Is there an ideal link which connects the last David Bowie’s masterpiece to some of his other previous works? davidbowieblackstar.it is persuaded that in a certain way Blackstar is just the beginning of a new way for the fans of the Thin White Duke, the necessary sign to interpretate ane see in a different way what the English artist has produced, not only musically. Also Albin Wantier, our new collaborator, thinks in the same way. Albin is a freelance journalist and musician, but especially a big fan of David Bowie. This year Wantier has collaborated with PowerHouse Books writing the preface to Steve Schapiro’s book entitled simply “BOWIE” (here our review: https://www.davidbowieblackstar.it/un-miracolo-americano/). In this interview he faces some arguments that in the next weeks he will present exclusively on the pages of davidbowieblackstar.it!
: Albin, you collaborated with PowerBooks writing an interesting introduction to Steve Schapiro’s book dedicated to Bowie. How did the collaboration start?
AW: The day David Bowie died, I was in a state of shock. I spent the entire day listening to my record collection and reading the inner leaflets. While I was browsing the Station To Station box set, I noticed that the costume he was wearing on one of the pictures was the exact same as that in the Lazarus video. Some details in the pictures were also referring to limited lithographs I had received after ordering my Blackstar record. I have investigated the issue, came up with some interesting findings and published an article about it on my blog two days later. It included elements from the Kabbalah as well as nuclear physics. I could see that a whole story was taking shape, starting with Station To Station and ending up with Blackstar. But I still had the feeling that I was missing something. I knew Steve Schapiro shot the pictures in Station To Station. I found his email address and sent him the link to my article. I wanted to know if he was aware of the similarities between Lazarus and his work 40 years earlier and asked him if he would do an interview in order to update my article. I was pretty sure he would receive tons of messages of that kind and wouldn’t pay any attention to mine. But the very same day, he answered personally and said he would love to do the interview. I was already very excited about it. But the best was yet to come: the day after, I received an email from Daniel Power, Steve’s editor, saying he was very impressed by what I had written. He wanted to know if I would accept to write the introduction to Steve’s new book about Bowie. Of course, I could not refuse. I remember we learned about Bowie’s passing on a Monday morning. And on Friday I was asked to write the introduction. It was quite a week! Then I have started collaborating with Daniel and Steve on a regular basis during several months until the book came out in April last. It turned out to be a huge success.
: In your contribution you reflect about the similarities between Station To Station and Blackstar and in particular about the evident parallelism of the video of Lazarus with the shots by Schapiro from 1974. Why in your opinion David referred to that particular album and to those photographs?
AW: I think there could be multiple explanations. But I can only take guesses. The most exciting explanation would be that David had planned everything, starting with Station To Station. It will take years and years to analyze all aspects of Bowie’s discography. But it seems more and more obvious that some records played a particular role in his career, in terms of self-examination. I’m thinking about Station To Station, Heathen and Blackstar. Those three records seem to be connected, both lyrically and visually. They all tell different chapters of what appears to be a single story. Did he start it on purpose with Station To Station? Who knows? I see other possible explanations, both directly relating to Steve Schapiro himself. The first one is to be found in his work. Steve has photographed the greatest figures of contemporary history: Martin Luther King during the March for Civil Rights, Bob Kennedy when he was running for president, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, Muhammad Ali in his early career, Barbara Streisand, Buster Keaton, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, even Sylvester Stallone in Rambo! They all belong to the major icons of our pop culture: politics, sports, music, arts, movies, etc. Steve Schapiro’s work is actually a whole pop history book. As an artist, Steve was not only a talented photographer, but also a witness of the major events and personalities who have shaped History. I can imagine that, by referring to Schapiro’s work in his latest video, Bowie claims that he also belongs to those icons. It is also interesting that Steve’s exhibition last summer in London was named Heroes. Does it ring a bell to any Bowie fan?
At last, I could also believe that Bowie was only thanking the photographer personally for the collaboration. I have met Steve and his wife in London last summer. They are the loveliest people. Steve is someone very simple, with a sharp sense of humor and also incredibly intelligent. On top of that, he is a wonderful storyteller. He told me that he had been emotionally very affected when I first drew his attention on the similarities between Lazarus and his earlier work. His wife told me the exact same story. I think Bowie and him admired each other. Bowie even asked him to follow him on a tour in the 80s, but Steve had to decline. Referring to his work in his last video is also maybe a simple way to remind Steve of how much he admired him. Among all possible explanations, the latter is the one I like most: someone saying goodbye to an old friend he hasn’t seen in years.
: I know the book was planned last year and in October David was asked to give a contribution. He didn’t but blessed the project wishing all the best. The Lazarus video was filmed in November. Do you think that it’s a simple coincidence or maybe that event influenced David’s mind for the videoclip? I know also Schapiro was “totally surprised”.
AW: I was not involved in the book at that earlier stage. I don’t know when they have started working on the script of Lazarus. We should ask director Johan Renck but he has said very little about it. Would the book project have influenced his last video? Honestly, I don’t know. But I don’t think Bowie needed to see pictures in a book to recall that black and white striped outfit. Back in the 90s, he already used it on stage again for a few gigs (attuale also during the Glass Spider Tour in 1987, NdR). The second version of the costume itself was designed by Alexander McQueen for the Outside Tour and can be seen in the David Bowie Is exhibition. It’s been a central element in Bowie’s scenography. If I refer to my conversations with Steve Schapiro, the black and white striped costume was David’s idea. He used white paint to draw the stripes on the trousers and the shirt during the photo session itself. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing. But I don’t think he has ever given any further explanation about it.
: Sometimes Bowie was self-referential, but with Blackstar this aspect is more prominent: Major Tom, the black and white striped costume, even the photo shoot by Markus Klinko for Heathen… For you, was he trying to pull the strings in the end?
AW: Probably. But wasn’t he already pulling the strings when he was working on Station To Station, Outside 1.0 or Heathen? I believe it is easier to see the global picture once you have faced the final chapter. It becomes clearer and then suddenly all the links and connections seem to be part of the same story.
: I know your favorite album is Station To Station. Why?
AW: I like it when I feel that the audience has a role to play in the interpretation of a work of art. Self-explaining art is such a bore! Facing a book, a movie, a painting or a record and feeling that something is expected from me in shaping the full story is the most exciting experience. That’s exactly what I feel each time Station To Station ends up on my record player. You cannot listen to it and take it for granted. You have to roll up your sleeves, take a deep breath, dive into it and try to understand the inner meaning of the record. I have read numerous books all giving their own interpretation about the meaning of each album. I think they all miss the target when it comes to Station To Station. Some say for instance that it’s all about Bowie revealing his love for God. Then why would he state the exact opposite in Heathen? As far as I’m concerned, I believe the whole record is Bowie talking to himself, assuming the bipolar nature of every artist. It’s a two-way conversation between the artist and his character, expressing their fears, angst, and self-admiration. It is a very complex record, with the strongest narrative power one could imagine. I might be wrong in my interpretation, but it isn’t important at all. When a piece of art is not self-explaining, it’s even more exciting because it has another meaning according to our personal experiences. If a thousand people try to explain Station To Station, they might come up with a thousand different explanations. And they’re all right in a sense. The listener’s interpretation is part of the experience.
Bowie himself has played a role in the vague interpretation of the album. He has always stated that he couldn’t even remember the recording sessions and had no idea of what it was all about. I don’t believe a word of it. It is not like any other drug addict’s delirium: the album is very well constructed in every single aspect. Look at the artwork: it is the only one picturing Bowie in movement. Well done for a record starting with the sound of a departing train, including a song named Stay and ending with Wild is the wind. None of it was accidental: it was well thought after, and probably his most intimate record ever. There is no doubt about his drug issues back at the time, but I’m deeply convinced that he has purposely exaggerated this aspect to avoid all questions about the meaning of the album. When I asked Steve Schapiro if Bowie was under influence during their photo session, he answered that he was on the contrary very sharp, concentrated and that he knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t buy the I-was-too-wasted-to-hardly-remember-anything explanation. And I think the Lazarus video confirms that.
There is also an interesting text written by journalist Cameron Crowe in the inner notes of the Station To Station box set. He had interviewed David when the record came out. He said that Bowie kept repeating that the record “feels like a bridge to the future”. He wrote that in 2010. Here we are.
Make no mistake: I also like the other records. Take The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars: it is a great album. But it’s very self-explaining. Everything has already been written about it decades ago. On the other hand, I still have the feeling that the Bowie experts will keep arguing about Station To Station for another century.
Last but not least, I should mention Lodger: that particular record was way ahead on his time, especially in terms of musical experimentations. Combining the talents of Brian Eno and Adrian Belew on the same record was one of his best ideas. Even today, it’s still hard to believe that they have recorded such an avant-garde pop record back in 1979. I consider Fantastic Voyage as one of his most accomplished pieces in terms of composition.
Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli