Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
Seven David Bowie impersonators. That seems like exactly enough. Six David Bowie impersonators would be too few. Eight would be way too many. But seven, that’s the perfect number of David Bowie impersonators.
Why did I interview seven David Bowie impersonators? Well obviously, because David Bowie himself was unavailable.
Everybody in the world wants to know what David Bowie is thinking these days — or at least everybody who cares about music and/or once had/continues to have sex fantasies about having confusing sex with one/most/all of Bowie’s stage persona(s), which is basically everybody in the world. The renewed interest started exactly three weeks ago, when Bowie premiered a new song and video, “Where Are We Now?”, and gave Lady Gaga some rare bliss. Then came word that Bowie’s first studio album since 2003, The Next Day, will be arriving in March. But that’s where the newsfeed ends. We’re not sure why he’s been away for so long — Bowie retired in 2004 after a major heart attack — or why he’s decided to make a comeback now. We have no clue if this is the beginning of a new musical chapter for Bowie, or if he’ll disappear as quickly as he returned. His reps have refused all media requests, saying only that there’ll be “no interviews, no live shows, no explanations, just the album.”
Which sucks. It sucks for you, but it sucks especially hard for people in my line of work. It’s the interview we all want. And nothing makes us crazy like the thought that somebody else might get it. Can you imagine being the writer who gets that first David Bowie interview? The first time he talks to the press in 10 fucking years? Oh my god, I have a journalism boner just thinking about it. I would literally strangle Chuck Klosterman with my bare hands for that opportunity. I’m not kidding, I would do it. I would put him in the cold ground next to Lester Bangs for five minutes alone in a room with Bowie and a mini-recorder.
But then, in my incessant Googling to see if some other cocksucker journalist managed to score the interview of the millennia, I came upon this quote from Tim Ingham, the editor at a industry mag called Music Week. “At 66, (Bowie has) run the whole machinery of the music industry and the music media ragged, and he’s run social media ragged too,” Ingham said. “Social media by its very nature demands facts or — in the absence of facts — speculation; if it doesn’t know, it’ll make it up itself.”
Well of course. Why didn’t I think of it sooner?
“To increase my odds of getting inside the real David Bowie’s brain, I needed more David Bowies. I needed a tribunal of Bowies. A David Bowie think tank, if you will. I needed the David Bowie equivalent of a thousand monkeys typing in a room.”
I couldn’t do it alone. Making things up is easy, but making them up with a hint of plausibility requires more effort. I needed an expert. And if anybody has the credentials to speculate on what David Bowie is thinking and feeling, it’s a David Bowie impersonator. They talk like him, they dress like him, they’re usually as freakishly sylphlike as him, and they’re likely as bored of singing anything from Changesbowie as he is. But even the most cunning David Bowie impersonator is still making educated guesses at best. To increase my odds of getting inside the real David Bowie’s brain, I needed more David Bowies. I needed a tribunal of Bowies. A David Bowie think tank, if you will. I needed the David Bowie equivalent of a thousand monkeys typing in a room. I needed just enough Bowies to get it right.
So, seven. Seven David Bowies. There’s something significant about the number seven. Seven deadly sins, seven days in a week, seven dwarves, seven colors in a rainbow. Also, Bowie released a single in 1999 called “Seven” that nobody remembers. It had to be seven, there was no way around it.
I talked to (separately) David Brighton (of California-based Space Oddity), John O’Neill (lead Bowie of London’s Absolute Bowie), Kevin Connelly (from Toronto’s own Life on Mars), Paul Henderson (of the U.K. Bowie tribute Aladdinsane), Laurel Katz-Bohen (lady Bowie from New York’s now defunct Ziggy Starlet and the Spiders From Venus), Geoff Ball (keeping things hunky dory for San Francisco’s The Jean Genies), and Laurence Bowie (the 15 year vet of southern England’s The Bowie Experience). They range in age from early 20s to mid-50s, they come from three different countries, multiple time zones, and a staggering array of regional accents. Roughly 14.29% of them don’t have a penis (which, it could be argued, is a pretty fair and mathematically accurate representation of Bowie’s sexuality.) Individually, they’re just people who dress like David Bowie and sing songs they didn’t write. But together, I hoped they’d become pieces of a larger puzzle. I wanted to create a mind meld of the David Bowie who is “not available for press interviews at this time.”
Here, then, is my interview with “David Bowie.”
Let’s start with the new song, “Where Are We Now?” What’s it about?
DAVID BOWIE (Paul Henderson): It’s reflective. It’s a reflective song, definitely. It’s quite sad and reflective.
Reflective of anything in particular?
BOWIE (Laurel Katz-Bohen): It’s like a post-9/11, post-apocalyptic kinda reflection.
Okay. So it’s about death and devastation?
BOWIE (Kevin Connell): It’s more representative of being a lost soul. It’s similar in some ways to the Major Tom character. Specifically, I think it’s just kind of stroll through memory lane. But not exactly. It’s more like… a stroll through a park on a rainy day kind of song.
It seems like a stylistic return to his German cycle. It picks up where the “Berlin Trilogy” left off.
BOWIE (Laurence Bowie): Oh yes, absolutely. And the timing is perfect. Of all the Bowie periods, it’s the most apposite of today’s social feeling. The economy’s in trouble. People’s incomes are going down, bills are going up. The future for most people is bleak.
And they need a bleak song to identify with?
BOWIE (Laurence): It’s a reflection back at us. Like the “Let’s Dance” period, which was about sunshine and dancing. The world was all Ronald Reagan and muscle stretching and a bright new future. Bowie’s music reflected that. But we’re not there anymore, are we?
If I’m hearing you correctly, “Where Are We Now” is a rainy day reflection on the apocalypse and how everybody’s broke and sad?
BOWIE (John O’Neill): There are a lot of hidden messages in there, and it’s really hard to try and decipher them. I think I’ll leave it to the critics to decipher it for me.
Are you planning to tour this year?
BOWIE (Laurence): Most likely. I never know one week to the next what’s going to happen. I just got a gig come in to do a celebration of the Labyrinth film at a university in Oxford. How bizarre is that?
That’s pretty bizarre.
BOWIE (Laurence): You’re going to have all these rather well-educated English boys dressed up as Jareth, all asking me, “I say, could you possibly play ‘Underground‘?” It’s going to be weird. But hey ho, I’m just a tart. You pay me, I’ll do it.
What about Bonnaroo or Coachella? There’ve been rumors you might perform at one of the festivals.
BOWIE (Kevin): Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. If there’s a show and a receptive audience, we’ll be there.
What would you play? What’s on the set list?
BOWIE (Laurel): We would do a classic ‘70s Ziggy Stardust show, with kimonos and one-legged body suits. The glam Bowie. That would definitely be where it’s at. It was Bowie’s girliest phase.
Obviously we’re all worried about your health. How are you feeling these days?
BOWIE (John): I feel great. I watch what I eat, and I do regular exercise. I have almost the exact figure as Ziggy Stardust. I’m just naturally slender, and always have been. The trick is to stay away from the fatty foods. I’m a salad muncher.
BOWIE (John): A salad muncher. I eat salads all year round.
The question on everybody’s mind is, why now? Why’d you finally come out of retirement after almost a decade?
DAVID BOWIE (Paul): I think he just thought the time was ready. He enjoyed moving away from the limelight and just being a normal family guy. But one day he was like, “Oh, I’ve got some ideas. I’m ready to start the band again.”
I’m sorry, would you mind answering the question as Bowie?
BOWIE (David Brighton): You want me to use his voice?
Yeah. Answer it like you think Bowie would answer it.
BOWIE (David): Um. [Long pause.] Am I going to get into trouble for this?
No, no, no. You’re not claiming to be the real David Bowie. You’re just, you know…
BOWIE (David): What was the question again?
Why the comeback? Why now, in 2013?
BOWIE (David): I think he’d say something like … [with a perfect Bowie impersonation] “I’m David Bowie and I feel like it. I bloody well want to do it so I’m going to do it.”
Wow. That was very convincing. But now I’m starting to wonder if this whole exercise is an elaborate waste of time.
BOWIE (Laurence): None of us impersonators are actually David Bowie.
Exactly! It’s not like we’re getting any actual insights into what makes Bowie tick.
BOWIE (Laurence): But I think a lot of times that’s what people want from Bowie.
They don’t want to know what he’s thinking?
BOWIE (Laurence): Not at all. They don’t want to know what’s going on in his head. They just want to be amazed. They want to be confused, and be interested. You can only be sincerely interested in something when you have something to discover. Once you know everything, it’s not very interesting anymore. I was talking to my girlfriend the other day, and she was like, “How would you describe what it is that you do?” I said, rather pretentiously, “What I do is a reinterpretation of the concepts we call David Bowie.”
How is Davie Bowie the concept different from David Bowie the person?
BOWIE (Laurence): I’m not sure there is much difference. David Bowie is as much of an invention as Ziggy Stardust.
So could anyone be Bowie? Is it just as simple as putting on the costumes?
BOWIE (Geoff Ball): You also have to get into that headspace. If I’m up on stage in some striped jumpsuit, I have to get over thinking, ‘Oh my god, I look like a clown.’ I go into this idea of, what would Bowie do?
BOWIE (Geoff): Right! When you perform as David Bowie, even when you’re just listening to his music, Bowie is inviting you to come in and get into the playground with him. He’s inviting you to see how far you can push the boundaries. Is this who you really are? Or is it just your personal belief of who you really are?
Bowie did an amazing interview for Playboy back in 1976, with Cameron Crowe. At one point, Cameron asked him, “Do you ever have trouble deciding which is the real you?”
BOWIE (Laurel): Oh wow.
I pose the same question to you. When you’re playing Bowie, do you have trouble deciding how much of it is you? Or is it all just the character of David Bowie? Or the character of David Bowie playing the character of Ziggy Stardust, or the character of the Thin White Duke, or whoever? Is it just meta layers of fiction reflecting fiction reflecting fiction?
BOWIE (Laurel): I guess I feel like that is the real me.
Bowie is you?
BOWIE (Laurel): When you’re doing it, that’s all there is. When you’re in that moment, that’s who you are. It’s partially you, it’s partially the persona. It’s everything at once. There’s no separation between you and the artist. You are the artist, but you’re also in an altered state. It’s what makes it a spiritual endeavor.
If you believe you’re Bowie with enough conviction, can you achieve perfect Bowieness?
BOWIE (Laurel): You can get close. I’ve had moments when I started to feel like I was inside of his mind. I felt like I had invaded his mind and body.
What happens when you walk offstage? The Bowie part of you disappears?
BOWIE (John): Pretty much. I take off the makeup and the wigs and the costume, and I can leave him in the bag, so to speak. I can put it away and forget it. I don’t think I have a problem there. It might’ve been a problem in the ‘70s. I think drugs played a big part in making his head confused back then. There was a lot of craziness going on, with the alcohol and the cocaine and the sexual promiscuity. It’s just a natural progression, to lose yourself within that bubble.
Wait, are we talking about you or David Bowie?
BOWIE (John): Bowie. I’m not like that, not at all. I’ll have a few drinks, but that’s about it. I don’t feel the need to be outrageous. I’m a bit older. I grew up quite a long time ago. I just do what I have to do, and leave the rest to the legend.
The legend of David Bowie, or the guy-with-the-heart-condition David Bowie?
BOWIE (Laurence): Nobody can live up to the legend. Not even Bowie. I wake up every morning and say, “I am not David Bowie. Don’t be a prat. Don’t fool yourself.” You know? And I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowie does that too.
You think Bowie needs to remind himself that he’s not David Bowie?
BOWIE (Laurence): I do, yeah. Because he’s not. He’s David Jones. He invented David Bowie as a persona, so he could have an excuse to keep himself removed from David Bowie.
So in a weird way, you are to Bowie what Bowie is to Bowie?
BOWIE (Geoff): Yeah. [Long pause.] I think.
Is it possible to talk about any of this without sounding like philosophy majors getting stoned in a dorm room?
BOWIE (Geoff): I really don’t think there is, no.
David Bowie’s The Next Day it out March 12 on Iso Records/Columbia.