David Bowie: Language is the Most Ambiguous Way of Communication

When David Bowie came to Japan during the Isolar II world tour, Yoichi Shibuya, the music critic, chief editor and publisher of the music magazine Rockin’ On, interviewed Bowie. The latter generously talked about films, fashion, and his life attitude.
Days later, Bowie met Ryuichi Sakamoto, a fellow musician and the interviewer appointed by another magazine. Bowie elaborated more on some topics discussed with Shibuya, including Yukio Mishima, developing a more comprehensive picture of his career in the late 70s. Read that interview: https://lysisme.art.blog/2021/02/26/ziggy-stardust-in-exile-in-la-ryuichi-sakamoto-interviews-david-bowie/

Originally published in the March issue of Rockin’ On, 1979
Interviewed on December 5, 1978, by Yoichi Shibuya, at Hotel New Otani
Photo by Yoichi Saito
English translation by Stella Hsieh

I think your music style has changed tremendously from the album Station to Station. Does it have anything to do with you staying in the US?
Yes, there is a significant connection. That album made me promise to return to Europe. I only try to look at things retrospectively, but that album seems to be begging me to go back to Europe.

Are you disappointed with the US?
No, I just wanted to go back to Europe and search for the reason why I started to write songs. Or perhaps you can say I wanted to go back to be an art school student again.

When you came to Japan for the first time, you said you are unable to communicate unless in a venue of 2000 people.
Economically speaking, I can’t do it except for the Budokan. (laughs) I only tour for once in two years, and I have to live on that income for the following two years. Also, my records don’t sell in large quantities, so I have to rely on the income from the concert.

About the language barrier when you sing in Japan…
I think language is a barrier in every country. For me, English is also a barrier. Therefore, the meanings of many of my lyrics cannot be understood by only reading them. The meanings of my lyrics do not lie on the surface but are embedded within.
Language is, not limited to Japan, a barrier in general. Language is the most ambiguous way of communication.

About Yukio Mishima…
I think Mishima’s way of life is the product of immense suffering and confusion, but I’m not impressed by his way of life at all. I’m very touched by his literature.

Can you talk about it more specifically?
It’s his way of depicting the unbalance.

In the film Just a Gigolo, the protagonist you played is longing for a uniform.
It’s not the uniform that my role is longing for. As a man who has been trained as a soldier, he is worried about losing the army, and when he meets the gigolo’s uniform, it solves his problem. In other words, it symbolizes the only army he can belong to.
The uniform is a symbol of fear. The society is, after all, unable to break away from the uniform.
For me, the uniform is a very fond thing while I hate them very much at the same time.

About film…
I want to work with directors like John Schlesinger and Fassbinder, and François Truffaut, although he is a maestro of the past. (laughs) Some of the new Australian directors are also very enthusiastic.
It is said that Japanese films are in decline, but I think it’s better to picture it as there is immediate progress waiting ahead because any renaissance happens completely unforeseen. If there is a way to predict it, it’s the decline itself.
I like inscrutable films, a bit like the films of the German Expressionism period. I like any films that are a little far away from reality.
I don’t like to find truth or reality in films. I want to see the director’s own subjectivity toward reality.

At the end of Gigolo, the protagonist dies in the conflict between the far right and far left. Is that also your perception of the present?
The common aspect is that the current society and the time depicted in that film are both in the middle of intense frustration. Indeed, I think they are very similar periods that cannot be fixed unless people understand and try to respect each other.
The confrontation between the far left and far right does happen in Europe, only that there is no so-called conflict. But the National Front is growing into a nasty force. I think it’s a very serious issue.

About aging…
I welcome the fact of aging. I like to think about getting older. I often sit comfortably by myself and wish that I was about 70 years old now. I want to be active when I’m old, but having no specific idea of doing what kind of things.

Where do you live now?
I don’t want to live in the UK anymore since I already know too much about it.
I spent most of this year (1978) in Kenya. I’m interested in there because it’s a place I don’t understand. I’ve always lived in big cities for the past three years. No one knows me, and I’ve lived a very plain and solid life compared to the infamous world of rock.
I actually hate the world of rock. It’s extremely awful. You have to throw away your brain if you want to enter the world of rock. (laughs)

What’s your impression of Africa?
I love Africa. The openness is nice. I wanted to meet the Maasai people, so I had a really hard time finding them and finally got to meet them. They are wonderful human beings.
Everything about them is so genuine. It was good that they were completely different from the environment where I grew up. I will be hugely interested in whatever has nothing to do with me at all.

What’s your impression of the fans in Japan?
I don’t know. I’ll know tomorrow. (The interview was held one day before the gig in Osaka.)

Did you get a good impression when you first came to Japan 5 years ago?
I was by all means an idiot 5 years ago. Because I was doing all the thinking and acting as Ziggy Stardust then, I don’t remember how I felt except how Ziggy felt. He was very happy.

About Reggae…
I knew it since I was small. I grew up in an area where only West Indians live, so I listened to Reggae all along.
Reggae was called Ska or Blue Beat at that time and was always popular in London. It was already popular when I was 15… a long time ago. (laughs)

About your encounter with Eno…
I think he made me realize the “clinic spontaneous.” Perhaps it’s better to say that he taught me about improvisation which can be prepared well rather than the clinical. I was originally a person with no improvisation, but I think I was able to get close to spontaneity from that.
He also taught me about the method of the research stage of thinking, in other words, the method that embodies the things in the thinking stage and materializes them.

About Robert Fripp…
He is an intellectual, such an intellectual that I can’t even understand a single word of what he says. (laughs) Besides, I can only understand half of what Brian says.
Those two share the traits of being unbelievably smart and possessing excellent humor at the same time. They are both very funny. Even that Fripp, even THAT Fripp is funny! (laughs)


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