From the Vault: David Bowie, 1987

David Bowie
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Recorded in 1987 for the King Biscuit broadcast from David Bowie’s Glass Spider Tour this is a formal sit-down with Bowie aimed at promoting the tour. He talks in depth about the tour’s production, as well as the meanings behind the theatrics. It is not only a testament to Bowie’s hard work and dedication to putting on a great show, but also to his artistic merit, as his explanations regarding the meanings behind different aspects of the show prove that every detail was the result of a greater vision.

King Biscuit: How do you feel about the interview things? I mean, I know you have to do them. Do you steal yourself to them as a tour comes up?

David Bowie: I think as they’ve gone past, as a tour is then on the road and you’re coming into a interview midway, like a situation like this, it’s fairly difficult to actually collect one’s thoughts about what’s going on since one started tour. I think I’m best at thinking about things in retrospect—when it’s all over—like the next year I suspect I’ll be more comprehensive about it.

Biscuit: And you’ll be busy.

Bowie: Then I won’t be available, you’re absolutely right. I’ll go back down to the south of France and see if it’s any better.

Biscuit: Well, as you know this is for DIR and it’s going to be entirely about the tour. So, let’s begin by saying that when I last saw you it was in Rotterdam in Holland, it was nine days before the Glass Spider Tour was due to begin. You were excited and exhilarated by how the show was developing in rehearsals, but there was an air of tension, too. I suppose it was sort of a thing that you normally have in the run-up to a show of this size. Do you have genuine jitters at a time like that?

Bowie: About two days after we last met on that thing, I slipped from nerves into pure depression. For some reason everything started going wrong. Cables were breaking, dancers were getting sprains, their backs were going out, I really hurt my shoulder and two of the other dancers hurt their hips. On and on. I just saw no end to it. I thought why on Earth did I put something together so complex when I could have just gone out with a guitar with the band and just done the big hits and done a tour that simply. And I really felt it was all too much and that I really had undertaken something much larger than any of us. Then two days after that it just came back together and it worked just like it does in books. We knew we had a show and it was just marvelous. Everything was just worthwhile after the first couple of gigs. One always feels the first couple of gigs is just sort of to feel out a measuring point and you tidy up all of the things that didn’t quite work and whatever. Then after that we were back up and it’s been great every where we’ve done. The reactions have just been what we’ve expected. It’s a good 80 percent enjoyment and about 20 percent completely uncomprehending pure dislike, which is fine. Which is about what I expected, really.

Biscuet: Well you are doing something different, aren’t you?

Bowie: Yeah, yeah. I believe so. I’ve not seen anything like it. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of theatricality in rock where it’s for more based on a Broadway concept or sort of flash-dancey looking. Nothing that really endeavored to touch these kinds of avant garde or performance theater and trying to combined that with rock. It’s quite a personalized idea of what rock and roll show should look like. It’s something that I’ve always adored seeing. I love seeing new theater. I really wanted to see what would happen if you combined it with rock, and see if other people would dig it too.

Biscuit: Let me ask you another question about pre-tours. I mean, it’s been four years since the Serious Moonlight Tour. Do you ever between tours where you get to the stage where you think, “My God, am I really getting so rusty?” I’m talking about the physical.

Bowie: Physically, no. I would hazard to say I’m probably in much better health physically than I was in my mid-20s and 30s. I know that I could personally have never sustained a show like this when I was that age. I would have flaked out within a week, quite absolutely, because I was pretty rough on myself in those days. There’s no way I could have endured it. These days I guess I have a system apart from the cigarettes that works from me. It’s just fairly sensible training. When I’m at home I go to the gym about three or four times a week in the mornings. It’s nothing very gargantuan, but it’s enough to keep me pretty healthy and in condition. It’s generally because I’m a fairly healthy guy. I guess going to the gym and all that and working out a bit just keeps me in pretty good shape. No, those sides of it never particularly worried me. If I did have worries it was about whether if I was going to lose the audience, but I kind of enjoy getting off on that anyway. How far I can push my audience without losing them entirely…this is a pretty self-indulgent show. I love it! It’s really indulgent; it’s exactly what I want to see when I go to a show. My presumption is that if I enjoy it there’s going to be a good percentage of people out there that will enjoy it too.

Biscuit: We’ll get back to the physical side of the whole thing in a minute or two, but I mean you were essentially saying that you’re living a much healthier life nowadays.

Bowie: I suppose I am saying I live a much healthier life now, yeah.

Biscut: And the theatrical experience you were talking about, as a theatrical experience is it something that changes from date to date?

Bowie: Funnily enough, when you look back through it, a lot of the things that I’ve done it doesn’t change as much as people would have me changed. I look at the scaffolding complexity of the kind of warehouse look of the interior of the Spider and I believe that it’s not that much different from the Rainbow show that I did with Lindsay Kemp and the Spiders in 1970, I think. A lot of the antagonism between the dancers and myself is reflective of the Diamond Dogs Tour. There are elements of the stark lighting effects is something I’ve been with since 1976 and the ’78 tours and the ideas of lighting stages in atmosphere rather than using blinding rock and roll lights, Just like various areas of the stage rather than having that kind of dominating kind of light that just has uber huge spots beaming down. But to create little atmospheres on the stage is something that I’ve always worked with. So I guess there’s some kind of thematic devices that I’ve used continually that are very much me. The body vocabulary isn’t much different from what I had 15 years ago. The same kind of gestural things and the idea of inventing a vocabulary with a body is something that I’ve always done. So It’s not really that different to what I’ve done. It’s just more expensive! A little more gregarious.

Biscuit: There are elements from past performances, aren’t there?

Bowie: Yeah, sure. The rope sequence is an adaptation of something I was doing on the Diamond Dogs. I’ve actually talked into a microphone before on stage—a telephone rather. That was also in Diamond Dogs. Those two are the only two I can think of that I’ve sort of retrieved from the past. Now what happened with the rest of the stuff is I guess I got a thing from Brian Eno from working with him in Berlin; when he woke up in the morning he’d immediately write out his dreams and it’s a habit that I latched onto. I found it very amusing, instructive and quite frightening at times. I’ve made the most of that situation and it’s enabled me to concoct some pretty strange imagery for the songs out of the little morning notes. Again some of it’s amusing and some of it is quite frightening. Some of them stick and I’ve tried to capture the quality of feeling that I had in the dreams. At the same time there’s a feeling… There’s a strange sequence that I saw where a girl was using a gas mask to retrieve a guy and presumably it was myself. Now it’s translated into one of the songs “Never Let Me Down” and it had a romantic quality that I could never put my finger on. It was quite ludicrous where there was a ballerina girl with a backpack on giving me oxygen and it doesn’t sound too romantic, but there’s a poignancy about it that’s quite startling and it seems to work on stage. There’s quite a moment where… It’s a nice moment that one. I don’t know why it works. Also, having been bound by two of the other dancers and being retrieved from that bondage by the girl dancer at another point for heroes has another celebratory feel. I can’t quite talk about it these terms about why it works. But it works, mate. It works. It’s strange how those things happen.

Biscuit: One of the essential elements in the show is the choreography, which I think you told me was by Tony Basil. How was that developed with her?

Bowie: Well, what we did with both Tony Basil I set out and kind of drew the kinds of situations I saw coming out on stage and Tony took them and turned them into choreography and stylized them in a particular forms of dancing. She wanted to put in essences of street dance that were foreign to me; the only thing I know is break dancing. I didn’t know how many hybrids and developments of street dance there were in America, which she and my present dancers showed to me and explained to me. So there’s quite the exploration of dance and what I wanted to do was ameliorate that with not jazz dancing, which is the one form that seems to dominate in videos or dance films, but I wanted to ameliorate it with performance dance and European style dance; things like Pina Bausch who had a huge influence on my thinking for this show or Human Footsteps La La La, one of the experimental dance troupes. Also we were lucky enough to work with a group called Momix, who introduced us to doing choreography on skis, which as everyone knows is one of my past obsessions. The skis not the choreography on skis. I never realized you could put the two together, but they showed me how and produced the most extraordinary thing we could do on stage. Again, we produced a hybrid of dancing which involves essential European theater and American street dance. I can’t wait to video the show because it is so fascinating and delicate and structured which I’m sure can’t come over even on the massive screens we use in stadiums. It just excites me, the idea, of putting it together as a video piece. Hopefully with Tim Pope, who I just finished working with on something else, I just adore working with him.

Biscuit: That’s fascinating, because I wanted to ask you also that someone who came to the London show said that this show features the ultimate David Bowie video and he was talking about the giant screens. And I know that you’ve always had an interest in video. Were you, or have you been involved, in the directing of how that should be shot for the screens?

Bowie: That’s hard to say. No, I think that comment will come up merely because you don’t see much on a video screen when you do to the stadium other than the singer singing because there actually isn’t that much happening on stage. Because of the fact that you see a lot of what’s happening on the stage up on the screen and you’ve not really been to the theater much it will give you the impression that you’re watching a show on screen where you’ll translate that it must be a video then. But what you’re just seeing is a televised version of our show. Now I’m not quite sure how you differentiate the two. I don’t really mind if people consider it a video because if that’s their reference that’s fine, I would never try to shake them from their belief. But what they are seeing in fact is a close up of the stage show. See what I mean? It’s hard for me. I think for a lot of the people it’s—God, I hate to sound patronizing about this—but some of the more informed critiques that I’ve read immediately recognize that my influences in the show were particularly about the fact that it had nothing to do with video and it had to do about photographing dance, which is what it is. It’s very hard to photograph dance because you have to establish the master shot and then come in for details. It’s very easy to slip into just photographing details and if you do that you don’t get an overall feel about what the dance was in the first place. So the girl that I’m working with, Chris, is quite brilliant in the way of establishing the master shot first and then coming in for the detail work. It is a work of incredible complexity at times and it’s very hard for her to capture what’s happening on stage, but she’s gradually getting it. It takes 11 shows before you can be able to get it in one go. She’s doing pretty well at the moment, pretty well!

Biscuit: Anyone who sees the show will understand the complexity of the whole thing. Presumably the people who are listening to this now will not have had the chance of seeing the show. I want you to, fairly briefly, just give me an idea of how complex and how you came up with the idea of it from the very beginning.

Bowie: The seeds of this were the two things that I guess have the greatest interplay in my emotional life which are aggression and romanticism. Both in equal parts. So I used that as the premise for the entire tour. I codified it, or used as a structural device visually the idea of a spider, which is kind of a dull image but it works for me. The spider is a mother figure from which all of the performers are giving birth and we come down between something that is either a ship’s rigging or a web, which for me is sort of a voyage for life. The platform on the floor is a circus upon which life is played out. So those are the three areas of performance. Within that area dancers represent the five very distinctive characters, they make themselves very evident on stage, I guess they can all be considered aspects of myself—or not—but they can all be considered an altruistic street gang. We have interplay of aggressions and energies. Always there’s a continual rebalance of that kind of energy between aggression and romanticism. It vacillates backwards and forwards throughout the show. The two fight each other, sometimes the dominance takes over. The aggressive side of romanticism, but sometimes the romantic side of aggression takes over as it does in live. I was trying to get the feeling of the way you rush through life and seeing different images hit you at the same time. No matter how much you think you’re focused at one time you feel the room you’re in, you see the things outside of the window like a plane flying across at this moment, there’s a sound of traffic below this window. All of these things are going in as we talk in this present moment. It’s how life is. You’re taking in all of this information at the same time and I wanted to reproduce that feel with a lot of what I do in the stage show. It could be up to two or three things happening on stage at the same time that seem to bare no remote relationship with another, but to me they do in some psychotic way. That’s how I wanted the show to run. That’s what gives it it’s visual in a kind of organic way for me.

Biscuit: I think it’s interesting you said that because I was thinking about the show in relation to the cut up techniques you used. It’s almost another way of using that.

Bowie: It really is. I haven’t changed that much because even that way of thinking is how I put it together visually and a lot of it has to do with just that. The ideas of contradictory pieces of information of two pieces of information, one’s allotted next to one another which tends to make a third piece of information that’s usually unique to the situation. Something that I’ve always found fascinating is if you put this chemical with this one, what will blow up? What color would the explosion be? That’s always fascinated me with writing. That’s always been my favorite way of writing.

Biscuit: You know, individual performers seem to have different levels of appreciation of the audience. Some are very aware of the audience and some to be independent of it. And with a tour several weeks old, you’ve been in England, Belgium, Germany, Italy, are you able to differentiate the differences in those national audiences?

Bowie: Yes, quite definitely. What I found in the British audiences is unabbreviated enthusiasm. They’re terribly enthusiastic. They’re really quite magnificent with their enthusiasm for the show and they really want to be a part of it and feel it is theirs. As opposed to Germany who is stoic, but then start to release themselves towards the end. They sort of slowly build. They’re like a keg of gunpowder. You feel it all filtering through. They have more of a go-on-entertain-me feel. You really have to work hard, not that you don’t have to work that hard in England. By about halfway through, right when we hit “Heroes,” the Germans start to feel a part of it and it feels paramount to we have a relationship together. Italy is totally different. They’re bonkers, absolutely bonkers. Absolutely crazy. It’s just extravagance from the get go. They’re loony, completely loony. It was the most complicated setting that I’ve ever worked in, but I adored it in one way because it was like a circus. The whole thing was ludicrous. I quite enjoyed it. It was quite crazy. I mean it’s very hard to sing under those conditions. American audiences are sometimes I feel halfway between the British and German audiences. Sometimes I feel waves of enthusiasm, but they do expect to be entertained and they wait to be entertained, which is fine by me because I can entertain them. One interesting thing, if I could go off on that, is that when I first started out with a tour it would be very hard for me to concentrate on anything other than doing the show. Not really giving out in the same way say a Springsteen can by relating to the audience. I thought I would be rather confined by what I was doing on stage like relating to the other dancers on stage to be able to exert that kind of energy out to the audience. But since we now know exactly what we’re doing on stage we can now play with the show, which has been so releasing because now I can bridge the gap between that very static stylized rock and roll performance and having a relationship with the audience. Now it’s on a tightrope between the two, which I find very exciting.

*Biscuit:** That brings me a question about performance. You enjoyed if in the broadest sense from the very beginning. Does that mean you’re more at home on stage in a tour like this than you would in a studio?

Bowie: Yes. I do really feel committed. I don’t feel as at home in the studio as some of my friends and contemporaries do. I find it a great struggle and I fight with the studio a lot just to be in there. It really does make me feel aggressive. I don’t feel comfortable and I have to fight and stretch to get what I need in the way of music. I don’t feel that way on stage. I feels like a surrogate home for a short while, for a very short while. I have such a great fondness for being on stage. And the old ham I am I don’t think I’ll ever lose it. It does feel very fulfilling to do something successful on stage. It’s because it’s immediate satisfaction. At the end of the night you get your just desserts and if it was a good show they’ll let you know. If it was a bad show they’ll let you know to so at least you feel that each day you can measure what you’re doing. And being a 20th century kid I want it immediately. Give it to me now!

Biscuit: I thought when I saw you in Holland, and this is a question about the physicality of it again, that you looked incredibly fit. Then of course I realized when I got an idea of what the show was about that you really had to be because out there on stage every night it’s like three Marine assault courses. If this was TV I’d ask you to show us the bruises, but tell us about them instead.

Bowie: It’s quite extraordinary what I have to put myself through. I’m thrown around, I drop from considerable heights, I’m on ropes, and I’m under ropes. I’ve never been thrown around so much in my entire life. Not even in my real life. The result is that every night I get massive bruises on places I didn’t know existed, but the dancers do to because I’m allowed to give it back. This had a lot to do with the feeling of new modern dance and a lot of the troupes that I’ve been interested in there’s been a relentlessness in their work. They’re trying to drive their audience to a point where nobody can take anymore. Where the audience is driven to a point where they’re exhausted. That exhaustion point for both the audience and the performer is something I tried to bring elements of into the show. It’s a lot like these times where it’s not in terms of song and dance, but there’s a point of relentlessness that happens in real day life that I wanted to focus in onto the energy of the performance. Because of that we really had to push ourselves to the limit and so it really doesn’t stop. It really is a fast event on the horizon and it is exhausting for the audience. It really is.

Biscuit: I was going to ask you, this is a show that really does have everything including the kitchen sink, how much bigger can these shows get?

Bowie: I think you could get bigger shows, but I don’t think you can get more complex shows. I think you can use brighter lights and more special effects, but I don’t think they’re quite as big of a statement in a way as using complex psychological incidents. To overpower people with unconnected information is quite a challenge to take on the road. I dare say not many other bands will try this. They might have very good reasons why they shouldn’t as well. It’s a brave show in that it does try to take to a stadium an assemblage of modern theatre techniques that have never been used on a rock stage before.

Biscuit: Would you describe yourself as daring? Do you consider yourself daring in these situations?

Bowie: Oh yeah, I’ve got to. I’ve got to. I mean I don’t think there’s any way I could be seen taking the safe way out on this tour. This is probably one of my most dangerous tours on those terms. It wasn’t born to please.

Biscuit: I know there are a number of set pieces in the show. People who see the show will have their own favorites, but is there any one that you would choose today?

Bowie: Funnily enough my two favorite moments are because they’re so simple and the devices we used were so simple, but I think they’re the most satisfactory have to do with performance rather than dance. They would be “Never Let Me Down” and “Heroes” which I feel are quite lovely moments. “Heroes” specifically because on a dark note, which fortunately for me, a lot of our American shows will be in the dark which is super because two of the pieces involve footage of Russia I shot while travelling in 1974 which get completely missed when we do it in the daylight. In a dark show you can see the images projected on the screens. There’s a poignant image of a Mongolian with a hanky in his hand waving goodbye to his family getting on a train to Moscow and I loop that up so there’s a never ending sequence of this old fellow dabbing his tears and waving bye-bye. That plays behind the action in black and white and it’s alarmingly sad. It’s like saying goodbye to heroism; it’s like saying goodbye to a world of a 19th century ideal. It’s irretrievable and now maybe we’re just looking for seeds of intelligence and not heroes. There’s something about it that I really like. It’s a piece of theatricality that I really adore. I’m really proud of it.

Biscuit: There were two more questions I wanted to ask. People have said that this all singing, all dancing extravaganza is probably going to David Bowie’s last tango. What’s the answer to that?

Bowie: I would suspect that I won’t ever travel with anything as complex as this again. That’s the only way I can answer that. It’s taken a lot out of me. Emotionally and spiritually, if you could believe that. I’ve been working on this since January of this year. The rehearsals were Spartan and terribly strenuous. The logistics of getting this thing around the world is quite stupendous. I’m not sure if I’ll amount to anything like this again. I’ll probably drop back to something vastly starker the next time if there is a next time. I don’t see myself doing this again, but I had to do this. I had to do this one last time. So maybe in those terms it will be the last time I work like this on stage.

Biscuit: David, the North American tour begins at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on the 30th of July, I believe that’s right next to where the Live Aid was. What are your feelings about touring the USA again?

Bowie: Again, I’ve never had anything but an incredibly warm feeling for the audiences I had in America. It often surprised me that when I first went to the Americas in the early 1970s with Ziggy, for even in those days it was quite outrageous and it looked amazing and off the wall, the whole tone of it was quite strange. In those days to go down and play Houston and Dallas in Texas and have an audience that received us well was really something. I’ve always been told kind of how naïve the Americans were and until I got there I was under that presumption. It never ceases to amaze me how open the American audience is to new ideas. Far more so than other places that are presumably very sophisticated in what their likes and dislikes are. America is very open to new ideas and that’s what’s made it a joy to go there.