Timothy White – David Bowie – Turn and Face the Strange (1978)

Timothy White’s February 1978 Crawdaddy piece on The Thin White Duke……..

For seven days it had rained almost constantly in New York City. An evil gleam shone on every assailable surface, and thin, wet snakes of chill stole into each wrigglespace between concrete and steel, clothing and skin, marrow and nerve.

One hated to look up. New York’s cloud-rotted sky was in the clench of the Apple’s towering animal teeth. And the view down around its tarry gums wasn’t much prettier, the usual furtive street ballet now ranging in mood from thorny to reptilian. The foul weather would not relent, and inevitably, hidden seams began to surface and split, emitting a pus of frustration and violence.

Finally, this crisp morning, the sun springs into New York’s slackening jaws. Taking stock of the aftermath from his lofty suite in Manhattan’s elegant Mayfair House, even a man so jaded as David Bowie, 31, has to admit that it is a startling change.

“Well,” he exhales heavily, reading aloud from the front page of the early afternoon edition of the New York Post, “the first thing I can see here is that ‘Two men shot each other and a woman onlooker — all with the same revolver — down in the subway. That’s the first absurd situation of today.” He looks up. “People stopped trying to keep up with violence years ago, I think. That’s why it’s got such a griphold of them.”

Curled up on a red velvet couch, Bowie thumbs through the rest of the paper with disgusted impatience, sometimes pausing to press two feminine fingertips to the gold cross that hangs snugly at the base of his slender neck. Enough. He rises, moving with spectral grace to a half-open window. Storm cloud shadows slip across his skeletal features as he peers out into the yellow and the grey. The vista apparently disturbs him and he backs away with caution, stepping into the folds of the drapes.

“It was always so easy, especially in this city, to be able to stand behind a window, just like this, and look at things from about here,” he says with derision. “The city was built for that. If you weren’t on the ground then your perspective was always at this level, always looking at somebody’s business, something that needn’t play a part in your life-but you still watch it. “It’s not just the weather. The mere way the city is structured, it seemed that violence would become the theatre of the streets. It had to happen in America, and now it’s rampant in Europe as well. I’m utterly and thoroughly confused by city life and New York,” Bowie complains. He ambles back to the couch, spidery hands splayed upon his face in childlike disconsolation. “I would like “Caawwwwwwwwwwww! Creeeeeeeeeee! Caaawwwwwwwwwww!!! “What is that?!” Bowie pleads, stiffening and then turning with a jerk. “That sound outside that happened last night!” He listens, unnerved, to the savage, grating snarl echoing up from the pavement. Wide eyes riveted to the window, he murmurs with a detached resolve, simultaneously repelled and enthralled.

“I saw an incredible crash last night, an amazing crash. Two cars were stuck together like a tent in the middle of the road down there, drivers hanging out of their windows

“That is the weirdest sound!” he howls, leaping forward for a look.

“It’s a police car, with a faulty siren. A police car…with a faulty…”

He trembles and spins around, a walking time bomb talking/ticking through a private haze.

“I heard the crash last night,” Bowie says. “I was up here reading and I caught the tail end of it. A crash out there is loud ’cause it reverberates through the buildings. And I looked and saw this tent with spinning wheels and arms and legs hanging out. I watched for a few minutes.”

Moping towards the couch again, he displays a sudden surge of tension and lets himself down with exaggerated care, as if he were made of spun glass. Despite a fading tan, Bowie does appear frail enough to shatter against a cushion.

The absence of his familiar chalky skin, in the past so translucent one could almost see the blood coursing underneath, is a great relief. Still, his spare attire-beige V-neck sweater, stove-pipe jeans, green clogs-accentuates one of the sickliest frames in rock.

Except for a trace of pancake, there is nothing notable, though, about his customarily theatrical visage. Gone are the lipgloss, sinister eye shadow and well-rehearsed expressions of yore. His hair, clipped into a rigidly neat schoolboy trim, has passed from its various copper hues to a light, innocent blonde.

Yet, when his own fidgeting manner embarrasses him into revealing his stalactite smile, and the light in the suede-and-silver-painted room strikes the jewel stillness of his paralysed left pupil (injured in a childhood brawl), he could be Tab Hunter impersonating a vampire.

But these alien moments occur unexpectedly and without Bowie’s help, for nowhere in evidence are any outward signs of the fearsome alter egos of his heyday.

The Man Who Sold the World, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, the Veronica Lake clone on the cover of Hunky Dory or the menacing Thin White Duke who dared throw darts in lovers’ eyes.

I feel an electricity around us crackle and die. Alone, scratching his bare ankles as he rests them on the coffee table, the celebrated chameleon is transformed into an ordinary sight. He could be swallowed up in a crowd. For perhaps the first time in his protean career, David Bowie is emptied out. A jagged grin, followed by a strange, secret laugh.

“You can see why I’m this way,” he offers, nodding to the windblown curtains. “It’ s a product of those things happening out through there. What’s going on in the world? Pontifications I’d be pleased to make, but they hold so little validity. I’d rather blend them into a character. When I don’t have a character to play with, I stand in total ignorance of what’s happening around me. But not long ago my characters turned on me.”

The remnants of his tan drain from his cheeks as if a stopper has been pulled.

“It’s no small wonder that I thought I had done my sanity irreparable harm.”

There had, for over two years, been rumours. Some dirty some dismaying, and most emanating from the luxurious Los Angeles dungeons in which creative but volatile natives hide when all things well-lit and interdependent become… irritating. Such a playground of the paranoid is Bel Air, the wealthy suburb where Brian Wilson cowered under bed covers for a decade and where an enter-prising young Frenchman now edits a “Paris” magazine entitled I Wanna Be Your Dog.

David Bowie left his New York apartment and fled to Los Angeles in the spring of 1975. He was shaken by the heated legal battles surrounding his split with former manager Tony DeFries and the Manhattan-based MainMan Companies which had originally boosted him to stardom, and felt he needed a “change.” Once in LA, Bowie shuttled from house to house around the Hollywood area, sometimes staying with one time Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes and later moving in with his next (ill-fated) choice for a “business adviser,” Michael Lippman, before leaving for a three-month stay in New Mexico to star in Nic Roeg’s uneven sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Reappearing shortly thereafter at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood to record his Station to Station LP, Bowie was, to quote Lippman, “in a very weak mental state.”

“That’s what caused our relationship to break down,” Lippman now laments, maintaining that Bowie was “easily misled.” When he tired of his transient existence, David rented a Bel Air retreat.

After knowing and representing the star for four years, Lippman says he and Bowie terminated their association just before Christmas, 1975. “Since then,” the lawyer recalls, “the only time I saw him was in Paris [in autumn, ’76] when he was, in my opinion, unquestionably at his lowest ebb. He was recording Low [Bowie’s first LP collaboration with Brian Eno] and he was emotionally distraught.”

Lippman declines to discuss the circumstances that precipitated his and Bowie’s parting, but his recollections of their last days together are both candid and convincingly compassionate.

“I spent most of my time working with him during the middle of the night,” says Lippman. “Most of these exchanges went well. But the week before Christmas I was totally unable to communicate with him. I do recall dramatically erratic behaviour, when I was cut off from seeing him. He would not come out of his house-a house he rented in Bel Air. From my personal observations he was overworked and under a lot of pressure…and unable to accept the realities of certain facts. It would manifest itself by him remaining uncommunicable.

“He lived in my house during the period of The Man Who Sold the World and Station to Station, and did a lot of paintings then. Their subjects were clear to him but not anybody else. My wife and he were good friends and they used to talk about his manifestations and his dreams — or nightmares — all the time. I kept out of that. At one point we gave him a gold cross as a gift; He also asked to have a mezuzah up in his room because of his revival and belief in religion, and felt that it would create more security for himself. “Our falling out came as a complete surprise,” he says. “[David] can be very charming and friendly, and at the same time he can be very cold and self-centred.”

Since Lippman was involved with Bowie’s work during the formation of the Thin White Duke character at the thematic core of Station to Station, I relate to him Bowie’s own description of the figure: “A very Aryan, fascist type; a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all but who spouted a lot of neo-romance.”

“That could be David Bowie describing himself,” Lippman asserts. “There are times when he is that person. He allows himself to do that-loses his own personality in the characters he’s created. There was a point when he felt that Ziggy Stardust had taken over for David Bowie; and the Thin White Duke, he was afraid that he was taking over as well.

“David spoke to me about insanity many times.” Lippman says. “He believed there was a vein of insanity running through his family and he didn’t want it to take over his life. He’s afraid that somewhere inside of him that hereditary insanity is there. And that is entirely possible.”

“My immediate family was my mother, father [a publicist for a children’s home], stepbrother and a stepsister that I didn’t know very well,” Bowie begins, warming to the subject. “She, my stepsister, went to Egypt and I haven’t heard of her or from her since I was about 14.

“I know insanity happened frequently with my family. A lot of institutions kept cropping up to claim various members, most of it coming out of bad experiences, loneliness, in-built caution with other people. Three or four were hospitalised. Some of them died; one of them who did was first found wandering in the streets after being missing for some time. There were aunts like this and my stepbrother Terry, who’s still in the hospital; been there about 14 years.

“I tried to sort it out for myself to prevent it,” he insists guardedly. “I think if I hadn’t been a painter or a musician, some of the adventures that I’ve undertaken would have gotten me into a similar position. I think I would have repressed a lot of strange things I thought about or saw in my mind. That’s generally what happened to my family, my brother especially. It didn’t scare me until a lot later on. I became very withdrawn towards the late years in school [in Bromley, London] -I left at 16. During that time I spent all my free time indulging myself in what books I could get, most of them recommended by my brother, in fact. So I started to create a world in my mind that I could populate with my own figures and characters. That became the roots of what happened later on.”

I presume, I tell him, that there came a time when he grew uncomfortable with his own thoughts.

“The first time I felt uncomfortable was with Kafka’s Metamorphosis,” he remembers with a bleak chuckle. “I had vivid nightmares about that — literal translations of what he was writing about: of enormous bugs flying, and lying on their backs [he mimics the hideous squirming of an insect] and other creepy-crawly dreams. I saw myself become something unrecognisable, a monster. And if you are imaginative, it does strike home very hard and leave lots of very definite impressions, indelible images, enigmatic little corners, nooks and crannies with shadows in them that will haunt you for a lifetime.”

When did he realise that his stepbrother Terry was going wrong?

“When he cried an awful lot at an age when I had been led to believe that it was not a particularly adult thing to do. When he came back from doing service in the RAF [Royal Air Force], he was in his early 20s and I was about ten years old. And he would seem miserable. We’d been told he was ultra-intelligent in school. Then he got to where he almost vegetated, wouldn’t talk, read, wouldn’t,do anything. He started taking psychiatric help and then we lost him for a few years. He vanished, and when we found him he was already at a hospital. I’ve never been able to get through to him about how he really feels. I guess nobody has.

“I had a very shy nature and was regarded as a quiet boy. When there were a number of people around I felt completely shackled. And that made me feel terribly uncomfortable, annoyed, frustrated that I couldn’t open up more. I made a positive effort by going onstage with a saxophone. and then innumerable other methods-I tried everything.”

“I often thought you changed your appearance.” I say, “because you didn’t like the way you truly looked, that you didn’t like yourself.”

“Oh, that’s an intrinsic part of it all, of course!” he declares. “The idea was, too, that in the beginning I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs onstage and nobody else was doing them.

“I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going onstage and being myself. And that became obsessive with me. I continued designing characters with their own complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me. Rather than be me — which I thought must be incredibly boring to anyone — I’d take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane, or the Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do. [To himself firmly.] It ’tis an odd thing to do.”

“Had I interviewed you then,” I tell him, “I would have been extremely intimidated.”

“I was,” he begs, “I was frightened stiff by a lot of my characters, especially reading about them. Ziggy did horrible things. He was a combination of Archetypal Prima Donna and Messiah Rock Star. That went through a lot of the characters-the arrogance and the ultra-ego quality. I left it to them to take on the repressed ego qualities that I had in me, that I would have loved to produce in my real persona.

“It was two years ago that the ‘white boil’ of it all was living in Los Angeles in this cloistered environment. I was totally out of hand and spouting for hours at two people who were either terrified or bored with what I was saying. I never moved out of this big room and everything came in to me: food and milk and people.”

“You told some of those people that you wanted to ‘rule the world,” I remind him.

“I was absolutely sincere about everything I was thinking and saying at that time. Looking back on it, a lot of it was incredibly insane mutterings of a very hurt, broken mentality. Definitely a fractured person, brought on by the experiences I’ve been talking about, by confounding myself with images and characters that I found I was living with-and actually seeing them in my apartment. A combination of that and a year and a half of fairly hard drugs.

“I was being threatened by my own characters, feeling them coming in on me and grinning at me [his face reddens maniacally], saying ‘We’re gonna take you over completely!’ I thought, ‘This is it. Terry, I’m just about to join you.’”

“A lot of your actions paralleled those of Tommy, the loneliness-racked space traveller-turned-prisoner you played in The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

“It was amazingly like him at that level!” Bowie agrees. “The environment was definitely the same! And I’d say, ‘Tonight I want to make sculptures.’ I’d order all kinds of materials, have them brought in and I’d build vast, incredible things in the living room next to the television set. This was in Bel Air, good ol’ Bel Air.

“It took a friend — who I won’t name — to tell me at last that I’d gone too far. It wasn’t my own decision. I put that person through absolute hell for a good year and a half; I’m surprised that person stayed for so long and put up with all the shit that I was giving everybody. One winter day, three days before Christmas, 1975, this friend pulled me over to the mirror and said, ‘Look at us both. If you continue to be the way you’re being at the moment, you’re never going to see me again. You’re not worth the effort.’”

Jolted, Bowie says he fled to Jamaica to recuperate but wound up reemerging on the Station to Station tour in the persona of the Thin White Duke.

“He was the most scary of the lot, “Bowie winces, “because he was the result of all those years of putting characters together. He was an ogre for me. I hadn’t seen England for a few years and when I got back there [for the European leg of the tour] I found that I’d taken back to England with me a character who was the epitome of everything that it looked like could be happening to England. I saw the National Front and it was obvious to me: There was a Nazi Party in England. Whether or not it was a good thing that I did, I don’t know. I believe it was good — the best way to fight an evil force is to caricature it.”

But what if the evil force is within oneself? Does it matter? David Bowie has no answer for that.

“The Duke was the last character,” he sighs. “I decided that I really did have to look at what I’d been writing. If I intended to continue writing what I thought I was writing-which was descriptive observation of any environment that I happened to be in-I would have to develop a new style to lock those characters out .

“That’s when I decided I needed help with doing that. I got in contact with Eno.” What resulted was the highly impressionistic Low LP, released in January ’77, and the new, more song-oriented “Heroes” album, recorded in West Berlin. A third collaboration is anticipated.

Setting aside their other discrete traits, running through each of Bowie’s frightful incarnations was a modulated androgynous strain. This public demonstration also caused him much pain, but not because of any problems with his own carnal self-awareness. Rather, he felt constricted by those still wondering: Was he really bisexual?

“Oh yes, I am,” he now admits unequivocally. “I would never deny that. But on principle I can’t make a stand for any group of people. I’m not a group person; I don’t like groups of gays, I don’t like groups of straights. I’ve always been very much at ease with sexual relationships, I’ve been very lucky that way-I’ve never found it confusing.

“It is an interesting thing that happened about that bisexual situation. It was something that was really just a part of my life. I’m flattered that some people believe it had a healthy sort of impact. For me, personally, I found it an encumbrance because it took a long time to get my music listened to the way I wanted, which was unfortunate for me as an artist, on a very selfish level.

“The one thing about the stuff that I’ve done and the people that I created is that the person with the least knowledge about anything I’ve done is me, myself. I don’t think I’ve ever had a real handle on anything I’ve ever done.”

How curious to meet someone who honestly cannot explain who he is. I am thinking about Bowie’s earlier statement that “the best way to fight an evil force” is through caricature, when I notice him fingering his cross again. It occurs to me that the pendant fits precisely the description Michael Lippman gave of his gift.

“Did you always wear a cross?” I ask.

“No.” Bowie murmurs. “I only started wearing one a couple of years ago. It came around that same LA period. I just felt I’d been pretty godless for a few years. It’s no great thing, just a belief, or let’s call it the usual force. Or God? Yes, sure. It’s a lukewarm relationship at the best of times, but I think it’s definitely there. It became part of a new positive frame of mind that I have about trying to reestablish my own identity for myself-for my own sanity. And for my son’s sake.

“It’s part of coming down from the high mountain of fabrication,” he continues, growing emotional. “On the route down, I’ve taken some realist attributes to try and stabilise my own personality. My real personality.”

His eyes glaze over and he peers like a lost little boy.

“It must still be in there somewhere.”

Timothy White

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