David Bowie, by those who know him best

"We did something totally and utterly new and unheard of and different and fabulous and entertaining, and caught the imagination of Europe and then the world"

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David Bowie, by those who know him best
Written By
Steve Turner

1. YOUNG ROCK STAR

Bowie on Bowie "I wasn't surprised that Ziggy Stardust made my career. I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star - much better than any Monkee's fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic that anybody's"

Angie Bowie
His first wife (1970—80)

“If you provided an artist with a big beautiful work space and then gave them paints and canvases you’d be a little bit surprised if after eight weeks they’d created nothing, wouldn’t you? It’s the perfect creative environment. That’s what happened to David when we moved to Haddon Hall in Beckenham. Tony Visconti built a rehearsal studio in the basement and the band was brought down from Hull to live with us.

“Ziggy Stardust was a natural extension of what he’d been doing. He was not only surrounded by the idea of space exploration because of Nasa’s Apollo missions but also had his own sense of being an alien because he was coming out of folk music and working in rock. All of his characters were extensions of Ziggy – Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, Diamond Dogs – they’re all the same. It was the gradual destructive chaos of Ziggy Stardust floating through the galaxy getting nuttier and nuttier.

"It wasn't that I had a ringside seat to all this. I was the ringmaster. You can't have a star performer without a ringmaster to organise it. We did something totally and utterly new and unheard of and different and fabulous and entertaining, and caught the imagination of Europe and then the world. I like it when a plan works."

Ken Scott
Bowie’s co-producer (1971—73)

“He was a really nice guy and had a certain amount of talent, but a superstar? It was only when David, Angie and his publisher Bob Grace came to my house to go through material for Hunky Dory that the light bulb went off. I realised he was far more talented than I’d given him credit for.

“At this time he was getting his image together, but I don’t remember seeing it overnight. As a person, however, I didn’t see him change during the time I spent working with him. The only difference was that he gained in confidence. The time he changed was during the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974. As far as I am aware he didn’t do drugs up until that time. Then I heard rumours that he’d started using cocaine and, typical of his personality, he got into it very strongly.

“I think his greatest talent is his voice. Of the four albums I did with him, 95 per cent of the vocals were done in one complete first take. I had never worked with an artist like that before and I haven’t since. His vocals aren’t perfect but they’re pure emotion. There was one track where he was bawling his eyes out at the end. That comes across to the listening public and that’s why even people today feel so strongly about him.”

2. FILM STAR

Bowie on Bowie "There are very few who have broken out of rock and into any other medium, especially
film. I’m determined to do it. The media should be used. You can’t let it use you"

Candy Clark
Co-star, the Man Who fell to Earth (1976)

“I got to know David professionally but not socially. When we were filming in New Mexico he brought an entourage and they all stayed at another hotel. He had his own driver, an assistant called Coco and various women who came and went. Then his wife Angie came over. Off set, he basically spent all his time with familiar people with whom he felt comfortable.

“David was so easy to act with, but I was surprised that he could be practically half-naked on stage doing his concerts, and then, when we had to do these love scenes for the film, with only a couple of people in the room, I could tell he was uptight. I was uptight, too, but I’m not an exhibitionist.

“I always felt he could be from another planet. He was thin and angular, kind of spider-like. He had beautiful, translucent skin, great bone structure and red hair. He even brought his own Clairol hair dye with him.”

3. THE BERLIN YEARS

Bowie on Bowie "For many years Berlin has appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary. I was going broke and it was a cheap place to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn't care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway"

Carlos Alomar
Guitarist

“Young Americans [1975] was so successful that David’s record company wanted more of the same. They thought the soul thing was happening and that he should build on it. That drove him the other way. Anyone would leave the country under that pressure! He needed to clear his brain.

“David had always taught us that to get the most out of somebody you need to take them away from their environment and put them in a place where they don’t know anyone. The idea was that then you’d have nothing else to do but think about the music. There was nowhere to go. That’s how we ended up recording Heroes [1977] in Berlin.

“I’d showed him around New York back in 1974 and now it was his turn to show me around Berlin. He he introduced me to Kraftwerk and the city’s underground music, and he took me to Romy Haag’s place, which was great – transvestites and music, a whole cabaret scene just like out of a movie.

"The tracks were created from scratch in the studio. Brian Eno had a set of cards that he would shuffle and ask us to pick from. Each one had a printed instruction on the face. It might say 'Take the predictable and make it unpredictable” or “You have just come home from the war” and you had to play something inspired by that idea or that feeling. It enabled you to create something out of nothing.

“When you’re recording with David you’ve no idea what it’s going to be. The songs are built up in sections so all you have is an instrumental with a working title. After we leave, the specialists with lead guitar and synthesizer come in and develop the record. Finally, David lays down his vocal. When the record is released, I get sent a copy. It’s only then that I hear it as a complete song.”

4. STAGE STAR

Bowie on Bowie "I am an actor. My whole professional life is an act. I slip from one guise to another very easily."

Jack Hofsiss
Directed Bowie in The Elephant Man (1980-81)

“It’s rare to find very successful people who dare to do things outside their comfort zone. At some point they tend to stick to playing the same role over and over again even though it’s bad for their art.

“What impressed me about David was his hard work and discipline, which was the antithesis of what you expect of a rock star. The way the production is structured the character of the Elephant Man never leaves the stage, although he is not in all the scenes. The play was running when John Lennon was killed and after the shooting, I offered to re-block it and take him off stage between scenes. I was worried about copycat killings of celebrities, especially
rock stars, and I didn’t want to aid the possibility. David refused to let me do that, which I thought was pretty remarkable.

“It’s easy to see what we gained from having a star of his calibre take over the lead role. We were over a year into the Broadway run and the excitement of having him was absolute manna to the producers. What was in it for David? The ideal answer would be that he learnt something about himself. As one attempts to portray someone else over a long period of time, there is the potential of discovering new aspects of oneself.”

5. GLOBAL SUPERSTAR

Bowie on Bowie "I’m quite happy to find myself involved with clichés at this time. There’s not a small amount of truth in clichés. They spring from some eternal truth"

Nile Rodgers Bowie's co-producer Let's Dance (1983)

David is a frustrated jazz musician so it wasn’t weird that he contacted me to produce Let’s Dance, because we both loved jazz. In retrospect it was probably a very bold move, but he never seemed compelled to do what he thought people wanted him to do.

“When we did the record neither he nor I had record deals – he financed Let’s Dance himself. That was probably the greatest thing that could have happened because we didn’t have to answer to anyone. It was he and I against the world.

“Let’s Dance did exactly what David wanted it to do. The fact that it’s the biggest record of his career is not an accident; it’s what he wanted.”

David Bowie - Five Years is on Saturday at 9:20pm on BBC2

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