Andrew Eldritch of Sisters of Mercy interviews Bowie (and is kind of a bastard), 1995

 

The Lad’s Insane

Tempted by another cheap holiday in nearby Las Vegas, Andrew Eldritch recently accepted a commission to interview David Bowie for Rolling Stone. The following article appears in the German edition of that magazine, where it was badly translated and treacherously re-written by the usual bastard suspects. In a UTR exclusive, we bring you Mr Eldritch’s original version….

Everybody has an agenda here; it’s so tiring.” Except that Mr Bowie looks as fresh as ever. He’s one of those people who remind you of the story of Dorian Gray: somewhere there must be a painting of him looking fucking terrible. If the painting still has David Bowie’s original teeth, then I probably resemble the painting more than he does. But his record company won’t let us be photographed together, so there is only way to prove the distinction: tell him his record’s no good.

David Bowie is in Los Angeles to promote the new Bowie/Eno album, ‘Outside’ An exciting prospect for those of us who are old enough and smart enough to remember previous Bowie/Eno albums.

As a very backhanded compliment, I suggest that since ‘Low’ or ‘Heroes’, Bowie has been deliberately waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Bowie says “I don’t know about that”, and laughs a little uncomfortably at the idea that it might have something to do with the burden of responsibility.

“At one time I was floating alongside of myself. There was a period in the eighties that I felt so redundant. Brian Eno and I went through incredibly similar things. We both came to loggerheads with music. We both felt that we were out of sync with the eighties, that we were doing our worst work, and we both opted out to some degree. Between ’86 and ’88 I virtually did nothing of any consequence at all in the studio. I was painting more than ever, and sculpting. Brian went off to Malaysia for a long time, to work out what he really wanted to do in life, and he didn’t do very much music. Then towards the end of the eighties he buddied up with U2 and I met Reeves Gabrels. Both of us found that we were suddenly excited about music again. It was almost like treading water through the eighties. For both of us it seemed so inconsequential. 

I’ve got a theory about this, from looking at my son and his friends and what I know of youth generally. It seemed to me that the numbness which was the face of youth in the eighties, that kind of opting-out which is between indifference and lethargy, was in fact a generation learning to adapt to a new way of life, a new kind of society, coming to terms with chaos really being the structure of reality. It was almost like a nurturing period for youth, and I think that it was very necessary. If you’d asked somebody in the eighties if there was any decent music being produced, that would be around in ten years time, I think they’d have said, “You’ve got to be kidding” It was just disposable, it was Paula Abdul.” 

David Bowie had hits, along with Paula Abdul.

 “Don’t remind me. But I think in the nineties, there’s a list of albums, musicians and bands that people consider would be around in ten years’ time. Everything from Nirvana to Pearl Jam.”

 I’m reminded of the waitress who likes country AND western, but I decide not to mention it.

 “Kids don’t see those things as disappearing. They see those things as real milestones in their lives. They’re actually getting involved in the depth of music again.”

Or are they just buying some ersatz hippy bullshit? No, explains Mr Bowie patiently, Woodstock 2 was very important to the people who attended. He then attributes Nine Inch Nails’ deep success to the fact that they were suitably muddy. I point out that some people would say they looked like an ephemeral eighties band of the most despicable kind.

 “Those people would be wrong,” he laughs. “I think it was the emergent voice of a new direction.”

 Now, I hold myself personally responsible for Nine Inch Nails (among others), but not for the fact that they look like Alien Sex Fiend. This makes Mr Bowie laugh some more. “I liked Alien Sex Fiend. It’s a fucking great t-shirt.”

 So he likes the clothes, basically?

 “No, it was the attitude and the tight trousers.”

For whatever reason, Bowie has decided that Nine Inch Nails are a nineties icon, and is about to collaborate with them. In a similar vein, he is keen to stress his connection with Damien Hirst. This is much more to the point, since the story behind ‘Outside’ is set in a world of art- terrorism, where there is no longer a dividing line between shock-art, mutilation and crime. The sleevenotes are brilliant. Unfortunately, I can’t see any of it reflected in the actual record. And because I don’t think the concept is conveyed at all without the accompanying background material, I had to ask whether ‘Outside’ was really an album, or just an unfinished CD Rom. Turns out it’s an album.

 “I don’t think it will be a CD Rom, because Brian and I have got very different ideas about what should be done with CD Roms.” Bowie does likes Myst, though. Did he ever play the old text-adventure computer games, which are like Myst except that you have to imagine your own pictures?

 “No. Brian used to.” We agree that providing the listener with pictures is a problem. ’That’s precisely the area that Brian and I have been working on.“ He doesn’t say what they’ve decided to do about it. For the time being, we will have the sleevenotes instead. ”I’m including the sleeve notes because it’s an identity thing. I’m treating the narrative and its characters as the subject-matter, but not the content. The content is the texture, the subtext and the atmosphere of this particular year, 1995. We’re trying to accomplish a series of albums that would record musically what the last five years of the millenium feels like. The characters are a device to lead you through it all.”

 I tell him that he might have made the album’s background concept clearer if the characters appeared in the music, and although he “would have been quite keen to hybridise character and real life”, Bowie insists that “we were trying to leave as much space as possible for a multiplicity of interpretation”. Given his respect for the shamanistic, doesn’t he know that his audience misses the kind of impact which he could make if he incorporated one or more of the characters, as he used to do in the old days?

 “I’m not sure it’s an impact that I want to have.”

Doesn’t it bother him that certain other people have usurped his role(s), some of them using almost exactly the same characters which he used to incorporate?

 “I think for my own sanity and my own artistic life I have to be almost indifferent to those kinds of situations. I decided emphatically to remain a pluralistic creature and that all interpretation lies with the audience and culture, not with me. I’m merely the author. I’m quite content with that situation, playing author.”

 Yeah?

 “Yeah.”

 Like many right-thinking people, I was blown away by seeing “Starman” on

English TV. If I was David Bowie, I would be even more annoyed to see

Suede repeating the character.

 

“It can’t be the same character.”

 

It is.

 

“No it’s not. Once you play something in another context it cannot be

the same creature, by virtue of the fact that it’s being

recontextualised.”

 

Even to people who are seeing it for the first time?

 

“No, because they bring different luggage to it. Their interpretation is

incredibly different to the way that the parallel generation were

interpreting it in 1973, because they are not informed by the same sets

of circumstances. They’re informed by an entirely different world, where

contradictions – the idea of putting contradictions together – is

virtually the network that we exist in. There are so many contradictions

now, that contradiction almost simply ceases to exist anymore.”

 

Seems to me that contradiction is alive and well, and easy enough to

spot when somebody is trying on a little situationism where it’s

convenient. Bowie continues.

 

“In 1973 we still had an idea of absolutes, that there were real rules

through everything: through every science, through every religion,

politics, art. Picasso was the god of the twentieth century. Everything

was a known quantity. All Starman was in ’73 was a shock. Presented now,

it’s merely another colour in this incredibly tangled-network of

information that we exist in now. And it’s read only at surface value.

It’s very rarely read with any depth.”

 

Aren’t these the same kids who are “getting involved in the depth of

music again”? Would he like to point out what they’re missing?

 

“No. It’s merely my interpretation, which is really invalid in the long

term. It comes from an archaic stance. It’s not applicable to them.”

 

Assuming that Bowie aspires to depth (and hopefully more of it than

Nirvana and Pearl Jam), then he’s got two big problems: album and

audience.

 

Why did he decide to make this album by putting half a dozen musicians

in a room and then improvising for fifty hours before Brian Eno chose

which sections to work on?

 

“It’s about trust Brian is one of the few people who can tell me what

the fuck it is I’m doing. Often he’ll contextualise things for me when I

don’t actually see what the framework is. He’s an excellent framemaker.

Brian used a wonderful allegory which I keep coming back to. He said “Ad

is one of the few aspects of life where you can take the plane and crash

it and walk away from it. Never be scared of going too far, because it’s

a safe zone.” On the albums before ‘Low’, things like ‘Diamond Dogs’ and

‘Station To Station’, I would get involved in areas that weren’t

coherent, and there was an atmosphere which made up for the lack of

coherence. But I would only go so far.”

 

Doesn’t David Bowie feel the urge to sit down and write some David Bowie

songs before going into the studio?

 

“Brian would never put himself in that situation. He has no time to do

that, he couldn’t be bothered. That’s why it’s so essentially freeing to

work with him.”

 

Is music the right medium to express that kind of incoherence?

 

Bowie pauses for a long time. “It is our chosen one.”

 

While claiming to be less interested in the end result than in the

process of making the record, he says “We’re at our best when we may be

a little bit out of our depth… in an area where you’re out of

control.”

 

I tell him that when I think of Reeves Gabrels and improvisation, the

term ‘jazz-wank’ springs to mind. On this album there are five musicians

out of control. Is that such a good idea?

 

“It’s good when you’ve got Brian there. He’ll just scan it all and say

“That bit is an essentially interesting piece of work. The rest is

superfluous rubbish.“ He’s very good at that.”

 

I remain unconvinced. Besides, will anybody understand the record?

 

“They’ll certainly pick up on the atmosphere of it all, and realise that

what I’m doing is extrapolating the idea of what can become of ritual

art, in a far-out situation which isn’t so far-out any more. There won’t

be a broad understanding, no. I don’t believe it could happen, and I

don’t think it’s actually very necessary. Art being an event on TV is

precisely my understanding of how culture now works. There is virtually

no difference between OJ’s trial and Christo’s building. They’re both

taken totally at surface value… But any more than that is not required

in this age. You scan through it all and make a new network of

understanding for yourself. There is no time to analyse anything. Events

are tumbling out of our screens and from newspapers, gossip and rumour

at such a vast proliferation that one almost questions the idea of

having a history at all. If history changes so radically and is being

revised so continually, if historians barely have time to revise it (and

are misunderstanding and questioning it anyway), we as laymen certainly

don’t have time to plough through their books and get a further

understanding of what history is. We don’t therefore have time to

acknowledge history per se. History is fast disappearing, and if that’s

true, then so is the future. You cannot have one thing without the

other. We’re creating, possibly, this almost synthetic Buddhistic

situation of nowness, we’re cramping ourselves into this bottleneck of

now, in which all happens only at the moment, which is quite an

interesting prospect, because it’s virtually a parallel to Buddhistic

thought, but we’ve contrived to create it by all these mutant and

deviant devices of mass-communication. It’s our kharma of the tv.”

 

Well put. A good idea for the next album. But surely that means that

this album can’t make any impact, because it’s never going to come

storming out of the TV screen?

 

“I had experience of a similar situation, with ‘Low’. It influenced

certain people in interesting ways, and so it insidiously worked itself

into the culture. I think that’s what one counts on, if you’re not going

to make the Michael Jackson kind of explosion. I hate to keep using this

analogy, but it’s the one I know best: if you have white paint, you only

need to add a few drops of red to it. If you stir enough, it’s going to

give it an irridescent kind of pink quality eventually. You know? And

that’s kind of what one presumes will happen with one’s work.”

 

I ask if this album going to push the envelope the way ‘Low’ did. There

is a very long pause. Does Bowie at least hope it would?

 

“No, I don’t think so.”

 

Then why put it out?

 

“I tell you what, I’m fairly strong in my resolve to enjoy the quality

of my life and therefore the process of what I do. That has really

become a priority in day-to-day life, because of certain personal

aspects of my life, you know? This is a personal agenda, and because of

that I don’t have expectations for the album or its impact. I just want

to continually feel that what I’m endeavouring to do is put out the best

possible artistic output that I have available to me. That’s really,

really very central to me, as I get older, and I have less and less days

to live, and it becomes increasingly obvious to me that I should not

fuck about and do crappy things.”

 

So why doesn’t he do the art-crime instead of making an album about it?

 

“Well, it had occurred to me to knock off a couple of minotaurs. In fact

Damien and I have this project that we intend doing. I told him the

minotaur myth, and he really loved it. He’s got a fan who’s left him his

body as long as it’s included in an art work, and so I said maybe we

could take his body – when this fella pops off, so to speak – and that

of a bull, and make a minotaur. I could buy a tiny bit of rock in the

Outer Hebrides or somewhere, and we could Christo it: build a small

labyrinth on the island and put the minotaur in the middle. The entire

island would then become the artwork.”

 

According to much of the art philosophy which we’ve been discussing for

an hour, it’s already done, because the idea has now been communicated.

 

’Virtually, yes. Absolutely right. To be a true conceptualist one would

just have to do the drawings. We should take it to Brian and he could

type it up and articulate it and – ”

 

  • and sell it to people in Dusseldorf?

 

“Absolutely.”

 

 

========================================================================

 

 The following is a letter (from Clenshaw, the editor of UTR) in the

same issue of Underneath The Rock (issue 14). Included here because

Eldritch speaks further of his interview with Bowie.

 


 

Dear Andrew,

 

I have received and read your article on David Bowie, which was

marvellous. You are a snide bastard, though.

 

Ian Clenshaw Reptile HQ


 

Er, thank you. Jury’s out on the “bastard’ charge. Not guilty on the

other count. For the benefit of the public gallery here’s my case…

 

My only aside (about C&W) was flagged as such. What I find snide about

journalists is their tendency to rewrite or even insert questions after

the event, and to unveil an agenda with presumptions and musings which

one couldn’t address at the time. All my doubts, questions and

propositions were put to the man himself. They were posed in exactly

the same terms as the text. Most of it is verbatim, although i decided

against two sets of inverted commas for the sake of readability.

Likewise my criticisms of his current methodology where I paraphrased

his own characterisation of the recording process. If I wrote ’Jazz-

wank”, that’s because it’s the word I used in the conversation.

 

I think the album sucks. Mr Bowie wasn’t phased to be told that, and

come pretty close to admitting it himself on those occasions when the

situationist defence started to slip. (You should have heard his sorry

verdict on Tin Machine.) In the limited space available I concentrated

on letting him explain why ‘Outside’ had to be the way it is. There are

two fundamental issues: “What are the means, and can they justify the

end?’ (which is a matter of art theory) and “Do the means justify the

end?’ (at which point I unfortunately have to ask myself whether I think

the album’s any good). Bowie gets to address the first question, and

uses that answer to dismiss the second question, on the grounds that

it’s superfluous. Fair enough, but we all know that Rolling Stone

expects an answer from both of us. At least I had the decency to explain

my opinion to him be explaining it to the world at large. He chose not

to challenge it in the normal fashion.

 

I guess from your comment that I didn’t sufficiently reflect the playful

nature of the whole exchange. Still, the poor sod actually told me how

nice it was to do an interview which didn’t ask after his ex-wife, so I

reckon he’s not going to be too unhappy.

 

I have great sympathy for his immediate concern: it’s not so important

that I say the album’s wonderful (or even, as it happens, that I refrain

from being a snide bastard). It’s important that the discussion take

place on his (or his album’s) chosen ground, ie. art philosophy. If not

the theory which he claims is the subject of the album, then at least

the theory behind the construction of the album. I’ll bet I did the only

interview which bothered much with either.

 

Paradoxically, I could have adopted the some theories as Bowie himself,

and written an article which was completely useless to him and to

Rolling Stone, if not to you. Such an article could have resembled this

very letter (without including any of the actual interview). I could

have cobbled together a post-structuralist stream-of-consciousness from

peripheral experiences in Bowie’s hotel. In the music press of the

eighties, typically unencumbered by any justifying philosophy other than

a deep unwillingness to report, an inability to investigate anything on

its own terms, and the overweening egotism of those without ct life, I

should have dwelt at length on peripheral experiences in my own hotel In

the even-moreignorant music press of the nineties I should have referred

constantly to Blur’s hotel, regardless of which artist I was ostensibly

talking about.. chez Blur/Oasis/Elastica/Suede/etc, depending on whose

fifteen minutes it is. Apart from the shining beacon which is your own

fine publication, I note that journalism is a damn sad profession.

 

For what it’s worth, I told David Bowie that I think he’s a genius. I

told him his sleevenotes for “Outside” are as brilliant as the album

itself is disappointing. And I tried hard to tell him why. Hard but

fair.

 

I see the jury’s just absolved me of the “bastard’ charge. You can

release their children now.

 

Andrew Eldritch

 

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