The Man Who Fell For Brecht
Controversial rock star David Bowie takes the title role in a new production of Bertoldt Brecht’s first play, an amoral tale interspersed with songs. Being cast as the anarchic singer and poet might seem appropriate for Bowie, whose own public image shares many of the same characteristics. But, as Henry Fenwick discovers, Bowie’s own attitude to life is very different from Baal’s.
Baal is a play that needs, begs for, demands a star. There is no way that this story of anarchic genius could work without a central actor who can make the power and appeal of Brecht’s poet/monster convincing. This may be one reason why the play is rarely performed – actors with that particular brand of destabilising magnetism are few.
It is clear, therefore, why director Alan Clarke cast rock star David Bowie. Underneath the international pop-star glitter dust, Bowie’s own image of free thinking and no-holds-barred sexuality has a lot in common with the character of Baal himself; and in his sporadic acting career Bowie has specialized in extraordinary figures: the stranded alien of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man who Fell to Earth, the-less-said-about-the-better gigolo of Just a Gigolo, and a Broadway hit as the Elephant Man of Bernard Pomerance’s play. ‘I do kind of get them, don’t I?’ he says laconically.
Watching Bowie from the gallery of the television studio, one finds the relish with which he attacks the perversities and cruelties of Brecht’s anti-hero remarkable. His ambivalent sexual appeal also underscores the echoes of Rimbaud that run through the play. The songs which frame and punctuate the action he performs superbly.
Off set he seems tense, friendly, but understandably withdrawn – the part, after all, is a mammoth one. We arrange to meet again in New York, where we both will be and can talk more relaxedly. Not that relaxation seems to be a Bowie mode. New York, he acknowledges happily when we meet there, is his sort of town. ‘You just look out of the window and somebody falls down,’ he explains, then adds conscientiously when I laugh: ‘That’s not mine. David Byrne of Talking Heads said that. I asked him why he liked New York and he said [nasal imitation of David Byrne]: “Well, you look out of the window and somebody falls over.” It’s just what this place is like. Unexpected things happen all the time.’
Even away from the studio Bowie turns out to be – paradoxically, but then he’s nothing if not paradoxical – both friendly and withdrawn. He’s like a shell creature, living and hiding under a carapace of agents and managers. They may seem separate from him but their protectiveness, the barriers they erect, are an essential part of the beast, the rock star who is also apparently gentle, intense, clever, enormously informed. In conversation he seems both warm and wary; it is like fencing with a friend who doesn’t trust the button on your foil.
He is very selective about the parts he plays, but it didn’t take much persuading, he says, to get him to do Baal. He’s been an admirer of Brecht since his mime teacher, Lindsay Kemp, introduced him to the German playwright’s work in the late 60’s. ‘He introduced me to a lot of things I was totally ignorant of – Fritz Lang movies and Kurt Weill songs and Genet. He really gave me an education at that time!’ Bowie had also admired director Alan Clarke ever since he saw the movie Scum. ‘He made an imprint on me then; I saw a couple of other things he did, and I knew if he was doing it, it would be terrific.’
He doesn’t, however, identify with the character of Baal at all – he laughs when I suggest that his image might have a lot in common with Baal’s. ‘Super punk!’ he comments with a grin. Then: ‘I’m much, much, much quieter than Baal, I can assure you!‘ His reputation, I murmur, would have it otherwise. ‘My reputation,’ he shrugs. ‘My reputation I don’t have to contend with at all – that’s sort of out there.’ He waves it away and addresses the question seriously.
‘I have an element in me – I’ll sit back and wait for something awful to happen and then write about it.’ He laughs. ‘I have that attitude to writing. I think the big difference is that Baal is quite resigned to the fact that the human race is going to topple itself – in any given situation that he can concoct the people in that situation will ruin everything and he expects that and wants that. I think these days I’m a lot more optimistic about the human condition.’ He pauses, surprised perhaps to hear himself sounding so sunny. ‘I think there is a resolute wave of indignation building up in people to the conditions they’ve been put in. I’ve got complete faith in the human spirit to pull ourselves through. I don’t think Baal has that at all.’
The practical exigencies of a normal acting career are also something he doesn’t have to accept, since he’s not financially dependent on it. The Elephant Man he enjoyed at first, but the six-month run, was, he says, too much. ‘John Merrick’s very interesting but he’s not that interesting. I’d never do anything that long again.’
Meanwhile, an abiding passion has reasserted itself: he has gone back to painting. ‘And I’ve got to start writing again – I haven’t written anything for over a year. I find this is a great place to start.’ He is not fazed by the hubbub of New York that discomfits many writers. ‘That’s what I like – the friction. That’s what I look for in any city. When you get the certain Angst and desperation you find in a city of this nature – any cosmopolitan city, really. A city like New York or West Berlin, they have the right kind of push. I can’t write in a peaceful atmosphere at all. I’ve nothing to bounce off of. I need the terror, whatever it is. Again it’s that thing of sitting around waiting for something awful to happen. It prods me into writing!’
And painting and writing, for him, go hand in hand. ‘Every album that I’ve written I’ve got three or four paintings to go with it as well.’ They are all portraits. ‘In Berlin they are mostly Turks and here they are mostly contemporaries of mine [David Byrne, William Burroughs, Philip Glass, the American avant-garde composer]. They are all desperate-looking people!’ There is no chance, though, of seeing the pictures. ‘I never show them because they’re much too personal.’ He plunges into a dramatic dialogue with himself:
‘But surely, David, that’s what an artist’s supposed to do? To show all the…’
‘Well I’m not going to!’
‘Well then you’re selling yourself short, you’re supposed to reveal all the personal side of you. That’s what an artist is supposed to do.’
‘Well not that personal!‘
He acts the dialogue well – his interrogator was brashly reasonable, a bit badgering, a nice satiric impression of someone – a New York gallery owner, perhaps? ‘David’ was shy, slightly sulky, very subdued. A brilliant impersonation of himself: something he probably gets a lot of practice at.
Henry Fenwick, Radio Times (27 Feb – 5 Mar, 1982)