In this article, we read about the common tendency for “speculative realism,” like, for example, Quentin Meillassoux. It seems that your position in David Bowie in Darkness follows these ideas. In some way, the 2000s opened many questions. Somone has defined “entropy” of these years depending on the Age of Aquarius or other new age philophies. Are we speaking about two sides of the same coin, the dear old yin and yang, or is there something more?
DG: As for the idea of chaos at the start of the 2000s, I think this was a common thought. Bowie would not have been the only one experiencing a sort of anxiety at the time; rather, he was probably sensing the perceived importance of the change of date.
There are many references I would like to speak of. One of these is the constant presence of madness in 1.Outside. Do you think that if David and be would not have gone to that psychiatric hospital to study the paintings by the patients, we would not have the same 1.Outside today?
NG: The visit to the Gugging facility certainly informed the album that we have today. It is quite possible that Eno (who guided much of the improvisations on the album) took much inspiration from the artists that the two men met at the asylum. As I mention in the book, Bowie and Eno claim that they wanted to “recreate that state of grace” with 1.Outside. The Gugging visit gave them examples of artists that were quite honest about their shortcomings: none of them considered themselves artists. The patients stayed away from what Eno calls “ideological arguments,” for or against certain artistic movements or philosophies. It is this sense of innocence (and grace) that seemed to be the driving force behind the music on 1.Outside. The innocence of some of the artists they met , and their sheer abandonment, is what is ultimately most attractive to Bowie.
That which I greatly appreciated in David Bowie in Darkness is that, for the first time in a book, Bowie is spoken of from an academic view pooint. Maybe it isn’t the only time, but the question is: is this the beginning of a tradition to which we will become accustomed to in the next 20 years?
NG: Fortunately, my book is not the first book that explores Bowie from an academic point of view. In fact, there have been a number of books that take a look at Bowie in an explicitly academic manner: David Bowie: Critical Perspectives, edited by Eoin Devereux, Aileen Dillane and Martin Power (Routledge, 2015), Shelton Waldrep’s Future Nostalgia: Performing David Bowie (Bloomsbury, 2015), and Enchanting David Bowie: Space/Time/Body/Memory, edited by Sean Red- mond and Toija Cinque (Bloomsbury, 2015) are just three recent examples.
I have often heard of people considering “Bowie Studies” departments in universities. I don’t think this will ever happen, but I do think that Bowie will continue to be studied in classes in Popular Music, Cultural Studies or Art History!
In your book, you touched upon various points, as if you had felt required to explain to yourself the “exiting from the centre stage”. Did this come from your own (DB’s own) personal necessity? Was it the work of long research?
NG: I did work on the book for a long time. The book began as my Master’s Thesis from a number of years ago, and I decided to revisit it (and update and expand it) and turn it into the book. I think that the idea of Bowie moving out from the spotlight (if I am understanding you correctly) is my own perception of what was going on at the end of his career. When I am exploring an idea (like the idea of Bowie and his celebrity personae), I often “explore outloud,” so to speak: I am bringing the reader along in my exploration and research, and I hope that I am providing a compelling case for “reading” Bowie the way that I am.
Let’s speak about Blackstar. Your book ends before the release of that album. I think you’ve reflected much on it. Are you writing something? Possibly a revised second edition?
NG: I am currently working on another book (on U2). I hope to work on Blackstar itself after my current work is done. I would love to take a look at Bowie’s career in light of the last album. There is so much there, I think, and I did not have the time to look at it properly when this book was published.
With 1.Outside, Bowie reached/came to the conclustion/arrived at a complete vision of the new society. Do you think Bowie was able to reach or surpass it?
NG: Well, I don’t think he was completely successful with his vision of the “new society” of the near future. Midnight on 31 December 1999 did not make as much of a difference as some people thought it would. The world that Bowie creates reflects not only his own confusions about certain actions in society, but perhaps the confusion of a segment of Western society at a point in time when their own future was unclear. In an interview with Musician magazine, Bowie states, “Imagine what a wonderful optimistic freeing experience January the first 2000 is gonna be, psychologically…. One has to remain optimistic. And I do; even though the album is seemingly very dark, it actually pleads for an understanding that there is a through road to the next century.”
Do you think that Blackstar belongs to that same darkness?
NG: Yes, I think that Blackstar continues the darkness (or, maybe more specifically, the shadow) that Bowie was under in last couple of decades of his career. I think he looks at the darkness of society in Outside and then his own darkness in Blackstar. What I think is very interesting is that the album was released so close to Bowie’s death. He is in complete darkness now: he’s gone and his album reflects that.
The ‘90s left us many things: I was recently listening to an album by the God Machine, but I can remember the Bark Psychoses, the Afgan Whigs, Portishead and others. Many artists who were attracted in their own way by darkness. Where is all this bringing/leading us? Where are we right now?
NG: This is a good question and I don’t know if I have an answer. I suspect that a lot of the darkness of the 1990s might have been brought about by the “great unknown” of the impending calendar change. But the emergence of Grunge music (from the northwestern United States) and Industrial music (Nine Inch Nails, etc) both pointed to darkness of different kinds. There was a renewed distrust of authority figures (primarily government) and perhaps this contributed to the darkness of the time. But you are correct that this also brought about some very compelling music! Where are we now? Certainly things are dark now. But if the transition to the new millenium has taught us anything, it is that time continues and that the future is not always a “brick wall” that we cannot get through!
If you had to compare Bowie to three other persons, who would you choose?
NG: This is a difficult question: I don’t know if I can compare him to anyone. Some have suggested that Lady Gaga is the “new Bowie,” and she certainly has an artistic breadth to her. She is musically talented and has an artistic streak in her. She has also done acting. But, in some ways, she is too authentic: we get a bit of the “real” Gaga with her recent documentary on her struggles with physical pain, whereas with Bowie, we never had that. Like Bowie, the British singer Morrissey is a mystery. But he has written an autobiography: even though it might not be completely “true,” it is still more than we ever had with Bowie. So, like Bowie, Morrissey is always “in darkness,” except in the autobiography! This might sound strange, but Bob Dylan is similar to Bowie, in that Dylan has acted, painted and produced music. But to me, Dylan is not as artistically compelling. I think that he stays in the same place musically for longer periods of time. Bowie explored the limits of popular music. So, to conclude, I cannot think of anyone who can be compared to Bowie. The three mentioned above are close, though!
I really appreicated your book. I’m writing for davidbowieblackstar.it about the literary influences that are present in his music and lyrics. There are very interesting connections. I see that in your book you did not include any literary references. Was it because of lack of space, or because you consider this type references too common / popular / too commonly done?
NG: I didn’t look at literary influences or connections because I was more interested in what was going on in the music and lyrics themselves outside of literature. Also, I wanted to explore what Bowie was conveying through the various media (whether that be the albums or his live concerts and music videos). I think that would be an interesting project; I don’t think that much work has been done regarding the literary influences in his work. Bowie is not necessarily known for his poetry/lyrics.
Will you write about other David Bowie’s? Those from the 70s, i mean? If you would, where would you take it?
NG: I don’t think I’d be interested in writing about the younger Bowie. But if I was going to explore what was going on there, I would love to do it through the lens of his last album. What does Blackstar, the last album of his career, tell us about his earlier albums? Does it shed any light on what he was doing earlier on in his career? Are there any “threads” that he started long ago?
1.Outside is definitely the album of darkness. However, it sounds open, actually more open than later compositions, from Hours to The Next Day. (Personally, I think that TND is an album that is very open, actually vast. And maybe because of this even more claustrophobic.)
NG: This is interesting. If by “open,” you mean “full of meaning,” then I agree. As for musically “open,” I think the improvisation of the album makes it sound like that. I think that the later albums like The Next Day and Blackstar are “claustrophobic” because they are so very dark. And Blackstar is a coffin, so it is the darkest and the most claustrophobic of all. But it is also a beautiful gift.
The last question pertains to what unites Bowie and society. Was he only a grand observer? What is his legacy?
NG: He was an artist. I’m not sure if he was only an observer, and I don’t know if he was always the best sort of observer either. He was someone who was able to get people to follow him: he brought people together to change their look, accept certain ways of behaving, and to be something more than they were before they listened to him. His legacy is contained in the music that we continue to listen to. And I think that’s very important. I think we need to continue to play Bowie’s music. Each time we do, he is back with us, alive and able again to compel us to change our ways of being.
Interview conceived and conducted by Alessio Barettini