David Bowie: the smartest guy in the room

It’s 1991. Tin Machine are playing a launch gig on a specially-built stage on the runway at LAX airport for the telly and about 300 people. Planes ascend and descend, in shot, in the far background. Bowie walks amongst us — the waves parting — to take the stage. Lime green suit, wonderfully erect posture. As the band are about to start, Iman, in a red and white checked suit, waves at me from the next table. Bowie had introduced us for a second when I was interviewing him an hour earlier. He’d kept chatting while he tuned up. Yes, in Tin Machine, Bowie tuned his own guitar.

I’m pleasantly surprised by how friendly Iman is so I wave back. Her two table-mates turn to see who she’s waving at, and, seeing me waving like an over-keen Tigger, instinctively and good-naturedly wave back even though we’ve never met. And that’s how I spent five seconds in LA in 1991 being waved at by Iman, Sean Penn and Harry Dean Stanton.

Bowie in person had this way of making you feel, if not important, at least not insignificant. Which is, of course, exactly what his music did for a generation of teenagers who felt themselves misfits, freaks and outsiders as the Seventies put into action elements of what the Sixties had boasted it was doing. If we couldn’t have a post-capitalism society, we could at least have one where self-expression mattered and you had some input into your choice of identity. The strange in us didn’t have to be stamped out, it could be nurtured into something beautiful and creative.

His charm was legendary. To interview him was to view a master class in cerebral seduction. He was ridiculously articulate, intelligent and well-read (“on a good week I’ll get through three or four books”), but his long monologues on Russian politics or German art would be reined in with a self-effacing chuckle when you reminded him you needed to talk about the new album, or Ziggy, or The Thin White Duke. In a 1995 interview at the Chateau Marmont, nominally about the Outside album, he gave me tangents on the death of religion, computers, beatnik literature, the American dream, South Africa, Basquiat, Picasso, his mates Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken and Gary Oldman, Eno’s baldness, ageing, and Boys From The Blackstuff. Quoting Lennon in a perfect Scouse accent, he suggested that perhaps good pop music should follow the line: “Say what you wanna say, make it rhyme, and give it a backbeat.” I ventured that for Outside, one of three wasn’t bad. He laughed his head off and concurred, “Accessibility is not its keynote”. Sometimes the light would catch his eyes a certain way as he looked at you and you’d have a real oh-my-that-really-is-David-Bowie moment. If he cast a glance at the TV in the corner of the room for a second, you couldn’t help thinking: Thomas Jerome Newton.

He brought all this mythology into the room. He carried it lightly, to put you at ease, yet was simultaneously aware of its presence. Did he let it do the heavy lifting for him? He did not. I have no doubt an aide gave him a few charm-offensive bullet points before he walked into the room, but it was still quite a win when he’d walk in with a big grin, looking fantastic, and go, “Chris! How’s Hammersmith? You still there?” three or four years after you’d last interviewed him. Disarming, sure, but he broke the ice without making a big deal of it, and if you pulled him up on something or shepherded his hyperactive brain in a preferred direction, he was game and genial. The thing we always read about him taking on board other people’s ideas? All true, because he was smart enough to listen, his antennae twitching to assimilate anything useful to borrow or bounce off. Remember, this guy was telling us the internet was going to change everything almost beyond recognition when people were mocking him for falling for the latest five-minute fad.

How’s this for grasping “the internet” before it was fully a thing? “An OJ Simpson trial, the phrase ‘the gloves didn’t fit’, and a Middle Eastern crisis, the phrase ‘the mother of all wars’ – those two phrases carry equal weight. There seems to be no disparity between them. It’s all relevant and irrelevant. When you get that lack of stress on what’s important and what isn’t, the moral high ground seems to disappear as well. You’re left with this incredibly complex network of fragments that is our existence.” But all is not lost. “Rather than running away from it, I think the younger generation is learning to adapt to it, but everything will not return to how it used to be.” I think I’d only asked about the production on Hours.

He would gush about new bands like a teenage fan, and had a twinkling sense of humour too. “I thought I’d play a couple of numbers from the Tin Machine album,” he announced onstage at the Birmingham NEC in 1990, during his rearguard-action Sound And Vision “retiring the hits” tour. “Wait, wait, where are you going…? Come back!” This was the tour where he clawed his way back from the supposed ignominy of the “excessive” Glass Spider shows, though personally I’ve yet to be convinced there’s much wrong with wearing gold wings and singing while swinging from a rope ladder.

For a while, having become by design a stadium-packing mainstream pop star via Let’s Dance, he couldn’t get arrested by critics. It’s a testament to the durability of his earlier records – the glam rock, the art rock, the plastic soul – that he kept on walking and was able to reboot for yet another gearshift and comeback. You can kick the tyres of his songs — whatever the genre and packaging — and they kick back.

You don’t need me to tell you how great the ones you’ve been seeing on the news this week are. If you’re a casual fan, reach beneath the crossover giants and probe the likes of After All, Win, Always Crashing In The Same Car, It’s Gonna Be Me, Who Can I Be Now and Warszawa. Then there’s some crackling, sparking stuff on the much-maligned Eighties pop albums. I Can’t Read by Tin Machine is an early melancholy masterpiece about the fading of the light, and Heathen and Reality have more special spells than seems fair, from Slow Burn to Bring Me The Disco King. As on the Hours album, there are foreshadowings of the fascination with decay and mortality that define Blackstar. There was plenty of this on The Next Day, too, but we thought then he was just continuing his obsession with religious iconography.

The flamboyant peacock became a sotto voce signifier. As a latter-day “recluse” – i.e. family man – he acquired even greater Dietrich/Garbo-like mystique than he had in full bloom.

“I find it really boring actually”, he told me once, digressing onto the subject of acting in films. “I run out of film talk after a bit – I hate all that, people sitting around talking about what films they’ve just finished or are going to be doing: the whole thing revolves around “the industry”. People don’t seem to have another life outside of it. You think: Christ, can’t we talk about anything else except movies? Zzzzzzz…”

But I thought you enjoyed playing Andy Warhol in the Basquiat film?

“Yeah that was great cos it was just ten days. I only had 7,000 words, and once I got them in the right order, it was a doddle. I mean, a most challenging role”.

I asked him – this was twenty years ago – if he felt like some kind of elder statesman now. He hadn’t turned fifty. To be fair, his own press release had said, “It is only now, when he has reached his own mid-life, that Bowie can make music encompassing the point of young, middle-aged and old”. He cracked up, the cracked-up actor, and guffawed: “The old sage! Har Har har!” He remembered he’d played a 130-year-old (“or something”) vampire in The Hunger, and added, “It comes easily to me now.”

David Bowie: The Starman

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.