It is four decades since David Bowie unveiled his Ziggy Stardust glam-alien persona. Charles Shaar Murray interviewed him about Ziggy — and all related matters — at London's swish Dorchester Hotel, with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop passing through to pay their respects. Murray's classic interview ran in New Musical Express on July 22, 1972——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Three changes of dress and a kiss from Lou Reed. The waiters were horrified.
Jill and Lyn are 17 and they're into Bowie. They've both seen David working three times in as many weeks. They've both got Ziggy Stardust and neither of them like Marc Bolan. Jill says she likes the way David looks. She doesn't necessarily think he's good-looking, she just likes the way he looks. They and me and a sweaty hall-full of other people saw David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars work Friars in Aylesbury at the weekend. The phantom waver of the Ziggy banner put in an appearance as well, and it was alright, the band were altogether and Ziggy played guitar.
The Spiders are a surrealistic vision of a rock band. Trevor Bolder's silvered sideboards hang several inches off his face and Woody Woodmansey's hair is an orange Vidal-Sassoon duck's ass similar to David's. Through the show at top speed until the final encore of 'Suffragette City', where David pulls of his most outrageous stunt and goes down on Mick Ronson's guitar. David is gonna be huge.
The day after the gig he's holding an extended press conference at the Dorchester Hotel, held especially for the planeload of American writers flown in for the weekend. In the foyer everything is frosty, air-conditioned elegance, in slow motion after the sweltering dusty street. Down the mirrored corridors of the second floor through the door into a suitably chic room where assorted media people are eating cakes and sandwiches and drinking tea and/or Scotch.
Lou Reed and his band are there, all the Spiders, and curled up in a corner in a Bolan T-shirt, eye shadow and silvered hair is Iggy Pop. When I got there David was wearing an entirely different outfit. Before I left he'd changed into a third.
David's wife, lithe and crewcut, is smoothing things down, getting together drinks and being assaulted by Lou's roadie. When I arrived, he'd just bitten her in the stomach and as she's very slim, the bite had gone direct to her abdominal muscles and everybody was falling about. Woody pours me a sumptuous Johnnie Walker Black Label and peach juice. Lou Reed is talking quietly to David. He's wearing shades and maroon fingernails. Periodically, horrified waiters enter to deliver yet more scotch and wine and sandwiches.
CSM: At the moment, the most popular rock journalist words appear to be funk, camp and punk. To what extent do you think you've brought these words into essential usage?
DB: I think it's most probably due to the general inarticulacy of the press. They're very small-minded. They do indeed revolve around those three words.
Not revolve around. They crop up...
Yes they do. Funk, I don't think I have anything to do with funk. I've never considered myself funky. Would you say that? I wouldn't...
Would you want to be?
Yes. It's a muddy kind of thing. Camp, yes I understand the camp thing. Once upon a time it was, I think, put down in the category of entertainer, but since the departure of good old-fashioned entertainers the re-emergence of somebody who wants to be an entertainer has unfortunately become a synonym for camp. I don't think I'm camper than any other person who felt at home on stage, and felt more at home on stage than he did offstage.
Nobody ever called Jerry Garcia camp.
No, right, but he's a musician and I'm not a musician. I'm not into music, you see on that level. I don't profess to have music as my big wheel and there are a number of other things as important to me apart from music. Theatre and mime, for instance.
You say you don't consider yourself a musician, but for somebody whose producing music of a very high grade, I would reckon that you're entitled to be called a musician.
Okay then, I'll shift my emphasis. I wouldn't think I'd ever be considered a technocrat on any instrument. I have a creative force which finds its way through into a musical form.
You were saying you didn't consider yourself to be a musician.
In that terminology, in that definition: that a musician is a virtuoso on his instrument? By no stretch of the imagination. I play a good alto — I played a bit actually on the Mott album, which is quite pleasing for me, having not touched a sax for a long time.
You used it on Hunky Dory.
Yes, but just for a few phrases. I used it quite heavily on the Mott thing. [Interjection from Mick Graham: "You used it on stage."] What? Yeah, I did a James Brown thing for a couple of gigs. We did 'Hot Pants' and we blew a bit. We did it at some of the gigs where there seemed to be a lot of Mods, so we thought we'd throw it in, I ad-libbed most of it.
I remember five years ago trying to run a blues band and failing completely because people were standing at the front shouting "Geno! Geno! Play some Tamla!"
Oh yeah but I was a great soul merchant, a James Brown merchant. I've always dug his very funky things, but I've never considered that I was capable... I'm never gonna try and play black music because I'm white. Singularly white!
There's a distinct kind of white funk. Velvet Underground for instance. Going by that as a yardstick of funk and not Albert King, wouldn't you say that what you are doing is into a certain kind of funk?
Yes, I couldn't put my finger on what it is. Of the rock'n'roll things that we write, they would definitely be in the Velvets bag, because that's my biggest influence in rock'n'roll — more so than Chuck Berry, the archetype.
I'd say that Lou Reed was to you as Chuck Berry was to the Stones.
Yes very much so, that's a very good analogy, and I agree with it entirely. In fact, I've said the same myself on numerous occasions.
The second pre-conceived question I came with was that rock'n'roll is increasingly becoming a ritual. Instead of the very down-to-earth stance of, say, the Dead. Its becoming very much of a spectacle, very formularized.
I've not seen many bands where I've noticed that.
Alice is a very extreme example. I think you come into it to a certain extent. I think Bolan does. Sha Na Na in their own particular way also...
Well, you must firstly tell me your feelings on this before I quite know what your question is...
I have mixed feelings about it, in some cases it works. I think it works when you do it, but sometimes I get the feeling that the audience is being excluded.
Yes, I feel that a great deal more: theatre does not necessarily mean props. As you saw with us, we were using no props. We're not into props. If we have theatricality it comes through from us as people, not as a set environment or stage. Like playing an instrument, theatre craftsmanship is something that one learns. There are going to be a lot of tragedies and a lot of clangers dropped over the next few years when a lot of bands try to become theatrical without knowing their craft. I'm a very professional person, and I feel that I contribute all my energies into my stage performance, that when I'm on stage I give more to an audience than to anybody else when I'm off stage. I've worked hard at it. I was with a mime company and I've had other theatre experience. What I'm trying to say is that it's important to know about the things you do and to have learnt it, as it is to learn your instrument. As the theatrical expression evolves a lot of it is going to be on a secondary-school amateur dramatics level. There will only be the odd bands who have the knowledge to master their theatre. Iggy has natural theatre. It's very interesting because it doesn't conform to any standards or rules or structures of theatre. It's his own and it's just a Detroit theatre that he's brought with him. It's straight from the street. Remember we have only been on the road for three months, so its still coming together, but I wish myself to be a prop, if anything, for my songs. I want to be the vehicle for my songs. I would like to color the material with as much visual expression as is necessary for that song.
One thing I've noticed is the way you use words, like in 'Andy Warhol' where you transform the word "wall" into Warhol. I mean, the way you listen to speech and incorporate it into sound.
One can say a sentence to three people and it'll take on an entirely different meaning for each of those three people. I think if any of my stuff becomes at all surrealistic it's because that's the purpose of it. It's to give people their own definitions. I certainly don't understand half the stuff I write. I can look back on a song that I have just written and it means something entirely different now because of my new circumstances, new this or that. I get told by so many people — especially Americans — what my songs are about.
You had better watch out or you'll have your very own A.J Weberman rooting through your garbage.
I have one already! He's not quite at garbage level yet, but he's certainly very adamant about what I mean. It's disconcerting to say the least. Alarming. But America is made up of academics. They're very Germanic in that respect. Because they are so subconsciously aware of being a new nation that has no accepted roots in the old world, they strive for their own culture as fast and as quickly as they can. Whatever isn't needed is soaked up by the media and becomes part of the American way of Life. They're terribly self-conscious about everything. The level to which rock music has become an academic subject is just incredible. I could walk into a shop and see row upon row of books about any aspect of rock. I mean writers about rock. I mean writers about writers. There are even books on [Richard] Meltzer. Layer upon layer. Its a build-up. They're making their own culture.
Another line of yours I wanted to ask you about is in 'Five Years'. You said, "I never knew I'd need so many people".
Basically what it means is realizing the inevitability of the apocalypse, in whatever form it takes. I was being careful not to say what form it would take because that to me would be incredibly sad and I just tried to get that feeling over in one line. It's like the things you flash on supposedly when you're dying running down the street and...
His whole life passed before him...
Yeah, really it's like that, the grasping for life.
Do you feel worried by people who regard you as a guru?
I'm not that convinced at the moment that I am anybody's guru. I know there is a lot of interest in what I'm doing, and we seem to be getting our goodly fair share of exposure, but I'm not convinced that we are leading any particular cult.
But it's happening almost in spite of you, people examining your albums almost line by line.
Okay, well, if this is going to be an inevitable situation with the chronicles of rock, and one must presume that it will be, then I would strive to use that position to promote some feeling of optimism in the future, which might seem very hypocritical related to 'Five Years'. There the whole thing was to try and get a mocking angle at the future. If I can mock something and deride it, one isn't so scared of it. People are so incredibly serious and scared of the future that I would wish to turn the feeling the other way, into a wave of optimism. If one can take the mickey out of the future, and what it is going to be like... It's going to be unbelievably technological. There isn't gong to be a triangle system, we aren't gong to revert back to the real way of life. That's not going to happen. It's certainly not a new thing, My God, I haven't got any new concept. I juggle with them, but what I'm saying, I think, has been said a million times before. I'm just saying again that we've gotta have some optimism in the future.
'Five Years' struck me as an optimistic song.
It is, it is. The album in fact should be taken that way. 'Starman' can be taken at the immediate level of "There's a Starman in the sky saying, 'Boogie Children'", but the theme of that is that the idea of things in the sky is really quite human and real and we should be a bit happier about the prospect of meeting people.
On the second side of Ziggy Stardust the songs seem to go in a cycle. But when you play live you don't necessarily play them in that order.
I must admit I speculate on the prospect of a show which would be Ziggy Stardust, but the way I want to do it requires a lot of planning and we haven't had time for that. I'd rather leave it alone until its gonna be done properly. I don't want to do anything unless its gonna be done well.
In the other room I saw a tape box of the Mott album. The only title I recognized was 'Sweet Jane'.
That's right, Lou came down. I've got Lou singing it at the moment. I've got to put Ian on, but he doesn't know the lyrics yet.
So you recorded it with Lou Reed singing on Mott's backing?
Lou phrased it so Ian can pick up how it was.
How does it sound when Mott play it?
Fabulous, it's really good. I'll play it for you. The album is fabulous. They've never written better stuff. They were so down when I first met them.
They were having troubles with Island, weren't they?
Oh, everything was wrong. Everything was terrible, and because they were so down I thought I was gonna have to contribute a lot of material. Now, they in a wave of optimism and they've written everything on the album bar one Lou Reed number and the 'Dudes' single I did for them. They were being led into so many directions, because of general apathy with their management and recording company . Everybody was very excited about them when they first came out and then, because they didn't click immediately, it fell away. When I first saw them and that wasn't very long ago, I couldn't believe that a band so full of integrity and a really naive exuberance could command such enormous following and not be talked about. The reactions at their concerts were superb, and it's sad that nothing was done about them. They were breaking up, I mean, they broke up for three days and I caught them just in time and put them together again cause in fact all the kids love them.
[At this point, Bowie put on the rough tape of the Mott album. First cut was Lou and Mott's 'Sweet Jane'. It sounded the best Mott I've heard. While it was playing, Reed entered the room. I hoped to get him to join in the conversation but he just came over and kissed David.]
REED: That's it [exits].
I was hoping to get a two-way interview.
BOWIE: That was a two-way interview.
You retired after 'Space Oddity': Would you ever do it again?
I can't envisage stopping gigging for the next year at least, because I'm having such a good time doing it. I've never enjoyed it more. I feel I'm one with the band I'm working with and that hasn't happened before for me. I've always felt I was dragging people into doing things. I had a band once before which had the same lead guitarist.
Yeah, I saw you work at the Roundhouse once with Country Joe about two years ago.
That Roundhouse gig was the kind of thing I cite, in that I was into something there that the band wasn't into. They were very much still only wanting to be musicians at the time, and it came off as no more than everybody dressing up. Was that the one you came to where I was wearing a silver superman suit?
You weren't. You did 'Cyprus Avenue'.
We did one at the Roundhouse about the same period when we appeared very much the same as we are appearing now, and that was with Mick Ronson. I was in a cartoon strip and we all dressed up as a different super hero.
Who were you?
No one in particular but superhero type figures. We had silver suits, the thing I used to wear for 'Space Oddity', that silver cat suit which is exactly the same as this. It hasn't changed at all in three years, if you think about it, but it's different material. I was in silver lamé and blue silver cloak and silvered hair and blue hair and the whole thing, glitter everywhere. The whole thing was on that scale.
Were they ready to cope with it at the time?
No, they weren't. We died a death. And, of course, the boys said look, I told you so, let's get back to just being a band again. That's the period that broke me up. I just about stopped after that performance, because I knew it was right, I knew it was what I wanted to do, and I knew it was what people would want eventually. I didn't know when, though, so I held on. I knew it would happen, because I've always been excited about seeing things that are visually exciting and it's always knocking me out. I like seeing people pretending. I have a great imagination. I'm not a vegetable. I like to let my imagination run wild and I thought, well, if that does that to me, it has to do it to other people as well, cause I'm just a person. I'm not quite that much of a superman. And, anyway, I'm glad I stuck it out really.
Could you name four or five specific records that influenced you early on?
Yes. 'Alley Oop' by the Hollywood Argyles — just a feeling that came from it. I'm afraid I'm not very technical on things like that and all I can say, at best, is that it was a feel that I had an empathy with. I don't know what it was whether it was the zaniness of the record or what.
Is that the one about the caveman?
Yes, and that was Kim Fowley as a matter of fact. He was the Hollywood Argyle that did it, and I loved parody because...
Yes, I admire Zappa, but there again I prefer Charlie Mingus. I like my parody to be a little softer because I'm a pacifist by nature and hostility in any form, even on a mental level, I find not endearing. I think Zappa may have a problem with feeling that he was not accepted on a Mingus level and he had to find himself an audience. I don't think he's ever forgotten that.
But Pithecanthropus Erectus is not quite the same as 'Brown Shoes Don't Make It'.
Well, that's the strength of my view on parody. I'm a softer person by nature. I'm not hostile. I don't believe I'm an aggressive performer either. I like the situation that seems to develop with the audience which is generally on a very human level and they're quite friendly. It's neither screamy nor rebellious: it just has a good feeling to it. I love my audiences. I think I've not been to too many gigs, where the feeling is not nice. It's a very warm feeling I get from audiences.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't there one cut on Man Who Sold The World that is a parody of Marc Bolan?
Oh yes, yes. That was 'Black Country Rock'. I Bolanized it. I do that to a lot of people.
Apart from the obvious one, 'Queen Bitch', which of the others are notably parodic?
I did a lot of Newley things on the very first album I made, 'Love You 'Til Tuesday'. That's a very strange album.
Has it been reissued?
It will be. It's been out once. They brought it out when I had 'Space Oddity', but it didn't do so well. I expect they'll bring it out in a few weeks time. I guarantee they'll bring it out. Other songs: D'you want some more songs? Of course 'Waiting for the Man', I'll have to say that one. In fact, a lot of Lou's material. Especially that one because it sums up a lot of his early writing and his writing has changed considerably since those days. I think his new material on the album that we gonna do will surprise a lot of people as well. It's miles different from anything he's ever done before. On 'Waiting for The Man' I think Lou captured, for me better than anyone else, the feeling of New York, that particular area of New York that he was living in and those times.
The other great New York record of our times is 'Summer In The City'.
Yeah, I agree with that. I was a devoted fan of the Spoonful. I loved them. Another record was the Mingus Oh Yeah album, particularly 'Ecclesiastic' which I drew an enormous amount of pleasure from. I felt it was very 1990s — very 2001 — that whole album. I was into that sort of jazz. Before Santana came, I was into the English scene and I was never able to relate to that stuff because of my earlier interest in Coltrane and Mingus as well. A lot of Zappa's things flatten me, actually.
Any of Zappa's stuff make it with you?
We're Only In It For The Money, because I mean I saw huge potential in that area for Zappa, but I don't understand Zappa and I'm not that intrigued by him to try to unwrap his problems or try to find out why.
Were you ever tempted to get into the James Taylor thing of autobiographical songs?
Yeah, I had a spasm of that, but thank God I got out of it.
Out of all your material, with which songs do you feel most comfortable? D'you ever listen to any of your stuff and think that you could have done it better if you'd done it later?
Oh yes, lots of times. A lot of Man Who Sold The World, although that was one of the best albums I made. It was a whole traumatic period.
What's gonna be the next post-Ziggy development? Have you started to think about a new album?
No, not at all. I'm still totally involved with Ziggy. I probably will be for a few months getting it entirely out of my system, and then we'll don another mask.
Thanks a lot, and I hope you and Ziggy will be very happy together.
Oh, no. I hope YOU and Ziggy will be very happy. Ziggy's my gift to you.
IT HAD been the last interview of a long day of raps, zaps and varied craziness, and I was keeping David from an immediate departure to enjoy a fortnight's holiday. So we shook hands and said our farewells. David's alright, you know. He may even be the "shining genius" his ads say he is. Whatever, he's a gas. Long live Ziggy Stardust! We needed him.
© Charles Shaar Murray, 1972
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