Turn and face the strange: a posthumous interview compilation shows David Bowie as a brilliant artist and a warm conversationalist, an all-too-rare combination.
The Last Interview and Other ConversationsPublisher: Melville House
Length: 208 pages
Author: David Bowie
Publication date: 2016-11
“David Bowie gave a lot of interviews… until he didn’t.”
So begins the introduction to Melville House Publishing’s latest entry in their Last Interview series. It’s true. Unlike a lot of similarly eclectic and revered rock stars -- Dylan comes to mind -- Bowie was refreshingly open and enthusiastic on the subject of interviews. Sure, there were times when he could be downright bizarre, like during his 1976 interview with young Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe when he suddenly stopped the proceedings to inform Crowe that he’d just seen a body drop out the window. He also stopped giving interviews altogether in the late ‘70s while working on his famed “Berlin” trilogy. But for a large segment of his career, Bowie was up front, open, charming, intelligent and friendly on the many occasions he opened himself up to journalists.
In 2004, however, things began to change. Bowie suffered an onstage heart attack that year and began to shy away from the press and the public eye in general. His recorded output became less frequent as well, releasing only two more albums of all-new material (The Next Day and his brilliant swan song, Blackstar) before succumbing to an intensely private battle with cancer in January 2016.
The “last” interview referenced in the book’s title is really an afterthought and hardly indicative of the fascinating brilliance found in the nine previous conversations included here. In 2006, while playing a conceited, insensitive version of himself on Ricky Gervais’ BBC TV show Extras, Bowie was interviewed in a promotional clip for the show, the transcript of which makes up this final interview. It’s a silly, satirical, fourth-wall-breaking bit of fun, and besides serving as Bowie’s unintentional farewell to the press, it proves that besides just being a unique, iconic artist, he was also funny as hell and willing to laugh at the spectacle of celebrity.
Spanning several decades, The Last Interview obviously covers an enormous array of topics, and like Bowie himself, it’s certainly not limited to music. In fact, depending on the media outlet, the conversations are often focused on a particular area in which Bowie himself was either skilled or had some active interest. In a 1974 interview, “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman”, Bowie and legendary Beat writer William Burroughs interview each other and find a good deal of common ground. Bowie, at the time a relatively new Burroughs fan, heaped praise on Burroughs’ novel Nova Express while Burroughs compared some Bowie lyrics to T.S. Eliot.
Well-known as a somewhat prolific actor who never managed to spark the right combination of critical praise and box office success, Bowie the Actor is examined in “Bowie at the Bijou”, a 1992 interview with Movieline magazine. As someone who’s appeared in plenty of odd cult films (Absolute Beginners, The Hunger, The Man Who Fell to Earth) in addition to the occasional big-budget splashes (The Last Temptation of Christ, Labyrinth) Bowie has a lot to say on the subject, and while he approaches his acting gig with a mixture of humility and wide-eyed wonder, he’s not above some good natured dishing on his directors; “I was always told two things: never work with animals and never work with Nicholas Roeg,” he jokes, not to mention humorous observations of his unpredictable fan base; “Every Christmas,” he says, “a new flock of children comes up to me and says, ‘Oh! You’re the one who’s in Labyrinth!’”.
As a cultural shapeshifter who’s known to bend the media to suit his experimental nature, several of the interviews here turn the traditional Q&A format on its head: in addition to the two-way interview with Burroughs, there’s a 2000 interview printed in Bust magazine that’s actually conducted by Bowie’s wife Iman, who feeds her husband the magazine’s pre-arranged questions that are occasionally rebuffed with disdain (“That is, in my opinion, an absurd question,” Bowie retorts dryly when asked a rather tired query about gender identity). The book even begins with a 1964 BBC interview with a teenaged Bowie -- ostensibly representing “the youth of Britain” -- where the overall theme of the conversation, sarcastic in nature, is about how young men are persecuted by society due to the length of their hair. Even in his teen years, Bowie was already playing the media.
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Of course, fashion is a topic that Bowie never shied away from (in song or in interviews), and there’s a 1996 interview included here with late fashion designer Alexander McQueen that’s loose and fun, in addition to a terrific 1987 Rolling Stone interview conducted by Kurt Loder that focuses to a large extent on Bowie’s opinions on fashion, in addition to his ruminations on middle age (he turned 40 just before the interview was conducted). Not surprisingly, Bowie hadn’t mellowed at 40 -- and never really did -- and his thoughts on contemporary trends in fashion, literature, film and music show a man constantly looking forward (despite the fact that the interview occasionally dates itself, especially when Bowie refers to the long-forgotten Screaming Blue Messiahs as his favorite new band).
As an artist Bowie was peerless, a constantly evolving, endlessly creative and artistically restless icon. As a conversationalist he was refreshingly human. No matter what the subject, he approached it with humanity and grace. It wouldn’t have been surprising, in the typical climate of celebrity, for him to be difficult or unapproachable. Fortunately for us and the readers of his interviews, he was just the opposite. Godspeed, Starman.