1990s – part three
David Bowie was committed to sobriety by the time of Black Tie White Noise’s release. In 1993 he gave a revealing interview to Tony Parsons for Arena magazine, in which he spoke extensively on his past drug use, and expressed regret for some of his greater excesses.
I saw something on CNN – which is my companion when I’m moving around a lot, the only constant thing you can get anywhere in the world – where they showed the effects of cocaine on the human brain. The great physical holes that cocaine puts in the brain. It just looks like Swiss cheese. And I have been tempted to go and have my brain looked at to see how many holes I have. Because they are there for life… I have huge mental blocks and lapses about things that have happened in my past.
Arena, May/June 1993
In another interview in 1997 he explained how his addictions had changed. Gone were alcohol and cocaine, but nicotine and caffeine remained.
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.
The Big Issue, 8 December 1997
Later in the interview, Bowie expanded on his smoking habits, revealing that he had switched from strong Gauloises cigarettes to the marginally less dangerous Marlborough Lights.
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…
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”…
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 [lighter], 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.
The Big Issue, 8 December 1997
Despite – or perhaps because of – his sobriety, Bowie spoke often about his previous addictions. In early 1993 he was interviewed by the New Musical Express, alongside Suede’s frontman Brett Anderson. Perhaps inevitably, the interview touched upon Bowie’s drug history.
NME: Did you glean anything positive from it all?
Bowie: Um… I would have to feel so irresponsible in saying that I did. Possibly… but the chances of being able to dip in it just enough to get the positive stuff and then step out are so stacked against you that I would never in my right mind advise anybody to try it. Y’know, that’s the trouble it’s like having this huge great oyster with this pearl in the middle and you could get the pearl but you do risk having your arms snapped off. Well, do we do it or not? I would suggest that possibly the best thing is just to not bother.
NME: And yet people continue to revere f-ups. We all know Jim Morrison grew into a great fat, wasted jerk and yet people steal his gravestone.
Bowie: Well, we don’t see enough photographs of the stupid fat berk lying in his bath tub, we only see him moody and handsome. It’s the same with [James] Dean. The youthful expression goes that he lived too fast and died young. Well, maybe if more photographs were published of him after the car wreck… I think we are just led to believe by the mythology of drugs that, if we take them, we shall be put in touch with the secrets of the cosmos, that we shall have this straight line to knowledge of what it’s all about. And it’s just not true. I know from my past that I used drugs in such excess that I probably obliterated any chance of getting anything useful out of the situation at all apart from maybe these quick insights.
One of them was this thing of only living in the moment. When I was heavily into coke, I couldn’t remember two minutes past and I certainly didn’t think about the future. I really felt as if I was existing in the now and, because of that, there was this so totally focused into the moment that you felt you had a godlike insight into what was going on. And the feeling of no past and no future gave you a weightlessness of insight and perception.
But I also remember there were times when I occasionally got near that when I was doing meditation back in the late ’60s. It’s just harder work and drugs are the quick passport to nirvana. You can get it on acid. You can get it on coke. You can get there quicker and you don’t have to do all the hard labor of actually having to meditate and all that boring stuff, y’know? Learn a language instantly. Hahahah! It’s like those little books on Learn Japanese In A Week. You learn how to speak all these questions yet God forbid anybody should answer you in Japanese ’cos you won’t have any equipment to understand what they’re talking about!”
NME: But the people who buy Brett’s records, the drugs that some of them come into contact with are likely to be very different from what you were talking in your days. Cheap crap that really f-s ’em up.
Bowie: Yes, I must say it was good stuff in my day. In the giddy heights I was operating in, we had what was called pharmaceutical coke which is this extraordinary, sparkling medicinal stuff… I have heard from the people I know who still take drugs that the kind of purity that was around 20 years ago just doesn’t exist any more.
In 1997, the year he turned 50, Bowie used his 1975 Kirlian photograph of his fingertip and crucifix, taken after ingesting cocaine, in the artwork for the Earthling album and the ‘Little Wonder’ single covers.