Loving the Alien
“I’m quite prepared to go with the idea
that all time is parallel… I’m not so sure
there is a past or a future.”
David Bowie rants against religion, reflects on the illusion of time, and remembers the early days of struggling to find his sound and vision. Popi wishes the minutes could have been hours…
Watch the walls of illusion come tumbling down. At first glance David Bowie defies rock-star clichés by gliding into the room as the Everyman – casual khakis, a loosely buttoned white shirt, stylishly disheveled hair, and gray-peppered five-day whiskers. A closer look reveals a tobacco-stained upper lip and fingers – and, yes, that hypnotically dilated left eye. But don’t be fooled by his earthly disguise. This unassuming 53-year-old is the same being responsible for shaking up rock & roll ever since the ’70s, with his ever-morphing persona, gender-bending wardrobe, and intergalactic inspiration.
His friendly manner is disarming. After Bowie pops my name off his tongue with a chuckle and lights his first of four cigarettes, I throw him a couple of questions and our conversation – not surprisingly – meanders into metaphysical realms. (This is, after all, The Man Who Fell to Earth, a veritable Space Oddity.) He’s on a roll about relativity and religion when I superstitiously check my recorder; the tape has inexplicably stopped, so I wait for the right moment to interrupt and reach for my backup batteries. Bowie doesn’t seem at all surprised and explains that stuff like this happens to him all the time. Just yesterday during a photo shoot they were trying to listen to hours…, his recently released 23rd solo album, but all three copies on hand wouldn’t work. The record company had to messenger over another CD.
“So you have your own electromagnetic field?”
“I guess so!” he laughs.
When I ask if he’s ever considered subjecting this talent to scientific scrutiny, he falls back in his chair with a, “No, never!” and another laugh.
This mechanical setback barely derails Bowie’s train of thought. When the tape is back up and running, so is he. As if speaking from the outside looking in, Bowie continues to contemplate humanity’s spiraling confusion. It all started, he explains, with the beginning of the century. “Nietzsche said ‘God is dead,’ Einstein told us that time was elastic, and Freud told us that our entire interior makeup was not what we thought it was.
“Our certainties were blown away, and we arrogantly, because of our industrial growth, felt that not only was God dead – we didn’t have to replace him, except with ourselves.
“That produced our most dark moment, with the [Hiroshima] bomb and Auschwitz, and all that happened in mid-century. That was our God we put in place of the one before.”
Which brings Bowie to one of his greatest grievances: Western religion. He believes the separation of “good” and “evil” was created to further the power of the church. Bowie’s disdain for Christianity is ironically punctuated by a silver cross around his neck – a sentimental remembrance, a gift from his father, whom he admits was not a particularly religious man. So how does one of this newest tracks, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” fit in? Bowie’s answer, that heaven and hell are both “right here,” opens into his philosophy of living the moment.
“I’m quite prepared to go with the idea that all time is parallel – all here and now. I’m not so sure there is a past or a future. I know a lot of guys my age who virtually live in the past, but for me quite the reverse has happened – both the past and the future have shrunk.”
Bowie explains that the reflective, almost regretful, atmosphere of hours… is more about people he knows than his middle-age angst – which, for him, is almost an oxymoron, since during the past 10 to 15 years he’s “become the person I always should have been.”
That self-realization had its humble beginnings at 9 years old, when Bowie aspired to be a sax player in Little Richard’s band.
“At one time I was vacillating between whether to be an architect or a painter or a commercial artist. For the first few months after I left school, I made my living as a commercial artist at an advertising agency in London. I didn’t enjoy it even slightly; it was awful!” Bowie remembers.
“I had a lot of jobs. I’d take everything, like a copying job where it required no brain at all, but I could phone the guy up and say, ‘Look, I’ve got three hours, can I make some money?’ and he’d say, ‘Come on in!’ I did housecleaning for three months – God, I loathed that, running around with buckets of water! I really did anything I could just to keep house and home together.”
Then, in 1966, he made the change from David Robert Jones to David Bowie, releasing his first-ever single, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” which he recently performed on VH1’s Storytellers.
“I haven’t played it since 1966,” Bowie laughs. “The audience adored it. I was so amused! I mean, it’s got some of the worst lines I’ve ever written in it and I just thought, ‘Well, this will be a real test.’ It went down so well, I should try a few more of them! There’s a huge backdrop of material I recorded while I was trying to ‘find myself.'”
But even after “finding” himself, Bowie hasn’t escaped the dissatisfaction he sees in other people’s lives – he’s almost guiltily sympathetic, as if by having it so good he knows how bad it can get. That empathy pervades Bowie’s new album, which was originally conceived to accompany a video game. Instead of feeling limited by the assignment, Bowie laid down the law: “I warned them I wasn’t going to write stereotypical music. As the characters begin, they seem to have no real inner life at all; I thought, ‘Well, they are empty vessels, all of them, so we’ll fill them up with whatever I’ve got.’ I didn’t pay much attention to the game,” he confesses, laughing. “The idea was to create the anguish or angst of a man who failed to pick up the opportunities that presented themselves.”
That theme is most evident in the video for the album’s first single, “Thursday’s Child,” in which, as Bowie explains, “an older guy and his wife live in parallel with his younger self and his future wife, which wasn’t to be; they coexist in the same space and don’t really realize that they’re living among each other.”
Like this song, Bowie’s newest album – along with his pervading philosophy – examines how everyday choices help you live the dream, or lose it. So what’s the next dream for somebody who has – and has done – it all? Bowie laughingly admits there isn’t much uncharted territory left in his life:
“My ambition is restricted to a 24-hour basis. It’s very important for me to not waste the day and to use it as well as possible and to be quite clear about what I’m thinking. Our era is so badly defined that I define my morality on a day-to-day basis and keep making adjustments to make it ‘right’ within my relative scale of what’s right and wrong.”
A glimpse into Bowie’s brain reveals parallel universes and space-age alienation, but at no time does he seem to submit to what he sees. Instead, he views the world as an artist, if not as an outsider. The only question left is, if he’s an outsider… where did he come from?
Originally published in Nylon magazine, 1999 – but who’s counting!?