This July, Cleveland Scene will turn 50 years old, and in advance of the occasion, we've decided to dig into the archives on a weekly basis to republish something that appeared in the paper on that date (or thereabouts) during Scene's first decade.
This interview with David Bowie by John Steel appeared in the issue that came out on May 6, 1976. It featured the headline, “David Bowie: ‘I Have No Identity.’”
I had just settled myself comfortably on the couch, in the living room of David Bowie’s suite in the Americana Flagship hotel in Rochester, when in from his bedroom bounced a pale but smiling Bowie carrying a small, stuffed monkey.
“Say hello to Asshole," he said, pointing the monkey at me as he plopped down beside me, "my constant traveling companion."
I nodded politely to Asshole, but before I could say a word, David’s publicist took the floor for the grand presentation she had been rehearsing all day. She had found it in a small shop near Niagara Falls, and she now unveiled it with great ceremony —a relief frieze of the Last Supper, with detailed sculpture of all the apostles and Jesus. And the whole thing was in chocolate. Bowie almost fell over laughing.
“Where do they sell things like that?” he finally gasped, and then asked if there was any way of refrigerating it until he got back to England. “They would not believe it. Isn't that incredible?”
“I want to eat Jesus,” joked David’s personal secretary. “That's what Mary said,” David warned her, “and you know what happened to her."
“Which apostle do you want to eat first?” asked the publicist.
“Judas,” David said. “I would think it’s that one there, right behind him to his right—that nasty one. Paid for by the Essenes, you know, that gig. The Essenes paid for that.”
“Really?” said the publicist.
“It was an Essenes political meeting, yeah.”
“No, it couldn’t have been. It was a Passover ceremony.”
“Well, Passovers are on Fridays in Israel, and this one took place on Thursday," said David.
“No, no. Passovers go according to the lunar calendar, and they’re different every year. It doesn’t have anything to do with Friday.”
“Good lord,” said David at this piece of information, and I wondered if I had come all this way for a seminar on comparative religion.
It was getting toward the end of his American tour, the last one David would probably do for some time. He was crossing the United States by car from west to east, playing huge arenas and drawing the largest American audiences of his career. He had told all and sundry that this tour was just to raise money, that he wasn’t interested in rock and roll anymore. Movies were his future, and the rave reviews in London of his first film, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, seemed to indicate he had a promising career away from music. Still, RCA sprang for a plane ticket, and his publicity agency promised an interview.
For a while it looked as if that promise would have to be broken. A couple of days before he had come down with the flu, and my afternoon appointment had to be canceled because he had remained behind in Buffalo to rest most of the day. When he finally pulled up in his limo, it was barely time to prepare for the evening performance in the Rochester War Memorial, a huge indoor arena that was packed to the rafters. On-stage he looked pale, but otherwise the performance was as energetic and electrifying as the Chicago Amphitheatre concert I had seen earlier in the tour.
“I was amazed at your show tonight,” I said to him, trying to change the subject from sacred to secular. “You must have really overcompensated.’’
“Well, yeah, you have to. I got a very bad strep throat. I get it a lot, especially during late winter. It looks horrible. There’s a great big pus bag in there. Ugh. I had 800,000 units of penicillin the other day, and then I’ve been taking doses of 400,000 a day, and that and the brandy really puts you out. The doctor said it was cool to drink with the penicillin, because I had to have something to take the pain away.”
“Have some more,” offered the secretary, and David accepted a glass of brandy.
“Thank you, darling . . . But it really hurts. I mean, it’s like somebody’s got a needle stuck in the back of your throat. It’s really horrible. That’s why I’m drinking. Oh it’s the worst.”
But with a sip of brandy, David seemingly shook off all depressing thoughts, and grabbing hold of Asshole, he shook her and boomed heartily, “So what’s happening?”
I told him that the one thing I was most curious about after seeing him perform in Chicago and Rochester was whether he was just putting on an act when he seemed so enthusiastic and even radiant on-stage. “You’ve told everyone over and over that you’re no longer interested in rock and roll and you’re just doing these gigs for the money,” I said, “yet it sure seems like you’re enjoying them.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” he laughed. “I never said I wasn’t interested. I just said I didn’t like it."
So then it was just for money for his movie projects?
And his stage demeanor was really a fraud? That question was too much for any pose, and David admitted that, yes, he was enjoying himself.
“I go back on what I said, definitely, without reservations. It’s wonderful. It’s great. I’m having a great time. I still don’t like rock and roll very much, but I like our shows. Our shows are marvelous. I just don’t like the majority of rock and roll."
Is what he’s doing then not really rock and roll, even though it certainly sounds like it?
“No, I don’t think so. Oh, I don’t know. I guess, it’s based on rock and roll, but it’s really got to do with just sort of wanting to be an entertainer, isn’t it? If I couldn’t sell the songs, I wouldn’t be able to go on.”
But the fact is that he is able to sell them, and without any fancy costumes or concepts on this tour.
“Yeah, we just got everything out. I wanted to bring it back to a simple level—just to go out and sing them songs. Ha, ha, ha. Shake dem bones.”
I asked David about the newest catchword, "chameleon,” being used by everyone to describe him because of his mercurial changes. “Yeah, I’m a very moody bastard ... Well, I got a problem. Ha, ha, ha. I have no identity. I’m ever searching for identities.”
And the latest identity, I said, is Frank Sinatra, it would seem.
David looked as if he would split his sides. “Now you’ve been reading the papers too much. You see, I planted that, ha, ha, ha, ha. I said that if I said I wanted to be Frank Sinatra, everybody who reviewed the act would say that I looked like a new Frank Sinatra—and they did, yeah. Isn’t that interesting how far people will make judgements by what you say instead of what they see? They really do, don’t they? I mean, I said Frank Sinatra, and my God did they pick that up. Ridiculous! The last person in the world I want to be is Frank Sinatra.”
At this point he broke into a gale of uncontrollable laughter. When he finally calmed down, he said, with a glint in his eye, “Well, he’s gonna play my life story. You know that? He's playing David Bowie, did you hear? Ha, ha. It’ll be the biggest surrealist film of the century, won’t it, Asshole.”
“What’s new with Zowie?” I asked.
“He just started school in Switzerland about two months ago, so . he’s being seriously educated. He’s 4 1/2, and we kept him away for a long time. I wanted him to go to Switzerland. It's a very good European education. You learn a lot of languages and, generally, the feeling of Europe. Because I don’t expect him to live in America.”
On the other hand, David seems to have become very Americanized.
“Oh, when in Rome . . . but I’m looking forward to going back to Europe. It’s been a long tour, and I’m tired. It’s been a long three years. I want to see the Alps. I want to learn to ski, and learn to speak English again, ha, ha. Learn to talk shit with the French and stuff."
Moving back to the present, I brought up THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. There is a bit in the film where he, as Thomas Newton, is called, ‘Tommy, Tommy can you hear me?" I asked who was responsible for that line.
David laughed. “That was Nick Roeg. That was his favorite song from ‘Tommy.’ He’s a very clever man. There’s a lot of that in the film. It’s steeped in innuendo, choice sort of nostalgic bits. You think you’ve heard lines before, and you’ve really heard them. He’s very clever.”
Didn’t David contribute anything to the content of the movie?
“No, no, Nick was a total tyrant. Oh, he’s tremendous. He's my new mentor. He’s wonderful. And I had to tread warily. It was my first film and everything. And I wanted to see what he did with me just to sef how it worked from somebody else’s executive position. And I enjoyed it. I’d do another film with Nick anytime.”
Did the film role of a superior intelligence mesh with his offscreen life in any way?
“Oh sure, yeah. I mean, one thing I learned from Nick is how to seduce somebody into a role to such an extent that it hangs over them for months afterwards. And so I lived Thomas Newton for a long time, and now I’m just starting to get into another role, possibly in a Bergman film as a Nazi in a film called THE SERPENT’S EGG. Have you heard of that one? It’s gonna be one of his next films—when he gets out of the hospital. So I’m learning the whole German schmeer for that. Ha, ha. Oh yeah, Nick is very good at seducing people into roles. I didn’t even realize that I was playing Newton until the film was over sometime. It was lovely, ha, ha.”
The film is basically a business story, and David has been living his own business story in the past months.
“Oh yeah, yeah, I saw a lot in it.”
How did the realization come that his real-life business arrangements were not what they should be? What opened his eyes?
“You see too many people grinning and smiling, and you look at yourself in the mirror and you see you’re not smiling yourself. And you wonder why everybody else is having such a good time and you’re not having a good time. You see them going out all the time and then realize they’ve got all these cars and houses and things. And you think, why haven’t I got any? That kind of thing. Just seeing people happy around you—too happy. And when you’re not happy yourself, you think something’s wrong. I nearly threw myself out of the window, actually, in Chicago. That same suite you were in. It was the day after you came over that I found out about something minor, but it was enough to upset the apple cart. Defries (Bowie’s former manager—Ed.), had put a film on television which he had promised that he wouldn’t put on, because I said it wasn’t representative of what I was doing at that particular time.
“And without telling me, he put it on television. That was it. And then I saw everything for the first time. And I nearly threw myself out. I was trying, but they stopped me. I just couldn’t take it. I’ve done that a couple of times. It’s really sad.”
The music business is especially fraught with such bitter awakenings, I noted, because friendship is so often tied-in with business.
“Yeah, and then of course you have to be careful because afterwards you get too bitter, and you get too suspicious of everyone—and you just don’t have any friends. So I’ve had to make that compromise, you know, reduce it down to that nobody has any responsibility except me. Therefore I can trust everybody, because I know how far I have to trust them legally, and after that it’s just friendship. So everybody can be trusted now, because I’m in charge of everything. Nobody gets a percentage of anything. Everybody gets fixed salaries now, and it’s worked out much better.”
And it’s true that Bowie is his own manager. He has a staff member on salary, Pat Gibbons, who takes care of details; but four times a week or so during the tour, when he arrived in each new city by limousine and checked into the hotel, he had business meetings with his staff, at which they presented their alternatives and recommendations. David himself makes the final decisions on everything.
Most musicians try to avoid getting entangled in this mundane side of their career because it takes up so much time, I said to him, and that’s why they hire managers—to have it taken off their hands.
“Yeah, I know, but I don’t think it should happen that way. In the past, the best business decisions that were ever made were always integrally tied-up with artistic decisions. And generally what I said went. But every good move was always looked upon as a Mainman [Bowie’s former managementled.] move, where, in reality they were mine. And the bad moves were generally Mainman moves.
“It’s always been that way, but I didn’t realize that it’s really quite easy to do business moves. It’s just a question, I think, of having an excellent business lawyer—that I have, again on fixed fee, ha, ha—a fixed-fee lawyer who works for so much per hour, and he relates to me the pros and cons of any contracts that I’m gonna have to sign. But as far as direction goes. I’ve got complete control over that and it’s never been better. I know exactly what I’m doing.
“It’s fun. It’s a bit tiring, because now I’m working 24 hours a day. But it’s worth it, because I’m making the money and I’m keeping it this time. Last time I was making the money for everybody else, you see—60- piece crews and so forth. I’ve got 20 people on the road now, and this is the best tour I’ve had.”
Many people in the business think of musicians as children controlled by their managers.
“They are. I mean, I was. I’ve only grown up in the last 18 months. Definitely, sure . . .”
Even the greatest groups in the world—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and such— have been taken advantage of, I said.
“Oh sore, they’ve oil told me that, and they all told me it was coming for me, and I wouldn’t believe them. And when it did come, they were right, and I learned quickly. And so maybe I’ve been able to save a bit, where the Beatles and the Stones, I think, both lost very heavily. I think that I’ve had that lock. And I really hope it doesn’t happen to Elton John. Cause it’s gonna break him up, I know that.”
It was getting late and time for only a few more questions. After the European tour, was he going to concentrate on acting for a while?
“No, no, no. The first thing I’m doing is I’m gonna finish off some silk screens and lithographs that I’ve worked on. I did some earlier this year, which I thought were very successful."
Will they be exhibited?
Will he sign them, as Mick Jagger did, to be sold at outrageous prices?
“No, no, no. I don’t need that. Mick has to make money. I manage myself. Ha, ha, ha.”
Then after the art?
“I want the Bergman film. And I’ll pay him to do it. Ha, ha.”
Seeing me to the door of his suite, David was still in an animated, happy mood, despite the weariness in his eyes and his pale skin. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was soon about to do further research into Nazi mystique for the Bergman film by becoming a victim of the middle-of-the-night knock on the door that same night.
After he went to bed, Iggy [Pop, whom Bowie was producing at the time—Ed.] and one of David’s bodyguards hung out in the living room of the suite with some local girls. The police got a report of pot-smoking there and raided the room, waking David up and hauling him down to the police station on a charge of possession. It was a bit ludicrous, because while David has certainly experimented with drugs in the past, it is well known that he has nothing to do with the sweet weed, preferring harsh, French cigarettes for his inhaled highs.
But the bust will be fought in court, and David is confident he’ll be vindicated. It certainly isn’t spoiling his new mood of optimism and confidence. Maybe it was just America’s typical way of saying good-bye to a foster son that it was losing to his real parents—Europe, where David feels his future now lies.
Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.