"Those Freaks Treating Me Like I Was Ziggy Stardust...I Was So Confused" (1977)
I’m still working off the jet lag from 10 days in Ireland. I brought a notebook, I bought a notebook, but took few notes. Maybe it’s because writing is so ingrained in the places I visited that I didn’t want to seem a poseur. Or maybe I was just on vacation. I’ll write more this week for paid subscribers while memories are fresh.
But some memories are not fresh to me at all. When I returned to social media after two revitalizing weeks away from the noise, I saw that my colleagues and friends at the Rock’s Back Pages library in London, where about 100 of my early articles from myriad sources are stored for viewing and syndication, had found this feature story from Newsday, which ran November 27, 1977. You would think I would remember interviewing David Bowie, and I did: When he was about to appear on Broadway in “The Elephant Man” (1980) and possibly when he was promoting the movie “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983). But I don’t remember talking in detail about any of his essential albums. “Heroes” was Bowie’s second studio album of 1977, the successor to Low and predecessor to Lodger (1979). The online Bowie Bible as well as the Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums put the quotes as part of the official title: “Heroes,” like Dylan’s “Love and Theft.” The Heroes album was not a commercial success, peaking at number 35 on that Billboard albums chart, though the title song has become one of Bowie’s most durable, and oft-covered anthems. The article below appears essentially as published. WR
FIVE YEARS ago, David Bowie created "Ziggy Stardust." Ziggy was the prototypical glitter rock star: Rich, beautiful, stylishly pansexual. The 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars established glitter rock and androgynous clothing as pop's dominant trend that year.
If the music on David Bowie's two most recent albums weren't enough to convince you that "Ziggy Stardust" is no more, then Bowie himself is more than willing to let you know. "I took all my characters from 'Ziggy' to 'The Thin White Duke' and left them in a wardrobe in Los Angeles," he said in a New York hotel a few days ago. "I physically locked them away."
The new Bowie — the real Bowie, if you will — eschews the lifestyle of the rock star. He hasn't reversed direction entirely, although he does perform a duet of 'The Little Drummer Boy' with Bing Crosby on Crosby's television special Wednesday night. He'll also perform the title song from his new album Heroes on the program. But calling Heroes a rock and roll album is based more on habit than on the evidence.
Heroes continues in the direction Bowie established with Low earlier this year. Both albums, done in collaboration with English musical metaphysician Brian Eno, feature abstract instrumental collages. The use of electronic instruments dominates.
Like its predecessor, Heroes has one side that is mostly electronic instrumental experimentation and one side of songs. Side one is rhythmically more accessible, with songs like 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'Joe the Lion' offering a mood of mystery with enigmatic lyrics and plaintive singing. Bowie fans who identify with the mega-rock star of Ziggy Stardust, or the purveyor of simple white funk that led to recent hit singles like 'Fame' and 'Young Americans' might be perplexed by the cold and ominous moorings of sound adrift on side two of 'Heroes'.
There is a stark, desolate quality to the song constructs on Heroes, which have names like 'Sense of Doubt', 'Moss Garden' and 'Neuköln'. 'Sense of Doubt' is melodramatic, like an excerpt from a possible soundtrack for Fritz Lang's silent film classic Metropolis. 'Moss Garden' also has a cinematic aspect, but its use of the koto, a Japanese string instrument, brings to mind images from a Japanese samurai epic.
"V-2 Schneider" alludes to the influence cast on Bowie's music by the music of Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter of Kraftwerk, the German electronic rock group. 'Neuköln', or New Cologne, is further evidence of Bowie's fascination with the sounds and feelings of modern Germany's industrial cities. Heroes was the only one of the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” albums to be recorded entirely in West Berlin.
How and why did Bowie choose Berlin as a base of operations? "Berlin was the antithesis of Los Angeles, for starts," he said. "I tend to revolt completely against the last thing I've done. That goes for lifestyle as well as work.
"In Los Angeles, I experienced a crisis feeling against the rock and roll surface. A friend pointed out that I was doing my sanity a great injustice by the lifestyle I was leading. Three days later, I was gone."
Bowie said he feels that he was victimized by the rock star lifestyle, that he fell into a trap that he always wanted to avoid. "I was repulsed by it from the beginning," he said. "I thought it was horrendous. But it all came to me instead. All those freaks treating me as if I was Ziggy Stardust. I was so confused with all my characters that they became me. It can really screw you up."
Berlin offered Bowie the chance to regain control of his own personality. "I had complete anonymity there," he said. "They're not impressed at all with the rock and roll cult. So it was easy to fall into a conservative living pattern."
Bowie moved into an apartment in West Berlin, familiarized himself with the city, and tried to analyze what kind of writing he wanted to do. Whether it was rock and roll or not didn't matter.
"I knew I was going to have to start experimenting with music if I was going to maintain interest," Bowie said. "Berlin always has had a lively modern music scene. Steve Reich and Phillip Glass are well-received there. People are interested in their music, and I was drawn to that."
Bowie managed to "seduce" Brian Eno away from London in order to begin working on some music together. Eno was a founder of the band Roxy Music. When he began his musical career, Eno's ideas far outstripped his technical abilities. He took some pride in being a non-musician who happened to play music. Eno's fertile artistic vision blended the sophisticated concepts of serious modern composers like Reich and Glass with a literate lyricism that made such ideas accessible to ambitious rock fans. His albums, such as Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, stand as humane, often humorous masterworks of avant-garde rock and roll.
"Eno helped me to relate to a working situation that had validity in itself — that wasn't just lost in pursuit of rock and roll status," Bowie said. Eno, along with guitarist Robert Fripp (another English experimenter), guitarist Carlos Alomar, percussionist Dennis Davis, bass player George Murray and coproducer (with Bowie) Tony Visconti settled into a Berlin studio with Bowie when he was ready to record.
"I made inquiries and found this strange, desolate studio by The Wall surrounded by gun towers," Bowie said of Hansa By the Wall. "It was a big old 1910, Weimar Republic-style house, converted into a studio." The earlier album recorded there, Low, was almost gentle-sounding. "There were musical references to Polish folk songs," Bowie said. "There were traditional roots, and organic folk music." By contrast, Heroes sounds precisely as if it were recorded in the shadows of East Germany.
"There's some very dangerous music there," Bowie said with typical analytic distance. "I find a lot of it as fascinating to listen to as anything else." That is unusual, since many artists don't usually enjoy hearing the music they've toiled on once the record leaves their hands. The reason Bowie likes Heroes has a lot to do with the way it was recorded.
The techniques used by Bowie and Eno included setting the electronic machines to emit a certain number of beats per measure. Then they overdubbed the other instruments. They varied the rhythms almost at whim, just to see what the results would be. In structure, it's a process not unlike that used by author William Burroughs, who devised a writing process called "cut-ups," in which he connected, at random, words and sentences that had nothing to do with each other.
"It's not spontaneous music," Bowie said of this latest musical experiment. "But a lot of it is arbitrary. It's not accidental. It's just that we chose the accidents we'd have."
The result is that perceptions of the music on Heroes change with each listen "It's much like walking through a busy street," Bowie said "Flatting in on fragmented images. You can't articulate what that street was about. Musically, it's a juxtaposition of arbitrary as well as planned statements."
Bowie's present activities have some of the aura of planned accidents. Just before arriving in New York, he traveled in Africa, and is tempted to return to Kenya for a longer visit. He is intrigued enough with a New Wave group called Devo to consider producing the Akron, Ohio, band. Next summer, he'll make his first film since his screen debut in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The new movie is based on a period in the life of expressionist painter Egon Schiele. It will be directed by Clive Donner, and shot in Vienna, London and Paris.
Right now Bowie has no permanent home, and he likes it that way. "It's exciting, stimulating moving around a lot," Bowie said. "At one point, I felt that I was only moving through America. Last year, I found myself in Thailand. I also revisited Japan as a traveler rather than performer, and stayed there a few months. I divorced myself completely from what I had been doing. It brought me back to doing things I had failed to do earlier in life as a painter. To relate to rock and roll as texture rather than lifestyle."
© Wayne Robins, 1977, 1995, 2022
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.