This article originally appeared in the September 18, 2003 issue of New York Magazine.
Around the end of 1966, my then manager, Ken Pitt, came back from a trip to the U.S. with two albums he had been given in New York. Since they weren’t particularly his cup of tea, he gave them to me to see what I made of them. The first was a great, rollicking, noisy anarchist-hippie affair by the Fugs — more fun than was healthy, and great drinking-and-getting-stoned music.
The second, a test pressing with the signature warhol scrawled on it, was shattering. Everything I both felt and didn’t know about rock music was opened to me on one unreleased disc. It was The Velvet Underground and Nico.
The first track glided by innocuously enough and didn’t register. However, from that point on, with the opening, throbbing, sarcastic bass and guitar of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” the linchpin, the keystone of my ambition was driven home. This music was so savagely indifferent to my feelings. It didn’t care if I liked it or not. It could give a fuck. It was completely preoccupied with a world unseen by my suburban eyes.
Actually, though only 19, I had seen rather a lot but had accepted it quite enthusiastically as all a bit of a laugh. Apparently, the laughing was now over. I was hearing a degree of cool that I had no idea was humanly sustainable. Ravishing. One after another, tracks squirmed and slid their tentacles around my mind. Evil and sexual, the violin of “Venus in Furs,” like some pre-Christian pagan-revival music. The distant, icy, “Fuck me if you want, I really don’t give a damn” voice of Nico’s “Femme Fatale.” What an extraordinary one-two knockout punch this affair was. By the time “European Son” was done, I was so excited I couldn’t move. It was late in the evening and I couldn’t think of anyone to call, so I played it again and again and again.
That December, my band Buzz broke up, but not without my demanding we play “I’m Waiting For the Man” as one of the encore songs at our last gig. It was the first time a Velvet song had been covered by anyone, anywhere in the world. Lucky me.
I first came here in 1971. The earliest graphic image I have is of Louis Hardin, better known as Moondog, the legendary boho and musical outsider. One of the guys who worked at Mercury Records, with whom I was under contract at the time, took me over to 54th Street, and there, dressed as a sort of Viking, Moondog stood. Usually he would be playing his strange compositions accompanied on a keyboard or some kind of homemade drums, but not this day. I went for sandwiches and coffee, which we consumed as we sat on the sidewalk. He told me something about his life, and it came home to me only after a while that he was completely blind.
One of my most exciting trips happened about a year or so later. Having performed a gig outside London on a Thursday in June 1972, I shot home to sleep, then caught an early-morning flight — getting me to Madison Square Garden about ten minutes after Elvis hit the stage. I had the humiliating experience of walking down the center aisle to my very good RCA-provided seat while Elvis performed “Proud Mary.” As I was in full Ziggy regalia by this time — brilliant red hair and Kabuki platform shoes — I’m sure many of the audience presumed Mary had just arrived.
Elvis was fantastically fit-looking, and his voice was in great shape. I was a little brought down as his show lasted only about 45 minutes. But there he was. At the end, I rushed off to the airport to get the next plane back to the UK, as I myself was working on Saturday night.
On one of my early trips, I wore my “man’s dress.” A wacky designer in London, Michael Fish of kipper-tie fame, produced that little number (three of them in all — I bought the lot), a variant on the medieval knight’s attire. Or a sort of jazzed-up Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite job. As far as I remember, it went virtually unnoticed at the time. You guys already had Candy Darling and all that drag.
When I first came to New York, I was in my early twenties, discovering a city I had fantasized over since my teens. I saw it with multicolored glasses, to say the least. Also, I rarely got up before noon and hit the sack again around four or five in the morning. Two New Yorks, really.
These days, my buzz can be obtained by just walking, preferably early in the morning, as I am a seriously early riser. The signature of the city changes shape and is fleshed out as more and more people commit to the street. A magical transfer of power from the architectural to the human.
I’m here most of the year now. I leave only if work demands it. (I’ve read the rumors about how I have houses elsewhere, but this is it.) I am not a secretive guy, but I am quite private. I live as a citizen pure and simple. I don’t go for the disguise thing — I’ve never found it necessary, at least not since my real hair color grew in years ago. I suppose wearing jeans is the nearest I get to confounding expectations.
I don’t think I would be able to cope with the celebrity lifestyle at all. The idea of an entourage is anathema to me. I remember meeting a comedian–film star in Hollywood one time who suggested that we leave the film set and take a walk, to talk and have a cigarette. It was like a silent comedy. I heard a small crowd behind us—when we stopped walking, they stopped, too. His whole crew of something like seventeen guys were following at a polite distance. It was insane. The one thing you can depend on with an entourage is that everybody will look at you. I think that’s the idea.
People here are very decent about their interactions with well-knowns. I get the occasional “Yo, Bowie,” but that’s about it. My only rule is to avoid tourist areas. But if I weren’t known, I’d still avoid ’em. In London, the saying goes, life takes place behind doors. Here it’s on the street.
Bowie's New York
In the Club: I’m actually a founding member of Soho House. It got a lot of sneering press before it opened. A lot of locals were, for some reason, hoping it would fold pretty quickly. I knew it would be a success. The Brits often know how to do these style things really well.
Bowie Baedeker: My three favorite places in New York are Washington Square (it’s the emotional history of New York in a quick walk), the Strand bookshop (it’s impossible to find the book you want, but you always find the book you didn’t know you wanted), and Julian Schnabel’s house (the most extraordinary interior and quite beautiful; no one else but Julian could carry it off).