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David Bowie’s Stories Behind His Songs

| January 8, 2014 | 2 Comments

David Bowie has Houdini’d his way out of everything from the shackles of chemical dependency to the ropes of bad management. Over five decades on from his debut record (“Liza Jane” by his first group, The King Bees), he is arguably the most vital musician of his generation. Aside from his daring sonic explorations (in a little over the last decade alone, there was the drums ’n’ bass of Earthling and the innovative concept art of Outside), Bowie has diversified to pursue other interests (as far back as 1972 he said, “I’m not content to be a rock ’n’ roll star all my life”). In recent years he’s been an Internet service provider and web host, journalist, wallpaper designer, photographer, painter, actor and one-man corporation (in 1997, he became the first pop star to offer himself as a share issue, with “Bowie Bonds”).

For Bowie’s birthday today, we re-visit portions of a chat Bill DeMain had with him about his first musical influences and the stories behind some favorite songs.

You’ve been making records for over 50 years. Do you remember what made you want to be a musician in the first place?

Little Richard. If it hadn’t have been for him, I probably wouldn’t have gone into music. When I was nine and first saw Little Richard in a film that played around town—I think it was probably Girl Can’t Help It —seeing those four saxophonists onstage, it was like, “I want to be in that band!” And for a couple of years that was my ambition, to be in a band playing saxophone behind Little Richard. That’s why I got a saxophone.

A good story about that: I got a saxophone and thought, “Somebody should teach me.” So I went through very early copies of the Melody Maker and found that one of the best saxophone players around at the time was Ronnie Ross. So I looked him up in the phone book and found he lived in Abingdon. He was the best baritone player in the jazz scene in Britain. I was like nine or 10 years old, and I phoned him up and said, “Hello, my name is David Jones, and my dad’s helped me buy a new saxophone, and I need some lessons.” And he said [in rough working-class accent], “I don’t give lessons. I’m a jazz player.” I said, “But I really want to learn.” He said, “Well, what are you doing Saturday morning?” “Nothing.” “If you can get yourself over here, I’ll look at you.” And he taught me for about three or four months on Saturday mornings. I’d get the bus to his house.

Many, many years later, I did the Lou Reed album Transformer, and we decided that it would be very cool to have a baritone sax on it. So I phoned Ronnie up, booked him for the session, and he came along and played this fantastic solo at the end of “Walk on the Wild Side.” Then at the end I went out, and at the time I was Ziggy Stardust—red hair, no eyebrows, boots sky high, the whole thing—and I said, “Hello, how have you been?” He said, “Uh, all right, you’re that Ziggy Stardust, aren’t ya?” I said, “You know me better as David Jones.” He said, “I don’t know you, son.” I said, “See if you remember this: ‘Hello, I’m David Jones and my dad’s helped me buy a saxophone …’ ” And Ronnie goes, “My God!!” (laughs).

That was so great that I was able to give him a gig. He had absolutely no idea that I had been that little kid who had been over to his house. He’s no longer with us, unfortunately, but he did talk about it in a couple of interviews in Britain. He said to me, “You should’ve kept at it, you would’ve been all right.”

How did “Space Oddity” come about?

In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing. It was picked up by the British television and used as the background music for the landing itself. I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyric at all (laughs). It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing. Of course, I was overjoyed that they did. Obviously some BBC official said, “Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great.” “Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.” Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that (laughs).

Tell me the story behind “Heroes.”

I’m allowed to talk about it now. I wasn’t at the time. I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Berlin Wall that prompted the idea. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time. And I could never say who it was (laughs). But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met whilst we were in Berlin. I did ask his permission if I could say that. I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.

I have a friend who said he saw you perform the song in Berlin in 1987 at the wall.

I’ll never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears. They’d backed up the stage to the wall itself so that the wall was acting as our backdrop. We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did “Heroes” it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it’s almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more.

That’s the town where it was written, and that’s the particular situation that it was written about. It was just extraordinary. We did it in Berlin last year as well, and there’s no other city I can do that song in now that comes close to how it’s received. This time, what was so fantastic is that the audience—it was the Max Schmeling Hall, which holds about 10-15,000—half the audience had been in East Berlin that time way before. So now I was face-to-face with the people I had been singing it to all those years ago. And we were all singing it together. Again, it was powerful. Things like that really give you a sense of what performance can do. They happen so rarely at that kind of magnitude. Most nights I find very enjoyable. These days, I really enjoy performing. But something like that doesn’t come along very often, and when it does, you kind of think, “Well, if I never do anything again, it won’t matter.”

What about “Rebel Rebel”?

I can tell you a very funny story about that. One night, I was in London in a hotel trying to get some sleep. It was quite late, like 11 or 12 at night, and I had some big deal thing on the next day, a TV show or something, and I heard this riff being played really badly from upstairs. I thought, “Who the hell is doing this at this time of night?” On an electric guitar, over and over [sings riff to “Rebel Rebel” in a very hesitant, stop and start way]. So I went upstairs to show the person how to play the thing (laughs).

So I bang on the door. The door opens, and I say, “Listen, if you’re going to play… ” and it was John McEnroe! I kid you not (laughs). It was McEnroe, who saw himself as some sort of rock guitar player at the time. That could only happen in a movie, couldn’t it? McEnroe trying to struggle his way through the “Rebel Rebel” riff.

“Fame.”

Fame itself, of course, doesn’t really afford you anything more than a good seat in a restaurant. That must be pretty well known by now. I’m just amazed how fame is being posited as the be-all and end-all, and how many of these young kids who are being foisted on the public have been talked into this idea that anything necessary to be famous is all right. It’s a sad state of affairs. However arrogant and ambitious I think we were in my generation, I think the idea was that if you do something really good, you’d become famous. The emphasis on fame itself is something new. Now it’s, “To be famous you should do what it takes,” which is not the same thing at all. And that, to me, is a big worry. I think it’s done dreadful things to the music industry. There’s such a lot of rubbish, drivel out there.

The song was a guitar riff that Carlos Alomar had. He used to play in James Brown’s band and he’d come up with this riff for a song called “Foot Stompin’.” When we were in the studio with John Lennon, I asked Carlos, “What was that riff you had?” And it went from there.

Had you been having conversations with Lennon about fame before the song was written?

Yes. Actually, much more to the point, we’d been talking about management, and it kind of came out of that. He was telling me, “You’re being shafted by your present manager” (laughs). That was basically the line. And John was the guy who opened me up to the idea that all management is crap. That there’s no such thing as good management in rock ’n’ roll and you should try to do without it. It was at John’s instigation that I really did without managers, and started getting people in to do specific jobs for me, rather than signing myself away to one guy forever and have him take a piece of everything that I earn—usually quite a large piece—and have him really not do very much. So if I needed a certain publishing thing done, I’d bring in a person who specialized in that area, and they would, on a one-job basis, work for me and we’d reach the agreed fee. And I started to realize that if you’re bright, you kind of know your worth, and if you’re creative, you know what you want to do and where you want to go in that way. What extra thing is this manager supposed to do for you? I suppose in the old days, it was [in a hokey New York voice] “Get you breaks!” (laughs). I don’t quite know what managers are supposed to do, even. I think if you have even just a modicum of intelligence, you’re going to know what it is you are and where you want to go. Once you know that, you just bring in specific people for specialist jobs. You don’t have to end up signing your life away to some fool who’s just there kind of grabbing hold of the coattails.

—by Bill DeMain

Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 74, Sept/Oct 2003: BACK ISSUE AND ARTICLE DOWNLOAD

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Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (2)

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  1. Great to get an insight.
    I haven’t even heard some of the new songs but I’ve attempted to represent each song from David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day, with a related picture photoblog.ie/2013/03/06/david-bowie-the-next-day/ cheers, Patrick Dinneen.

  2. Anna Maria says:

    Great interview with priceless insights into the songs..McEnroe playing Rebel Rebel amuses me greatly.

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