This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 9, 1993.
THE FIRST THING you notice about David Bowie is that he looks exactly like his photographs - thin, handsome and elegantly dressed. The only difference is that smile, which is hardly ever present in his publicity shots. Throughout the 30-minute interview at the Peninsula Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, that smile never waned. In fact, Bowie was practically beaming from ear to ear, and one could not help but feel slightly alarmed.
"Don't be nervous," he grinned, pouring out the espresso and lighting a cigarette. Earlier, the record company executive had advised against asking questions about his personal life. Please, she said, he would rather talk about his album. But the new album, Black Tie White Noise, and his personal life are intertwined. And during the course of the interview, his wife, model Iman's name inevitably popped up, usually linked to his, in the form of the collective pronoun "we". The two blissful newlyweds, it would seem, are twinned souls.
So, in the light of all this, where does work end and personal life begin? In fact, the new album actually originated from some music Bowie wrote for their wedding last year. "It really happened as a matter of course. I was actually writing music for our wedding, because it was quite difficult for us to sort out the kind of environmental feeling we wanted to have in the church.
"All of Iman's family are Muslim and I'm from a Protestant background and we wanted to marry in Italy which is Catholic! So trying to find a church and trying to find prayers that weren't too heavily biased towards Christianity for her parents' sake, was very difficult.
"As a result, I wanted to write special music for the wedding which would reflect Iman and myself, and as I was writing it, it unlocked a watershed of feelings and responses to the last two or three years of my life and I found I was suddenly off and running with an album."
The personal lyrics are offset by the experimental production work. Produced by Nile Rodgers who collaborated with Bowie on Let's Dance, the album features a lot of jazz stylings. This leeway to toy with different styles was one of the reasons why Bowie signed on with a small American label called Savage, whose most famous act, apart from Bowie, is probably Gene Loves Jezebel.
"The young man who's running the label, David Mimran, really gave me his assurance that he would in no way impede me artistically, that I could virtually record anything I wanted. That's really very brave because I'm a difficult artiste for a lot of companies since they're never quite sure what I'm going to give them! It was the sense of artistic freedom that I had from him which made me sign with Savage."
The album, which was recorded on and off over the course of a year, sees Bowie playing saxophone. While this may strike some as fairly unusual and un-Bowiesque, he does not think so. After all, having gone through a remarkable career where he changed personas and musical styles as often as some people change underwear, the public is well aware that there is really nothing that is typically Bowie.
He can be commercial, as with Let's Dance, or he can be obscure and cryptic, as with Low. The trick is deciding which way the next album will swing. Signing on with the relatively unknown Savage label, after majors like RCA and EMI, could perhaps be an indication of his eagerness now to make music out of the mainstream?
"Well," he said, taking an elegant sip from the elegant coffee cup, and not missing a beat, "I just knew I'd be making my music which automatically takes it out of the mainstream. It is going to be not necessarily what the mainstream is by virtue of the fact that it's me writing it."
This man, understandably, does not want to be categorised. Despite massive commercial success and what some may interpret to be the trappings of that success - his high-profile marriage to a supermodel and the subsequent pictures of their wedding splashed in full colour over numerous pages of Hello! magazine, a glossy upmarket gossip rag for the rich and famous - he still insists on holding on to his musical integrity. "I mean, Paula Abdul it ain't," he quipped, breaking into laughter.
Legendary jazzman Lester Bowie (no relation), who helped out on the album, commented in a Rolling Stone magazine article that the younger Bowie is a saxophonist "kind of like Bill Clinton is".
"Haha!" he laughed, when reminded of that description. "Well I think I've got the enthusiasm of Jimi Hendrix and the technique of Bill Clinton!"
On the album, however, Bowie makes his own statement on the instrument. "I found it interesting what you could do with the saxophone if you started to treat it electronically in the studio, which is what I've done with this album, I made it more of an electric instrument than a wind instrument."
But enough about work. While Bowie is in La La Land to give interviews and shoot a video for the first single, Jump They Say (directed by Mark Romanec of En Vogue fame. It is, according to Bowie, an impressionistic piece simulating the lighting look of Renaissance painter Caravaggio and the mannerist style of Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum ... phew!), his heart and mind are definitely with his Angel For Life, Iman.
However, he is adamant that she will never appear in any of his videos. "I don't think we'd ever want to have our careers overlap. I think that's probably disastrous to a relationship."
So, one quipped, does that mean he will never go into modelling? "Haha! I never got out of modelling! Haha!"
One must agree, looking at his tasteful black-and-white houndstooth suit, teamed with a white shirt and offset by an interesting brown-and-ochre patterned tie.
The glitter-and-spandex Bowie of the glam rock '70s seems so far away, almost a figment of the imagination. On Bring Me The Disco King, a song that was on the demo tape but did not appear in the album because its '70s feel clashed with the mood, Bowie sings of a time of "stiff bad clubs", "streets with the good-time girls" and "a river of perfumed limbs", as if bitterly contemptuous of that horrid chapter of his life.
But, he said, he did not hate the '70s. "I think the song was written with a sense of irony. I have some fond memories of the '70s, especially near the end when I was living in Berlin, but yes, the song was more about the negativity of the '70s.
"But I don't believe in the sense of regret that some people have about the past. I think you can only look back on it and learn from it," he said, adding that he would not do things differently if he had the chance to start all over again. I think it's a pointless exercise in even considering that you would change things. It wouldn't occur to me to do that. There was enough change as it was! It was all about change!"
The biggest change today is possibly his emphasis on the importance of family life. He is not even sure if he will tour to support the new album.
"At the moment my feeling is that the worst thing I can do with a new marriage is to go away for 10 months! I'm not sure that's a good idea so it's something I want to be very careful about. I want to try and get a balance between my private life, so called, and my public working life. I really will be taking much more note of that in future than probably I have done in the past," he said candidly.
And yes, he wants children. Unlike some who pale at the idea of bringing more kids into a world of suffering and cruelty, he thinks they are needed to change this horrible world. "I want 10 kids!" he jokes. "Naah, we're looking at two," he quickly added. "Haha! It's kinder! That's where our responsibilities will certainly be upheld - at two - anymore than that and we might go crazy!"
And he wants to travel, a passion he shares with Iman. The two are looking at visiting India next, probably taking the coastal express along the west of India.
So, is there anything left in this world that he wants to do but hasn't yet? "Absolutely nothing," was his swift reply.
Is he happy? "Oh yes, I'm probably more relaxed in my day to day life than I've ever been before. I think, rather than happy, which can be too exuberant, I feel content, very content."
But, rest assured, he will never retire from music. He will just be spending more time on his personal life. And with Iman. "I think you feel you have much more time when you're in your 20s. But at 46, you feel every moment is rather precious, and you want to make the most of it as much as you can."
Ong Soh Chin's trip to Los Angeles was sponsored by BMG Records.