People always said that when they saw David Bowie, they never knew exactly who, or what they were going to get. That’s not surprising, considering the man was a professional chameleon; a brilliant one at that, always fully committed to whatever incarnation he was inhabiting at the time; Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, Tin Machinist, Neoclassicist and so on. And on, and on, until, sadly now. The ones who knew him best also said that while these professional changes were being ushered in, developed and discarded, the core of their begetter was actually a rather consistent creature, with the unquenchable enthusiasm of a diehard pop fan and a ferocious work ethic.
It’s just over twenty years since I met him, sent to interview him for a feature in The Times Magazine that ran under the headline, Keeping Up With The Jones, around the time that he was touring the songs on his album Outside, for which he had re-united with his old collaborator, the equally multi-tasking Brian Eno. It was a strange collection, seeming to spin a narrative through images of art and murder but then, like Bowie himself, never going in quite the direction you expected.
All of which made the meeting of him a potentially baffling if rewarding experience. For what it’s worth, the Bowie that I came across that day in the Chateau Marmont hotel in Sunset Boulevard could hardly have been more – only one word for it – straight. He was charming, articulate, exceptionally bright. And straight. Straight in his response to my questions, straight in his by then abstemious personal habits, straight in his apparent monogamy and paternal devotion; still nothing resembling what used to be called a Suit, but occasionally giving out a kind of corporate fluency about his life and art.
If I had been expecting some nice juicy pseud – as his detractors would have had him – I would have been disappointed. For example, I had heard that one of his remarkably varied activities was sitting on the editorial board of the magazine Modern Painters, which put him in the company of such arts world heavyweights as Jeremy Isaacs, Lord Gowrie and William Boyd. All right, so he had an O level in art, his only one, gained at Bromley Tech, but was this enough? As in so many other things – painting, acting, songwriting – Bowie was almost entirely self-taught, his own best pupil and his own best teacher.
The summer issue of the magazine that year had a long and meticulously researched article, bearing his name, on the Johannesburg Biennale. With shameful scepticism I contacted the magazine’s editor, Karen Wright, to check whether there had been any ghosting going on. She assured me there had not; the words were all Bowie’s own, and he was in her view a man of “enormous zest and enthusiasm and a complete absence of late twentieth century cynicism.” Moreover, he had used his reputation to get an interview in Switzerland with the famously reclusive painter Balthus, of whom he was a devotee. The two had talked long and hard about, among other things, their enthusiasm for Derain, whom Balthus likened to a cloud. “He changed his opinions every day…you could never get hold of him really.”
It was just this kind of changeability that has kept Bowie’s listeners on their toes for the past half-century. For self-reinvention he is the closest thing this small country has produced to Bob Dylan, of whom the only consistent prediction is that he will abandon his styles and presentation almost to the point of becoming a fresh self.
I like to think I caught Bowie on a talkative day as he held forth with true eloquence on everything from Buddhism and drug-use, both long since abandoned, the pitiful “chaos-surfing” of the next generation, and the crucial strength of his friendships with Eno, the painter Damien Hirst and the novelist Hanif Kureishi. From memory, the only time he put his hands up as if to blank a question on grounds of ignorance was when the subject turned – I can’t think why – to Newt Gingrich, who was at the time the (Republican) Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a likely White House candidate and a constant thorn in President Clinton’s flesh. “I don’t know about any of that,” said Bowie. He wasn’t disdainful, he just didn’t have a view and was not about to pretend that he did. This was simply not his planet.
Here is just one prescient quote from the interview. Remember this was written in 1995. As always, he was so ahead of his time: “My generation wants to find a certain kind of depth between an image and a pronouncement or event. I don’t think that is a priority for the younger generation. They virtually surf on chaos. They take from the top layer of life that which they need to survive.”
Even as I write this, his status is being acknowledged by, of all people, Radio Three, who are mentioning him in the same breath as another much mourned avant-gardist, Pierre Boulez. Enough said.