David Bowie: Bowie at the Bijou

Bowie is friendly enough with Scorsese to have been given a copy of Marty's storyboards from the big Raging Bull fight sequence ("The picture is, of course, in black and white, but in the storyboards the blood is painted in red"), but as a man who has himself put out good and bad product, he calls a spade a spade: "I hated Cape Fear. I was so disappointed. It felt like he was bored, like he was playing with the camera instead of getting into the thing. The story is sublimely silly. It was all making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. There was one series of shots I couldn't believe, five zoom-ins in a row, and thought, I don't know whether he's saying, 'You'll buy this, sucker,' or 'I don't like what I'm doing.' It was a message in a lens."

Bowie's part in Temptation was exactly one scene, in keeping with his apparent strategy of doing cameos for directors who interest him instead of doing possibly grander roles for directors who don't. With the exception of first-time director Richard Shepard's The Linguini Incident, which, Bowie explains, he did because the starring role as a bartender was one in which "I could just be me," Bowie says that "on any project, I take into consideration first, foremost, above the storyline, above the role, who is directing. Is it somebody I'd like to observe firsthand?" In the case of David Lynch, yes. Bowie spent two days on Lynch's Fire Walk with Me (the movie prequel to the TV "Twin Peaks") last year, playing an FBI agent who reappears, after long being presumed dead, to drop some clues about Laura Palmer's predicament. I ask Bowie what his favorite Lynch movie is. "Oh, I'm afraid it would be Eraserhead. I think it's an adorable film, quite lovely. It's such a pure form of his enthusiasm for making films. I think he's veered off now, but I saw him initially as much more of a painterly filmmaker."

"A lot of people seem to think Lynch has gone off the deep end," I remark.

"If you put his work alongside what Europe's been producing for the last 50 years, it's not so wacky. It's all relative. People would think Lynch has gone nuts if they've been brought up on Tony Scott, yes. But crikey. One good sharp dose of Un Chien Andalou would set them straight."

"I'm talking about people who know Un Chien Andalou. They just think Lynch has lost control."

"They want that. They'd love that, wouldn't they? People are always looking for chinks in the armor in this business." Realizing he has just uttered a cliche, a sin he does not easily allow himself, Bowie leans forward and adopts the tone of a cigar-chomping showbiz know-it-all. "Ya know, in this business, Virginia ..."

"I read the synopsis of Fire Walk with Me and I couldn't tell what the hell it was about."

"You wait," says Bowie, now shifting into mock hype mode. "You ain't seen nuthin' yet, baby. I read his script to Ronnie Rocket [a long-planned Lynch project]. I have never, in my entire life--wait, how can I be really glib--" He gathers himself up and pronounces with TV movie critic blurb relish that "Ronnie Rocket makes Eraserhead look like 'Dallas.'

"I wanted to see if Lynch was quite as cerebral as everybody had always told me he was," Bowie continues. "He is. But he's quite scattered. On the set he's quite alarmingly nuts. He was super. Working with him was probably very much what it was like working with Nic Roeg--if I remembered."

The key year in Bowie's film karma was 1975, when wild rock and roll success was finally his. He was living in L.A., showbiz Mission Control, where offers of every kind were being hurled his way. And so a rough year it was. Cameron Crowe, now a film director but then an intrepid journalist, caught the spirit of these fast times in a now justly famous Playboy interview based on his travels with a uniquely unleashed Bowie, a Bowie who had given up conventional sleep patterns and, one surmises, was fueling his revelations about such things as his bisexuality (which he has since disavowed) and his taste for fascism (which he has since disavowed) with large quantities of cocaine. ("It's kind of good, isn't it?" Bowie says with a low, clenched-jaw laugh at the mention of this past bit of public relations.)

"Weren't you considering doing a movie version of Stranger in a Strange Land back in 1975?"

"No, I was offered it many, many times by many, many different producers. I absolutely never had any intention of doing it. It was a staggeringly, awesomely trite book." The film Bowie did decide to do was based on another science fiction book he describes as "quite a pallid little story," The Man Who Fell to Earth. Both stories are about space aliens, but the latter project was to be directed by Nicolas Roeg, the man who'd done well by Mick Jagger in Performance and could be counted on to transform the pallid into the perplexing. Roeg, having gotten over his notion of having a too-old Peter O'Toole play The Man, no doubt knew of Bowie's rock-life self-casting as a non-Earthling, but probably considered that incidental. He may well have seen more in Bowie back then than Bowie did, which is saying something.

"Roeg phoned my office in New York and made an appointment to see me," Bowie recalls, "and I turned up a day late. He came at four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and I went out all night because I was doing my drug of choice and I got back midday the next day and he'd stayed overnight in my kitchen waiting. He won me over just by that. I was being very snobby about making films--you know, 'I'm not sure I want to do your little movie.' I had plans of taking over show business. This film really didn't fit into my scheme of things. I read bits of the script, as much as I was able to at the time, 30 seconds at a go."

The Man Who Fell to Earth turned out to be an inspired, irreducible piece about an alien who comes to earth to rescue his own planet from drought through an elaborate, doomed plan involving the development of a Howard Hughes-ish empire. Bowie, ethereal almost to the point of transparency, was brilliant casting as the Visitor who, Roeg wanted us to understand, comes as much from metaphorical inner as literal outer space. While Roeg's achievement flew by most critics (who never do seem to do the right drugs), Bowie caught them all off guard and won their praise. This bizarre-looking rock creature of dubious sexual identity could act.

Bowie claims he wasn't acting: "I just threw my real self into that movie as I was at that time. It was the first thing I'd ever done. I was virtually ignorant of the established procedure, so I was going a lot on instinct, and my instinct was pretty dissipated. I just learned the lines for that day and did them the way I was feeling. It wasn't that far off. I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance. What you see there is David Bowie."

"Well, it's an awfully good performance."

"It's a good exhibition--of somebody literally falling apart in front of you. I was totally insecure with about 10 grams a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end."

Ten grams a day?. That's Hiroshima plus Nagasaki. I'd have been putting my bodily fluids in the refrigerator too. Bowie lights his fifth or sixth Marlboro in the ongoing, theoretically milder assault on his longevity that he allows himself these days and explains, "I was out of my head from '74 till at least through '76, in a serious and dangerous manner."

"Was Roeg ever bothered by your being so out of it on his set?"

"I don't remember him ever getting angry with me. We got on rather well. I think I was fulfilling what he needed from me for that role. I wasn't disrupting ... I wasn't disrupted. In fact, I was very eager to please. And amazingly enough, I was able to carry out everything I was asked to do. I was quite willing to stay up as long as anybody. I'd go home and stay up even then, and write and make albums and do all this stuff all the time. Days on end. I've got thousands of paintings."

Oil or acrylic? Bowie laughs. "Acrylic! It's fast. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Done. Next!" Perhaps because Bowie's love of the nonlinear is catching, I suddenly want to know what he thinks of Willem de Kooning's latest work, the paintings done since the maestro got senile and quit talking. Truth is, I can picture Bowie ending up like this at 90 or 100.

"I actually visited de Kooning."

"What state was he in?"

"Fake catatonic, I think. I went with some friends and I think he just didn't want visitors. As we walked in, he was painting ..." Bowie gets up and stands crouched with an invisible, unmoving brush poised at the surface of an invisible canvas, "very much like that. And then he made a big number of sitting in his rocking chair and we got three words out of him the whole time. He sat there waiting--'Oh fuck, visitors'-- then he wanted us to realize we'd disrupted his day because he didn't wait for us to go. As we were walking out, he got back up and started painting again. There's a man who's aware of the existence of life and death at the same time."

The phone rings and Bowie crosses the room to answer it. He speaks very briefly in a soft voice to his publicist, who is asking how things are going and letting him know the schedule for getting to his performance by evening in another city. It's all very calm, very '90s. "I had a very strange offer the other night I must tell you about," he says as he sits back down and refocuses. Because of a much discussed peculiarity of his eyes--one of his irises is paralyzed from a childhood fight--Bowie tends to focus your attention when he's focusing his. "Someone sent me a Mormon Bible and $500 in cash to have a couple of hours to spend with me." He laughs lightly at this, marveling. "Of course, I returned both. I think a straightforward presentation of the Mormon Bible and a request to maybe have a chat about it might have produced a different result. It was the inclusion of the $500 I felt was particularly weird. Buying my time. Really odd."

Since Bowie has struck so many poses throughout his professional life, quite a few of them overtly borrowed from some of the great pose-strikers of all time, one assumes he carried out a study of past masters at some point. He bristles at the suggestion: "I never was consumed by star stuff, even slightly. If ever there was anything I would redirect about how people have thought about me it's that I must have had an obsession or deep empathy with people like Garbo or Dietrich--that star element, that mystique. It never at any time had anything to do with what I was trying to do. It was inadvertent. My main preoccupation throughout everything I've ever done has been the concept of what I was writing about. And the problem of how it should be presented was the priority. It was never 'I want to be alone,' or any of that shit."

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