Bowie Reflects on His Career
KERRY O'BRIEN: Other rock stars have endured for as long as David Bowie, but few have had the same impact and none have re-invented themselves as often or as successfully.
He was the androgynous king of glam rock who launched Ziggy Stardust on the music world in the early 70s, who donned a frock for another album cover, declared himself bisexual and lived the part.
But along with the dramatic and, by mainstream standards, bizarre images of that decade he produced a stream of ground-breaking music that critics say had a profound impact on what followed.
Now a somewhat more sedate 57, in a stable marriage with a three-year-old daughter, Bowie no longer hits the top of the charts, but he's still a prolific songwriter, pulling sell out crowds in concert.
He's about to start his latest Australian tour and I spoke with him in Sydney earlier today.
David Bowie, there's been almost as much written and said about the different faces of Bowie, the different personas...
DAVID BOWIE: I take no responsibility at all, Kerry.
How are you?
KERRY O'BRIEN: ...as there has been about the reinvention in your music.
When you set out to build a career 40 years ago, did you already then have the kind of groundbreaking musical ambition that emerged in the 70s, or did you really mostly just want to be a star in...
DAVID BOWIE: I wanted to write theatrical - actually, strangely enough, well, maybe it's not so strange when you look at it in context, but when I was around 17 or 18 what I wanted to do more than anything else was to write something for Broadway.
I wanted to write a musical.
I had no idea of how you did it or how musicals were constructed, but the idea of writing something that was rock-based for Broadway really intrigued me.
I thought that would be a wonderful thing to do.
I saw myself as someone who would end up writing musicals in a way - probably rock musicals of some nature - but it never actually became that.
So, in a way, those ideas were kind of quashed a little when I realised what a huge ambitious thing that was to take on, you know, because you have to write dialogue and all that.
And I really didn't know how to approach that so I took a far simpler course and kind of abbreviated the idea of musical to a concept piece for an album, and created the characters to go with the albums.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, Ziggy Stardust is a classic illustration.
How much of Davey Jones is in Ziggy?
DAVID BOWIE: I don't think there was very much at all.
I honestly was trying to create an idea of how to expand rock and expand the horizons of it and I took as the alien form for Ziggy, as he was supposed to be an alien of some kind.
I based him very much on the Japanese concept.
At that time, in the early 70s, we knew so little about Japan and Japan really hadn't exploited itself and brought its stuff over to the West, so it still liked an alien society.
But it was a human alien society, so you could make a human connection to Japan far more than you could say Mars, which would be beyond.
KERRY O'BRIEN: And what was behind the androgynous images of the 70s?
DAVID BOWIE: It seemed so perfect within the time, that that really represented what the 70s was all about.
There was such a feeling coming out of the 50s and into the 60s and there was a opening of attitudes in the 60s.
And then there was the 70s.
It was the pluralistic 70s, you know.
There were so many sides to a story in the 70s.
Before, in the 50s, it was black and white.
It was one story yes and one story no.
But in the 70s you could look at so many different things in different ways.
The idea of absolute was starting to disappear.
It wasn't the right way and the wrong way.
And I just felt that it really summed up what the whole of the 70s were going to be about.
It was a guess and it was a good one.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But how much of that was you?
DAVID BOWIE: Oh, I think that definitely was me.
I was in my opinions, and in my interests I was extremely Catholic.
There is nothing that didn't interest me.
I had a burning career.
I still do have a burning curiosity about just about everything, except country and western, of course.
But other than that, I really like to understand the society that I'm living in and how it works and functions and what people are thinking, you know.
You can't be a writer in any other way, I think.
You have to sort of know where you are to write.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Is that how you see yourself mostly or primarily as a writer?
DAVID BOWIE: I think until up the last couple of years I would definitely have said yes, absolutely, completely.
But I'm so surprised.
I never enjoyed performance very much.
I mean, having the theatrical devices helped me get on stage and do -
KERRY O'BRIEN: And that was a shyness?
DAVID BOWIE: It was, really.
I never felt like a natural performer, you know.
I wasn't an outrageous person at heart.
I was actually a very quiet little Capricorn boy at heart, you know, and it seemed that I could get a kick-start to having to perform by, you know, working within the within the functions of characterisation.
The last two three or years I have just thoroughly enjoyed singing the songs that I wrote for all those people (laughs) myself and just interpreting them myself.
And I have such a wonderful supportive band that I have had now for eight years.
It's just been great.
So now I am a writer and also a performer.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You actually wrote, recorded the song Fame.
Lennon worked on that with you.
DAVID BOWIE: Yes, he did.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Tell me about that.
DAVID BOWIE: Oh, hell, I mean, he was one of the major influences on my musical life.
I mean, I just thought he was the very best of what could be done with rock and roll, and also ideas.
I mean, I felt such kin to him in as much as that he would rifle the avant guard and would look for ideas that were so on the outside, on the periphery of what was the mainstream and then apply them in a functional manner to something that was considered populist and make it work.
He would take the most odd idea and make it work for the masses.
And I thought that was just so admirable.
I mean, that was like making artwork for the people and not sort of having it as an elitist thing.
It was so much about him that I admired.
He was tremendous, you know.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Living in Los Angeles in the 70s has often been described as a lost or depressed period for you, if not dominated by cocaine then certainly deeply affected by it.
What are your own standout memories of that time?
DAVID BOWIE: I have no standout memories of Los Angeles!
KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, what's your perspective, looking back?
DAVID BOWIE: I guess a lot of it had to be my trying to function behind what really was an extremely shy reclusive kind of personality that I had.
I probably, like most people who get deeply involved in drugs, I felt it probably helped me break out of my inhibitions.
But, of course, it doesn't.
It just throws you into a real quagmire of psychic and emotional hell, really.
It just brings out, or creates, awful traumas for you.
But I had no idea of that, obviously.
KERRY O'BRIEN: What would you say it cost you in personal terms?
DAVID BOWIE: Oh, it cost me a lot of years where I could have spent them in a very different way and had a healthier and more fulfilling kind of - I mean, I think the work that I did during that period was surprisingly really good, you know.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But what you don't know is what you might have been doing without them?
DAVID BOWIE: Yes, the thing is so many people find it fashionable to say you couldn't write those things if you weren't on drugs and all that.
I just doubt that's the truth at all because some of the best things I wrote in that period I had already cleaned up.
It was an awful, dreadful period for me.
The only escape for me in the end was just to get up and clean myself out, you know, and just finish my association with cocaine, which had become such a problem that I couldn't function in any other way from day to day.
I wasn't eating.
I couldn't eat anything.
I mean, you've seen photographs of me in that period.
I was weighed 95 pounds or something.
I am absolutely amazed that I actually survived that period.
KERRY O'BRIEN: The David Bowie of today is pretty straight in every way, I read recently.
That your content with reality, that you're no longer the trail blazer.
DAVID BOWIE: I hope I am somebody that other artists could look to as maybe someone who has learnt how to ride the full curve of having some kind of longevity in their chosen profession, you know.
I'm still writing and producing the music that I've always wanted to.
And I still have a very loyal audience.
I don't think live life could be better for me.
I think I am a good example.
KERRY O'BRIEN: How much of Davey Jones is left in the David Bowie of 2004?
Can you remember him?
DAVID BOWIE: I think there's an awful lot of David Jones there, yeah.
I think you finally become the man you always should have been.
I really believe that.
And I think now that I'm probably truer to my real nature than I ever have been in my life, except maybe for when I was eight or nine when I first heard little Richard.
KERRY O'BRIEN: And you're pretty comfortable with that?
DAVID BOWIE: Yeah, I'm very comfortable with that.
KERRY O'BRIEN: David Bowie, thanks for talking with us.
DAVID BOWIE: Thanks.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Davey Jones, the kid from suburban London who became David Bowie, rock legend.
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