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David Bowie On The Ziggy Stardust Years: 'We Were Creating The 21st Century In 1971'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we remember David Bowie. He died of cancer yesterday, just a couple of days after he'd released the new album "Blackstar" on his 69th birthday. David Bowie emerged as a rock star in the late '60s. And as Ken Tucker wrote, "In the face of the hippy era's sincerity, intimacy and generosity, Bowie presented irony, distance and self-absorption. His song 'Changes' announced the arrival of a new counterculture," unquote.

Bowie had a genius for continual change himself, reinventing his sound and his image throughout the decades. Each album seemed to find Bowie in a different persona, with a new sound to match his new look. From Major Tom the lost astronaut in the 1969 "Space Oddity" to Ziggy Stardust the glam rock star in 1972. He mixed genderbending with science fiction and reflections on fame, death and fashion. Bowie went on to make best-selling music - funk, dance music, electronic music, while also being influenced by cabaret and jazz.

Bowie's last album "Blackstar" featured him backed by a jazz quartet. Always drawn to the theatric, Bowie also performed in stage productions of "The Elephant Man" and just recently collaborated on "Lazarus," an off-Broadway musical that's a sequel to his 1976 role in the film "The Man Who Fell To Earth."

When I spoke with Bowie in 2002, a digitally remastered CD of his 1972 album "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars" had just been released for its 30th anniversary, and the film was back in theaters. We started with the title track of Ziggy.


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly and The Spiders from Mars. He played it left hand, but made it too far, became the special man then we were Ziggy's band. Ziggy really sang, screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo, like some cat from Japan. He could lick them by smiling. He could leave them to hang. They came on so loaded, man, well-hung and snow-white tan.

GROSS: Now, your movie "Ziggy Stardust" is back in theaters. It's been re-released. I'm going to ask you to describe creating the character, what you thought about when you were coming up with it, why you came up with it.

BOWIE: Well, I guess the simple one-liner is that myself and my mates and I guess a certain contingent of the musicians in London at the beginning of the '70s were fed up with denim and the hippies. And I think we kind of wanted to go somewhere else. And some of us, I think, us small, pompous arty ones...


BOWIE: ...Probably read too much George Steiner and kind of got the idea that we were entering to this kind of post-culture age and that we'd better do something postmodernist (laughter) - quickly, before somebody else did.

GROSS: So did you see the kind of gender aspects of your performance, you know, dressing - you know, sometimes wearing an evening gown, sometimes, you know - often wearing lipstick, dyeing your hair, lots of eye makeup...

BOWIE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Did you see the gender stuff as being a statement about postmodernism or a statement about sexuality?

BOWIE: Well, neither - I think they were just devices to create this new distancing from the subject matter. There was kind of a diffidence, an idea that really hadn't been thought of before, that the history of rock could be recycled in a different way and brought back into focus without the luggage that comes along with it. It was a very strong sense of irony, I think what became the foundation of two or three of us. I mean, the - I'm wary of the word glam because I think that became the all-inclusive term with for any bloke with lipstick on, which is fine, you know, and that's what it is when it comes down to the public level. The public, obviously, they takes things in a very simplest fashion and so they should. That's why we have such wonderful television.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOWIE: (Laughter) But I think that, as I say, that - I guess it, you know, kind of that art school kind of posturing that the Brits usually have. And it was, I guess, people like myself and Roxy Music that had a different agenda about taking up music. I think we all were kind of - well, maybe - I can't speak for Roxy, of course. But some of us were failed artists or reluctant artists. You know, the choices were either, for most Brit musicians at that point, painting or making music. And I think we opted for music - one, because it was more exciting. And two, you could actually earn a living at it. But I think we brought a lot of our sense - aesthetic sensibilities to it, in terms of that we wanted to manufacture a new kind of vocabulary, a new kind of currency. And so the so-called genderbending, the picking up of maybe aspects of the avant-garde and aspects of -for me, personally - things like the kabuki theater in Japan and German expressionist movies and poetry by Baudelaire and - God, it's so long ago now - everything from Presley to Edith Piaf went into this mix of this hybridizing, this pluralism about what, in fact, rock music was and could become. (Laughter) That wasn't really a very simple answer to anything at all, was it? Sorry about that.

GROSS: No, but it was a good answer (laughter).

BOWIE: (Laughter) Well, it was a pudding, you now...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOWIE: It really was a pudding. It was a pudding of new ideas. And we were terribly excited, and I think we took it on our shoulders that we were creating the 21st century in 1971. That was the idea. And we wanted to just blast everything in the past, rather like the vorticists did at the beginning of the century in the Britain or the dadaists did Europe, you know. It was the same sensibility of everything is rubbish, and all rubbish is wonderful.

GROSS: Now, before he became David Bowie - when you were (laughter) working - when you were playing with other bands before forming your own, did you do the denim thing?

BOWIE: I was (laughter)...

GROSS: You know, did you wear T-shirt and jeans on stage?

BOWIE: Very, very rarely, actually. No, it wasn't really something that I - because I never believed it. It always felt like you were trying too hard to look like the audience or something. That whole thing about the artistic integrity, which, of course, I've never bought into - with any artist. It's just not a real thing.

GROSS: So let me stop and see if I have this right - wearing a T-shirt and jeans seem phony to you (laughter)?

BOWIE: Yeah.

GROSS: But wearing mascara and eye makeup seem right.

BOWIE: I didn't say that wearing a glamorization of the rock artist was any truer from the other thing...

GROSS: Oh, OK, right. It's artifice...

BOWIE: They're both...

GROSS: ...But it's an artifice that you believe in.

>>BOWIE. ...It's all artifice.

GROSS: Yeah, right. OK, got it. Yeah.

BOWIE: I think my main point would be would be is that the T-shirt and denims thing, in my mind, was also an artifice.

GROSS: Right.

BOWIE: I didn't feel comfortable in that because I didn't feel like one of the working men. I mean, I could never be a blue-collar-y (ph) kind of Springsteen-y (ph) type artists because I don't believe I am that. And I don't believe I, (laughter) you know, could ever represent that. And it is merely representation.

GROSS: What was your family background?

BOWIE: I wonder.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOWIE: Well, my father worked for a children's home called Dr. Barnardo's Homes. They're a charity.

GROSS: I see.

BOWIE: He was a charity worker, in fact. My mother was a housewife. Both from - well, my father was from a farming family, agricultural family in the north of England. And my mother came from a very working class.

GROSS: What were you listening to when you were a teenager?

BOWIE: Oh, wow. It was so - I think the only music I didn't listen to was country and western, and that holds to this day. It's much easier for me to say that, the kind of music I didn't listen to was pretty much that. I mean everything, from jazz to classical to popular. And Tibetan horns were a great part of it in 1966, '67 (laughter). I love Tibetan horns.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 2002 interview with David Bowie. He died yesterday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering David Bowie, who died of cancer yesterday at age 69. Let's get back to the 2002 interview I recorded with him. I asked him if having an alter ego was less important to him than it used to be.


BOWIE: I think much has been made of this alter ego business. I mean, I actually stopped creating characters in 1975 - for albums, anyway. The only time that I've adopted characterization again since that point, for my own albums, has been an album called "Outside" that I did with Brian Eno a few years ago, which really had a myriad - maybe one too many characters - it had a lot of characters on that. And I played all the parts. But that was done as a sonic theatrical piece of music.

But the character thing really is sort of, for me, personally, rather ancient history. But it's kind of - I guess over here, specifically, in America, the sound bite-y (ph) thing really kind of stays around. And you're known by the - you're defined by the two or three things that the largest amount of people know about. And that kind of is who you are publicly. And mine is really - Ziggy Stardust, characters, "Let's Dance." That's me in the American...


BOWIE: ...Frankly, in the American eye. But, in fact, in Europe, I'm more kind of this bloke what writes lots of stuff. And I kind of - I guess, you know - a greater number of the 26 or so albums that I've made are known in Europe than they are in America.

GROSS: How is your sense of yourself as a performer different now at the age of 55 than it was when you were in your 20s and getting started and being - when you were in persona and doing the whole, you know, eye makeup and dyed hair and dresses when you wanted to?

BOWIE: Yeah, that was for 18 months, actually.

GROSS: Right.

BOWIE: Which out of a career of nearly 40 years, is not very long. However, I'll answer your question (laughter). I'm not actually a very keen performer. I like putting shows together. I like putting events together. In fact, everything I do is about the conceptualizing and realization of a piece of work, whether it's the recording or the performance side. And kind of when I put the thing together, I don't mind doing it for a few weeks, but then, quite frankly, I get incredibly, incredibly bored because I don't see myself so much as a - I mean, I don't live for the stage. I don't live for an audience. That really doesn't...

GROSS: Can I stop you and say that I'm really surprised to hear that?

BOWIE: Yeah. Most people are.

GROSS: Yeah, because...

BOWIE: I think...

GROSS: ...I always thought of you as somebody who really relished the theater aspect of performance...


GROSS: ...And who very successfully made theater a part of music performance.

BOWIE: Frankly, if I could get away with not having to perform, I'd be very happy. It's not my favorite thing to do. As I say, I don't mind trying it out and making sure something seems to work well. But I really do rather want to move on because I think it's rather a waste of time endlessly singing the same songs every night for a year, and it's just not what I want to do. What I like doing is writing and recording and much more on the, I guess, the - on that creative level. It's fun interpreting songs and all that, but I wouldn't like it as a living.

GROSS: Did you grow up thinking of yourself as a singer, or did you start singing because you wanted to sing, you know, because you wanted to perform?

BOWIE: No, I want - I start - what I wanted to do when I was 9 years old, I wanted to be the baritone sax player in the Little Richard band. I probably also wanted to be black at that particular time as well (laughter). And so I got my father to help me out with the saxophone. And we bought it over, like, a two-year period. We had something in Britain then called the hire-purchase system, or HP. And I bought it on HP, which is like you pay two and sixpence a week.

GROSS: Oh, buying it on time?

BOWIE: Yeah, over, like, a thousand years. So at the end it cost you maybe twice as much as if you could have afforded cash (laughter).

GROSS: Right.

BOWIE: And I started playing around with local rock bands, you know, with the alto. And then, in a nutshell, somebody fell ill one night, the lead singer of one of the bands, and they knew I could sing, so they asked me if I would stand in. And I quite enjoyed it, actually, I must say, at 14. It was a real trip, you know, to have girls wave at you and smile and everything just because you opened your mouth and sang. And - but really, I guess - but, no, I really wanted to do, more than anything else, up until I was around 16, 17, was write musicals.

GROSS: Was write music.

BOWIE: Musicals.

GROSS: Oh, musicals.

BOWIE: I really wanted to write musicals. That's what I wanted to do more than anything else. And it kind of - because I liked rock music, I kind of moved into that sphere, somehow thinking that somewhere along the line I'd be able to put the two together. And I suppose I very nearly did with the Ziggy character. But I had such short attention span and got disinterested so quickly after I created some kind of project that I wanted to move on. And I never really got the book together for the thing, so I had all the songs and the characters. But by the time we'd gotten it on the road and I'd been doing it for 18 months, oh God, I couldn't wait to move on to something else.

GROSS: So when you say you wanted to write musicals, did you want to write, like, Rodgers and Hart kind of musicals or "Hair"? I mean, what was...

BOWIE: No, that was my point.

GROSS: Yeah.

BOWIE: No, my point was I wanted to rewrite how rock music was perceived.

GROSS: Oh, I see. Yeah, right.

BOWIE: And I thought that I could do some kind of vehicle involving rock musicals and presenting rock and characters and storyline in a completely different fashion.

GROSS: So was singing something you started doing to come - so that you could do that kind of theater?

BOWIE: It was - well, it was the conception that, I mean, God, I would love to have handed it on to somebody else. And I guess Ziggy would have been the perfect vehicle to have done with. I don't know why, to this day, I didn't find some other kid, after I'd done it for like six months, and said, here you are. Put the wig on and send him out and do the gigs, you know. I mean, it would have been much the best thing to do. And then I could have moved on quicker to something else.

But that comes back to what I was saying. I needed to sing because nobody else was singing my songs.

GROSS: Right.

BOWIE: So I had to do it myself.

BOWIE: You were briefly in a mime group before...

BOWIE: Yes, the Lindsay Kemp Mime Company.

GROSS: Yeah, before becoming a solo musician.

BOWIE: Yeah. Well, actually it all kind of ran - I tended to be - I seemed to be kind of involved in so many things all at the same time, which is still how I kind of operate today. I just - I can't keep my fingers out of any pies.

GROSS: Well, are there things that you learned or became aware of through that mime group that you said, yeah, that - I really like that. I'm going to work with that in my own performances?

BOWIE: I think everything that I learned about stagecraft and carrying through - creating a through point for a theatrical device. I think Lindsay Kemp really introduced me to the work of Jean Genet, and through that, I kind of kept re-educating myself about other prose writers and poets. He instigated - he opened an awful lot of doors for me in terms of a new approach to what I could do. I could never have done what I did without being involved with Lindsay Kemp's company.

GROSS: While we're on the subject of mime...

BOWIE: Yeah.

GROSS: ....I have to mention that in the "Ziggy" movie, you do do those hands walking across the glass wall thing.


BOWIE: I know. That's my proudest moment of the "Ziggy Stardust" movie.

GROSS: The dreaded mime thing (laughter).

BOWIE: Yeah, well, meme (ph) over here, isn't it?

GROSS: Memes (laughter).

BOWIE: I know. It's so utterly appalled over here. I - you know, we didn't know that in England because we love it over there.


BOWIE: And it broke our hearts when we came over here and realized that memes were kind of - they're tantamount to - some kind of artistic criminals.

GROSS: Because rock 'n' roll started as a youth music, everybody always wondered - well, rock 'n 'roll continue to live? And what about the artists themselves? What about when they past 30? What about when they past 40 or when they past 50? You're in your mid-50s now. Is that an issue for you? Do you feel like you have satisfactorily found a way to be a man in his mid-50s playing your music without feeling like what you're playing is - you know what's I'm saying. That...

BOWIE: Well, I think I do.

GROSS: That you're playing music that speaks to who you are and where you are now.

BOWIE: Having not really written any generational songs - I think maybe two or three of the songs that I've ever written have any bearing on the age of the listener. My stuff tends to be far more concerned with the spiritual and with subjects like isolation and being miserable. So I think that sort of touches on, really, any age group. So, in my terms, they're just songs. The vehicle for those songs is a music that did indeed start as a youth culture music, but it has aged well in itself. And it has become a vast and complex thing now with so many subdivisions and styles and variations. No, it's just what I do. I mean, I wouldn't know how to write and play any other kind of music frankly.

GROSS: David Bowie, thank you so much for talking with us.

BOWIE: My pleasure.

GROSS: David Bowie recorded in 2002. He died of cancer yesterday at age 69. After we take a short break, we'll remember soul singer Otis Clay who died Friday. We'll hear what wrong linguist Geoff Nunberg chose as his 2015 word of the year, and Maureen Corrigan will review new books of interviews with writers. Here's music from the David Bowie album that was released just a couple of days before his death on his 69th birthday.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.