Standing face to face with David Bowie, I didn’t feel like I was talking to just another rock star.
After all, he always played these larger-than-life characters like Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke onstage. And I didn’t know if he’d be in character, so to speak. And, since this was our first personal encounter, I really wanted to see if one of his eyes was indeed blue and the other brown.
The answer is yes.
We were backstage at a stadium in Anaheim, Calif., in 1987. Bowie – who died Sunday of cancer at age 69 -- was taking his Glass Spider Tour on the road. He was easy to talk to. Just like any other big name rock star. He even seemed surprisingly approachable and friendly later that night at the bar in his posh Hollywood hotel where he was hanging out with his bandmates.
At the stadium, I met the bandmates, including guitarist Peter Frampton (Bowie’s old school chum) and choreographer Toni Basil. Yes, this was a theatrical tour. It was Bowie, after all.
He explained that he was at the stage of his tour where he was “half-watching the show myself while I’m performing it. It’s a very odd feeling.”
Basil said Bowie came to her with concepts illustrated in drawings and photos. “If he could clone himself, he wouldn’t need us,” she said. “He has a huge perspective creatively. And his mind works like a computer.”
With an omnipresent cup of coffee and pack of Marlboro cigarettes in front of him, Bowie explained his concept for the multi-media show: "I hoped the eye would travel as fast as the ear does through
music. You would be barraged with visual information, so you would be switching eyes from what's happening on the screen to, `Oh, look what's happening over there,' so it becomes a pastiche of information, which is kind of what I like, that kind of art. I'm drawn toward Dadaism and that particular kind of fragmented form of information."
Bowie always has considered rock a form of theater.
"It goes back to my own favorites like Little Richard, who was extravagant in his personality and his exaggeration (onstage)," the rocker explained. "I was always drawn to that style of rock rather than the quieter Dylanesque kind of approach, even though I went through that and it does have its own theatrical elements. I wanted it to be every moment something exciting to watch -- more an adventure than just going to hear songs."
Bowie’s style helped create the template for the genre known as modern rock. He was well aware of his influence on such bands as Duran Duran and Psychedelic Furs.
"It's made an art form out of being quite shy," he said with a quiet laugh. "It actually does have an awful lot to do with that. The feeling of detachment, or my sort of possible isolation from my audience and my work, at times comes out of wanting to create a buffer between myself and the audience."
But there was no buffer in face-to-face encounters with Bowie. I interviewed him again in 1991 when he came to perform for a convention of the Twin Cities-based Musicland, then the nation’s largest record-store chain, with his new band, Tin Machine.
He wouldn’t pose for photos without the other members of his band, and he wouldn’t give an interview without the other members. But he gave candid answers that put his career in perspective.
Is Tin Machine, a noisy rock band, his next guise, I asked.
"Too much is made of this change thing," Bowie said. "I just make varied music. I'm just a bit more versatile than most, that's all.
"The reason that I've made so-called changes is I like to keep my enthusiasm up. I hate to feel that I've been slotted into some area and asked that it become my career. The last thing I want to do is feel whatever I'm doing is a career. I want to be a working artist; the only way to do that is to challenge yourself."
In 2004, I interviewed Bowie again on the phone. I asked him to clarify why he had performed so seldom in the Twin Cities – 1974, 1987, 1997 and again in 2004.
“I don’t think Minneapolis is alone,” he said. “I think there’s quite a few places we haven’t done over the years.”
Were logistics one reason Bowie hadn’t gigged here more often?
“Oh, hell, I don’t know,” he said without any hint of anger. “Get the chip off [your shoulder]. I’m coming.”
I liked his directness. And his pragmatism.
Sometimes we overthink things when it comes to rock stars. Some things are sometimes more simple than they seem.
I flash back to something Bowie said in that first in-person interview in Anaheim. The question was why he liked to incorporate elements from the avant-garde – whether modern dance, art, clothing design, etc. – into his concert presentations. He said it was an extension of his childhood delight in show-and-tell.
"I find great joy in saying, `Look what I found' and showing it to people," he said. "I just get a big kick out of it. It's nothing more than that. I used to like doing that when I was a kid -- for instance, when I came across the (Jack) Kerouac book (`On the Road'), I'd try and get everybody in my class to read it."
He lowered his voice and said, "Nobody would, of course."