This week the Mail on Sunday is giving away iSelect, a retrospective of David Bowie's favourite hits and rarities.
Here, Live reveals previously unpublished portraits from his personal archive...and Dylan Jones explains why Bowie's brilliant new CD showcases our most iconic performer at his best...
Not only did David Bowie invent glam rock, not only did he invent space-age rock, but in the past 40 years or so he’s pretty much invented it allThe first time I met David Bowie, he asked me for a light. We were standing in the downstairs pool room in a nightclub called Heaven, down by the arches underneath Charing Cross Station in central London.
This was back in 1981. He was filming the über-vampire film The Hunger, and I was an extra, three months out of college, employed to wear a goatee beard, a silver zoot suit and a ridiculously long key-chain, and to walk down a metal flight of stairs as Bowie and his co-star Catherine Deneuve walked up them, nodding along to Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus as I went.
It was a fairly dismal film – in fact it was a shocker – but I was only 21, and couldn’t quite believe that I was in the same room as the most influential pop star there had ever been.
Brushing past my hero would have been enough for me to brag about for months afterwards, although my anecdote moved up a gear around two o’clock that afternoon when everyone’s favourite space-bloke marched up to me and promptly asked me for a light for his Marlboro Red.
Now, this may not be up there with watching John Travolta rehearse the dance scene in Pulp Fiction; may not be up there with Robert De Niro asking you to help him with the mirror scene in Taxi Driver (‘You talkin’ to me?’); but for someone from my generation, for whom David Bowie had been as revelatory as Elvis and the Beatles had been to the previous generation, it was a bit like sharing a beer with God.
Not only that, we smoked the same cigarettes!
Yes, it’s nice when he remembers your name (he’s one of the most professional stars you’ll ever meet, and has spent 40 years dealing with the press), and yes it’s cool to have the occasional shared experience, but I never forget that he’s the star, and I’m the fan; I never forget that he is the man responsible for my adolescence; never forget that he was the man I pretended to be as I danced around my bedroom at the age of 12, singing along to Life On Mars, using an HB pencil as a substitute microphone and wishing I had a shock of flame-red hair.
'I’m proud of what I’ve done. In fact, it’s been a good ride.'
That song is the opening track on his new compilation, iSelect, and you couldn’t wish for a better introduction to the starburst-filtered world of David Bowie.
This new compilation gives a fascinating overview of Bowie’s career from 1971 to 1987, a decade and a half in which he reinvented himself every five minutes, producing so many iconic and emblematic rock ’n’ roll blueprints that
many are still being copied today.
iSelect travels all the way from Life On Mars and The Bewlay Brothers (from 1971’s Hunky Dory) to Loving The Alien (from 1984’s Tonight) and a remixed Time Will Crawl (from 1987’s Never Let Me Down), taking in everything from Aladdin Sane, Scary Monsters… and Lodger along the way.
And what a fascinating journey it is.
Along the road we get Lady Grinning Soul (the best song on 1973’s iconoclastic Aladdin Sane), Sweet Thing/Candidate from 1974’s Diamond Dogs (his rather kitsch approximation of George Orwell’s 1984), Win from 1975’s Young Americans, Some Are (an outtake from the Low period), Repetition and Fantastic Voyage from 1979’s Lodger (the third part of the ‘Berlin trilogy’ that started with Low, swiftly followed by Heroes) and Teenage Wildlife, a melancholy call-to-arms from 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) as well as a bonus track, a live rendition of the Ziggy Stardust classic, Hang On To Yourself, recorded in Santa Monica in 1972.
"For this compilation I’ve selected 12 songs that I particularly like," says Bowie.
"Few of them are well known but many of them still get sung at my concerts. Usually by me!"
The last time we formally spoke, he told me, "I’ve made over 25 studio albums, and I think probably I’ve made two real stinkers in my time, and some not-bad albums, and some really good albums. I’m proud of what I’ve done. In fact, it’s been a good ride."
David Bowie was the first pop star to refuse to have anything to do with the past. To him, the past wasn’t necessary, wasn’t particularly interesting, wasn’t what he was about.
'As a person, I’m fairly uncomplicated. I don’t need very much – I’m not needy in that way. I’m not as driven as I once was.'His first proper hit, Space Oddity, was testament to his way of looking at the world. From space.
Not only did Bowie invent glam rock, not only did he invent space-age rock, but in the past 40 years or so he’s pretty much invented it all. He was a soul boy. He went ambient just as everyone else was going punk (after all, he’d already produced several seminal proto-punk albums for Lou Reed and Iggy Pop), and in the Eighties he went global – with Let’s Dance – when everyone else was still copying the esoteric stuff he did back in the Seventies.
Today, he is a lifetime away from the androgynous android of the Seventies, when Bowie could be found lolling about in the back of large American limousines, a crumpled heap of black kamikaze silk drinking Tequila Gold from a brown paper bag.
This was when his ambition and ego were most blind.
"I get so much fan mail it has to be handled by a computer," he said in 1975.
Computers? What were they?
"I’m an instant star. Just add water and stir."
Any one of Bowie’s Seventies personae might have been apocryphal, yet they were all excessive.
Bowie has recorded some of the most important music of the post-Beatles era, and although he is still largely known for the raft of ground-breaking albums he released in the Seventies, his work since then has been equally fascinating, and almost as prescient.
If you were to compile Bowie’s alternative greatest hits, many of them would be on this record. Sweet Thing showed that after the media-madness generated by Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, Bowie could make music that was genuinely heartfelt.
Ironically, Win is one of my favourite Bowie songs, and although Bowie was criticised at the time for turning his back on Britain and embracing the insincere world of Seventies soul, this song proved that he could be as romantic as Marvin Gaye.
If Alan Yentob, Melvyn Bragg or Kirsty Young ever held a gun to my head I’d have to admit that Young Americans, his infamous ‘plastic soul’ record, is my favourite-ever Bowie album, a slab of heartbreaking sophisti-soul that might just be the best seduction record ever made.
Then there is Fantastic Voyage off the Lodger album and Lady Grinning Soul – which has to rank as one of the best Bowie ballads of all time – off Aladdin Sane.
Bowie lives in New York these days, tending to his daughter Lexi, his website, his wife and his back catalogue.
At the moment he doesn’t feel compelled to jump up on stage, and tends to turn down most invitations to croon away with the great and the good.
He is asked to participate in most global pop events – Live 8, the Princess Diana tribute, Glastonbury – but would rather spend his time analysing the future rather than exploiting the past.
He is also rather dismissive of his fan base’s obsession with his other-worldliness. A few years ago I asked him what people most misunderstood about him.
"What’s to misunderstand?" he said.
"I mean, honestly, I’m just a bloke doing his job, and it’s not terribly complicated.
"What I do is I write mainly about very personal and rather lonely feelings, and I explore them in a different way each time.
"You know, what I do is not terribly intellectual. I’m a pop star for Christ’s sake. As a person, I’m fairly uncomplicated. I don’t need very much – I’m not needy in that way. I’m not as driven as I once was."
Over the past 20 years or so, Bowie has embraced most forms of multimedia, and was one of the first pop stars to understand the possibilities of the internet.
But although being a renaissance man can be a full-time occupation, it is the music that still fires Bowie’s soul, music that still brings out the best in him.
Like his hero Scott Walker, Bowie has a way of walking around a song instead of addressing it head on.
"I know my strengths and one of them is creating atmosphere," he told me once.
"John Lennon was good at telling people off, but not me. Whenever I do didactic stuff it always seems ham-fisted. I often pull myself back if I feel something is becoming too melodic.
"But then melody comes in many forms.
"He’ll hate me for saying it but the person who is better at hooks than almost anyone is Brian Eno, and the solo on Virginia Plain is probably one of the greatest three-note hooks in the history of pop.
And so say all of us.
The fourth time I met David Bowie was just before his Serious Moonlight gig at the Milton Keynes Bowl on July 1, 1983.
I was backstage, wolfing down the free drinks and exotic canapés, standing with a friend on the elevated walkway that stretched from Bowie’s dressing room all the way to the stage.
He had perfect Let’s Dance hair, a beautifully tailored, pale blue baggy suit, a white shirt, braces and a Paul Smith old-school tie (I know about stuff like this), and he looked as though he’d just arrived from some sort of virtual reality, fully formed, and aesthetically indestructible.
And as he walked up to the stage, he stopped, turned to my friend and me, and said, apropos of nothing, "You know, at times like this, it’s great to be surrounded by your friends."
We weren’t his friends. We were acquaintances, hardly knew the man, and if we’d have known him better it would have been unbearably presumptuous for us to call him a friend.
But in those few seconds – seconds before he was due to give one of the defining concerts of his career – he made us feel like the most important people on Earth.
Listening to these songs on iSelect made me feel exactly the same as I did that day. ‘Take a look at the laaaawman…’
Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ