Interview by Joe Smith
The conversation was recored on June 3, 1987 during the writing of Off the Record–Smith’s oral history of rock and roll. He interviewed more than 240 music artists and executives.
In 2012, he donated a trove of 238 hours of interviews on cassette tapes to the Library of Congress. Listen to the full interview catalog.
The Animated Transcript
If it’s wearing a pink hat and a red nose, and it plays a guitar upside down, I will go and look at it. You know I love to see people being dangerous.
There was a real feeling of inadequacy in that era. I never really felt like a rock singer or a rock star or whatever. I always felt a little bit out of my element which is a ridiculously high falutin way of looking at it. Now, from my standpoint, when I look back, I realize that from ‘72 through to about ‘76, I was the ultimate rock star. I couldn’t have been more rock star.
You had a zillion records and the lifestyle, everything.
But the lifestyle and everything. Anything that was going out there that had anything to do with being a rock and roll singer, then I was hey let’s go for this, let’s see what it is like.
I read a quote, somebody called you a surreal cartoon character brought to life.
It was, sort of. Ziggy was. I mean he was half out of sci-fi rock and half out of the Japanese theater. The clothes were, at that time, simply outrageous. And simply… Nobody had seen anything like them before.
Was there a point where people did not take your music seriously because you were doing theatrics?
I think I moved out of Ziggy fast enough so as not to be caught by that one. Because most rock characters that one can create only have a short lifespan. They are one shots, they are cartoony. And the Ziggy thing was worth about one or two albums before I couldn’t really write anything else around him or the world that I wanted to sort of put together for him.
I am a moderately good singer. I am not a great singer but I can interpret a song, which I don’t think is quite the same as singing it. So I was never unaware of my strength as an interpretive performer but writing a song, for me… it never rang true. I had no problem writing something for Iggy Pop, or working with Lou Reed, or writing for Mott the Hoople. I can get into their mood and what they want to do, but I find it extremely hard to write for me. So I found it quite easy to write for the artists I would create, because I did find it much easier having created a Ziggy, to then write for him. Even though it was me doing it. I was able to sort of distance myself from the whole… yeah, well it can become very complicated.
There is a psychological name for that.
Yes. It is. Fucking with the fabric of time there. It did bring a whole sackful of its own inherent problems with it.
Do you have an affection for some of these characters that you have created as you look back?
I think the only time I get sort of nostalgic about any of that stuff at all is if I see the old videos or I see a bit of the Ziggy Stardust concerts or whatever. No, other than that I do not think I am cold about them, but I think it’s work done.
I think that is an actor’s attitude too.
I think you have to. Otherwise you start… You get into a danger of getting into the rut and maybe try to perpetuate something that has gone before. A lot of people that I know are bugged with the idea that they have got to have an audience, or they have got to be liked. I think the more that you fall into that trap it makes your own life harder to come to terms with, because an audience appreciation is only going to be periodic at the best of times. You will fall in and out of favor continually. I do not think it should be something one should be looking for. You should turn around at the end of the day and say I really like that piece of work, or that piece of work sucked. Not, was that popular or wasn’t it popular?
Is it hard being David Bowie?
Not really, not now, no. I do not have the outsider problem. For me, the world that I inhabit in reality is probably very different world than the one people expect that I would be in. It is quite sedate. It’s far removed from a lot of what they would feel to be the limousine traveling rock existence, or whatever.
I went to one of the first art-oriented high schools in England. I had a very excellent teacher, Peter Frampton’s father who really kind of is quite an inspiration. I went into the visual side of an advertising agency and I was doing pasteup jobs and small designs for raincoats and things like that. Awful, absolutely awful.
Maybe you should have kept it….
Well, if all this goes down the tubes …
You can always …
Get on Madison Avenue with the best of them. I think those days are over. But it did give me an unbridled interest in art. It goes through your entire life.
The Complete, Unedited Interview
Notes About Bowie
David Bowie was born on January 8th, 1947 in the Brixton section of London.
He got his start in music playing saxophone as a teenager.
While in school, one of his favorite teachers happened to be Peter Frampton’s father.
Bowie’s right eye has a permanently dilated pupil after he was punched in the eye during a fight with school friend over a girl.
He feared being confused with Davy Jones of The Monkees so he changed his name to Bowie–inspired by the knife developed by the 19th century American pioneer Jim Bowie.
Bowie started his own mime troupe in the late 60s
On July 3 1973, David Bowie announced the retirement of his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, on stage at London’s Hammersmith Odeon Theatre. “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do,” Bowie told the crowd. His band didn’t get the memo.
John Lennon co-wrote and sang back up vocals on Bowie’s hit Fame.
Sir Bowie? He turned down the offer of knighthood from the Queen in 2003. “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that,” he said. “I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.
Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, Parlophone
David Bowie “Life on Mars” Video, EMI
Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC