As we continue to celebrate the life of music’s finest chameleon, our attention turns to David Bowie on the small screen: specifically, his entertaining appearances on chat shows across the world. As someone who could guarantee a good quote or two, the Thin White Duke could either be an interviewer’s Christmas-come-early or their worst nightmare – as you’ll soon see, it simply depended upon which kind of mood you caught him in. YouTube has a treasure trove of Bowie interviews that you could lose hours of your life to. To get you started, here’s a selection of some of his most memorable TV appearances.
Singing nursery rhymes on Conan
Bowie was a great friend of comedian Conan O’Brien’s show Late Night in the US, appearing on both Conan’s sofa and stage a number of times. The host paid tribute to Bowie during last night’s transmission, calling him a “phenomenal, mind-blowing musician, and also an incredibly nice and funny person.” This led into a five-minute highlight reel of Bowie’s appearances on the show, including such moments as the musician joking about drinking with Elvis (despite the fact that they never met), recounting his daughter’s wonderment at seeing the moon for the first time (“like many people in the ’70s”, he quipped), and then, rather incredibly, singing the nursery rhyme ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ in “David Bowie style”. It’s a quite a thing to behold.
Verbally jousting with Jonathan Ross
Bowie was the subject of a 45-minute BBC One special with the louche presenter in 2002, performing four tracks (including ‘Fashion’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’) and debating many a topic with the unflinching Ross. As well as offering Ross out for a few rounds of boxing (“I’ve been doing a bit of sparring – it’s hard, isn’t it?” the host asked. “Well, yeah, that’s the point” came the witty reply), his perspective on possibly being awarded a knighthood (“I suggest they give it to some one who gives a damn… it’s not on my shopping list”), and the continuing struggles of being a writer (“there’s a sense of mystery that I’ll never be able to confront… or escape from certain things”), this interview is particularly notable for Bowie’s comments on sexuality.
“You were gay for a while…” Ross begins, tactfully. “Nah, I was just happy,” retorts Bowie. “I just got me leg over a lot… I was incredibly promiscuous.” The host then asks whether he should try, ahem, “man-love”.
“Such a serious and life-challenging question…” ponders Bowie, as Ross smirks off-camera. “The answer that I have for you would probably create such turmoil in your soul that I’m not sure you could withstand it, or in fact last the rest of the show. So I’m afraid that I’m going to have to politely and reluctantly not answer that question.” The fact that it left Ross spluttering is all the more brilliant.
Talking hip-hop with Bryant Gumbel
Bowie lauded the power of hip-hop during an appearance on NBC’s Today programme in 1993, reinforcing his previous belief that the “only truly creative people in music were rappers.”
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“The quality and significance of the social message has moved very much fundamentally to the black and hispanic market. And that’s where the new force of music is coming from… With black music, there’s a very strong social point to make. There’s a means of discovery and a purpose.”
It’s a small excerpt, but Bowie also reveals that he never considered himself to be “a rocker”, whilst he also confesses that his wife, Iman, ironed the clothes that he was wearing for the interview.
Rubbing shoulders with Tom Hanks on Parkinson
Appearing on the same edition as Tom Hanks, Bowie discussed owning his childhood hero Little Richard’s stage jacket (an anniversary gift from Iman), seeing the Rolling Stones at the Brixton Odeon in 1963 (with an anecdote about Mick Jagger responding to a heckle of “get your hair cut” with “What, and look like you?” – “ I thought ‘Oh my god, this is the future of music!’”), and the influence that he took from his mother, who would sing at the breakfast table each and every morning. It’s a charming interview that reinforces the idea that Bowie, as well being a musical genius, was also a thoroughly good bloke.
Serenading Rosie O’Donnell
This 1997 appearance saw Bowie bring out a guitar “as something to do with my hands – I never know what to do on these kind of shows”. As the clip continues, you start to understand exactly why he’s brought it out: not to sing the host a tuneful ditty (which he does do, with aplomb), but as a means of defence from the New Yoiker’s garish interviewing style – she even kisses him on the lips once he’s finished performing. Yeesh.
Standing up for having long hair
This marvellous piece of footage was actually Bowie’s first televised interview, which took place when he was just 17 and still going by his birth name, David Jones. The leader of “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men” – i.e. male teens who were refusing to get their hair cut (take that, squares) – is interviewed by Cliff Michelmore in November 1964, where he bemoans people in the street calling him “darling” and asking if they can “carry [his] handbag”.
“It’s not too bad really, I like it” says young Davy of his long, luscious locks. “We don’t see why other people should persecute us because of it.” He then proposes a march for the long hair movement, “sort of like the Ban The Bomb movement.” A rebel from the very beginning, then.
But even Ziggy couldn’t put up with stupid questions
Bowie was operating on a totally different level to us mere mortals, a fact that he acknowledged in a number of ways. But one of the most amusing methods of demonstrating this came with the manner in which he shut down the terrible questions that he was so often asked by interviewers who clearly didn’t know how to handle such an intelligent specimen – and, as you can probably imagine, this happened quite a bit. Luckily, some genius on the internet has trawled through the voluminous reels of Bowie footage from time gone by in order to string together a seven-minute cut of the man himself putting dumb interviewers (including a number of clips starring the memorably-foolish Russell Harty) firmly in their place. Enjoy.