The Thin White Duke Has Gone. Here’s The New David Bowie
Tim Lott, Record Mirror, 24 September 1977
THE TONE is final. This negative is as impenetrable as it is predictable.
The lady publicist is doing her job all too well, protecting her boss, the boy with the rotting teeth and mystic dilated pupil, the Thin White Duke as was.
Not for ONE SECOND can I, Joe Blow or whoever the hell else is interested speak to him.
This looks at first sight like paranoia or image-building. Ultimately it turns out be no more than a dint of the over-protective malaise that plagues harassed publicists.
Because Ziggy, The Duke, The Wide-Eyed Boy From Freecloud, Mr Newton, Aladdin Sane, David Jones, BOWIE is here and hiding.
Here is Manchester’s ATV studios. The occasion is Marc, a tarty, tinsel TV ‘spectacular’ starring one Marc Bolan, super child of glam rock.
Remember glam rock ?
For this episode though, despite his efforts to play dwarf god, Bolan is in eclipse.
Marc and David are chums from way back when. Bolan still looks part of it in his fey glitter shirt and tacky red shoes.
The programme has been in rehearsal all day. The format is hackneyed neon-and-flash. Also on the line-up are The Rods, who’ve spent most of the day doing nothing except boil in frustration and boredom; Generation X who’ve turned up late and upset the schedule; and some nobody group called Lip Service fronted by a nobody Nipponese lead singer who go through the paces of a nobody song.
When Bowie rehearses the studio is cleared. Security is tight all right. Twice I was thrown out of the studio by a swarthy black bodyguard.
First time he said: “Sorry, I’m afraid you’re not allowed in. This is a private rehearsal. Sorry.”
Second time — I sneaked in through another door — he said: “F*** off.”
The size of that boy, you don’t argue too much. However… in the space between the first occasion and the second I saw him.
I was hiding behind the curtain and there he was, 20 feet away, wide, thin mouth surprisingly turned up at the corners. Not so thin. Not so white as brown, sepia. A duke okay though, a Lord, one god-enormous rock ‘n’ roll aristocrat.
Now I’d heard — and I’m not one to gossip — the crueller breed of scandal hound had put it about that the White Powder had laid him out, that the Thin White Duke was the Skeletal Blanched Stretcher Case with vinyl nostrils.
Forget it. From where I stood — and that was close — Bowie looked more Adonis in blue jeans than a Belsen boy. Lean though not gangly, easy moving, oiled. The complexion is Cosmopolitan-fresh. He looks no older than 20.
The hard, waxed-back hair is gone, replaced by an eerie hint of nostalgia — Ziggy reincarnated, top-crop, long behind the ears. He looks so staid it’s outrageous next to Bolan’s carefully-ripped T-shirt and jeans. Deep green monkey boots perfectly match his green leather jacket, flanked around a blue shirt unbuttoned to the waist.
The shirt is tucked into a pair of straight jeans, fashionably turned up two inches at the bottom. It’s a simple boy-next-door formula but Bowie carries it off with uncanny elegance, strikingly uncluttered.
Standing with guitar at hip-height, he joins Bolan in an improvisation which moulds into a song which, for the sake of argument, we can call ‘Standing Next To You’ since that line is the sole lyric.
They stop — start — stop — start — stop — start. Bolan hops while Bowie stands stock still except for his mouth, which twitches from the horizontal to the upturned.
They eventually abandon ‘Standing Next To You’ and Bowie works on his solo spot — ‘Heroes’, the new single from the album of the same name. Now he stands without guitar and sings as Bolan backs, again with wedged Low fuzz chords scrawling against Bowie’s brittle white voice.
“We can be heroes just for the day. I can be king And you can be queen, We can be HEROES” he screams with that impossible control, the full bite of his voice snapping home to the head, to the heart.
You can’t help but be transfixed by the man, transported. Nothing exists during ‘Heroes’ except that astonishing rhythm line, the keyboard single-chord block, Bolan’s shocking inspiration. The junk set just dissolves.
It’s curious in its similarity to Bowie’s sound-blanket phase of last year. So rarely does he stick in the same vein for more than a single album but ‘Heroes’ has distinct ties with Low, the thick, electricity-drilled build-up over the brick-drop drum sound.
He seems to…
Back to earth as the gorilla propels me towards the door marked Exit. Is this where the trail stops? Thanks to the fickleness of dressing-room politics, not at all. Some directive has been rescinded — people who aren’t directly necessary to the filming process will, after all, be allowed on the set to watch Bowie performing on the take proper.
THIS TIME — that’s a couple of hours later — Bolan sweeps onto the set in a leopard-skin leotard.
Then it’s Bowie and ‘Heroes’. The studio, Generation X, The Rods, The Lips, the dancers, the toadies all hold their breath.
Generation X member 1: “Oos that?”
Generation X member 2 (with awe): “The Fin Wite Juke.”
Ha! If he’s the Thin White Duke then he’s the Thin White Duke Next Door. He’s a breezy teenager, a disco wallflower. ‘Heroes’ gets underway. As it finished there’s an unnatural silence, unnatural because genius begs applause and this is genius, no dilution, only dilation.
Bolan is now again in his ‘punk’ uniform, while Bowie stands as before. ‘Standing Next To You’ is cut short.
“WHAT THE F*** IS HAPPENING?” yells Bowie. He is referring to the fact that the cameramen and technicians have suddenly downed tools and blatantly deserted the set.
What he is witnessing is the slightly unsavoury side of British Trade Unionism. See, it’s seven o’clock exactly. Basically these workers don’t give a monkey’s about the show, they just want to go home at seven o’clock on the dot.
So that’s it. It screws up the sequence and the Rods go home without getting a look-in. Bowie looks like he can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. The Rods can’t believe it, and start shouting, but to no avail.
Bowie, gauging the situation, slips off. Next thing I hear he’s gone. Flown the coop. Done a bunk. This is annoying. Everything is annoying.
What can a boy do?
IT LOOKS like being a long, long ride back to London. The train carriage is second class. British Rail not being prone to exaggeration, it’s seedy, real seedy. The seats look like they haven’t been cleaned since the days of steam, the aisles are dingy, the windows smeared and dirty.
The Rods lay, flaccid, about the otherwise isolated compartment. They’ve perked up a bit now, but want something to resent — the TV company, Generation X, Bowie — something.
Miraculously they get a chance to vent anger. Because without warning Bowie walks through the central aisle.
Did you know superstars GO TO THE TOILET? I honestly never realised. Like The Queen I thought they had some sort of celestial excretum disposal unit that functioned in a graceful, dignified way, beyond the reach of mere mortals.
“Allo, howya doin?” he asks. He sounds quite, quite normal. So what did I expect, Serbo-Croat gasp? “Be back in a minute.”
And in a minute back he is.
“Anybody hungry? I’ve got a bit of stuff next door — beer, food, bit of wine. Fancy it? I’ll bring some in.”
This figure of dislike, this brunt of resentment, changes into a saint in an instant. The Rods do fancy beer, food, wine…
And back he comes again, tablecloth and all. A spread unfolds on the table — French cheeses, hams, French loaves, red wine, butter, pate. He plumps himself next to Barrle Masters, joins in the bitter complaining about, the TV show, discourses on how lousy it all is. Especially since he really likes The Rods, he says. It looks like he’s going to be there for the duration.
“Sorry, I don’t know you all,” he apologises and goes round shaking everybody’s hand, lordly and charming — “Barrie… Paul… Dave… Simon… Graeme…”
By now I’m planted immovably opposite him. The Rods all get his autograph on the paper dinner plates but, distracted by the food and the noise of the train, maintain only a polite interest.
I note the crucifix hanging around his neck, resting between the few long hairs on his chest. Not another God-squad casualty.
“Aaaaah.” His expression slips to tentative, recognising the uneven ground and possibilities of misinterpretation. “It has some religious significance — but not necessarily as a Christian symbol.
“Before Christianity the crucifix had quite a different significance — the vertical line represented heaven, the horizontal earth. The crucifix was the meeting of the two.”
Bowie wears the cross to declare his faith in Cabalism, a quasi-religious sect, the doctrine of which is often described as ‘white magic’.
“Cabalism is based in numerology, astrology’s predecessor, and
the missing scrolls of the Old Testament. ”
Bowie speculates that these missing scrolls are held by the Russians and were used by them in an attempt to bribe the Pope into checking the spread of Catholicism.
“But, as the Queen said to Alice, you can only believe six things before breakfast.
“How far do you want me to go into this?” he asks resignedly, with the air of a man who’s tried to explain the same thing too many times before.
It’s established there is some sort of God involved in Cabalism and Bowie believesin it. “I have a spirit and I believe that comes from God.”
To punctuate this statement he surrenders to an odd habit; after making any statement he considers particularly important or complex, he grins disconcertingly, showing his small, decaying teeth and fixes you with an unremitting stare for at least five seconds.
It’s a ‘what do you make of that?’ grimace. He literally stares you down, into the ground, one bizarrely large pupil evaluating you, picking and analysing reaction.
Bowie is conspicuously a man who has interests more diverse than rock ‘n’ roll. This is fine — but it often points to a musician who is hideously bored with the music industry and is flailing desperately in an attempt to get accepted as something else.
If this applies to Bowie you might expect him to be reluctant to discuss his musical career. In fact quite the reverse is true — he proves forthcoming, eager even, to explain his musical stance.
“I was disappointed in the reception Low got from the press — I gave them more credit than that.
“A lot of people dismissed it as an Eno album. Obviously he was very important to Low — but I put a lot of blood and guts into that album, a fact that tends to be ignored.”
‘Heroes’ is very much an extension of Low, says Bowie. This is abnormal — his obsession with creating a new approach on every album usually precludes any concept spread over more than one record.
“‘Heroes’ and the next album will be in the vein of Low. That’s probably more out of spite than anything else.”
The section of Low that most critics found confusing was side two…
“You want me to explain that to you? It’s my reaction to certain places. ‘Warszawa’ is about Warsaw and the very bleak atmosphere I got from that city. ‘Art Decade’ is West Berlin — a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution. ‘Weeping Wall’ is about the Berlin Wall — the misery of it. And ‘Subterraneans’ is about the people that got caught in East Berlin after the separation — hence the faint jazz saxophones representing the memory of what it was.”
Eno, so important to the atmospherics of that confusing piece, appears on ‘Heroes’ with Robert Fripp.
“Eno is great — he can’t technically play, like I can’t technically play the saxophone — it’s the sound that matters.
“I’m trying to get Eno to tour with me in February but he’s very reluctant to do anything live — he just isn’t interested at all in the commercial side of things.
“I won’t be touring ‘Heroes’ but there will be another album between now and February and I’ll be touring for that. I won’t be starting in Britain but I should come here before the middle of the year.
“I also hope to have Robert Fripp touring with me. He’s amazing — I’ve made a new mate in Robert.”
With such depressing opinions on the state of Berlin it seems odd that Bowie should continue to record there.
“Berlin makes me feel uneasy, very claustrophobic. I work best under those sort of conditions.
“But I’m living in Switzerland right now. It’s OK if you’ve got something specific to do and I have. But I can understand people getting very bored over there.”
Also currently living in Switzerland is Iggy Pop, the ex-Stooge whom Bowie resurrected last year. The Rods — particularly Paul Gray — seem vitally interested in Iggy.
Iggy would have meant very little in 1977 were it not for Bowie, who co-wrote most of the tracks on his Lust For Life album. Iggy has received much of the same flak from his connections with Bowie as Bowie was prone to through his collaboration with Eno — producing a solo album that isn’t.
Bowie is adamant in his friend’s defence — “No, I didn’t influence Iggy. He is very definitely his own man. I take credit only for bringing him to Europe.”
He swigs his Carlsberg Special Brew and sucks on a French cigarette, remarkable in its normality. For the first time in years he seems to have no character to hide behind.
“I’ve given up adding to myself. I’ve stopped trying to adapt. No more characters.
“The Thin White Duke was a very nasty character indeed.”
Drifting yet again back to Low, it seemed the second side could easily have been interpreted as a soundtrack to some as yet unwritten film.
“Yes, I’m very interested in soundtracking. I’m currently working on a musical film which I’m going to score and star in. I don’t really want to say any more than that right now. It’s very weird, very weird…”
Bowie’s last excursion into acting, The Man Who Fell To Earth, met with a mixed reception. A lot of critics, reluctant to be thought uncool, slapped all sorts of obscure interpretations on what was a very confusing film.
To be frank, I had a bitch of a job working out what was going on. It’s no end of consolation, looking in retrospect at all those smug analyses, that I wasn’t the only one…
“I loved doing The Man Who Fell To Earth. Unfortunately I am still trying to work out what it’s all about.
“I understand the book all right. But some of Nicholas Roeg’s interpretations were a bit weird in the film.”
Bowie’s acting aspirations don’t come to a full stop at oblique science fiction. He’s currently working on a third film about the life of German expressionist painter Egon Schiele.
Broadly it’s a tragedy — Schiele used to paint pictures of little children and get thrown in jail for it. Bowie sees it as a challenging role and of course looks forward to it.
He Is conspicuously nothing if not multi-faceted. In brilliant contrast to the run-of-the-mill rock ‘n’ roll grease monkey his fascinations take in the sweep of a huge vista of interests.
That has its pitfalls. One quote — or misquote — that he hasn’t been allowed to forget is a comment he supposedly made to the effect that Britain needed another Hitler. As a result his face has appeared on ‘Rock Against Racism’ leaflets and he has been attacked as a fascist. A gross misunderstanding apparently.
“What I said was Britain was ready for another Hitler, which is quite a different thing to saying it needs another Hitler. I’m closer to communism than fascism — that at least has some saving graces. Besides, I’m half-Jewish.
“But I stand by that opinion — in fact I was ahead of my time in voicing it. There are in Britain right now parallels with the rise of the Nazi party in pre-war Germany. A demoralised nation whose empire had disintegrated.
“The trouble lies with the fact that now they’re beginning to realise it’s disintegrated. They’re losing their dignity, which is dangerous.
“All the National Front needs right now is a leader. One will come along and…”
He leaves the rest to dark imagination.
Bowie admits he’s a pessimist but certainly doesn’t give it away in his countenance. Most of the time he grins easily, bright and intense, maintaining an atmosphere of saying less than he knows. Talking of which… Bowie suddenly twitches and leans over towards me.
“I’ll tell you something,” he breathes, secretly. “I was talking to John Glenn, the moonshot astronaut, and we stayed up until late in the night.
“We were just talking for hours and the atmosphere got very maudlin. He was staring into his drink and out of nowhere he said: ‘I saw more up there than I care to talk about.’
“He was quiet for a while longer, then he said: ‘Earth is not alone’. And however hard I pressed him he wouldn’t explain what he meant. Can you believe that?”
Pause for effect. Teeth bare, five-second stare.
“But I could tell from his tone that he was telling the truth. I believed him totally.”
The weighty, the bizarre — they hang around the corner of Bowie’s mind all the time, edging music to the fringes. But he’s only the slightest bit hesitant in voicing his judgment of the new wave-punk movement in Britain.
He’s a particularly pertinent character to judge since he’s one of the few white over-25s who get cited frequently as a mentor by assorted punks, along with Lou Reed and Iggy. The admiration is only half reciprocated.
“I think it’s great because it’s got people off their backsides.
“But I can’t personally relate to it — I can enjoy some of it, but it’s not my generation. I think my generation did it better.”
Bowie admits he may be prejudging. The only band of that ilk he has seen are the Vibrators who supported when he toured with Iggy earlier this year.
He’s particularly interested in the reaction some of the punk bands have been getting from those would-be ‘liberated’ children of 1967 — blind resentment, bottle-throwing, hysteria et al.
“It’s very frightening. The generation gap seems to be getting smaller and smaller. Not so long ago there weren’t any teenagers, only adults and children.
“Now it’s getting so that even a 16-year-old and 19-year-old can’t identify with the same things any more — their interests are quite different. Society is becoming more and more fragmented.
“The up-and-coming leaders, the people of my generation, are a worrying prospect. The liberated ones are the most dangerous of all because they believe their way of liberation is the only way.”
Sour. Whatever happened, wonders Bowie like so many other 30-year-olds, to the revolution?
“It’s depressing. I saw a TV programme the other week about rebel leaders of the sixties — Jerry Rubin (of Yippies fame) and the guy who used to manage MC5 — who was it now? (I think he’s talking about John Sinclair the former MC5 instigator and White Panthers leader.)
“Anyway, they’re all very straight businessmen now. The dreadful thing is they all decry what they did in the sixties — you know, ‘we were just kids’.” Bowie makes no comment on the new wave as a political movement. He’s content to stick to the musical angle.
“I saw Low as the other new wave,” he says and he’s right, except that Low was and remains newer than the orthodox new wave.
It was literally a revolutionary piece of music, potentially one that could actually re-channel musical thinking processes throughout the industry.
But lack of critical insight and the emergence of punk — worthy enough in itself — eclipsed it. Which, no doubt, is why Bowie is staying on the same tack for another couple of albums — until the rest of the world catches up.
Typically Bowie’s involvement in music isn’t confined to the creative process but also to the scientific and technical side of records. Gleefully he tells me a laser stylus is currently in production in America though he admits he hasn’t the faintest idea how it works.
He also has his own theories about how records are marketed…
“Do you know why they can’t recycle vinyl from records? It’s because they don’t know how to get the label off the centre!
“A label just wastes space anyway. I’ve been trying to get an album out without a label, just the title and artist stencilled in the middle.
“What’s more a substance has been developed that doesn’t affect the playing quality of records but toughens it to the extent that if you throw an album treated with the stuff across a room it won’t scratch.
“So you could do away with covers totally and reduce the price of records, which would be reduced already by recycling.”
Unfortunately record companies aren’t over-keen on these schemes, basically because it makes them less money. Similarly they have trouble drumming up enthusiasm for another of Bowie’s pet interests — disposable records.
“There’s a perfectly practicable process by which you can sell records that last for a few plays but sell dead cheap. So if you like it enough you simply buy another copy.”
Bowie abandons thoughts of The Industry — who likes to think about his job all the time? — and reverts to an even less cheerful vein.
“I have no doubt that Europe will be the first target in any nuclear strike because of its comparative poverty and loosening ties with America.”
Bowie’s own pessimism/realism is inescapable.
A counter suggestion to his nuclear strike theory that America or rich countries would be the first to be attacked following the development of the ‘neutron’ bomb which destroys people and not property leads, rather obscurely to the movie Earthquake.
Remember Earthquake? Its gimmick was Sensurround, a nine cycles per second sound blast that shook the seats. Apparently it might have been as harmful as a lot of people who experienced it suspected.
“The neutron bomb was developed along the lines of the French sound bomb which is capable of destroying an area of 25 miles by low frequency vibration.”
According to Bowie plans for such a bomb are readily available in France and any of the minor powers could waltz in and get a copy. However we digress:
“Low frequency vibrations can be very dangerous, obviously. That ‘Sensurround’ effect was achieved by a noise level of nine cycles per second. Three cycles per second lower is stomach-bleeding level. Any lower that that and you explode.
“All it needed was for the person who worked the sound machine to make a mistake, or for the machine to malfunction.
“Sound can be a very destructive force — subsonic sound damages the body and ultrasonic sound — very high pitches — damage the mind.”
More hair-raising facts. Bowie claims a laboratory in Santa Monica has developed a ‘black hole’ inside a lead box. If it escapes from the box, it will swallow the earth in a matter of hours.
Even I find that one difficult to believe. But Bowie is perfectly serious.
One of The Rods — remember them? — isn’t sure what a black hole is. Bowie politely explains.
“When a huge star collapses upon itself the implosion can be so massive that it leaves nothing but an immense gravitational force.
“If an object should fall into a black hole it would in theory reach a point where it travelled faster than the speed of light, which has always been supposed to be the ultimate speed anything can travel at.
“So you would overtake your light and your integral being would fall past that threshold going into the hole and possibly, an alternative universe.
“But your light would remain stuck at the threshold point…”
He distorts his mouth and arranges his arms into a ridiculous flailing ‘falling’ stance and holds, for a second, like a fly in amber, static, pressed against the side of an invisible glass wall.
“…and thus your image would remain on the edge of that black hole forever.”
Teeth bare, five-second stare.
The train is slowing to a halt now, Euston dingily coming into sight.
Bowie sits still and quiet for the last few seconds of the journey, his own integral being. Somewhere, on retrospective flypaper, his former images are stuck, hanging useless and redundant.
The man is self, no more. His own hero, the threshold point passed.
A handshake and he’s gone into his own universe, wherever the hell that is.