasion of her next visit.
Despite his exotic taste in places, Bowie does not regard himself as a foodie. "Actually, I eat fairly lightly", he says, his reply backed up by his slender frame. "I don't eat much meat, I eat a little poultry, a bit of fish. I will eat anything, though. In the East I throw all my usual habits overboard and if a bit of a nest is put in front of me then I will eat it -- and I'll enjoy it as well!"
When I ask him about his favourite restaurants, his choices reveal a greater appetite for decor and atmosphere rather than menu. "I guess I'm not a foodie like some of my peers. In New York there's a place called Indo-Chine down in SoHo which does a mix `n' match Eastern thing -- some of the food is from Chine, some is Japanese. I like the atmosphere there and the decor which features lots of bamboo. I also like restaurants that are quite unlike anything else. There's one in Nancy in France that was designed by the cabinetmaker Margerele and it's unbelievable! It's a beamed, gothic, art nouveau palace. Just for pure silliness, it's incredible -- the food is so-so but the place itself is magic!
"There's a restaurant in Berlin that I used to go to a lot when I lived there, called The Exile. It was romantic because there were lots of beatniks, writers and studious painterly types. All the New Expressionists used to hang their paintings on the wall, long before they were really popular, so you'd find the most extraordinary new paintings all over the place."
I wondered finally if the great traveler had a place in his heart for anywhere in his hometown of London? "Ruth Rogers' place the River Cafe is nice -- I have to say that because they are friends of mine", he laughs. "No, really, it's very good food and I always buy her cookbooks!"
And the laugh rings out again from this alleged 50-year-old man. David Bowie reading a cookbook? the man really has fallen to earth; and a very pleasant place he appears to find it too.
(Source: "HIGHLIFE", the magazine of British Airways)