Readers may be shocked by some of the comments Bowie expresses here, but Bowie later disavowed many of these kinds of comments blaming them on mental instability caused by his drug problems.–Ed.
A day after David Bowie died I got a phone call from manager Rueben Williams. “Tell me your Bowie story. I know you’ve got one.” Well, yes—I interviewed Bowie in 1971 on his first trip to America. It was for Zygote magazine, which folded before the story could be published. The Man Who Sold the World was the new album, before Bowie became Ziggy Stardust and went on to fame. He talked a lot about his philosophy and what he was planning to do. We took him to the airport on his way back to England and when we picked him up at the apartment where he was staying he was listening to a new album, the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, over and over again.
I pulled out my old loose leaf notebook with the handwritten transcript in pencil and re-read the interview. I became a fan of Bowie’s after Space Oddity. The title track, with its astronaut Major Tom, was a great science fiction–oriented piece, but other tracks also had fascinating SF themes. The mysterious “Cygnet Committee” reminded me of the Philip K. Dick novels I was greedily devouring, and “Memory of a Free Festival” was a psychedelic meditation complete with an alien visitation that rivaled anything Pink Floyd had produced.
I was puzzled by The Man Who Sold the World when I first listened, expecting more of Space Oddity. There was no way I could have known that the radical shift between projects was a precursor to Bowie’s relentlessly variegated sequence of ideas and identities. But there was a connection through the two albums that continued into his next record, Hunky Dory, and its follow up, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Bowie was envisioning—perhaps even conjuring—a new evolution of humans: Homo Superior.
Please explain “Cygnet Committee.”
That first part is supposed to be the kind of guy who would put money into so-called underground activities, putting backing behind it hoping that he would get something out of it on a material level. And it did soothe his conscience a bit. There’s probably people over here like that as well. A kind of harmless… Okay call him a liberal, then. Ah, the second section were the Cygnet Committee, the people he had helped. I didn’t bother spelling this out at the time, but I realized very quickly after I recorded it that I should have been a little more specific. Although it’s worked nicely because some people have taken it totally different from the way I intended it and they’ve got a fine old meaning out of the whole thing.
Space Oddity strikes me as being religious. “Memory of a Free Festival” is sort of like the drug religion.
It was a drug-oriented festival. Even if I had tried to write the song without drugs in mind I would have rather not written the song. Everybody was, all of us were very heavily into drugs.
The physical body is being put to the limits of its exertion at the moment. Never before in the history of mankind have we been required to do so much in such a short space of time. It’s very hard for us to be natural.
Do you still consider yourself a Buddhist? Do you look at it as a religion or a philosophy?
[After a long pause, Bowie points out the window to a hotel across the street.]
The lights over there are very amazing to me. They are twinkling and they seem very wonderful things, and yet I have them in my own room but I don’t really take much notice of them. If that’s any kind of answer… It’s with me all the time; I’ll never be able to forget it, because possibly I am it a bit. I can still look at it as an incredible way of life or a philosophy. I wish that I could become… disciplined enough to immerse myself in that lifestyle. But I fall back on the fact that I’ve absorbed a lot of it already. Then I think, well I’m doing it the Western way. Or maybe I’m not doing it at all, just taking out of it what I needed to get through my existence.
There’s a big difference between those two albums, not only an attitude difference but a difference in the kind of images that the songs give. In some ways The Man Who Sold the World was a depressing album. Space Oddity seemed a lot clearer, less confused.
Well, I’m enjoying life much more. I’ve slowed down a hell of a lot. I’m still too close to that new one that’s just come out, to listen to it and analyze it. It would be better if you could take a specific song…
All right, “The Width of a Circle.”
“Width of a Circle” covers a period from when I was about 17 to just before I recorded this album. Jesus, my next album is going to be totally different from either of these two. I can’t relate to Man very easily because I’m still pretty near to it and I’m still having something of a difficult time at the moment. It’s much calmer again and it’s back to that, but with a different edge because now I’m happy, and I really mean it now, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I got married last year, I’ve been married for one year, and it’s been the best year of my life. My wife’s pregnant now and I’ll have a child in two months’ time. I don’t live in London anymore and I intend on coming over here to live. I made up my mind yesterday that I’m coming here to live—only for a couple of years, ’cause there’s a lot of other places I’d like to live in as well. Everything’s exciting again.
What about “All the Madmen”?
The guy in that story has been placed in a mental institution and there are a number of people in that institution being released each week that are his friends. Now they’ve said that he can leave as well. But he wants to stay there, ’cause he gets a lot more enjoyment out of staying there with the people he considers sane. He doesn’t want to go through the psychic compromises imposed on him by the outer world. [Pauses.] Ah, it’s my brother. ’Cause that’s where he’s at.
How about “She Shook Me Cold”?
Well, the two guys I was working with, drummer Woody Woodmansey and guitarist Mick Ronson, are semi-pro musicians from the North. They had a lot of trouble with my stuff ’cause they’re blues freaks, ah, and it’s all very hard and ultra-masculine stuff, so I thought I’d write one for them. And they loved it; they played their guts out on it! Tony Visconti is still producing, doing Tyrannosaurus Rex and such. “Black Country Rock” was written for Marc Bolan.
“The Supermen,” that was the seed of an idea of Homo Superior I was toying with. The coming of the New Man. I’ve written a lot of songs around that theme and only today I got an insight into another vehicle by which Homo Superior would arrive here. They were taping a show at WABC AM, one of the public service shows, and the Jewish Defense League people were being interviewed. There was a guy sitting on a piano bench in the studio. He’s taking Hebrew lessons with the fellow who’s the head of the JDL. It was Bob Dylan, who has gotten very involved with his Jewish heritage.
Ain’t that a mindfucker? As you can see there is food for thought. The “revolution” might not be so much of a political thing when it does come, but a race survival thing, as it surely is becoming here as part of the black/white struggle. If the population explosion goes on at the rate it’s been going, the politics of the whole thing will drop out and will become a matter of a race revolution. Whether that will produce a race of Homo Superior, we shall see. This idea is only vaguely seeding itself in my head at the moment, just today, and yesterday. I’ve got to think about it a lot more before I write about that particular idea. That was purely a mystical thought, a humanoid that lived forever, even though his gods were dying. It’s a murderer, a guy capable of murdering someone who found a way to kill people; he would be the new god.
I flashed on ancient Greek war heroes who would die intact when I heard that.
Yeah. It wasn’t based on that but it certainly is a parallel. I saw an interesting thing the other night on one of the Star Trek shows. Gassy show. When that embryonic force got into the spaceship and neutralized all their weapons yet kept them fighting each other inside the ship and thriving on that energy. If that had stayed around it would have been like that, it probably would have approached the Superman.
Are the songs you’re writing on this theme going to be the basis of your next album?
The new LP is just going to be a general series of observations, I’ve got like 20 numbers so far, two albums’ worth at the moment. My ego says I should put out a double album but my sales figures show that I shouldn’t do one.
By the time I’m ready to record I’ll select the ones that are up to my present way of thinking. However I’ll be thinking two months from now I don’t know. I’m a radical thinker in that I go from extreme to extreme. I find it stimulating. I’d hate to think that people considered me to have a point of view. The foremost way of expansion is to accept. Listen to people and learn from everyone and everything you see. We are told we have ultimate knowledge within ourselves and I think we can somewhat get onto the right road by looking at our fellow man. You can do so much on your own, but you can’t hide the fact that we are here with each other.
How do you see your role as an artist communicating through albums?
I like a professional attitude to media because it’s so important that if you’re going to communicate, you communicate right. You should know and study your media before you use it, and music is a very hard medium to use and you have to master it. You have to be graphic to be effective because this is a very fast era and to impress you must hit hard. People must be able to understand you instantly.
I would like to fulfill an image… because the people in this business are purely images. The audience just relates to whichever image they want. I would like to supply yet another image. I would like to supply the image of the underlying feeling of… the coming of a new world, not necessarily a new society.
It’s a very intangible state at the moment; hopefully the LP will explain it all.
Do you see yourself coming out a tradition of English psychedelic “head” bands like Pink Floyd, Arthur Brown, Procol Harum?
Don’t forget that England’s always been more of a philosophic nature than America.
But the American counterpart to that is the Grateful Dead, which is a totally different direction.
Well, dare I say that the Americans approach it with more of a primitive idealism. Not so much that, but also because everything moves so fast over here you’ve got to cut out the crap and get right down and lay home an idea very hard, and in very graphic details, whereas in England, we take our time about that and philosophize… we’re lethargic, we don’t produce any action. We just talk a lot.
Do you think that’s behind the development of these fantastically intricate concept bands?
Yes. Also, there’s more of a classical strain running through our entire musical tradition, whereas the young people in your country seem to be very aware that their heritage lies in the folk music tradition of this country.
There’s another thing to consider, with Traffic living in the shadow of Stonehenge and all. England is the strongest mystical force in the Western world. We don’t know it, none of us know it now, but it’s being revived gradually. There are so many empires of magical thought in our country that we’ve lost, forgotten through the ages.
Do you know who else was very hot on England’s magical force? Hitler. He wanted to possess our country for that reason; he needed that power to develop his Aryan race. Himmler, his right hand man, sent over 117 million pounds of SS money trying to find the Holy Grail in England. In England, the Druids have access to a lot of the Nazi books. They were turned on to the idea of Homo Superior long before anyone else. They found out that that was what the Nazi thing was about and they just collected all the books before anybody else got interested in it, or even was aware that there was such a thing as Homo Superior.
What is David Bowie?
What is David Bowie? David Bowie is the image, David Jones is me. But David Bowie is not a false person; I mean I am, also, David Bowie. I am schizoid. I’m as schizoid as my brother, except that I’m in the music business where I can get away with a lot more than my brother could get away with in the job that he had. I mean he was put into an institution for being like me. This is the fantastic quality of this business. Our level of standards of living is totally insane and absurd—to the civilian [laughs at the word] world. This army, it’s a pop army of madmen. The whole thing’s a symbolic army. I’m sure this is true, especially in England as we don’t have any more National Service, especially ’cause of this big virile blues kick that we’ve got going. Ah, it does feel like an army; I get a bit scared at times.