David Bowie on the aging rock scene: ‘It's not your music - we bloody invented it!’
From the archive, October 1999: “Rock music is getting old. What was once the genuine voice of the very young has become the sound of an ever-growing bunch of 50-year-olds. And why not!”
How the original article appeared in print on October 16th, 1999
David Bowie performs at the Netaid Charity Concert For Third World Debt in Wembley Stadium, London in 1999. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images
This article was originally published on October 16th, 1999
Rock music is suddenly getting interesting again. And by rock I mean, specifically, that music which was formed out of r'n'b and blasted the eardrums of the world throughout the 1970s. Certainly it lingered a little longer than that, but in a much weakened state and often as a mere parody of itself.
In fact what they call rock music became so stupid (and dull) that many of its former fans, entirely bored by it, headed with enthusiasm towards blues, jazz and country and beyond - where the interesting stuff was. The only remaining rock worth talking about came from those few old heads who kept on pushing, and the very few younger heads who understood what irony was.
But things have changed of late. Rock music is now getting old and what was once the genuine voice of the very young, has now become the sound of an ever-growing bunch of 50-year-olds. As a result the music is gaining currency again - once more the voice of a generation - and a neglected generation at that.
Radio and television still tends assume that 50-year-old listeners are musical deadbeats who only want their sounds served up as sedatives. As a result, audiences are basted relentlessly in the bland and the cynical. But the reality is that, if you're fiftysomething at the end of the 20th century, you'd be better off listening to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. What about that for irony? It's a theory I put to a certain 52-year old who once went by the name of Ziggy Stardust.
"It's a wave!" says Bowie. "It's never happened before and I think it's going to produce an interesting kind of dilemma. There's going to be a kind of a selfishness on the part of a younger audience because they're going to want to give up what they believe is rightfully theirs - and only theirs. But the feeling on the older side will be, hey, it's not just your music - we bloody invented it! So, there's going be a psychological conflict - an outbreak of ageism! I really do see that happening - but I hope it doesn't become a schism!"
Schism or not, it's entirely natural that young people will be embarrassed by their elders. Nobody really wants to see their father in tight leather trousers, swinging a microphone around his head - hence our national sympathy for the families of showband singers. All the more ironic that these "mad, long-haired, cross-dressing lunatic rockstars" who thankfully dispatched the low-rent showband ethos, are now the most dignified by far. These days it's precisely the Lou Reeds and the David Bowies who are carrying themselves with considerable style and intelligence - smart, clued-in people who know exactly what they're doing. And, most importantly of all, they understand the music itself.
It's well worth remembering that, truth be told, David Bowie did not land in a spaceship - he played sax in beat group and listened to Muddy Waters records.
One should realise that the reason rhythm and blues got to a place where it was perfectly acceptable for an audience to go and see Muddy Waters at 75 years old, is that the music started to be created and formed in the 1920s. By the time you get to Muddy Water's generation, there had been a natural progression - the artists were getting progressively older as the younger ones joined in. It levelled itself out and this is precisely because the music was formulated many decades before. I would like to think that what we're doing will formulate itself in the same way black r'n'b did. There really was no division between the ages."
Bowie doesn't mind in the slightest my constant references to age. On the contrary, he says "it's the most interesting thing about what's happening." Most interesting of all perhaps is that the subject matter of rock music is now broadening considerably and there are new preoccupations for the old brigade.
Of course people have been singing about all manner of things for years - but hearing an artist in his fifties can be a much more rewarding experience than listening to him when he was 30. And, while it seemed that so many performers, even the great ones, would never surpass their early work, now, one by one, they are beginning to make their best records in many years.
Dylan is singing seriously about dying, Iggy Pop is singing seriously about divorce and David Bowie is, quite possibly, singing seriously about his actual self? Whatever next?
"We're just at that awkward age! American birds have been singing about that stuff for years. Joni Mitchell has been dealing with that kind of information for a long time, but all the misogynists are rounding in on it now. In another 20 years time when Oasis are reaching my age and having to go through this, I think things will be somewhat different. There will have been precedents set by us lot. We will set the bridge between the two understandings of what exactly popular music is and who it's catering for."
In Bowie's case there is another major consideration, both for the artist and, perhaps more so, for the fan. He is such an extraordinary case after all - few pop stars have achieved the same iconic status, few have been around quite so many blocks and, consequently, few have such unique experience to impart. And, with so many of the fifty-somethings now singing about things which didn't work out, how is Bowie to deal with the many mistakes he readily admits to making? After all, nobody wants anything smacking of repentance and, certainly, nobody wants David Bowie to turn into a concerned and sober uncle.
"Oh, I hated that! Being pontificated to! Who needs someone being didactic? No, I feel that all the mistakes you make and the pain you go through - as well as the euphoria - are absolutely necessary to experience to know that you've gone through full life. For example, the degree of mourning that you go through for people who have passed on - and it's happened a few too many times in my life - you realise that it's an absolute necessity to go through.
"To run shy of those kind of feelings is to divorce yourself from some essential emotional life experiences. It's all a part of living - and opening the wrong doors is as much a part of living as the things which worked out. It's all equal. But what you can't say is - this is what you do to avoid the mistakes. People always make mistakes!"
Bowie at 52 looks and sounds great. He's in the charts again and his latest album, Hours, is his best in many years. Happily married, focused, interested, inspired and with everything apparently under control, he's as pleasant a man as you could hope to meet. We talk about the old clubs in London, about the first song ever wrote, about Al Green and about this and that.
I might be wrong but it seemed to me like I was having a coffee not with Ziggy Stardust, perhaps not even with David Bowie - but rather with David Jones, the man who had to change his name all those years ago because of the bloke in The Monkees.
"Look I know that the audience tends to endow the artist with the content of his own lyric. They kind of want it to be like that. Sometimes it's important for them that the two are inseparable. I do understand that and I'm not bothered.
"I tend to believe that once the artist has created the work, it's as much up to the audience to finish it off as the artist. I'm absolutely wide open to interpretation!"