Pop & Hiss
Reporter's Notebook

David Bowie: That time the Thin White Duke needed reassurance

“Hallo Dean, it’s David,” came that unmistakable voice on the phone, the voice of Ziggy Stardust, the voice of the Thin White Duke. It was 1999 and I had just bought my first cellphone and now he was talking on it: David Bowie.

“Oh, hi,” I said calmly, curling up in fetal delight on the salt-encrusted carpet of my apartment in Marina del Rey. Eventually I choked out, “What’s up?”

“Ha ha!” he laughed, he was always laughing. “Look: I want to talk to you about a movie idea,” he said, and we went on to discuss writing a film treatment together based on "The Man Who Sold The World."

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In no way did this make sense. I had written for art films by Doug Aitken and others, but I was primarily a journalist. We had met over several uproarious, life-affirming interviews while I was an editor at Raygun Magazine in the '90s. I had seen him backstage, on buses and video shoots and with his wife, Iman. We had, in fact, become friends.

But the clues for what he wanted from me were there in the shattered, remixed graphic design style born with Raygun. Like several other artists, Bowie had come to us looking to be part of a new aesthetic, a hybrid magazine for the ultimate hybrid artist. "End of Print" designer David Carson had famously quit Raygun when the publishers rejected his cover featuring Bowie’s neck – just his long, iconic neck – about which Bowie belly-laughed when I was editing his original essay on Yoko Ono, Tony Oursler and Roy Lichtenstein for the book, "Raygun Out Of Control."

Bowie wanted, he said, to write a sci-fi-ish film about the nature of matter. About the known and unknown, seen and unseen. Sort of an "Interstellar" but 15 years early. Bowie's idea included elements of his original inspiration, Robert Heinlein’s "The Man Who Sold The Moon." As we spoke, I sprinted down the halls of everything I knew and tried to keep up.

A week or so later we were in a little workroom at Isolar, Bowie’s offices on 5th Avenue, just him and me and his longtime girl Friday, Coco Schwab, all of us scribbling notes. He was beautifully dressed and coiffed and always himself, Bowie, but unguarded, spitballing, and making huge leaps across subjects.

He had characters he had carried with him since the 1960s whose motivations were veiled, like the alien in "The Man Who Fell To Earth." He produced photocopied studies about particle physics and the nature of reality that were meant to be the backbone of our tale. We needed to interview scientists. We talked religion. He believed we could touch an elemental truth through this film, and we met over dinner with a music producer in an effort to change the way films were scored and how sound directed story.

Our treatment had to make sense but, as anyone who has seen his videos from "Blackstar" or his new theatrical production "Lazarus" can attest, Bowie preferred a certain surreality.

On the second day of working together, with no one else in the room, Bowie took a long look at me and said, “Dean, do you think my work is still relevant?” 

My heart broke. He worried that his surreal vision was too obscure, his many personae too fragmented. I reassured him that when your art is one of the root references of the present, you are always relevant.

“I wonder,” he said, unconvinced.

We never made our movie. But when my son was born later that year, he and Iman planted a tree in his honor, and I was privileged to edit her book, "I Am Iman." It’s a little-known fact that Bowie gave great hugs.

I was hoping to get another of those but I guess I’ll have to wait. One of the last times I saw him as he prepared for a 2004 tour, we walked together into a New York City rehearsal room with his band just crushing a Velvet Underground song.

He leaped onto the stage for the last two notes and that voice emerged: “White Light!” That’s how I think of him now.

Dean Kuipers is a writer living in Los Angeles

MORE:

Full coverage: David Bowie's life and career

Remembering David Bowie through his 100 favorite books 

Mikael Wood review: David Bowie looks far beyond pop on jazz-inspired 'Blackstar' 

From the Robert Hilburn archives: David Bowie spends the '80s convincing us he's just a normal guy 

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