Images by Jimmy King
Today would have been David Bowie’s 71st birthday. In honor of that, we revisit this BlackBook story we published when he passed away on January 10, 2016 – which included a fascinating 2003 interview with him. The David Bowie Is exhibition will open at the Brooklyn Museum this March 2.
For so many, the idea of a Bowie-less world seems almost unthinkable. But in fact, perhaps the most influential artist of his time, one David Bowie, left this world yesterday, January 10, 2016, after an 18-month (and very private) battle with cancer. Fittingly, “The Dame” departed from this mortal existence on quite an artistic high. His challenging, thought provoking new album Blackstar was released this past Friday (his 69th birthday); an accompanying theater piece, New York Theatre Workshop’s Lazarus, runs until January 19; the V&A’s stunning career retrospective exhibition David Bowie Is continues its final run at the Groninger Museum in Groningen, Holland (until March 13); and a celebration of his genius, The Music of David Bowie, had been planned for March 31, at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
News outlets the world over have already reported on the sad news accompanied by rapturous retrospective. But here we revisit a profound and quite philosophical interview your author conducted with Bowie in 2003 – and which appears in the 2015 book Bowie on Bowie.
Early on, you readily explored pretenses, where others would think that was not the proper way to conduct one’s self as an artist. You were not afraid of going as far into yourself as possible to discover those choices.
I thought it was very courageous, yeah. At the time, I didn’t really realize how deep in it I was. In immediate retrospect, I would think, fuck, I’m really pushing myself out on the boat. But I was just going my own way. The only people I knew were strange, anyway, Iggy and all.
Could you have said what you wanted to say without those characters to channel it through?
I really stopped writing them for myself. I went through such a traumatic period in the late 70’s that it really changed my path. I just haven’t written in that sort of narrative way [of late]. I suppose there was something of that sort in the Outside album. That was Brian [Eno] and I going off on some kind of strange tangent; we wanted to kind of lay down a manifesto of what the early 90’s was about. I think it was right on the money.
One of my favorite albums.
Thank you very much. I must say that my core of fans, those that really know my albums, really liked it. It had a whole host of characters, and had I the motivation and the attention span, it would have been nice to have carried it out more fully – to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don’t have the patience. I think Brian would have the patience.
It’s his job to have patience with genius.
Well, he’s one himself.
I wanted to get into something significant. Culture as we knew it to be able to affect the world in other than a very straightforward emotional way is, essentially, finished…
Well, yeah, that’s the postmodernist thinking. The end of culture has arrived. I think really the intention of what they were saying is more that we’d be repeating in different ways everything that’s gone before. I’m not so sure that the culture itself is finished, but it won’t produce anything new.
You must, however, have a sense of the recontextualization of what you do. Because there was the idea in ’77 that music could change the world; and no one gets that privilege any more as a rock band…to change the world. Does it feel daunting now?
Hmm. I just think that maybe there were several of us dealing in this newly found pluralistic vocabulary, this whole George Steiner-ism of life, you know? (note: Steiner is the author of a 1971 book titled In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards The Redefinition Of Culture) But I think that the world caught up really quickly, and everybody is so totally aware of the kind of vocabulary that we were throwing around at that time, that one feels kind of superfluous now. I still enjoy what I do. But I don’t think what I do is terribly necessary…at all. And I’m really not doing much that’s terribly different from what I was doing back then. But it’s for…
For the love of it.
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
So, you’re comfortable with the way…well, when you look at even contemporary conceptual art, is it hard to not feel this sense of futility?
Yes! Of course! But I’d rather turn that futility into…well, I think it becomes a futility if you give credit to the idea that we are evolving, or supposed to be evolving. It looks like futility if you think that there is some system that we should be standing by. A religious system, or one of civilization’s philosophies. But I think if you can accept – and it’s a big leap – that we live in absolute chaos, it doesn’t look like futility anymore. It only looks like futility if you believe in this bang up structure we’ve created called ‘God,’ and all. It’s like, don’t tell me that the whole system is crumbling; there’s nothing there to crumble. All these structures were self-created, just to survive, that’s all. We only have a moral code because, overall, it helps us survive. It wasn’t handed down to us from anywhere.
I wonder sometimes if we’re just supposed to destroy the world; that we don’t possess the ability not to.
I don’t think we are. I don’t think we’re going to destroy it at all. I’m not that pessimistic. I just believe we’re going through a transition where we will become a humankind that accepts chaos as our basic premise – that it’s how we exist.
But I’m not sure the Earth can hold up to it. It may not actually survive our progress.
Well, I’m not going to tell my daughter that. I’m going to tell her that she’s going to have a great life, and it’s a terrific world, and that she should embrace all experiences. You see, I have to do that. It’s really important for me to work hard on developing a positive attitude. Because it’s not for me anymore, and I’m very keenly aware of that. I just can’t get that selfish. And it’s very, very easy for me to vacillate over into the more depressing, nihilistic, dark side of life. And I just don’t need to do that right now. It comes through in my writing because it’s the only space I allow myself to function in that particular way.
It’s where you’re working it out.
Yeah. And it’s like that old adage that Brian uses: ‘In art, you can crash your plane and just walk away from it.’ Which you can’t do in real life, of course. You present a darker picture for yourself to look at, and then reject it, all in the process of writing.
It’s like you’re having a dialogue with yourself.
And I think that’s what’s left for me with music. Now I really find that I address things with myself. That’s what I do. If I hadn’t been able to write songs and sing them, it wouldn’t have mattered what I did. I really feel that. I had to do this.
That’s very existentialist. Which is something that i’ve always gotten from your work. People will tend to focus on the nihilism in your work…
But it is more existential than nihilist. I’ve always felt comfortable with writers like Camus. But people would read that as being so negative. And it wasn’t! It just made absolute sense, what he had to say.
So, how do you still manage all of this? How do you just keep on going?
I’m not sure how many I’ve got left, you know? But making music is really still at the top of my pile. I really enjoy it so much; I love writing it, and I love creating it. And I think we all have a longing for something that can engage our systems, and that we can nurture ourselves with; a romance of life. It becomes harder and harder to plug into that particular feeling, I think. But what else would I do other than what I do?