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David Bowie: The 'Fresh Air' interview

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Fifty years ago, David Bowie retired his alter ego Ziggy Stardust live on stage to a stunned audience and band mates.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS")

DAVID BOWIE: Everybody, this has been the one of the greatest tours of our life. We really...

(APPLAUSE)

BOWIE: Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest because...

(APPLAUSE)

BOWIE: ...Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do.

MOSLEY: That moment and the entire performance was captured by documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. Now, that film, "Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars," along with the soundtrack, have been restored and reissued as part of a 50th anniversary edition. Ziggy was one of Bowie's early gender-bending alter egos, mixing androgyny and science fiction. He wore elaborate eye makeup and lipstick and dyed his hair red. But even before Ziggy, Bowie had become an icon of glam rock, after posing on the cover of his 1970 album "The Man Who Sold The World" wearing a gown and makeup.

Bowie died in 2016 of cancer just after his 69th birthday. He had a genius for reinventing his sound and his image. His best-selling music was a mix of funk, dance and electronic, with influences of cabaret and jazz. Here's the title track from the new 50th anniversary restored version of the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS")

BOWIE: (Singing) Oh, yeah. 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 kill them by smiling. He could leave them to hang. Well, he came on so loaded, man - (inaudible) and a snow-white tan. So where were the Spiders...

MOSLEY: Terry Gross spoke with Bowie in 2002, leading up to the 30th anniversary of "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars." She asked him how he came up with the character of Ziggy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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 more pompous, arty ones...

TERRY GROSS: (Laughter).

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 better do something post-modernist (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 - did you see the gender stuff as being a statement about post-modernism 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 a 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 sense - a very strong sense, of irony, I think. Well, it became the foundation of two or three of us. I mean, I'm wary of the word glam because I think that became the all-inclusive term 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 take things in a very simplistic fashion, and so they should. That's why we have such wonderful television.

(LAUGHTER)

BOWIE: You know? But I think that, as I say, there were some - I guess it was, 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 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 gender-bending, the picking up of maybe aspects of the avant garde and aspects of, for me personally, things like the Kabuki theatre in Japan and German expressionist movies and poetry by Baudelaire and - oh, God, it's so long ago now. Everything from Presley to Edith Piaf went into this mix of this hybridization, this pluralism about what in fact, rock music was and could become. That wasn't really a very simple answer to anything at all, was it?

GROSS: No.

BOWIE: Sorry about that.

GROSS: But it was a good answer.

BOWIE: Well, it was a pudding, you know. 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 Britain, or the Dadaists did in Europe. You know, it was the same sensibility of, everything is rubbish, and all rubbish is wonderful.

GROSS: Now, before you became David Bowie, when you were - I mean, when you were working - when you were playing with other bands before forming your own, did you do the denim...

BOWIE: I was...

GROSS: ...Thing? 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 you and see if I got this straight. Wearing a T-shirt and jeans seemed phony to you...

BOWIE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...But wearing mascara and eye makeup seemed right.

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

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

BOWIE: They're both - it's all artifice.

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

BOWIE: Yeah.

GROSS: Right. Got it. Yeah.

BOWIE: Yeah. I think my main point 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 type artist because I don't believe I am that, and I don't believe I 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. I think Tibetan horns are one of the most wonderful sounds in the world, and Tibetan chanting. It's great.

GROSS: I've read about something that I'm sure a lot of people have asked you about, which is that when you were 16, you were in a fight that blinded you in one eye and, I think, paralyzed the muscle. I have no idea, though, what happened in the fight. Did you typically get into a lot of fights when you were that age or was this an unusual development?

BOWIE: Well, firstly, no, I was 13, not 16.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

BOWIE: And it was - my best friend hit me because I'd pulled his girlfriend. So I think probably in his mind he had every right to do that. And the greatest thing...

GROSS: And, yeah, how horrifying was it to...

BOWIE: Well, it was, you know, very uncomfortable (laughter). The best thing - part of it, of course, is that we still remained very close friends. And I can't remember - it must be 40 years later.

GROSS: And you lost the vision in that eye?

BOWIE: Pretty much so, yeah.

GROSS: As an artist, how - has it been difficult to see what you want to see, to have full depth perception, for creating and for looking?

BOWIE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Do you know what I mean? Is it...

BOWIE: I probably take in more in one eye than most people do with two, so I think I'm all right.

MOSLEY: David Bowie speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. There's a new 50th anniversary edition of the concert film "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BOWIE SONG, "REBEL REBEL")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 2002 interview with David Bowie. He had released the album "Heathen." The concert, film and soundtrack "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars" has now been restored in a 50th anniversary edition. Here's another song from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

BOWIE: (Singing) Still don't know what I was waiting for. Time was running wild - a million dead-end streets. And every time I thought I got it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet. Then I turned myself to face me, but I never caught a glimpse of how the others must see the faker. I'm much too fast to take the test. Changes. Turn and face the strange changes. Didn't want to have to be a richer man. Changes. Turn and face the strange changes. Just wanted to be a better man. Time may change me, but I can't trace time.

GROSS: Getting back to "Ziggy" again, which is back in theaters, you know, the story of Ziggy Stardust is the story of, you know, someone who becomes very famous. You know, it's the story of rock 'n' roll fame - becomes very famous, and then fame becomes his downfall. He's kind of killed, in a way, by fame. What did that fable that you created mean to you at the time? Is that the way you saw rock 'n' roll fame?

BOWIE: Well, I can only really look at it the way I look at it now, which is, I think, independently of myself, Ziggy Stardust has his own life. He's his own creation. And you know what? Good luck to him.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOWIE: But frankly, for me, I kind of closed the door on him in 1973.

GROSS: Right.

BOWIE: And I'm very happy that he's having such success and that people still like him and all that. I heard he got married. Anyway...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOWIE: I personally have another life, you know, which doesn't belong to Ziggy Stardust. And I do tend to not really get that involved in what I've done in the past. I do kind of leave that up to other people, and that's much how I feel about Ziggy. I kind of prefer the audience, and maybe writers or commentators or whatever, to make what they will of the Ziggy Stardust period and character because it actually doesn't interest me much now.

GROSS: Is having an alter ego less important to you 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. But 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 soundbite-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...

(LAUGHTER)

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, I - 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: Your new CD was produced by Tony Visconti, who worked with you from your first album through...

BOWIE: And myself. It was a co-production.

GROSS: Good. Thank you. From - so you worked together from your first album through your 1980 album "Scary Monsters." How did you get hooked up to work again now?

BOWIE: Well, we started talking about the possibility, and we sort of reunited about five years ago. And we had since that point been talking about the possibility of doing another album together. And I was the one that was really quite reticent about doing it because I'm very aware of how well thought of a lot of our earlier stuff is by the audience for those particular albums, the things that we did in the '70s and early '80s. And I didn't in any way want to cheapen or tarnish the reputation that we had. And so it took me a very, very long time to figure out the way in to re-collaborating again. And it seemed to me that the best possible thing to do was take the emphasis off the production side of things and put it on quality and strength of songs. So I stockpiled or started stockpiling songs that I thought really were good, sound pieces of work, so that we went into the studio with a very definite end point in view, and we really didn't have to lean back on the past at all.

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...

BOWIE: 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. 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 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: Most people are.

GROSS: Because - yeah, because I always thought of you as somebody who really relished the theater aspect of performance...

BOWIE: No.

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, on that creative level. It's fun interpreting songs and all that, but I wouldn't like it as a living.

MOSLEY: David Bowie talking with Terry Gross in 2002. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. A 50th anniversary edition of the film and soundtrack "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars" has recently been restored and reissued. OK. A little later, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new collection of Verdi opera choruses, and Justin Chang checks out the new film comedy "Bottoms." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE ON MARS?")

BOWIE: (Singing) It's a god-awful small affair to the girl with the mousey hair. But her mummy is yelling no, and her daddy has told her to go. But her friend is nowhere to be seen. Now she walks through her sunken dream to the seat with the clearest view. And she's hooked to the silver screen.

But the film is a saddening bore for she's lived it 10 times or more. She could spit in the eyes of fools as they ask her to focus on sailors fighting in the dancehall - oh, man, look at those cavemen go. It's the freakiest show. Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy. Oh, man, wonder if he'll ever know he's in the best-selling show. Is there life on Mars?

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with David Bowie. A 50th anniversary edition of the film and soundtrack "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars" has recently been restored and reissued. The film was made by the legendary film director D.A. Pennebaker, who died in 2019. Let's hear another of Bowie's hit songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG AMERICANS")

BOWIE: (Singing) They pulled in just behind the bridge. He lays her down, he frowns. Gee, my life's a funny thing. Am I still too young? He kissed her then and there. She took his ring, took his babies. It took him minutes, took her nowhere. Heaven knows, she'd have taken anything, but all night, she wants a young American. Young American, young American. She wants the young American. All right. But she wants the young American. All the way from Washington. Her breadwinner begs off the bathroom floor. We live for just these 20 years. Do we have to die for the 50 more? All night, he wants the young American. Young American, young American. He wants the young American. All right. All right, well, he wants the young American.

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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOWIE: 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 costs 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...

GROSS: Right.

BOWIE: ...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. I mean, God, I would love to have handed it onto 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.

GROSS: 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, 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 reeducating 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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

GROSS: The dreaded mime thing.

BOWIE: Yeah - well, mime over here; isn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

BOWIE: I know. It's so utterly appalled over here.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOWIE: You know, we didn't know that in England because we love it over there.

(LAUGHTER)

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

GROSS: Because rock 'n' roll started as a youth music, everybody always wondered, well, will rock 'n' roll continue to live? And what about the artists themselves? What about when they pass 30? What about when they pass 40 or when they pass 50? 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 I'm saying - that...

BOWIE: Well...

GROSS: ...You're playing music...

BOWIE: I think I do. Yeah.

GROSS: ...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 youth culture music. But it has aged well in itself. 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.

MOSLEY: David Bowie speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. He died in 2016. The film and soundtrack "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars" has been restored and reissued in a 50th anniversary edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAREWELL SPEECH/ROCK 'N' ROLL SUICIDE")

BOWIE: (Singing) Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth. You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette. Well, the wall-to-wall is calling. It lingers, but still you forget. Oh, you're a rock 'n' roll suicide. You're too young to lose it, but you're too old to lose it. And the clock waits so patiently on your song. Well, you walk past the cafe, but you can't eat when you've lived too long. Oh, you're a rock 'n' roll suicide. Now the Chev brakes are snarling as you stumble across the road. But the day breaks instead, so you hurry home. Don't let the sunlight blast your shadow. Don't let the milk float ride your mind. They're so natural, religiously unkind. Oh, no, love. You're not alone. You're watching yourself, but you're too unfair. You got your head all tangled up. But if I could only make you care - oh, no, love. You're not alone, no matter what or who you've been, no matter when or where you've seen. All the knives seem to lacerate your brain. I've had my share. Now I'll help you with the pain. You're not alone.

MOSLEY: Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new collection of Verdi's opera choruses. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BOWIE'S "BRILLIANT ADVENTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.