Monday, January 11, 2016

Under All Those 'David Bowies'...A Regular Guy



Being a personal memory of the man...and how 
he reshaped my whole view of him, in under 24 hours.


By Peter Rodman


"Do you remember a guy that's been  
in such an early song?
I've heard a rumour from Ground Control... 
Oh no, don't say it's true..."

He was as big, in his time, as Dorothy Parker or Hemingway ever were in theirs--and in my little world, needless to say, David Bowie's passing is a pretty monumental loss. 
I say "little" because the full time interviewer lives and breathes their work alone--with little if any time to soak in what just happened, let alone share any of the personal stuff about it with friends or loved ones, before the next one comes along. 
Only now, 4 decades later, have I really taken time to re-live and enjoy the essence of what's on all those tapes, and what went into each one. In David Bowie's case, the lasting impression is the openness he so freely offered both on and off the air, during what I'll call my Bowie weekend, way back in 1980.  A little background, first:
Phoners (telephone interviews) were never my preferred
method for interviews, but in a few rare cases--either to do a favor for some rock promoter, or if (as with Bowie) it was simply the only way to get an interview--I'd acquiesce, and do one.  Everything from the sound quality to the distance between you usually conspired to make phone calls sound like...well, phone calls.  Less interesting.   Less spontaneous.  Less dynamic.  Less able to have music edited in.
Less everything.  

More pertinently, they could be iffy for a multi-media freelancer, income-wise. 
Those who strictly write for newspapers, no matter how big, predominantly use phoners, to ply their trade; but balancing both print needs and the exacting audio standards of a radio program pretty much demanded that nearly all my interviews be conducted face-to-face.  
My advantage over each venue was the other. My advantage over them all was that I retained full ownership of every tape I ever made, not being an 'employee.'  My work was licensed for a single use, and could be sold elsewhere as I saw fit. That still holds true.
So I knew I'd be selling each story to two or three print outlets, but if the sound quality didn't pass muster, it couldn't run on my radio
Tools of the Trade: the living room rig
...circa 1980
program, and even if it did, an abbreviated phone call (using my suction cup 'microphone' at home) wasn't exactly optimal. (Then again, that's still the best phone sound I've ever heard on the radio--and...it was in stereo!  I still say, they've never improved on that gizmo. ) 
But the point is, I had lots of time to fill, on my weekly radio interview show... and phoners just wouldn't cut it.  So, again: Phoners?  

Not my favorite.
But, an exclusive David Bowie phoner?  From an artist who only did a handful of interviews every few years, at most?
Sure.  I'm in.
In scoring interviews, many times the greatest 'in' was simple hustle.  If I could devise an angle no competing music or entertainment outlet was using, I'd be far more likely to gain access to my target subject.  Better still, if no other writers were paying attention--for example, not thinking a highbrow play might be a great place to score an interview with a worldwide rock star--well, all the better for me!  

A brief digression about radio:
99.9% of all radio stations won't do an interview, unless the artist comes to them. (I call those lazy affairs 'drive by' interviews. "So...uh...what's next for you guys, on this tour?" "Oh...uh...Kansas City. I think it's Tuesday.")
Literally nothing about such an interview will ever be of any interest, beyond the fleeting moment in which it happens.  Mine, on the other hand, could be re-used and repackaged forever--depending upon how well I could steer the questions and answers toward slightly less time-sensitive topics. (I avoided phrases like "your new album" or "last night's show" like the plague.)
What made my mission easier was the fact that in all my travels during the '70s and early '80s, I never saw another radio personality luggin' 40 pounds of recording equipment around to venues or hotels, the way I did. 
I wasn't a "DJ" at all; I was a reporter--something I took seriously, 24/7/365.  The biggest advantage I had in Colorado during all that time was that nobody else in my vicinity was doing anything even close, as a full-time gig. 

The best interviews don't just come to you; you have to go get 'em.  Even Howard Stern's interviews would be better, if he left the comfort zone of his studio and went to them. 
This aspect of my job was completely unknown to my family and friends. I don't know how they thought all this happened...but it didn't just happen.
Oh, and one more thing: Nobody "hires" you, for this kind of job. You invent it.
~ END OF BRIEF DIGRESSION~

The occasion for our encounter was Bowie's brief touring
David Bowie onstage, as The Elephant Man ~ 1980
stint as a dramatic stage actor (in the title role of The Elephant Man), which seemed an obvious 'in' to me, as I figured no other rock writers would probably spring for a ticket, or even have much interest in it --though some have since corrected me, on this point. Still, it offered a much better likelihood for actually connecting with Bowie than would any 'large hall' concert tour he might mount, as one of the biggest rock stars on the planet. 
Many remember it as a Broadway play, but in fact it debuted (with Bowie in the lead role) at Denver's Center for the Performing Arts, from July 29-August 3 of that summer. Then it was on to Chicago for a month, and the show finally hit NYC in September, where it ran through January 3, 1981. 
Meanwhile, a week or two out from the Denver debut--as per usual--was when my real work was gettin' done: 
Buy a ticket; befriend the venue and theater people; contact
A couple archived cassettes
from the time period--
including the Bowie phoner.
David's management, by 'long distance' telephone to London (remember, there were no cell phones back then; my monthly home phone bills in 1980 were routinely upwards of $400!), including several repeat calls and unreturned messages, etc. 
My other work spoke for itself; I'd sent out bound books with hundreds of articles and feature stories, clearly documenting my 'reach' in regional newspapers and magazines.
Even past interviews--particularly one on the plane with Keith Richards, Stanley Clarke and Ron Wood (for a side project of theirs, 'The New Barbarians')--helped cement my credibility with David's reps, some of whom were actually shared with the Rolling Stones.
The whole idea was to erase any doubt:  If he were going to do any interviews in the Rocky Mountain time zone, especially if it was only one--it had to be me.
That was the pitch, always.  (Now, it can be told!)  But it was true:  The combined print and broadcast circulation I could generate from just one interview could not be duplicated by any single print or radio outlet in the region, at that time. 

By the time I actually saw the play, I'd already set up a phoner, for the following afternoon...even though I secretly hoped for more, if possible.  And by poking around the unfamiliar neighborhood (40 miles from my home) after the play, I found my way to the only nearby bar, where the actors slowly trickled in after me, to informally wind down for the first time all week, celebrating their first few full-dress, paid-for shows. Good guess!
Lo and behold, after a couple beers with the supporting cast, exchanging notes about everything but their lead player...in popped a very casually dressed David Bowie.  After awhile he was jumping into, and initiating the conversation.  He soon indicated he was already aware of our forthcoming on-the-record chat, and even said he was looking forward to it.  The boy was more than willing to throw down (well, sip) a beer (at least, I think it was beer) and joke around a bit, in advance of our formal Q and A, the following afternoon. 
Perhaps each of us was sizing (or buttering) up the other, I dunno...but a more delightful night I cannot imagine, and could never have expected.  And perhaps it was the sheer exhilaration of having gotten a couple performances under his belt, but David was positively ebullient.
On top of that, I'd never have guessed he was as outgoing, virile, down to earth, and quite frankly "one of the guys" (in a decidedly hetero way) as he was...but he was! 
For what it's worth, this was a thespian--not a lesbian.
That came as something of a jolt to the musicologist in me, who'd carefully studied his albums for a decade, believing full well that the pan-sexual, otherworldly 'being' he'd sold himself as, was exactly what he would be like.
But that wasn't anything like the casual dude joining in on some already snappy repartee.
Easy to laugh, quick with a quip, happy to ask about our 'American football' team (the Denver Broncos, whose footage was on the bar TVs pretty much non-stop, even in summer), he was almost so 'low key' that when we waved goodbye about an hour later, it was as if ol' Dave was just one o' the gang, and you'd be seeing him again, any ol' time! 
Surely this couldn't be the 'concept' icon who symbolized
Bowie, in his beloved adopted hometown, NYC.
'high art' the whole world over, recording electronic music in Berlin, or hangin' with William Burroughs downtown, while his rock counterparts flitted about, up at Studio 54. 
Surely the guy I'd  just chuckled back and forth with about life, and bars, and girls, for God's sake! wasn't the androgynous minx on the cover of 'Pin Ups' or the Spaceman from Mars--nor even the hobbled and deformed character he'd so deftly portrayed onstage, less than two hours earlier. 
But he was.
He was all those things; all those 'Bowies.'
In listening back to our phoner now, I always cringe when I hear myself pronouncing his name as David "Booey."  The whole world says "BO-ee,"
This was actually a fairly light week; my normal taped load
was more like 6 or 7 taped interviews, almost always face-to-face.


and in truth so did I...until my various contacts at his office clearly and repeatedly used "Booey," and so--for the first time since I began collecting his music in 1971 or so, I jumped onboard.  "Booey" it would be.
A year or so further into the '80s, as he rode "Let's Dance" and "Modern Love" to whole new heights, I noticed that his reps had themselves jumped the pond, back over to his audiences' preferred "BO-ee."
(...now you know.)

The next day--as with so many other days back then--I waited at the appointed time, for my phone call...most likely in my pajamas.
That old "dial" phone (pictured near the top of this page) was RED for a reason:  It was called the 'hotline.' Everything important either happened or began, on that phone.  It could never be tied up for anything else.
So when it rang--as always, not a minute early or late--I was sittin' right there, counting the seconds.
"Hello?"
(female voice, businesslike) "Hello, is this Peter Rodman?"
"This is he..."
"Alright--could you hold on just one moment please, for Mister Booey...?"
(brief pause)
DB: "...Helow?!"

PR: Hello, David!
DB: Hi!  How are you!

It was as if we'd never left the bar--but now it was on to business, for me--and I'd taken enough notes at the play to quote a few lines I thought might apply to Bowie himself, or at least explain what drew him to the play--while still

shedding light on his overall thought process, as it might apply to music, painting, poetry, or any other kind of art.  The hope was that if I didn't overdo the analogies, we might get some insights hitherto unavailable in his (decidedly guarded) "rock" interviews.
I won't recount the body of it here; I may post it or share it again another time.  But when asked about the 'chameleon like' persona everyone had always ascribed to him, Bowie chuckled, countering that in fact he thought of himself as "rather grasshoppery," instead. 
As each question came together, he put me completely at ease (and hopefully I did him, as well) resulting in a conversation somehow good enough to entertain and engage us both, to the point where our defenses evaporated, the rapport from the night before kicked back in.
Suddenly, there it was again--the easy laugh, the self-effacing manner, the "aww shucks I'm just a regular guy" thing, juxtaposed ever-so-gracefully with his earnest appreciation for his lot in life, which was to make, appreciate, and LIVE "art," in all its various forms. 
Maybe it seems odd to dwell so much on "process" here, or that I've declined to rewrite the interview for you, in this blog (I promise to unearth it later and include it here)--or even that I'm still so surprised at the Bowie I encountered, that weekend. 
But it's been my experience, with notoriously elusive subjects (like say, Frank Zappa) that you'd better expect the least, and just take what they give you as a bonus. Don't just assume they'll be cagey--but don't expect them to bring you roses, either.
None of my hard-earned knowledge applied to David Bowie at all.
David opened right up and gave me lots of stuff I'd never even heard from him before, as if to say, "I'm an open book...go ahead, I'll answer anything!"
Not what I expected at all.

I've interviewed everyone I ever wanted to meet, and then some. Fame never got to me, and still doesn't--and Bowie was no exception. But probably because his attitude was so unexpected, I still can't get over what a 'regular guy' he was!  It was like looking down inside an active volcano, and seeing a very calm man there, seated in lotus position, beckoning you.  "Come on in, the lava's fine!"
David Bowie...and his famous eyes
I had looked straight into the eyes of a man with two different colored souls--or was it straight into the soul of a man with two different colored eyes
You choose; I'll never know, really.

All I know is that today, I grieve for the guy I saw on the stage, and met at the bar--and the grace with which he welcomed me, for however brief a moment in time, into the center of his actual self--even giggling along with me, about his wild array of previous onstage characters. 
"I had to leave Ziggy behind," he confessed at one point.  "He was killing me!"  
Our official interview came in just under the 10 minute time allotted.  The print version will appear elsewhere in this blog, within a few days (I have to dig it out!); the audio version might just turn up elsewhere, later this week.
As my own career went on through the '90s, I still never liked phoners, but I'd have to say I cannot think of a better one than David's, which is probably my favorite interview in the 'phoner' category. (Unless you count the time I played the parrot singing "I left My Heart in San Francisco" for Tony Bennett.  Nah...I'll stick with the Bowie phoner.)


I just wish I could have another toast with the guy, or some Hong Kong barbeque, maybe. Heck, I'd even settle for another phoner--though I doubt we could ever top the one we did, back in that summer of 1980.  

It wouldn't matter much to me now if we ever met up again, as long as he was still around.  But I have to say, it just feels really wrong that David Bowie's gone.
All I know is, this death hurts more than most of 'em--even the biggest ones, celebrity wise.
His personal generosity towards me is always the first thing that pops into mind--like a neurological reflex--whenever I hear his music.  I honestly never anticipated feeling that way, prior to our first encounter. 


That rare glimpse of the man's true essence--just some guy his local bodega owner knew, or a recording engineer, or an elevator operator--is something I'll always consider a personal gift he didn't have to share with me, but did. 
Some people--even in this business--collect autographs; I collect memories. (Okay, and a couple thousand tapes...)



In which the REAL David Bowie (2013) makes a statement, by
defacing one of his own album covers, and getting you to buy it.
I can think of only two career events in Bowie's life since 1980, that really evoke the unassuming chap I got to hang out with, and later interviewed.
The first is his 2013 album cover--pretty much erasing the 'celebrity face' as art, acknowledging the death of album art as we once knew it (in 12" form), and challenging the listener to really toss out all the marketing appeal, if music is truly "all we care about" anymore, as everybody in the MP3 generation likes to say it is.  Brilliant, brilliant...and oh, so subversively street-Bowie!
The other instance was on October 20, 2001...when Madison

Square Garden darkened, and the shadows of two towers faded behind an oriental rug, as a simple man sat--in lotus position, with no introduction whatsoever, and opened the most difficult all-star rock concert in history: the post 9/11 'Concert for New York City' at Madison Square Garden, broadcast LIVE on literally almost every channel in existence.    
There he sat, casually launching into not some Ziggy Stardust-fest of self aggrandizement, but a complex Paul Simon song-poem from '68, about seeking and finding "America"...and love...just as David himself had. Before he followed it up (with "Heroes"), Bowie spoke of "my Local Ladder," a firehouse he'd visited many times--both before and after 9/11.  Those were the first spoken words in the whole show.
This was the real David Bowie. 
Humble, affable, thoughtful, always artistic, and finally ready to show us all his true self--just another guy in that godawful moment, confused as hell like the rest of us, but giving his all, on that dopey but poignant sounding Casio in front of him, set to sound like a carousel calliope; sans makeup, and with only the dimmest pin-spot; sorting through life's commotion, which always returns to ashes; but never (we all hoped) this way again.




"Ashes to ashes, funk to funky; 
we know Major Tom's a junkie..."
 

I like to think he's at peace now.
The ashes are all sorted out; he knows full well, he left all who knew him with a smile. 

Angels eavesdrop on the random humans below--including Lou Reed--
in the 'Berlin' of Wim Wenders' amazing film, Far Away..So Close!
I imagine him sitting atop a gargoyle over a forgotten building, beneath the grey skies of his beloved Berlin, happily listening to all our transient thoughts, and marveling at all this hysterical social networking about him... ("...about me!") in much the same way as those wistful angels did, in Wim Wenders' transcendent film, Far Away...So Close! 
His own ashes casually sift through his fingers, and float casually toward the Earth below.  

He hears the random
An angel surveys all that lives and
breathes below him, from high
atop a statue of an angel in the
film 'Far Away...So Close!'
thoughts of passersby, above and below--including Lou Reed, whom he long ago produced.

He sees me typing this, and sees you reading it; glances toward his old building in NYC, and smiles down at the elevator man; he drifts by the studio to see who's manning the board, one more time; remembers a homeless man he once slipped some cash to, and checks in on him from his perch in the sky, to see that the guy's still okay...(he is); Bowie turns toward home, and sees Iman, sitting alone at a desk there, holding his picture; he wonders how they ever got so lucky...but knows she'll be fine.
He looks up, and humbly thanks his maker; then looks down, and humbly thanks us.

"My," he says to no one, sighing whimsically. "They are a busy lot, aren't they?" 
He's still David Bowie.
...just a regular guy, takin' in a whole new view.




___________________________________________________________
This Opinion Column is Copyright 2016 by Peter Rodman.  All Rights Reserved. 

About Peter Rodman: 
"Sunday Night with Peter Rodman" was a weekly radio interview show, which aired during the '70s, '80s and '90s...first in Colorado, and later in Nashville. Peter Rodman's feature work and columns were featured regularly in the Colorado Springs Sun, the Rocky Mountain News, the Boulder Daily Camera, Colorado Daily, Audience Magazine, and others, both regional and national. He also hosted a TV interview show ('Who's On 12 with Peter Rodman?') on KBDI-Channel 12 in Denver, for two seasons (totaling 47 shows) in prime time.  Peter is currently working on a memoir, as well as a book of photographs, to include portraits of some of his best known interview subjects.
'The Peter Rodman Radio Archive' controls the rights to literally thousands of original radio, print and television interviews and images, to this day.

2 comments:

  1. powerful and beautiful peter. your awareness is an embrace...thanks. n

    ReplyDelete