DUKE OF HAZA
The 90s David Bowie may seem the very model of the rich and satisfied rock star, but he is spurred on by a fascination with body mutilation, art-inspired murder, cyber-creativity, cut-up lyrics and random musical styles....
This is going to get rid of my cold and sinister image, isn't it" David Bowie cackles sarcastically, running a finger over the back of a silver scalpel that he has been handed for the VOX photoshoot. "No one understands me, he adds in a camp, girlish whimper. He switches voices again, delivering his self-defining punchline in South London rasp: I'm your friendly neighborhood David Bowie. Your average, cup-of-sugar Rock God. For all his down-to-earth affability. its a disconcerting experience watching as he moves the blade to his cheek. Every move and expression suggests a different Bowie experience from the vamparic, decadent poseur of the 70s to the well-adjusted and well-heeled English gent of more recent years. His x-ray frame, bloodshot eyes and pallid skin recreate the asexual glamour of The Thin White Duke. I had a late night, he deadpans, although his pale complexion may also be the result of his recent portrayal of the white-faced Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel's art movie BASQUIAT: Build A Fort, Set It On Fire. Memories of the Duke also resurface as Bowie acts out the eye-gouging scene in Dali and Bunuels surrealist movie Un Chien Andalou, which he used as the show opener on his 1976 station to station tour. A shaft of LA sunlight filling the hotel room and playing on his staring, unblinking left eye (the pupil is permanently dilated from a legendary schoolboy fight) conjures up the other-wordly presence of Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roegs The Man Who Fell To Earth; it is an exciting and unexpected shock. Seconds later, Bowie sways back on to his heels and lights a cigarette, the feminine hips jutting out below his tiny waistline, lending him a slightly odd gait, as if his legs have been screwed into his torso a little to far apart. Suddenly the twitching, contorted physicality of Bowie in the Broadway version of of The Elephant Man comes to mind: or the splayed arch of Ziggy posing over stage monitors in garish legwarmers, a fully-fledged"Rock God" from mars. "Steady, he laughs. "Do you know there was a line The Doors Movie, apparently, which was left broke into fits of laughter. Morrison is running along the corridor and a girl comes charging at him saying: Butt-fuck me, Rock God, and the entire preview audience just fell about. I think he felt it took some of the essential mystical seriousness away from the movie. I just think That's the most fabulous line. It sums it all up in a very metaphysical way..." Sometimes Bowie's a little too gushing with his charm, overloading genuine politeness with luvvie ramp. He's "wildly excited" about Courtney Love, who plays an art-groupie in Basquiat; Richard Gere is a splendid chap, a very nice man and not at all flippant like we rock stars. He exaggerates the compliments with the broad smile of an advertising rep. Who knows whether he really means it?. Its a question that has hung over his career for 30 years and its an essential part of his appeal. The title of Bowies latest album, Outside underlines a fresh determination to stand apart from the music scene yet still be contemporary. When Brian [Eno] and I first started to get coherent thoughts together about the album, it was really a question of negating all the things that we found to be the common currency of popular music. So, having taken all those things away, it left us only with the options of the periphery. That's generally where Brian starts working from. He thinks: Well what's the common vocabulary at the moment? Let's try and invent one which doesn't have anything to do with what's actually happening. That's an ideal. Brian in his own albums probably gets nearer to it than anyone else. This comment echoes the slogan "There's Old Wave, There's New Wave and there's David Bowie" which launched the advertising campaign for his Eno-produced Heroes album in 1977. The duos trilogy of albums, Low, Heroes, and Lodger rejuvenated Bowie after he ditched the idea of taking his drug-fuelled, rock n roll alter-egos any further than the hollow messiah figure of The Thin White Duke. Now he's turned to Eno again, at a point where where most ex-fans believe his credibility is shot thorough with more holes than his cocked-up brain tissue ever was. He concedes there was a point in the mid-80s when he thought about giving up music altogether to retire as "a garret-type art person with a loft in SoHo" " I fell foul of the market place, " he explains. It was a period where i achieved tremendous middle of-the-road acclaim and I suddenly felt, for the first time, inhibited about being creative. I stayed very very safe between 83 and 86. It was so tiresome -God it was awful. I was quiet willing to opt into a life of crime and art. Or at least a life of art. I was so near to just giving up." He made some tragic fashion statements at the the time, too. "Oh God, oh the haircuts," he roars. "Only a ? would say that. That's very funny. Oh, and the trousers, dear. Where did you get those from. In the run up to Outside, the 48-year-old singer achieved a partial foothold in the 90s-at least for those fans who still sympathized after the beards and embarrassing social criticism of the Tin Machine with the laid-back, jazzy ramnticism of Black Tie White Noise and his under-rated alternative soundtrack to the Buddha Of SuburbiaTV series. "I wish that album had been heard a bit more," he says softly. Buddhas ambient textures and Neu-styled rhythms inspired him to give"Professor" Eno a call and make the brave but potentially suicidal leap into the futuristic themes and technology-led pop of Outside. Songs like the excellent I'm Deranged', No Control and the title track show off a playful, enthusiastic approach to experimentation that has long since deserted institutionalized icons like Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones. The albums mix of neo-classical, cyber-jazz, techno and avant-pop also sets Bowie up for ridicule at a time when the singers broken-larynx croon tries to invest significance into some of the most pretentious lyrics he's ever written. He's returned to his old cut-up techniques to flesh out the words, moving on from chopping up sentences with scissors and rearranging them on the floor as he did in the 70s (a method that he borrowed from artist Brion Gysin and demonstrated in Alan Yentobs famous Bowie documentary Cracked Actor) to a "random" programme in his Apple Macintosh. This poured "reams of paper" into the songwriters lap-mostly garbled, judging by a quick glance at the lyric sheet. There are also ludicrous spoken-word interludes by the albums main characters, which Bowie plays with voice filters. Unfortunately, the mix of Philip K Dick, William Gibson and Laurie Anderson sounds more promising than the actual monologues, which will have most listeners fast-tracking to the albums half-dozen highlights.
Grabbing the scalpel once again, Bowie illustrates one of the albums many themes by slicing the blade through the air as if he's just hacked a limb. "I thought you wanted to chop of my head off with it," he laughs. "Is this the biggest scalpel you can get? This is no good for chopping off limbs, is it? You should have brought a chainsaw with you. That would have done the job. I guess this is more precise, though; more surgical." The albums "non-linear" narrative loosely follows the investigation of a series of gory "art crimes" by one of Bowies new characters, a private detective called Nathan Adler. Adler's latest case is the brutal killing of a 14-year-old girl, Baby Grace, whose body has been cut up for an horrific art show. In his Diary Of Nathan Adler (an as-yet-incomplete short story that forms the basis for the album), the singer vividly details how the girls arms are "pin-cushioned with 16 hypodermic needles", her stomach is "carefully flapped open and her intestines removed from her torso and "implanted with a small, highly sophisticated binary-code translator".
In recent years Bowie has become preoccupied by various dismembered and dead art pioneers, ranging from Schwartz Kögler ("a very underground artist who chopped of his penis", a feat which sent him "quite mad, along with most of his audience, probably") to former heroin addict, HIV-positive artist Ron Athey, who has mutilated himself on stage with an object resembling a knitting needle.
Bowies descriptions of flesh/metal fetishism on the album read like a student prospectus for a course on cyber-art. Don't bother to take the CD out of its wrapping unless you've studied the Japanese underground movie Tetsuo, the lyrics and fetish videos of Nine Inch Nails (they're actually co-headlining with Bowie on his forthcoming US tour in the autumn) and the living "man-machines" in the cult magazine Headpress (motivated by sexual and aesthetic reasons, these human pioneers stick metal implants into healthy arms and legs, ignoring surgeons warnings that the operations will turn their flesh into mush.
Bowie grows excited when the conversation turns to Australian performance artist Stelarc, who experiments with a metallic "virtual" arm and has held an exhibition in his own stomach by swallowing a min-robotic sculpture about the size of a small fist. "That's absolutely incredible," he says before describing how French artist Orlan has "surgically implanted horns" to headbutt womens magazines preconceptions of beauty. When he came to write the album. Bowie tossed all these ideas into a liquidiser and out poured the story of an arty-serial killer on the prowl in a kinky, seedy, high-tech society. "There are strong smatterings of Diamond Dogs in this album," he says. The idea of this post-apocalyptic situation is there, some how. You can kind of feel it. I'm not totally overawed by technology. I'm not a purveyor of the idea that its our oncoming utopia. I think there are some extreme downside to it. I think one of the real pitfalls of the Internet is that it becomes an information-and-power device for the haves and does very, very little for the have-nots. In fact, it increases the abyss between the two. That's major negative.
"Apart from this unhealthy, almost obsessive interest in ritualistic artists, the album also has some sort of feeling of this new paganism that seems to be springing up with the advent of sacrifications piercing's, tribalism, tattoos and whatever. Its like a replacement for a spiritual starvation that's going on. Its like a tribe with dim memories of what their rituals used to be. They're sort of being dragged back again in this new, mutated, deviant way, with so called gratuitous sex and violence in popular culture and people cutting bits off themselfs. For me, it seems like a natural kind of thing". Fans have gossiped about their singer experimentating with S&M ever since Thomas Jerome Newton waved a pistol in the face of his terrestrial lover in The Man Who Fell To Earth, but its hard to imagine Bowie with a pierced scrotum or a ring through his nose. After all, not only does he have the genuine air of a happily married, middle aged man, his only tattoo-of a naked oriental girl-is hidden on the back of his calf and he doesn't plan to have any more. His interest in ritualism comes across more as cerebral and voyeuristic. After the laddishness of Tin Machine and the romantic tributes to his wife, Iman, on Black Tie White Noise, he's obviously keen to play around with "deviant" ideas of sexuality again, from a safely removed stance. When one of his entourage tells a story about Leigh Bowery terrifying the locals in one of the toughest districts in LA, the man who wore three different transvestite guises on 'Boys Keep Swinging', shrieks: "Uzis don't freak them out but they can't deal with a man in dress!. These days Bowie's multicultiracial, multisexual wardrobe is totally virtual. Its inside his Apple Macintosh, which he's used to morph himself into Leon, a mixed-race child, and the young female victim Baby Grace. "What did I think of when I saw myself as a girl?" he giggles. "Oh, I think I look fabulous. It's very freaky. It's very exciting what a computer can do. I've gone from from wearing dresses to being 14-year-old girl. Well you couldn't do that in my day. I expect with the right operations, I could still become a 14-year-old girl now. It would just cost an awful lot of money." In the 70s, though, he was more daring, unleashing the all-consuming. Bisexual super-human Ziggy Stardust and the narcisstic Thin White Duke and encouraging young followers to projects almost any sexual fantasy on his passive, fragile facade. That's what popular culture is there for, he explains. "That's why we need our Sly Stallones or Sharon Stones or whatever. I think without all this gratuitous stuff, the world would be in a far worse shape. I see nothing unhealthy in it at all. The more the merrier, I say.
The former gender-bender still has problems with sexual stereotyping. "There's this awful thing at the moment that the straight press are coming out with, where they're pushing bisexuality as the new chic," he says. "I think it is so scary. Like, its been out of Vogue for the past 20 years? Its just ridiculous when sexuality is made into a fashionable commodity. I'm very wary of all that. "There's a genuine need, as there always has been among young people, for orientating themselves. They experiment and have vast, insatiable curiosities. I was certainly promiscuous and gender-free when I was young, and you kind of go through that. Its not like it went out of fashion and nobody did it for 20 years. Its always been there. But I think there's such a puritan situation, especially here in the States, that its very difficult for people to reconcile themselves with their gender and exactly how they want to fulfill them self sexually in their lives. The ramifications of AIDS has presented an even more stark, grom horizon for young people. I'm conditioned by my background. I have no idea how I would cope as a young man now, in this rampantly bursting period of our lives, at 19.
One notorious freak who influenced Bowies adaptation of mixed genders and bizarre alter-egos is the late art voyeur, Andy Warhol. Bowie wrote a song about the artist on Hunky Dory and he's just finished portraying him in Schnabel's movie. "I met Andy a number of times but the most auspicious meeting was the first time, when we had absolutely nothing to say to each other until he grabbed on to the fact that I had really exciting shoes. They were little yellow slingbacks and we just talked for ages about shoe design. After that, he was everywhere; you always saw him in clubs. I never got much further than: Hi, Andy, how are you? I never knew the guy. But I'd seen him sufficiently to understand his body language and how he looked, how to be in his company-he had this kind of cold fish thing about him. And this caked skin. It was a sallow, yellowish-tinged thing, as though it was made out of wax.
"A very strange thing is that we all his clothes and his wigs and his eyeglasses from the Pittsburgh museum, so I was wearing Andy. I was in there. And I don't think the clothes had been washed. There were just hints of the fragrance that he wore on them. I had this little handbag that he took into hospital with him all the stuff was still there, like a cheque torn in half, and there was an address for someone called BJ and a phone number. There was also this putty-colored pancake that he obviously used to touch himself up with before he went public anywhere. A very sad little bag with all these contents. A little notebook of addresses-oh, and loads of herb pills. All kinds of herb devices to make you better.
Warhol's flair for transforming society outcasts into Factory superstars inspired Bowie to reinvent himself, ditching each character before using up their 15 minutes of fame, Bowie took on some of Warhol's physically alien, cold and vulnerable traits in his public personas, too, but he doesn't think his work is banal or dispassionate as Warhols.
I've always felt more emotive than Andy, he says with broad grin. I know I've been read as cold and hard-hearted and all that. But its just not true. Andy was more interested in the cold reality of the surface image, and what and what you see is very much what you get. My work has always been easy to attach multiple interpretations to-purposely so, because i like to build up in layers. I think [Andy and I] really are the antithesis of each other.
Now the conversation has switched to art, Bowie is on his favorite subject. If were gonna go all the way with this pianterly analogy, which I can do for hours, I actually would say that Julian Schnabel is closer to what I do, because....now, let me quickly work out why; no, I know why. Julian was being reviled by by all the critics because he was stylistically different from month to month, and not only that, he was using several styles within one painting. I thought: Well, that's exactly what I've been doing.
"I know it was small of me but i really did need some validation at the time [the mid-80s]. I really was starting to feel that i used to do was a pointless exercise and maybe it didn't make sense to anybody but me. So it was kind of cool to find someone like that and discover that my pluralistic nature had finally found maturity in these damned 90s.
This year Bowie proved in his debut retrospective art exhibition how he hopes to ring the changes in the visual arts, too. Almost every corner of the Cork Street gallery was crammed with charcoals, 3D works, sculptures, figurative paintings, collaborations with the South African artist Beezey Baily, computer-generated art, posters and wall paper he designed for Laura Ashley. The critics were not impressed, dismissing his exhibits as, at best, childish fun.
"As the world would say: Oh my God, please no, not another rock singer who paints! What the world really needs now is another bloody post-modernist dauber..... Nevertheless, he intends to hold another exhibition this year-"You're not going to get rid of me"- and he's also writing the theme to a TV series about history of British art, a project that has fueled rumors that he's actually going to host his own art show. The "dauber" erupts into another raucous howl at this idea. No, I'm not about to become a talking head of art. I'm staying away from that, especially in Britain. I'll come over here and talk about it but I'm not going to open my mouth in Britain. I know my station.
Still, his determination to establish a "good track record" shouldn't be underestimated. He's already courting the flashy young theorists and has recently finished his first collaborative work with Damien Hirst, entitled Hallo Beautiful Spaceboy. And as a board member of modern Painters magazine, he's got the sales receipts from his exhibition to prove it. In many ways a glib but intelligent pop icon, ambitious, easily bored and with first hand experience of the advertising world-he used to work in an ad agency as a graphic-designer-Bowie is well-qualified to succeed as a modern conceptual artist. He's certainly a better thinker than a cut-and-paste design-studio worker.
"I sliced my thumb in two with one of these things, he reveals, returning to the scalpel once again as he recalls his experience at the ad agency 30 years ago. "God, I fucking hated that place. I spent all day doing these big frames around pictures of men standing in overcoats and looking at their watches".
Whether Bowies planned foray into art improves or not, he has plenty of musical distractions to hold his interest until the end of the century. His forthcoming co-headline tour with Nine Inch Nails is only a few weeks away. We haven't started rehearsing or anything. I've got to learn all these songs and lyrics. All this fragmented stuff. I've got to remember all that shit.
Bowies looking forward to a "stripped-down" show, leaving his new alter-egos in his Apple Macintosh. "I'm very loath to actually throw myself into the physical manifestation of characters at this moment," he says, which is just as well when they include a 14-year-old girl, a sleazy 78-year-old and a Minotaur. He believes that the timing is perfect for a big tour in the States. An interesting thing has happened in America over the past three or four years. Immodestly, I've always been aware of my weight in Europe and the influence I've had on European music scene. But in America in America I never really felt that I had much to do with the local music scene. I didn't really made much difference over here. I thought I was the eccentric English performer who came over from time to time and had his loyal audience. But I never had the feeling of: Yeah, Bruce Springsteen, the Stones, David Bowie....." His voice slides into a cigar-chomping American accent.
You know? I never really felt that I was part of all that at all. And then the first real sign for me that my music had either been uncovered or that it had meant something, at least to this new crop of bands, was obviously when Nirvana did The Man Who Sold The World on MTV unplugged. Subsequent to that, I've been finding all these interviews with people like Trent Reznor, Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots where they refer to my music as very influential in what they're doing. It really is wonderful for the ego; I can't pretend that it isn't. Its great that I feel that my music finally means something in America more than just Let's Dance single, that it actually has some contribution to make to the complexity of music over here. So now it makes so much more sense to work with somebody like Nine Inch Nails. NIN! oh wow!"
Eno won't be joining Reznor and Bowie on tour, but his contribution to another 25 hours of material from Outside sessions is likely to be released shortly. Some of it I'd like to put out as a companion piece to Outside, a sort of archival, limited-edition album," Bowie says, I really want to get back into the studio and start recording again. As much as I dearly love this new album, my attention span... its like, I've heard it a couple of times, yes I get it, very good, lets go on to something else now. There's all kinds of other novels ideas I've had that id like to indulge in. I wouldn't mind producing someone else for a change. I haven't done that in a long time." Although he's keen to move on from Outside, he does plan to develop Nathan Adlers twisted sci-fi world over a series of albums with Brian Eno as the producer. Our overriding ambition is to keep working. I'm not sure whether it will be an annual event, but during the course of the next five years, up until 1999, we want to make a cycle of records which use Adler and his world as a framework for really writing a musical diary of the last five years of the 90s and indeed of this millennium. Its quite an adventurous thing to do. I don't think any ones done it in music before.
If these ideas ever see light of day. Bowie hopes the project will climax with an extravagant piece of "epic theater" in the year 2000, his first attempt at a full-blown musical since he was forced to give up staging Georges Orwell's 1984 in the early 70s. When the trustees of Orwells estate objected, he dreamed-up his own sleazy vision of the future of Diamond Dogs, featuring songs he'd already written for the stage, like Big Brother and 1984. Over a decade later, Bowie feels he's transferred the affections I had for that idea  into the Nathan Adler diaries".
He continues: this kind of updates it, but I think it'll have the same sort of flavor... The basic idea is that once you have four or five albums you will sort of be able to map you're own way through and invent a story of your own. There are complications and plenty of ifs and alternative ways of thinking about it. I want it to be eight hours long and for everybody to bring their sandwiches."
"Another 70s promotional slogan for Bowie declared: Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming. Bowie already has a head start over the slew of artists gearing up to celebrate the end of the millennium. "I think: Be ready, you know? Always take a fresh pair of of underwear because you never know if you're going to be knocked down. This is forward planning at it best.
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