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Exclusive Interview: Adam Steiner

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is not simply my favorite Bowie album, but my favorite album full stop. I have thought of it that way for more than 30 years. As with why I got to like Bowie in the first place, my original affection for the album was based on how it sounds. Its staying power, for me, though, has to do with its many mysteries. Its unsolvable puzzles gives its listeners something to think about. Yet, despite listening to the album over and over again for decades, despite thinking about its messages and meanings, Adam Steiner’s book on the album provided revelation after revelation. I started reading the book while on vacation last summer but made my way through it far more slowly than I first anticipated. Why? I kept going back and re-reading sections. Close readers of this blog will remember I commented as I went. Adam’s writings inspired some of my own (his are better). For all these reasons I was delighted that he agreed to participate in this interview.

Adam Steiner is a British journalist, poet and author of books on Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails and a novel based on his experience working in the National Health Service. He’s done a bunch of other stuff, too, and you can link to his web page HERE.

If you’d like to purchase Silhouettes and Shadows: the Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), click HERE to buy it on Amazon or ask for the book at your local book store.

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Here’s the interview:

Q. You wrote, “Bowie’s major project was to try to become more than oneself, to push against limitations” – do you see his songs expressing a pessimistic view of the human condition but an optimistic view of his own potential?

A. Great first question –to the jugular/heart– like a great pop song!

I think Bowie definitely has a disasterisk streak; so many of his songs begin with imminent- or post-apocalyptic scenarios, the result of these potential horrors always seemed to be imbued with either a life-affirming chant, defiance in the face of doom, as with “Five Years”; or a melancholic nostalgia for lost love “Drive-In Saturday” which has strange echoes of the utterly shocking and terrifying Overall, I think Bowie takes these nightmares in his stride, the artifice of “Future Legend” into “Diamond Dogs” is supposed to be scary, but the rollicking Stones guitar groove disguises the body horror and ruined civilisation of Hunger City. Not unlike Francis Bacon, Bowie is keen to stare down the barrel of nihilism, but constantly smoking and smiling away, he rides the waves into the next project, riding the waves, “optimistic about nothing”

Q. Until I read your book, I had no idea that the opening lines from “Up the Hill Backwards” were adapted from lines by Dada artist Hans Richter. Should Scary Monsters be thought of as Dada, or seen through a Dadaist lens?

A. I think the album is wilfully diffracted in its influences, styles, and perhaps Bowie’s most fragmentary pop album. As he had said, his inspirations are always extremely eclectic, and these get blended into the next idea. So moving on from the rather basic cut-up of earlier years, it’s more a discussion about sudden ideas and then editing them into a song shape. He uses so much broken syntax and odd phrasing across Scary Monsters I do think Bowie (subconsciously) hits those high points of DaDa-ist escapism. Overthrowing reality as a sham with people buying into the everyday routine of work and play, when the real act of self-creation comes from engagment with art and disruption. I love the Hans Richter reference that Bowie chooses; presenting us with people used to living under authoritarian clampdown, or perhaps because of it, throw themselves into the abyss of liberty and free will, but are suddnely thrown into horrified anxiety. Once the chains are off, they don’t know what to do with themselves! I think that is certainly relatable to our current situation in Western Democracies in the face of continued atrocity, where we voted for people who left us almost powerless to enforce common morality and effect change.

Q. I found the most challenging feature of the book to be the fragments between chapters—how would you describe them to someone who hasn’t read the book yet?

A. I appreciate your comments on this. As someone who has tried to write across genres and avoid being stuck in a singular “industry” I love the opportunity to throw more haywire creativity into the process and experiment, in a very public way. I wanted to explore the inner psyche of the album, using aspects of Bowie’s own words as expressions of his personality. So the fragments play with form, work in and outside of a fixed perspective, and I hope this is seen as being in good faith the songworld of Scary Monsters. They are intended to be both fun and challenging, but hopefully adding something to the album’s story, rather than taking away from it.

Q. You wrote that for Bowie, “there was no time to look back unless to plunder or revisit material. That is to recycle and refashion.” Did that change after Scary Monsters? His later work is replete with musical and lyrical references to his past or past work. Even the cover of The Next Day is an adaptation of the cover of “Heroes”.

A. I think you’ve expressed the answer within the question! Self-reference of the Bowie universe became of increasing importance, to varying degrees of self-awareness. It’s another thing that marks out Bowie’s playful intelligence, to take his work seriously and turn the artifice back upon the music as back catalogue; but not to take himself too seriously; I find him quite self-deprecating sometimes, considering how much he achieved. Overall, he could afford to edit and revisit the past so it never became fixed or Bowie “stiff in his legend” he was always trying to fight for his creative worth in every era instead of resting on his laurels.

A. Bowie’s “greatest hits” are usually thought of as coming from the period starting with “Space Oddity” and ending either with either Let’s Dance or more generally the mid-eighties. What changed? I ask that in part in the context of your book arguing that Scary Monsters was kind of the end of an era?

I think Greatest Hits are kind of a curse. They grab together spare singles but only tend to give you a shallow view of the artist’s range, by their very nature, they zoom in on the accessible songs. I just feel that 1970-80 was more or less perfect decade for Bowie. I don’t really play Let’s Dance, and several other Bowie records. 1. Outside I enjoy to listen all the way through, it’s a real high point for me, but sonically and lyrically it’s separate from that solid run of the older albums.

Q. Why Pierrot?

A. I think Pierrot was an easy cypher for Bowie to portray himself as the ultimate artist-performer. He makes reference to the idea of Pierrot very early on his career, embracing the idea of artifice to guard the inner self and also to project an outer skin of pure creative force. Pierrot has that weird happy-sad blending of extremes, and Bowie definitely embraces that in single songs, confronting us with challenging lyrics but also highly danceable, performative songs – and killer singles.

Q. You quote Bowie a few times giving us permission to broadly interpret his songs. You take that ball and run with it. How do you navigate between what’s in the songs and what the songs mean to you? Can you expand on what you see in “the liminal space from lyric to lyric?”

A. That’s a great question. There are lots of objective factors, what Bowie said in interviews (although with the Pierrot proviso that he deflected and dodged the truth – so he is even as ‘himself’ an unreliable critic of his own work. We also have testimonials of other people, mainly collaborators and other musical critics more learned and experienced than me. So I combine that with my own very personal listening experience; and I hope together with all the research and interviews, I get a really comprehensive view of Scary Monsters, all encompassing but initimate.

For what it’s worth; I think there’s a rare slice of artists like Bowie who appreciate that once a song is out in the world it really belongs to the listener, in that private headspace and at that time – and that’s where music really lives/finds meaning.

Q. So, what was his best album since Scary Monsters (I had to ask)

A. Hahah – as above, probably 1. Outside – a lot of people would claim Blackstar, but I don’t give it as much listening time as 1. Outside. I also love Heathen’s inventive song choices and The Next Day as a show force.

A. I’ve been ending these interviews by asking what’s your favorite Bowie album but in your case, I can guess—so what’s your favorite Bowie song?

A. Maybe “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” – that’s not cheating, right?

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I’m not entirely sure! Maybe another music book, but I’m also branching out into other areas, like most writers my interests are various!

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I’d like to thank Adam Steiner for participating in this interview. I feel like his comments here are like our own private postscript to his excellent book. Adam, if you’re reading this, ya know I don’t think there’s a book out there about 1. Outside… (just saying).

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