“Self Portrait ’76” — a treasured keepsake from David Bowie as he worked on Station To Station.
To a young journalist in the mid-70s, David Bowie was the ungettable interview. He did not speak to the press. Still, through some cajoling from Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones and Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple, both of whom I’d previously profiled, David Bowie called me from a cross-country train trip. “I’ve left my manager,” he said, “I’m traveling to LA. I’ll call you when I arrive and we can do an interview.” I followed him, with tape rolling, for 6 months as he transitioned from Young Americans to his next phase, The Thin White Duke/Station to Station period. It was somewhat of a primal scream phase for him. Careening through the Los Angeles underground, from studios to home galleries, he afforded me a front-row seat. “Let me show you how I write a song now,” he told me one day, and then carefully demonstrated the cut-out method he’d adopted for that period. He was on his knees on his floor, moving clipped single pieces of papers containing lines he’d just written. Like a 3 card-monty street-corner magician, he shuffled together the words of a new song until it made just enough sense… and no more. The rest would be left to the listener.
Bowie was the most generous and entertaining interview subject I’d ever met. Nothing was off-limits. When he asked to meet you, it was rarely casual. You would be ushered into the room where he was waiting, and the artist would be perfectly positioned, his head cocked at the perfect angle to catch the light. It was not an affectation. He naturally staged himself, only to break out of such an iconic pose with a crackling smile and jaunty warmth. He loved Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s “What’s the Worst Job You’ve Ever Had” routine, and knew it by heart, the same way he cherished a bootleg copy of the Jeff Beck Group at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom… Bowie’s creative process was both ferocious and meticulous, his love of music ran from Kraftwerk to The Spinners to hard jazz and classical, to a young fan, a songwriter who’d just finished his first album when he made a pilgrimage to Philadelphia just to meet him – Bruce Springsteen. We saw each other a number of times since, and he always made a reference to those wild years in LA. I was always tugging on his sleeve to act in something I’d written, too. A hugely underrated presence in film, I’d even been crafting a part for him as recently as this weekend.
In our last conversation, I read him back some of his quotes from the “wild years in LA” period. Looking back was not his game, but he listened patiently. Some of the quotes were spectacularly profound, but Bowie took no ownership. “It really represents the morbid and misdirected enthusiasm of a young man with too much time on his hands and too many grams of PCP, amphetamine or cocaine or maybe all three in my system, really.” He explained he was happy he left Los Angeles, went to Germany for his next phase, and slowly saved his own life. “That whole time is a blur topped with chronic anxiety… I could have easily died.” He once doodled the accompanying drawing on a paper while I interviewed him. He left the paper behind and I asked him to sign it. “It’s a self-portrait,” he said, and applied his signature. Over the years I’ve come to interpret the drawing as a tiny cry for help… a cry he answered himself with the subsequent trip to Berlin and an entire lifestyle change. Bowie turned that dark period on it’s head, and went on to supply many more generations of fans with music and art and soul and inspiration. He careened beautifully into the future… where he will always be.