Immaculate Conceptions

From the Independent on Sunday, 10th September 1995, conducted by Tim de Lisle.

For easy access to particular areas of interest, click on the appropriate subject heading in this list.

History of Bowie and Eno
Usefulness of childlikeness and absence of self-censorship
Intuitions and concepts
The run-up to recording Outside
Oblique-ish cards to stimulate improvisation
On being popular artists rather than fine artists

After 15 years, one of rock's great double acts is back. Tim de Lisle meets David Bowie and Brian Eno, the godfathers of art-pop

Say what you like about David Bowie (and people do), he's good at choosing collaborators. John Lennon on "Fame", Queen on "Under Pressure", Luther Vandross, then unknown, on Young Americans, Nile Rodgers on Let's Dance... For quality, though, none beats Brian Eno, who joined Bowie in Berlin in 1976 to make three LPs of enduring boldness: Low , "Heroes" and Lodger. By the yardstick Bowie himself uses - the influence art has on other artists - Low and "Heroes" are as good as anything in his 30 year career.

The albums were Irish twins, both released in 1977 (it would be unthinkable now). By 1979 the partnership was over. Bowie reverted to working à deux with Tony Visconti, the third man of the Berlin sessions. Eno went back to his mundane life as a musician, video-painter, lecturer, curator and think-tank member. For a decade, the two men hardly saw each other.

Then, in 1992, Eno gave a lecture at Sadler's Wells, entitled Perfume, Defence and David Bowie's Wedding. After discussing smells and arms, Eno described Bowie's marriage to Iman, the Somali supermodel, which had just taken place, in a Florence church, before a few close friends and photographers from Hello!. "You couldn't tell what was sincere and what was theatre," Eno reported. "It was very touching."

For many in the audience of 1,500, the interest lay less in Eno's disclosures than the fact that he had been invited. Did it mean theywere back together? Bowie's last three albums had been Never Let Me Down (it did) and the two by Tin Machine, the hard-rock quartet in which a great solo artist tried to be just one of the boys. After all those years staying ahead of the game, Bowie seemed played out. But if anyone could rescue him, it was Eno, whose work with U2 had confirmed him as rock's leading catalyst.

For a while the only fruit of the reunion was the fact that both men became energetic patrons of the charity War Child, converting their fame into aid. Then, a month ago, RCA sent out tapes of a new Bowie LP, Outside, produced by Eno.

Bowie's music is often off-putting, but thiswas something else: messy, angular, manically assorted, partly spoken, wholly in character, and worst of all a concept album - the first in a "hyper-cycle", The Nathan AdlerDianes, spanning the years 1977-2025. Studying the liner notes, I wondered if Bowie had gone off his rocker.

Only faith in Eno kept the tape in the Walkman. But soon shapes emerged, and Bowie's old familiar strengths - the air of urgency and yearning, the gift for the shining line, the breezy certainty that sense matters less than sensibility. Above all, tunes: when it comes to melody, Bowie drops his avant-garde and makes for the middle of the road. Dinner parties will not echo to this record. Those who buy it may make use of the program button on their CD player (or get the LP, which omits some of the speech). But in there, for anyone willing to dig, are 50 minutes of rewarding, exciting, surprising music.

Bowie and Eno's early work was notable for its homogeneity. Low is so like a single piece, it eventually became one (Philip Glass's Low Symphony). But now they're mixing styles like there's no tomorrow - thumping rock, frail ballads, industrial workouts, theatrical monologues. Outside is an album you will either love or hate - ie. a Bowie album. "His best for 15 years," says Time Out. "Facile, confused, immature... quite simply, rubbish," says Ikon magazine. Bowie, typically, is on the cover of both.

The gap may be generational. To those who grew up with Bowie, Outside has a further appeal: it sums up his whole career. The side-men are drawn from all his yesterdays, as if he had taken the old sleeve credits and applied his famous cut-up technique - David Richards (engineer) from Lodger, Reeves Gabrels (guitar) from Tin Machine, Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar) from all over, Mike Garson (piano) from Aladdin Sane et al. It's the same with the voices - the thin white whine, the big deep croon. The concept of a concept recalls Ziggy Stardust. The futurism harks back to Diamond Dogs. Bowie plays many parts, as he has on stage and screen - as he has in life. And the title could apply to almost any work of his, for however many times he appears in Hello!, David Bowie remains an outsider, a space oddity.

A room at the Landmark Hotel, Marylebone. On a sofa, Brian Eno, 47, bald and smooth-shaven, exuding calm in a cream shirt and black jeans. In a chair, David Bowie, 48, bearded and bequiffed, exuding energy in a lime shirt and beige slacks. If you saw this look on TV, you'd wonder why Bowie is credited with much dress-sense, but the thought is stifled by his impeccable manners. Smiley, attentive, absurdly easy to talk to, he can make a guy feel that he's the only reporter in the hotel. And he does itwithout losing his remoteness. As Bono of U2 once said "He's the nicest fella from Mars I ever met".

Bowie smokes, wholeheartedly; a packet of Marlboro half-gone, two of Marlboro Lights queuing on the tray. Eno doesn't smoke. Bowie guzzles coffee; Eno searches for tea. The one thing they have both brought with them is Raw Vision, an art magazine. It's about outsider art - painting by the untrained, including the mentally ill - and this is why Outside is so called. Bowie and Eno, whose vision is anything but raw, wanted to recreate that state of grace.

Last year, they visited Gugging, the Austrian mental hospital which so encouraged patients to paint that is became, Eno says, "an arts lab".

"Didn't we go originally way back in the late Seventies?" Bowie says. "To see l'art brut while we were mixing albums?"

"Yes, well, we probably did," says Eno.

Needing an ashtray, Bowie slips the cellophane off one of the waiting packets and taps his ash into it. Eno, silently, finds the ashtray.

I ask what the outsider pictures were like. Bowie sighs, as if the question is unanswerable.

Eno says: "Oh, so varied you can't explain. They go from a Polish man who did pictures this big" - he makes a matchbox in the air - "in the hardest pencil you can imagine. And on the other hand there's whatsisname - Paoli, is it?"

Bowie: "Yes, yes."

" - who does these huge, huge pictures. And then there's all sorts of other odd people. There's the American - Henry - who painted the little girls with penises."

Bowie: "Ah, um, er, er ... Da-, Da-, Da-."

Eno: "Darger!"

Bowie: "Darger. Really extraordinary."

This routine carries on for some time. Then a man arrives to mend something. Bowie springs to his feet. "Could I ask you if you'd be so very kind as to come and fix it in 45 minutes?"

"What I derived from Gugging the first time," Bowie goes on, "was the sense that none of them knew they were artists. It's compelling and sometimes quite frightening to see this honesty. There's no awareness of embarrassment."

Eno, who has been murmuring assent, says: "It's very interesting to see people who are not taking part in any of the ideological arguments. Who are neither for nor against Cubism, or anything. It's like you could suddenly meet people who didn't care whether there was a God."

Bowie: "Baudrillard, the French philosopher said in that recent piece, 'There is a God. I just don't believe in him.' I think I might use that."

They both guffaw. In my transcript, "laugh" is the word that will occur most often, after the obvious ones like "I" and "the" and "concept".

But this innocence - isn't it hard to regain?

Bowie: "Yes it is."

Eno: "But the inspiration is that it could be done. What this means for me is that I can use any style, any approach. My palette is open."

Bowie: "Brian has always intuitively worked that way. Creating a situation of... childlikeness in the studio, which sounds glib but it's not, it's really important. A sense of play. Brian creates an area where you aren't afraid."

"I remember being with my wife's family once," Eno says. "Some of them are quite shy and we started playing Charades and within 10 minutes people are singing the theme from such-and-such with all the acting that goes with it. Because they're now in a frame which says 'you're not yourself, you're not responsible'. I thought, that's not a bad philosophy of life."

"Our relationship has been really quite interesting," Bowie says, as if this has just occurred to him. "I work mainly through intuition and Brian has a much stronger grasp of concept. But he cheats you see, he often will do something and qualify it with a concept afterwards... When I've finished working, I ask Brian what I've done, and why, and then I have something to talk about in interviews."

Eno says, "This is completely untrue. He's a very good conceptualiser, in fact."

So what's the real story?

Bowie: "It's not so different to that, is it?"

Eno: "No, but the more accurate picture -"

Bowie: "You always knew why you were deconstructing things, and I just enjoyed cutting everything up. It only became apparent to me later that that was actually, for me, a very satisfying thing to do. And when I went all linear in the Eighties, it was no longer interesting."

Eno, quietly: "I went all linear."

Bowie, in a funny voice, like an old woman: "I went all linear. Woke up one morning -"

Eno, imitating the imitation: "- and I was completely linear."

How long did he stay like that?

"Too long," Bowie says. "I can tell you the year. Till '88, when I started working again with Reeves Gabrels, who is quite similar to Brian."

"Yeah, he's a delinearist," Eno says.

"He's young enough not to know responsibilities," Bowie says. "And, er, no great success either. So he was a freeing agent. He said, 'Why are you fucking about with stupid pop songs? Do what you do best.' And that's where Tin Machine came from."

Ah, Tin Machine: the one career move everybody sees as a failure. Well, nearly everybody.

"Tin Machine was very important, 'cause it decontextualised me. After that, nobody had any idea what I was supposed to be. It enabled me to rebuild what I enjoyed doing the most."

Bowie's wedding, it turns out, was the start of the reunion. After pledging his troth to Iman, Bowie talked shop with Eno, and "realised we were thinking along similar lines again". Eno says they shared "a feeling that records are so boring at the moment".

As they trotted the globe, living the art-pop life - Bowie painting in Switzerland, playing Andy Warhol in a new film in New York, going to board meetings at Modern Painters in London; Eno (among other things) becoming Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art - the two men discussed the album, by fax, for six months. They agreed to write no songs in advance, just gather some varied musicians, book a studio in Montreux, and improvise.

Eno being Eno, it wasn't a normal improvisation. "Most times when people improvise, they cohere. They play the blues."

Bowie rolls his famous eyes at the boredom of it. "These endless jams that achieve nothing."

To prevent this, "to make something just on the edge of falling apart", Eno issued each musician with a card, and an identity. As in Charades, they saw only their own cards, which said things like: "You are a disgruntled ex-member of a South American rock band. Play the notes that you are not allowed to play."

Bowie hadn't known this would happen. In fact, he was at the other end of the studio, painting and playing with his Apple Mac (which cuts up the lyrics for him). He joined in later, armed with a card that said "you are a town crier".

The job of lending coherence was left to the story - Bowie's tale of Nathan Adler, a New Jersey detective investigating a murder committed in the name of art. It's a surprise to find the words assuming this importance: on Low & co, the music came first.

"Yes it did," Bowie says. "For me at that time it was a necessity. I mean I was going through - whatever I was going through. My interior was a bottleneck. It wasn't something I wanted to express." He laughs again, but nervously. According to the biographers, he was going through a dual withdrawal: from Angie, his first wife, and from cocaine.

"So I threw my soul into the just-musical form. Along with Brian, who was great to work with at that time. I've been lucky in my salvationists." A happier laugh.

Bowie has recently added yet another guise to his collection: being a journalist, of all things. In Modern Painters, he did a 12,000-word interview with Balthus, the erotic painter, now an octogenarian recluse. ("I was terrified," Bowie says.) There's a question he asked Balthus which I'd like to ask him. ("That'll teach you!" says Eno.) Is there a "throughline" in his work?

For once, Bowie pauses. "Yeah. I think I'm old enough now to see one: the idea that I don't have any faith in absolutes. I'm far more comfortable with what others may perceive as chaos or fragmentation. It's a truer reality for me. The Apollonian nature is something I really have problems with. People who structure things."

Eno looks up from Raw Vision. "Don't rise above your station. The great English crime."

"Sexual politics are the same," Bowie says. "There is a sort of radical-right view that you are only a heterosexual or only a gay. The idea that you actually vacillate between all forms of sexuality doesn't seem to be in there. And I still think, am I the only fucking person that knows this? It's like, they can't understand why I like the Renaissance and Damien Hirst at the same time. But I get both." He laughs. "One could also put it down to my short attention span. Once I get things, they don't give me eternal pleasure."

"If we were proper fine artists," Eno says, "we would be terribly concerned about which school we belonged to. The advantage the popular arts have is that they are not ideologically proud."

"Ah!" says Bowie. "There's something I said to Brian a few weeks ago and I think you agreed. What Brian is very good at is taking things from the popular and putting them into a fine-art area, whereas I tend to nick from the fine arts and demean them down to street culture. And as we pass each other, that pivotal point is where we work best."

Time was up, so I gave up trying to be objective and asked them to sign my old copy of Low.

Eno said, "I think this'll be the only copy we've both signed. We'd better authenticate it."

Bowie said, "You do it, your writing's better than mine." Turning to me, laughing: "Then we'll see how long it takes you to go to Sotheby's."

The signatures were on the back, thin blue lines on the plain orange card. Bowie had just put his sumame, like a peer. A huge B, a recognisable O, a squiggle and a 95. Eno had done a big B too, followed by a doodle that was controlled but not actually decipherable.

There on the sleeve, they looked like brothers.

'Outside' (RCA, CD/LP/tape) is out on 26 Sept. David Bowie may play in Britain in November.