Afraid in America

So this happened 14 years ago today.  Six months after 9/11. A skyscraper in New York. 10am. I’d had a sleepless night. The new album was swirling in my head. Dave was kind enough to forgive my clumsiness.

Naturally I cherish the memory. And the album, which always drags me back to that surreal night of jetlag and anxiety in that hotel room on 7th Avenue. The perfect headspace for Heathen to haunt.

I wrote two stories about it. Both were published June 2002. The Age story is still on site. This was for Rolling Stone.

Time flies when the end is nigh. It’s 30 years this month since the cosmic arrival of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s doomed rock messiah construct of 1972. Even then, according to the first track of the fledgling glam rocker’s conceptual masterwork, planet Earth was dying. “Five years, that’s all we’ve got,” Bowie howled as the violins sawed like the Titanic house band.

Armageddon loomed large again on Aladdin Sane the following year. “(1913-1938-197?)” read the title song’s ominous subscript. By Diamond Dogs in ’74, Bowie’s apocalyptic vision was in full, terrible bloom with images of mutant tribes clawing the glass fronts of crumbling skyscrapers on Love Me Avenue.

By some miracle, most buildings are still standing on this spring afternoon in New York City in 2002. From the 35th floor of Sony Music’s Madison Avenue HQ, the 55-year-old incarnation of David Bowie takes in the view with an awed murmur. To quote the first track of his 25th studio album, Heathen, “Nothing has changed/ Everything has changed.”

HeathenHeathen is a return for Bowie in several ways. Most notably it reunites him with Tony Visconti, who produced the lion’s share of his classic albums from Space Oddity to Young Americans to Scary Monsters. It also finds Bowie’s overbearing band of the ‘90s – including former Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels – on the bench in favour of the hands-on approach of much of his ‘70s work.

Then there’s the apocalyptic thread; the familiar, chilling fatalism in Bowie’s distinctively fractured lyrics. If you didn’t know him better you’d guess he didn’t put pen to paper until September 12. He replaces a saucer of sliced fruit onto the table and shakes most of his graceful frame at the suggestion.

“The first thing I heard when I started playing the material to people was ‘Wow, how prescient,’ and all that,” he says. “Well it’s not. I think there’s a lot of artists that you can find who were writing – that have always been writing – in that kinda vein.

“My albums have not necessarily been the happiest albums in the world. I think there may be two or three of them you could have taken, had they been recorded just before 9-11, you could have said ‘Ooh, wow!’ But no, it’s not (related to) that. It’s just there is a particular kind of angst that is contained in my work.

“I think I’m very good at non-specific nagging fear,” he elaborates with a grin. “I feel it very strongly, that low-level tension that I understand we all have, and I’m good at kinda capturing that in musical form. I’m not very good with overall world pictures or politicisation of affairs but I can get into those rather negative corners of our psyche and relate to them quite strongly.”

He may have grey clouds in his head but from the outside, David Bowie looks fantastic. He’s been drug- and alcohol-free since the late ‘80s and today at least, he’s winning a long fight with tobacco. His unkempt mop of ‘99/’00 has been refined to a sharper crop, immaculately dyed in various shades of blonde and parted in the middle. His eyes are… well, his eyes. And they seem to know it.

For the record, if there was a single catalyst for prayer-like new songs such as “Afraid”, “I Would Be Your Slave” and “I Demand a Better Future”, it arrived a full year before 9-11. Alexandra Zahra Jones, Bowie’s first child with his wife of 10 years, Iman Abdulmajid, inevitably shaped the direction of the new album, he says.

“The full reality of having a new child is the full reality of the world that you’ve brought her into. You don’t want her to have to just survive, to dodge bullets and skirt things. The dream is that she can walk headlong into her ambitions and fulfil them. That would be great.” As far as he’s come from his many paranoid preoccupations of the 1970s, he doesn’t sound overly optimistic.

The Jones family’s regular abode is “about a thousand yards” from Ground Zero. As the World Trade Centre fell, they were safely closeted in a spectacular residential studio called Allaire near Woodstock. Bowie was alerted to its existence by guitarist David Torn, who subsequently played on much of the album that would become Heathen. The core musicians also included one time Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain and, for the first time since 1970, Visconti on bass guitar.

A number of hotshot guests were invited up to the ranch but Carlos Alomar, Dave Grohl and Pete Townshend were among the few who made the final cut.

“As I was layering a lot of the things on, I’d bring people in to replace my parts, thinking that I’d get ‘em played more professionally. But actually we were losing something. When they played it note perfect, Tony would say ‘That’s great but it doesn’t SOUND as good, does it?’ So we’d thank him and he’d go away and we’d put my part back on again,” Bowie says with a thigh-slapping laugh.

“So it’d hiccup and there’d be the occasional clash of notes and things but it had a certain amateurishness to it that I actually appreciated; an earnestness. It captured the emotion of it, which for me was very important.”

The result is an album with more direct musical input from David Bowie than anything he’s recorded since Diamond Dogs. Among the many subliminal links to his past is the original EMS AKS briefcase synthesiser that Brian Eno played on the Low and ‘Heroes’ LPs of the late ‘70s. Bowie bristles at the suggestion of an implied nostalgia in all these familiar faces and textures, but allows for one pointed exception in the case of “Slip Away”, a magnificent piano piece which uses ‘70s cult TV show Uncle Floyd as a metaphor for lost innocence.

“I wanted something on the album that pointed to a nicer time, a better time, a more fun time, even if it wasn’t necessarily true,” he says. “For me it was a fun time, the late ‘70s, it really was. It was an American show and it was on some unheard-of cable station out of New Jersey and I think he did the show in his living room. The Ramones played the show quite a few times cause they also loved it.

“Saying ‘Uncle Floyd where are you now?’ is really like Ray Davies saying ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone?’ (Bowie covered the Kinks tune on his Pin-Ups LP of ’73). So yes, that’s my yearning song, as far as looking backwards. But most of it is about looking rather anxiously into the future.”

Like the man says, it’s tended to be what he does best. But it’s hard to shake the impression that Bowie’s sixth decade has been somewhat weighted towards refection. His last studio album, Hours…, took midlife crisis as its central premise, albeit from a philosophically detached perspective. Since then there’s been the double-CD timepiece Bowie At The Beeb: The Best of the BBC Radio Sessions 68-72, and curious reports about a new album called Toy, which is still to see the light of day.

“Absolutely,” Bowie confirms with gusto. “They were the very first songs that I ever recorded (with the ill-fated likes of the King Bees and the Manish Boys in the mid-1960s) and I was kinda pulling them all together to re-record them. In 2001 I had virtually done the whole thing, then I really had second thoughts about the record company I was with…”

Bowie stresses his abiding faith in Virgin Music’s controversial Vice President Nancy Berry, who was dismissed in October after negotiating Mariah Carey’s disastrous US$80 million contract. Nonetheless, he left Virgin for Sony Columbia in April with both albums – Toy and Heathen – under his arm. “Which I’m quite happy about,” he says. “But Heathen I wanted to come out first.”

The delay appears to have steamrolled another retrospective project. As far back as 1998, Bowie was heralding plans for a 30th anniversary multi-media celebration of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. He refused film producer Michael Stipe’s request to use Ziggy-era songs in Todd Haynes’ glam flick Velvet Goldmine that year, ostensibly because he had his own film, stage production and interactive Internet site on the drawing board. So what gives?

“Yeah, I know, I’m running like fuck from that one,” he replies with another floor-shaking belly laugh. “Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust? I don’t think so!

“We actually tried a few years ago to pull a movie together but at every turn it was like…” he throws an anguished shape. “You know, every person has their own idea of what Ziggy is and what it represents. To kind of nail him down like this is almost doing him an injustice and I’m wondering more and more now, is it not just better to leave him as an idea rather than an actuality

“As an actuality I think it’ll probably close all the doors that maybe a lot of people had opened for themselves and hopefully I helped open up, and gave their own imaginations a run for their money. I wouldn’t want to stymie all that by presenting some nerd in a red wig, having run through a really slack-arsed movie script. As an idea, I think he works better.”

Which is not to say that Bowie has neglected his protégé’s birthday entirely. Heathen includes a dramatically rearranged version of “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spacecraft” by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an obscure country singer who was, in part, the inspiration for Ziggy. “I read on his site that he thought that because I’d borrowed his name that at least I should cover one of his songs,” Bowie says. “I got guilty and wanted to make amends immediately.”

The normally reclusive Cowboy has also earned a guernsey on Meltdown 2002, the annual music and performance festival at London’s South Bank Centre, curated in past years by Nick Cave, Scott Walker and Damon Albarn. This year Bowie’s selected the program, which so far includes Coldplay, Suede, Mercury Rev, Television, Asian Dub Foundation, Supergrass and Albarn’s Gorillaz.

“I’m opening it up with Little Richard and The Dandy Warhols are doing it with me at the end,” he enthuses. “There’s certain bands I couldn’t get and I’m really pissed off. I wanted to get Grandaddy so much ‘cause I really love ‘em but they’re still making their new album. I think they’re just a wonderful band and they could be the salvation of American rock. I hope they’re not treated like the Pixies (he covers them on Heathen, too), who were totally abandoned by this country.

“But the most exciting part of it is that I’ve actually got, for the first time, a visual art side. I started pulling in people from all the art schools in Britain onto my art site (Bowieart.com) and sold their stuff for them with no commission so they could get a good start as artists. I’ve got several of them doing the foyer with some incredible pieces of work. Plus we’re doing a digital film festival. All the films were made on digicamera, camcorders and shit like that. So it’s gonna be quite good this year.”

Meltdown will be one of the few opportunities to see David Bowie perform in 2002. Apart from the Dandys gig, he’s only confirmed a handful of European festival dates and one New York show for BowieNet members in July. As for Australia?

“Not this time. But you know, I really think they’re gonna be pushing for a world tour next year cause l’ve not done one since 1990. I got near to a program for a world tour when I did Glastonbury a couple of years ago. I think the show reflected pretty much what I’d do for a world tour cause I was sort of half thinking of it then.

“But the baby and all that…” the colossus of rock abdicates responsibility with a helpless shrug. “One never knows.”

This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone magazine (Australia), June 2002.  (And if you happen to own a copy, I’d love a scan).  

 

 

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