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David Bowie’s Fresh Air Interview

A 2002 interview conducted by host, Terry Gross of David Bowie was replayed on Friday (8/25/23) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the concert documented by Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture (glad though I am that the film and its soundtrack are getting attention, this has been repeatedly mischaracterized as the 50th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust, or even of the movie— it is neither— its the 50th anniversary of the concert). Anyway, I’m posting the interview here. I listened to the original interview years ago and listened again before writing this post. If you want to hear it as it was presented a few days ago, skip the YouTube link and instead go to this link:

Fresh Air.

I didn’t actually watch the YouTube clip, but what I think the difference is will be in the introduction to the interview as well as the inclusion of song clips on the web-based link.

Fresh Air is probably NPR’s premier interview show and Terry Gross has the ability to make almost anybody interesting. She’s always exceptionally well prepared, however I get the sense that she didn’t have to do much original research to prepare for Bowie (which is to say I get the sense that she was already a fan).

Among the interesting things Bowie says here is that he doesn’t like performing and he was, at the time, long since over and done with Ziggy Stardust. He laments that his new songs didn’t get much radio play and that while in Europe he’s known for the breadth of his work, in the United States he’s mostly known for Ziggy and Let’s Dance. Careful readers of this blog (the total number of whom I believe to be zero) will notice that this is a matter I’ve been wrestling with in recent days. My “revelation” (I’m sure I’m not the first to realize this) is that Bowie’s best known music makes up part of what I’ve been calling the canon of classic rock, but that the classic rock period ended in the mid-1980s, so although Bowie made quite a bit of good, commercially successful and critically acclaimed music since then, the book on the broad style has closed. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton— all of them and more have similarly made solid and commercially successful music over the past 35+ years, that music nonetheless has not become as well known as what those artists did in the 60s through the 80s. Classic rock stations are largely not playing McCartney songs off of his strong 2013 album, New (which is not even his most recent). And, by the way, even if they were, I suspect that “terrestrial radio” has become less of a way for people to listen to music in the first place.

Added to all that, Bowie gave up writing for young people after his 1997 album, Earthling. Earthling was a pretty good album on which Bowie adopts the drum and bass or jungle style. I’ve read that in singing, Bowie diluted the true essence of drum and bass, which really focuses on… the drum and the bass. I don’t know because other than Earthling and a few other songs by Bowie, I am not really familiar with the genre. That said, I do think the album and Bowie’s promotion of it were targeting dance clubs and their patrons. Unlike earlier movements, however, Bowie was not at the forefront of this one. So, despite making a good album, it neither became foundational to its genre, which was outside the broad category of classic rock, with which Bowie was most associated. You can easily find Earthling, and once in a while one of its songs pops up somewhere (Iman recently set a birthday tribute to Lexi, her and Bowie’s daughter, to the song, “Little Wonder”), but it just isn’t going to get as much play as some of Bowie’s earlier music.

Bowie turned 50 that year, and afterward pivoted to making more reflective music by (and I think for) middle aged men. It’s worth noting that he disclaimed writing generational music in this very interview, so Bowie himself would likely take issue with my observation here. He did the Fresh Air interview as part of his promotion for an excellent example from this period, the near-great album, Heathen. Heathen was so in-touch with the anxious cultural moment of the early 2000s that it was interpreted by some to be a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath. While it wasn’t that, it both captured the broader unease and sense of disquiet that permeated society but also the analog feelings were experienced (and, as I can attest, still experienced) by people in middle age. This is serious stuff, but maybe not suitable for top 40.

Anyway, all that gets way beyond what Bowie and Terry Gross talk about, but that’s what the interview got me to thinking, so… additive.

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