When my interview with Ian Astbury, legendary frontman for The Cult, was set up, it was to be a run-of-the-mill Q & A. The topic at hand was the new Cult album and tour, with maybe some dialogue about his time with The Doors and many experiences over a 30-plus-year career.
Neither of us knew that we’d be chatting just 48 hours after hearing the shocking and devastating news that David Bowie had passed.
We eventually got to all the Cult stuff. But first, we talked Bowie. Clearly still in shock and what can only be described as utter grief, Astbury openly shared his memories of the icon, both professional and personal. Here are his words – and whether you were fortunate enough to have known Bowie or simply idolized him like millions of us did (and continue to do, more than ever), his sentiments echo the loss that everyone’s been feeling.
I haven’t grieved like this since my parents passed away. It’s been huge and profound – I feel like all my vital organs have been torn out, set on fire and then buried in the ground somewhere.
The first single I bought was “Life on Mars”, when I was 10 years old.
I was thrown out of school when I was 11 for putting blue food colouring in my hair.
Where do I begin with this man? He was a mentor to me, I met him on several occasions, had some intimate moments with him. I’m very grateful for that. His music formed part of my DNA. When I saw him on Top of the Pops when I was a kid, all of a sudden the world that I was growing up in – my parents, school, the society I was a part of – all of that was just ripped away. Eradicated. And this new world was presented to me through this person, through this human being. He led me to Berlin, to Paris, to the Himalayas, to Tibet to the canyon I live in in Los Angeles where Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley resided. He’s always been present; I’ve bought every single record he ever made. I’ve seen him perform countless times. And he was the first individual to acknowledge me as a young performer. Who gave me words of insight and encouragement and saw me as a person – a young person who was seeking, looking for guidance. He anointed me when I was a kid and I’ve had some profound moments with him over decades.
And then there’s the music. The individual encounters I had with him are one thing, but then there’s the music. It’s been the soundtrack to my life; it’s always been present. It might not be evident in the style of The Cult as a band…but I think as you see this band evolving and me evolving as a writer, it’s evident that Bowie has been omnipresent. Everyone who asks me “who’s your favourite singer” assumes that it’s Jim Morrison. And I say “No! David Bowie! It always has been.”
I was in Liverpool when John Lennon died, in the bar where The Beatles used to drink between sets, next to the Cavern, called The Grapes. We were right there at Ground Zero for The Beatles, on Mathew Street in Liverpool. And the whole city came down after he’d been shot in New York – we’re talking tens of thousands of people. Mourning.
I was present for that – and it touched me, but not in this way. My manager has been working with Holy Holy and Tony Visconti. So I found out pretty early…11:30, Sunday night, here in Los Angeles, I got a phone call. My wife said “there’s obviously an emergency” and I’d been going through a bit of a rough week and thought “I can’t right now; I really don’t want to hear anything!” But we thought we’d better check what was going on and we found out. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. And dragged underneath it.
It’s staggering, staggering, staggering. There’s a man that you thought would have gone on forever. I always thought he’d be 120 years old.
He’ll always be there in many ways because his music will go on. And leaving us with Blackstar…he lifted the veil for us into death. Death is something we don’t really talk about too much in the culture and people talk about death as if it’s a morbid thing. We are all going to pass that threshold. And he is a man who shared that with us. How many people put that in their art? We celebrate the veneer of youth – youth is fleeting. It’s a cosmic joke. Youth is fleeting, and the business of living is far more complex. Far more profound. I remember being taken aside by Steven Tyler once and he looked at me up and down. He said “Just keep doing it, young man”. Because I was a hellion! I was like “what’s he talking about?” And then you evolve through your life and are like “Oh, I’m beginning to get it now”! Bette Davis said it – getting old isn’t for sissies. And Bowie left us with what incredible courage. What a gift he left us with Blackstar.
I saw him at the CNE on the Sound + Vision tour and that was staggering. He’d do a beautiful song on the piano and then say “Alright everyone, how’s it going?” Just pop into this really friendly, cheeky, charismatic guy who was immediately somebody you felt very familiar with. Everyone I’ve encountered who loves Bowie feels like they knew the man. We had him in our bedrooms as kids, playing records – and then as we’ve evolved, he’s been so present. And will continue to be present. Someone asked me what I listen to in the car and I said “I listen to hip hop or David Bowie”. That’s about it, pretty much.
The Cult opened for Bowie in ’87 in Paris. I came off stage and was ushered to David’s dressing room, where we were speaking for quite a while. His road manager kept coming in and saying “15 minutes”, “10 minutes”, “David, you’re supposed to be on stage” and he was like “I’m talking right now”. Meanwhile there were 80,000 people on a racecourse in Paris! And it was just so beautiful, so generous. There were many such encounters with him. I would never presume to say that I knew him…I wouldn’t have picked up the phone and said “Hey David, what’s going on?” But the gifts that I got with him and the moments that we did spend together were very beautiful.
The Cult in 1987
The one thing with Bowie was that he had some theatrical training, especially with Lindsay Kemp very early on. So he really had a sense of body presence. It’s definitely not something you get taught in punk rock, for sure. He actually understood movement and presence and being present and being in your body and being completely in your psyche, in your persona. And that being enough – you don’t have to do something. A lot of performers feel they have to do something, like enunciate in a certain way or push something in a certain way or do something explosive. Definitely when I was younger, you felt like because you were on stage, you’ve got to do something. He didn’t. He did not. He was just present. That’s the same presence I felt; probably the heaviest room I’ve been in was with the Dalai Lama. The similar vibrational quality. Robert Plant has that, as a person.
He has that presence. I have met many over the years who I’ve admired who didn’t have an ounce of what Bowie had. Just insipid – not present. When you were in his presence, he was present. Like a familiar friend. Like a parent, like a teacher.
And in many ways he’s helped to usher in the rise of the divine feminine. Where does that begin? For me, it began with him. Where we’re at right now. He informed so much of the way that society’s changed. His love of African American music, his love of black music…he fought for those artists to be put in the foreground and they’re pretty much well circulated now, his conversations with MTV. But he introduced – and stood for – those of us who didn’t have a voice. And fiercely believed in his vision, even at times when he may have felt insecure. He still went ahead with it.
I’ve seen some of the accolades pouring in from celebrities and some of them have been really beautiful. I love the fact that some people haven’t been able to even speak. You think “where are the comments from this lady or this guy?” and it’s like “oh, I get it – they can’t even speak right now”. Today’s the first day I’ve been able to barely function. Because I have to. But my first impulse was to set everything I own on fire and shave my head and walk off into the desert. I can’t do this anymore – I don’t want to be a part of a world that he’s not in. He was my father, he was my brother, he was my friend, my teacher…everything. Everything. It’s pretty much David Robert Jones, 24/7.
I’ve seen all these eulogies about who he was, what he did, his contribution to culture, etc.…but the most comforting and the most insightful comments have been ones where people talk about their feelings. How his music and his life influenced, formed who we are as individuals and made us question or create or travel. His music, his work, his philosophy. I was always very inquisitive but he actually gave us guidelines, signposts. He always revealed his processes, his source material, his influences…in a way that left breadcrumbs for us to follow. I have a friend who’s in the Himalayas right now who’s grieving as well. They’re looking at the Himalaya and we’re discussing Bowie. We’re talking about the connective tissue that’s connected tissue with so many people I love and care for. If you put it all together, our lowest common denominator, what links us all together…is Bowie.