Psychedelic Suburbia and the Beckenham Arts Lab

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Interview for International Times with David Bowie, 1969
by Mary Finnigan

David Bowie is, and always has been, one of those artists who seem to be on the periphery of pop; you can always sense their presence but you rarely see or hear them. Four years ago he was in fact touring the country in an improb- ably large van, which looked a bit like a racehorse trans- porter, with his band The Buzz, before that they were called Lower Third. He made several records, the best of which was Rubber Band b/w The Boys of London, but almost every dee jay that played the record likened his voice to that of Tony Newley and dismissed the record as that of a copyist. So Bowie went into seclusion for a while, became a solo performer with an acoustic guitar.

Their (sic) followed a lot of chopping and changing, involvement with Buddhism, the formation of a mime troupe, all of which tended to fragment any effect he might have had on the pop world (yeuk!). Now he’s trying for chart success again with his first record on Phillips (his pre- vious ones were on Decca) entitled Space Oddity (see review on Sounds page) but this record is only one side to his career He is actively involved with Beckenham Arts Lab, which he started some months ago with journalist Mary Finnigan, who held the following interview with him.

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Picture: Elena Caldera



MARY FINNIGAN: Tell me, where were you born?


MF: How old are you?

DB: 22

M: How long have you been in show-business?

D: Big blondes with blue eyes.

M: How do you like your cabbage cooked?

D: Fast cars and I shit regularly.

M: One of the first things that was said to me about you was: ‘David’s always had everything going for him.’ Then I thought, ‘How strange he hasn’t got any money,’ – but you do come over very positive, particularly when you think about this big ego trip about posterity and your song.

D: That’s incredible – I want it to be the first anthem of the moon – play it as they hoist the flag and all that… ‘For here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world, the planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.’


M: But it’s not a ‘Glory Hallelujah’ song, you don’t think in those terms.

D: No, it’s downbeat. Major Tom, the hero – anti-hero if you like – is a loser and that has a huge sphere of identification in people’s minds. There are so many losers and they all think that if they’d been in Frank Borman’s place, for example, something would have certainly gone wrong.

M: I wonder if you will still live within the same social framework if the record goes to number one?

D: Yes, why not. We’ll invite the straight journalists back to your flat after the Folk Club and Bowie will still be doing the same things and not answering the same questions. The people who are attracted by the charts will see an Arts Lab actually happening, because my relationship with my own scene won’t change.

M: Are you sure of that?

D: Absolutely. Part of my motivation in doing a hit parade number is to promote the Arts Labs along with it, but without elitist attitudes. Arts Labs should be for everybody – not just the so-called turned-on minority… we need energy from all directions, heads and skin-heads alike.

M: When you made your first record, the very first time you set foot inside a recording studio as an artist, was the feeling in your head the same as it is now?

D: Yes it was. As far as aims and objectives are concerned I always wanted to promote things. It was very, very localised even then. If the record got into the charts I was thinking of the things I could do in Bromley. I seem to have come round in a circle, but changed course in the middle… here I am in Beckenham two years later with the same thought.

M: It seems to me that starting ripples in a concentrated area, then letting them spread outwards if they’re going to, is very fundamental to your nature…

D: Yes, this happened before, it reached a peak then tailed off when I went to live in London. But also I got fed up with working with groups and I disappeared completely – sub- merged myself…

M: This was when you were thinking of retiring to a Buddhist monastery?

D: Yes, it was because I was dissatisfied with the things I was doing that I started thinking about Buddhism again and went through some very serious changes. At school I’d been interested in Buddhism and beatnik writing – it was beatnik in those days – I was in to people like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac when I was about 14 or 15. I’d already felt strongly about the the unfairness of authority structures, apart from just schoolboy instincts I had a grasp of the social aspects of it – how wrong authorities can be and that this is unfair on many, many people. I carried that through with me, until, as I said, I got dissatisfied with the group thing and had to get away from show-business completely. I got immersed in Buddhism and had a big re-think about where I was at.

M: Did this happen before or after your first LP?

D: After. The LP was behind me, it was the first thing I did as a solo artist again. It went solo, groups, solo, nothing, mime, group, duo, solo… you’re up to date.

M: The last bit was a gradual re-emergence…

D: Yes, it was a most important transitional period. Mime doesn’t need words, then I got into Feathers with Hermione and Hutch and we had music and movement. I started singing again, then coming out completely as a singer, doing exactly what I wanted to do in the beginning…

M: Back to square one…

D: The David Bowie career was a physical manifestation of where I was at spiritually – it may seem that I’ve moved around a lot, but at least I was honest to my head… ‘The wild- eyed boy stumbled back to cry among the clouds, kicking back the pebbles from the freecloud mountain track.’

M: I think we’ve come upon a paradox now – for example if you were to play Space Oddity to two or three people hearing it for the first time and then play them the tape of this interview the two would bear no relation to each other – they would think, ‘This man must be in an advanced state of schizophrenia…’

D. Yes.

M: Do you look upon Major Tom as an alter ego figure?

D: Well – we drew this parallel that the publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being and my Major Tom is nothing if not a human being. It came from a feeling of sadness about this aspect of the space thing, it has been de-humanised, so I wrote a song-farce about it, to try and relate science and human emotion. I suppose it’s an antidote to spacefever, really.

M: But it could also be a sign of the times – an indication of how thought produces a contrast to what is glaringly obvious…

D: It certainly doesn’t lick Britannia’s arse… imagine the 1990 version of ‘All Our Yesterdays’ with Space Oddity being used in the way they use ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ in documentaries about the First World War now – what a groove. I think schoolchildren ought to be taught songs like that, and other songs dealing with all kinds of businesses that they’re likely to get into. Sort of nursery rhymes that show the other side of working in big stores or banks – songs about painful feet rather than fringe benefits and holidays with pay. Not in a revolutionary manner, just to point out the other side quite fairly. Although I’m right into the ideas and thought processes of the underground I don’t really believe that the world is a place to be put right – Utopia is a mental state, not a physical one.

M: But this social realism thing has already been attempted – a lot of French singers do it very well.

D: In France yes, but there’s very little like that in England. We’re really a non-thinking race here, traditionalised and customised so much that we live by habit which is in-born, no thinking attached to it at all. It’s just a set course of manners all the way.

M: We’re very good at satire in this country, but that’s not your line at all, is it?

D: No… I couldn’t be that cruel really, I think it’s unneces- sary for me, but there are plenty of folk singers around who are satirists. A lot of them have a very sardonic approach, there’s very little compassion around. I feel compassion as a source of energy, the individual is less important than the source of energy of which he is a part.

M: Is this the point at which you would admit a reverential attitude?

D: Yes. It’s the totality and to cause pain would be as much of an injury to myself as it would be to others. It’s a realisation of how important the totality is and how unimportant THIS all is!

M: This is a long way from Space Oddity, but I suppose there must be a thread somewhere?

D: Yes, there is a pattern running through it, because at the end of the song Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he’s at… he gives up thinking completely…

M: But then Major Tom dissolves…

D: Exactly, he’s fragmenting… at the end of the song his mind is completely blown – he’s everything then.

M: D’you suppose when Paul Buckmaster was doing the arrangements for that song he had the same feelings about it as you?

D: Yeah.

M: Did you ever talk about it?

D: We’ve never talked about it, we just felt it. Paul looked at me, then he wrote down a few notes… then I looked at him and said, ‘Yes, that’s right…’ But for all my years of education, I stand without a word to say…

M: You have this empathy with Paul – do you have it with Gus Dudgeon?

D: Yes I do but on a different plane completely. Gus is the technician, the arch ‘mixer.’ He listens to music and says, ‘Yes, I like it – it’s a groove,’ his attitudes to music are very different from a lot of people in the business. With Tony Visconti, who’s producing my LP, it’s part of his life. He lives with music all day long, it’s going on in his room, he writes it, arranges it, produces it, plays it, thinks it and believes very much in its spiritual source – his whole life is like this. One couldn’t call him a conventional Buddhist, he’s got a person religion, something he’s gathered round him from all kinds of experience.

M: One supposes then that the single is the spearhead of your musical direction?

D: Yes, but at the same time it’s an artistic entity in its own right. I’d like to make people aware that I want to spread my thoughts around. I’m not trying to educate people, or get them onto my way of thinking. It really doesn’t bother me at all because the thinking thing is so stupid. It’s incredibly hard to explain, strange but rather like a vast kind of personal brother- hood of everything…

M: You’re into your totality again…

D: Yes I know, that’s how it comes out all the time…

M: It’s good, when I recognise it you know that you’ve made your point – to me anyway. But one of the criticisms I’ve heard of your songs is that you don’t communicate to people who might not be tuned into the same vibrations.

D: Uuuuuuh – how can I say this? – I don’t have to turn people on. If they are, then it’s good, but if they’re not then they’re not. I feel that they will be turned on to a way of think- ing which may be helpful to the human race and what’s after it by just feeling the energy from my songs, if the energy has the right vibrations. It doesn’t matter what the words say, the energy will be there.

M: Which is why I suppose that many of your thought processes and songs appear to be left suspended. I wonder if at some stage you might pick them up again.

D: Well no… it’s like people learning to swim, you take them along something they know and can walk on right to the very end and then you bounce them off into the water. The springboard is something they know… then you just plunge ’em off into the energy at the end…

M: And there’s a complete parallel with the way this whole commercial scene is set up, too, but on a much broader scale of course. These development are happening as part of an overall plan you have in mind that you want to do three hit songs then retire from actually performing, which means that you hope to stretch your influence in different directions…

D: Yes, just into writing music, which is an extension of moving the energies. You get other people to do your songs, combining their energies with yours. One hopes that people believe in the songs they perform.

M: An interpretive addition?

D: Yes, it’s little ripples going out in the beginning – then I drop bigger pebbles making harder ripples. I’m playing energy games… and I’ve got a vibration on this posterity thing, too. Following the pattern I’ve just mentioned I might help colour the waves that go into the future if Space Oddity goes to num- ber one. I may help take away some of the veneer that would go through into the history books. I may show a little of the other side of what people were thinking… not just spacemen going up… and ‘What kind of sandwiches are you eating?’ or ‘What shirts do you wear?’ They weren’t the only things people were thinking about…

M: I hate to draw comparisons, but there are several people one can quote as having been capable of projecting this and one of them is obviously Bob Dylan.

D: Yes, I really believe that Bob Dylan and others of the pop people have speeded up the changes. Without the com- munication level that they have created the things that have happened so far would still be ten years in the future… Prague, Paris, London. Those things wouldn’t have happened YET, I feel, without Dylan and the Beatles. These reports of war in the newspapers would just have been reports of war in the newspapers, but pop people put such an emphasis on the horror and futility of it all… pacifism has found a voice at last, and this voice is being heeded.

M: If you repeat anything loud enough to enough people for a long enough time it eventually gets through…

D: It’s a conditioning, but I’m sure it’s a conditioning in the right direction.

M: Getting back to this, if Space Oddity is a success d’you suppose we’ll get inundated with sycophants at the folk club?

D: Not the folk people, they’ll dig it but they won’t push themselves forward. I wouldn’t go rushing off to see Roy Harper if he had a club and found himself with a chart record. I suppose we’ll get some like that, but not many.

M: That’s good, but you can’t ignore your actual everyday life when every- body wants to know you when you’re a success but nobody cares a shit when you’re not…

D: Yes, I suppose that applies to the pop scene, but it’s not my world at all. The pop underground wouldn’t come rushing at us. It’s very good in its ideas and the way it sees things – so different to the pop establishment. If you want a comparison try putting our Arts Lab and the conventional theatre side by side and see what you get. Here we are in Beckenham with a group of people creating their own momentum without the slightest concern for attitudes, tradition or pre-ordained moral- ities… it’s alive, healthy and new and it matters to me more than anything else.





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2 Responses to Psychedelic Suburbia and the Beckenham Arts Lab

    1. That’s great! Thank you very much. Love Mary

      Comment by Mary Finnigan on 10 June, 2016 at 4:07 pm
    2. Excellent. I heard this woman in an interview on the radio just after Bowie died. I saw him about this time in a folk club in Wolverhampton. He was alone with a 12 string guitar, and he did quite a bit of mime. I bought ‘Space Oddity’ (the album) when it came out. I must have been 14 or so. My parents had gone through a long, violent and painful divorce. They had (been forced to get) married because of me, and so I was the reason for their divorce. Artists such as Bowie, Al Stewart, Donovan, provided a kind of poetic refuge for me at that time. I was a bit like Major Tom, ejected (rejected ?) into a scary and unwanted orbit where I was alone, facing my own existence and destiny. Later I took LSD and that just confirmed this feeling. “Planet Earth s blue, and there’s nothing I can do.” This interview shows me I had understood. Bowie had correctly communicated with me – a confused schoolboy – as I sat alone on the floor on the periphery of grubby dancefloor surrounded by ‘cool’ fashionable adults. I think everybody who was there thought they had witnessed something exceptional. Later, when I was alone in my room with the album, I listened a lot to ‘The Wild-eyed Boy from Freecloud’. When Ziggy Stardust came along, nobody could have been less surprised, or more delighted, than I was.

      Comment by Grady Johnson on 12 June, 2016 at 6:48 am

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