When David Bowie died recently, the world mourned the loss of one of the creative giants of our time. In recent years, Bowie rarely gave interviews but back in 1997 he gave an interview to The Big Issue, which was conducted by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker.
Jarvis Cocker shares his memories of the conversation. “I remember being quite nervous about the interview,” Cocker says. “I’d met him before very briefly but not to talk to. I presented an award to him and Brian Eno for his work on what they now call the Berlin Trilogy. I said, ‘Congratulations’ and that’s as far as the conversation went.”
The Big Issue interview marked an extraordinary meeting of talents: Damien Hirst was acting as guest editor and he commissioned Jarvis Cocker to interview Bowie, with a focus on the subject of smoking.
“The idea of talking about smoking came from Damien Hirst,” Cocker recalls. “I think it was a good thing because where do you start with someone whose work you admire a lot? If you gush and say how much you admire them they’re just going to get defensive.”
What emerges through the interview, reprinted below, is a remarkably intimate philosophical reflection on the power of addiction, the futility of reaching for impossible highs, family and the meaning of life – and death. It reinforces why Bowie will be so missed.
“David Bowie was the internet before there was the internet,” Cocker adds. “He was like a search engine. He would go and find this Japanese Kabuki dance or whatever and he would bring it to people’s attention. But the great thing was he wasn’t just a search engine – he found all these things and he made them into music. He transformed them into something else.
“As we’ve seen there’s been an outpouring of public emotion about his death. A lot of people in society today will milk an emotional situation for what it’s worth. But he did the opposite. He kept it secret and he tried to channel what he was going through into his creative work. That’s something we should learn from.”
David Bowie has given up every vice in his life – except fags. So, does the drug still work?
Jarvis Cocker: I asked Damien why he wanted me to talk to you about smoking, and it seemed to be that you’d given up every other vice in your life but you hadn’t given up smoking and he wondered why that was.
David Bowie: Oh, I see. Well I think I still do a lot of drugs, you know: caffeine and smoking and I’m probably addicted to television and certain kinds of newspapers and art. Addiction comes in all sorts of forms, but the ones that were physically damaging, not so much to me but to the people around me, they had to go firstly. Then there’s cigarettes. Once Iman and I start having children I think they will have to go too. Do you really stand by the idea of living for a long time or do you instead want to fill a shorter life with maybe more interesting things? One makes a compromise between the two actually.
JC: I remember when I was growing up and my mother smoked and she used to say to me: “Go to the corner shop and buy me some cigs.”
DB: Yeah, I had exactly the same.
JC: And I used to say: “You know Mum, you’re killing yourself.” I really was against it, so it’s quite ironic that I’ve ended up smoking.
DB: Mine was a house of smokers as well, both parents a considerable number of cigarettes. I think it was Senior Service and then when my father had a better job it became Weights. And I’d steal his. I think it was the rite of passage through to adulthood that appealed to me, that was the thing about it. Are you smoking at the moment, by the way?
JC: No, but I’ve got a packet just in case I feel the urge.
DB: Well, I’ve got one on so…
JC: OK, I’ll join you then.
DB: When you’re a kid it’s really a kind of perverse need to try something that’s risky, because it’s frowned upon by older people. Also because you know it’s inherently bad for you.
JC: So, when you wake up in the morning, are you one of these people that reaches straight for the bedside table and lights up, or do you try to stave it off for as long as possible?
DB: I’ll stave it off until breakfast. At the end of breakfast when I’m having a cup of coffee I’ll have a cigarette. So it’s from pretty early on in the morning. In a general day I get through about 40 Marlboro Lights – which is a cut down from what I used to smoke, believe me. When I’m on the road I tend to drop down to about 20.
JC: I was going to ask you that – do they affect your voice?
DB: I think probably that I’d sing much better if I didn’t smoke. I’m sure of that actually. I’ve lost loads of notes from the top register with the years of smoking, but then someone suggested that smoking will often help people presume that they could be greater if they didn’t smoke. Which I kinda like – “well you know if I didn’t smoke of course I could get those top Cs”.
JC: I’ll quote some lyrics to you. “Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth” – am I getting this right? – “You pull on your finger and then a cigarette.”
DB: That was a sort of plagiarised line from Baudelaire which was something to the effect of life is a cigarette, smoke it in a hurry or savour it.
JC: I’ve heard Damien say that every time he has a cigarette he thinks about death. Do you go along with that?
DB: I can’t think of a time that I didn’t think about death. There again, I’ve been smoking all my life so it’s hard to not equate the two together. You know, I’m fairly easy-going about the length of life in a way – it’ll sort of happen when it happens. It sounds good anyway. But will Damien still smoke around his child?
JC: Eh, I don’t know actually. I’ll have to ask.
DB: That’s an interesting thing because that’s the area that worries me. That’s the area where I get a little righteous and moral about it because, over the past at least 10 or 15 years, it’s really come home to me what impact one’s own vices can have on other people and that really determines how I mistreat my own body. I try not to smoke around Iman that much but I’m not very good at that.
JC: Have you read Smoking Is Sublime? I’ve got a few quotes here: “They are sublime because they involve a confrontation with mortality.”
DB: Ah, that’s the thinking-of-death-as-you-smoke number.
JC: Mmm, that’s it, isn’t it? What about this one – Oscar Wilde: “A cigarette is the perfect type of the perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied, what more can one want? Each cigarette is an absolute failure, never providing the imagined fulfilment.”
DB: But I think you can apply that to nearly any of life’s pleasures. They all leave you unsatisfied because you try to reach that high every time. You always have to go back.
JC: You have to keep trying.
DB: You have to keep trying. You keep going for it. Not just to get the high but you’re hoping in desperation that one day the high that you do achieve will stay with you. But of course it never does, so in its own way it’s an avenue to insanity. It produces a rat syndrome, you know, where you just go round and round and round. Circularity.
JC: No one can ever accept the fact that life consists of a series of highlights and you can never really keep those highlights going.
DB: It’s plate-spinning.
JC: That’s the thing that makes them a pleasure.
DB: It’s wise not to get too euphoric or too melancholic. A balance in-between for me has always given me a much wider and easier passage through life. I find it’s such a disillusionment to get incredibly excited and happy about things, and that will not maintain. Also it’s quite psychotic to become like that. I mean it’s really depressed schizophrenia, when you go from those incredible heights to lows. I’ve done all of those and it really serves one badly.
JC: It’s like the Prozac argument, that the drug will level people out so they will never feel things very extremely at all.
DB: Right, but the other side of that is that it also reduces your ability to have emotional contact. People will not really pay quite such close attention to what their children are going through, or their wives or husbands, or whatever. They exist in a kind of Stepford Wife world, so there’s two sides. There’s two sides to everything, though, Jarvis. Don’t you feel that honestly in your system?
DB: Are we giving Damien what he wants, do you think?
JC: Oh God, I don’t know, and I don’t know what he wants. In America, there are loads of no-smoking buildings and no-smoking bars and you often stand shivering outside on the streets in the middle of winter.
DB: Well yes – we think of ourselves as sometimes approaching a nanny state but I think it’s far more prevalent in the States. It’s been part of their history since prohibition onwards – the idea of telling people what they should be doing. Their assumption is that they know best. Within a rational, straightforward way they’re probably right, but I think you must have the choice to screw yourself. On the other hand, I do appreciate it is quite nice sometimes to have a meal without people smoking around you.
JC: It seems to be a kind of contentious point about secondary smoking or passive smoking.
DB: Yeah, and I do understand, but there again have you ever tried to conduct a relationship on cocaine? I mean, what you do to the person is absolutely foul. It really is beyond tolerance, it’s dreadful. So few drugs don’t have an effect on the other person. Coffee so far seems to be OK.
JC: Yeah, you can still keep a relationship together then?
DB: I think you can get a bit irritable if you’ve had too much, but I think the sort of by-product of it isn’t ruined lives. I’ve not heard of many couples that were split apart by one’s addiction to coffee.
JC: It probably will happen if cigarettes get ground out of the way. So, my final question is: do you light your cigarettes with matches or a lighter?
DB: Wow. I used to light them with matches because it had a more theatrical effect, I think. But as my awareness that the cigarette doesn’t represent any particular attitude any more, it doesn’t have the potency of a symbol it used to have. I saw it once as a prop on stage, now I smoke on stage just because I need one. So now I’m quite happy with a Bic, which is pretty sort of fundamental. But I was aware of ritual and routine and theatricality with a cigarette when I was younger. I knew exactly what I was doing around the stage and the cigarette became symbolic of a certain kind of removed identity kind of thing, you know – that I don’t have to be singing these songs, I’m just doing you a favour. I think the symbolic cigarette has dropped way behind now. It’s just another bloody thing that I do.
JC: Well, you know, don’t worry about it.
DB: No, I must say I don’t. I’m not losing sleep.
JC: Right, well, that’s it.
DB: Well it’s really nice to talk with you, Jarvis.
JC: You know it’s for this Big Issue thing, don’t you?
JC: Thank you very much.
Courtesy of INSP.ngo / The Big Issue
Photo: Wikimedia Commons