Dave Grohl is backstage at New York’s Madison Square Garden when an envoy hands him a cream-colored envelope. As he slides it open, Grohl — the frontman of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana’s former drummer — suddenly realizes that David Bowie and his Somalian supermodel wife, Iman, have invited him to a private soiree. He presses the invite to his lips and gives it a smooch. He leaps up and down. He breaks into song: ”I’ve got the golden ticket! I’ve got the golden ticket!”
”’Iman requests the pleasure of your company…!”’ Grohl reads aloud. ”How hot is that? This is not supposed to happen to dumb people like me.”
Actually, it wasn’t supposed to happen to Bowie, either. On this slushy night of Jan. 9, aristocrats of the alternative nation — Grohl, Sonic Youth, Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, Robert Smith of the Cure — have gathered at the Garden to pay homage to the Thin White Duke as part of a gargantuan benefit concert to celebrate his 50th birthday. Originally, Bowie says, the show’s producers wanted to fluff up his half-century bash with safe choices — mainstream Bowie cronies like Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, and Mick Jagger who would entice pay-per-viewers when a filmed version of the concert airs on HBO March 8. But the artist formerly known as Aladdin Sane opted for all the young dudes. ”I didn’t want to do that sort of tribute-y retrospective thing,” Bowie says. ”I made a wish list of the guests that I would be happy working with, so that the event felt as though I’m still doing stuff now. I’m not a nostalgic person.”
Indeed, Bowie refuses to go gently into his golden years. Repudiating the slick, floppy-haired soul of his most commercially flush period — the Let’s Dance phase of the big ’80s — Bowie’s upcoming Earthling album, due in stores Feb. 11, burbles with the dense, spiky, hyperkinetic dance sound that’s taken Europe by storm: electronic music variously known as jungle or drum-and-bass. Last year Madonna inducted Bowie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; he neglected to show up. He shuns his old hits in concert. ”My understanding of success over the last 10 years has gotten back to what it used to be when I was working in the ’70s,” Bowie says. ”The thing I always wanted more than anything else was creative success.”
True, that contrarian attitude hasn’t given Bowie a hit in over a decade, but it has put him back in the ”cool” column. Just as the ornery, ever-wandering Neil Young was embraced as the Godfather of Grunge six years ago, Bowie — the Master of Morph who declared his bisexuality in 1972, changed stage personas faster than most rock stars change chords, and slyly impersonated Andy Warhol in last year’s film Basquiat — is suddenly seen as the brave emblem of an endlessly shifting pop climate. ”He set the prototype for so many things,” says Corgan. ”It’s the chameleon aspect,” says Grohl. ”He can do anything well. He can look like a bum, he can look like a supermodel.”
Bowie may cringe at nostalgia, but lately everyone seems to recall that first outrageous glimpse of a glammed-out Ziggy Stardust in the ’70s. ”He was emaciated, he had bright orange hair and silver lipstick and no eyebrows,” says the Cure’s Smith. ”And he looked fantastic. The potency of the image was so strong that the next day at school everyone was saying ‘Did you see Bowie on Top of the Pops?!”’
These days Bowie’s hair is back to bright orange. He’s still emaciated—thanks, he says, to Iman’s health-conscious cooking. Five days after the birthday wingding, outfitted in black jeans and a royal blue sweater, the actor and singer comes across not a whit like the imperious lizard who peers from stage and screen. Instead, he’s brash and boyish, bouncing on his chair in a Manhattan recording studio near his New York City home, sucking ruthlessly on a Marlboro Light, and frequently breaking into bursts of maniacal laughter.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You say you’re not nostalgic, but how did you feel on stage, at 50, closing the birthday bash with 1969’s “Space Oddity”?
DAVID BOWIE: Quite emotional, I must say. It’s more than the song itself; it’s the fact that it’s the first hit that I ever had. It really seemed like the fulfillment of some kind of cycle to end up the concert with the first song that I ever really was known for.
Some people in the audience seemed choked up.
It was all a bit gulpy, wasn’t it? See, I don’t mind one moment like that. I just didn’t want the whole show to degenerate into that kind of “Oh, do you remember what we were doing this night?” I hate going to shows like that, because I feel manipulated. I actually got away with playing eight completely new songs at this show! I thought that was quite a coup.
But people really go bonkers for the oldies. Does that bother you?
Not at all. I understand how audiences react. It’s just that I’m perverse about the way that I perform live. My reason for performing is not to please an audience. It’s to present what I believe are exciting new ideas. I definitely won’t bore an audience. If you want to go with what I’m doing, you will be entertained. But on the other hand, I’m not there to be just kind of a walking jukebox for you.
These days you, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed—the three enfants terribles of the ’70s—are considered almost elder statesmen in American rock.
Yeah, I know. It’s terribly flattering. I guess it kind of makes you think [segues into nerdy American voice], “Gee, I made a difference!”
But you must’ve known that already.
Not really. Not with America. I’m very aware of the impact I’ve had in Europe. But my impression of the reception I’d had in America was “Oh, here comes this eccentric limey again.” I never felt that I’d contributed much to the fabric of American rock.
Earthling has a song called “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Why are Americans afraid of dance music?
Isn’t that peculiar? I mean, this is the country of dance.
Does it frustrate you, since you’re now exploring dance music?
It does, because I don’t really see much of a future for drum-and-bass in the States, frankly. I don’t think it’ll catch on in a major way over here….I had America-mania when I was a kid, but I loved all the things that America rejects: It was black music, it was the beatnik poets, it was all the stuff that I thought was the true rebellious subversive side. To almost disown that and to give us back McDonald’s and Disney is not fair, and it’s not a true representation of what makes America great. What makes America great is its pioneer, independent spirit, not its corporate togetherness.
I’ve been asking people for their favorite David Bowie incarnations; Hunky Dory  and Ziggy Stardust  are the clear winners. Your favorites?
Station to Station  and Low . Some of my best work was in those two albums. I understand Hunky Dory and Ziggy; they are indeed a lot more hummable.
Do you have a Bowie incarnation that you loathe?
I have a couple of albums that I’m absolutely quite embarrassed about.
Yeah—because it was my fault. Tonight  and Never Let Me Down . Those two albums for me were my nadir; they were just awful. I shouldn’t have gone into the studio and made albums when I felt as I did. I’d totally fallen out of love with writing music at that time.
When Madonna inducted you into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you didn’t show up.
I’m not really one for those awards shows—that aspect of competitiveness leaves me a little cold—although I saw what Madonna said because somebody sent me the tape, and I thought it was incredibly generous of her, frankly. She really went up in my estimation because of that.
Like Madonna, you’re credited with creating this ambisexual image in rock & roll.
It would’ve happened without me. I was just there at that point in musical history when those experimentations were going down, and I couldn’t keep my mouth closed!
But you were so candid about your sexual preferences.
Yeah, absolutely. I was really intent, from the beginning, not to be one of these guys who lives in fear. I wasn’t going to have that happen to me at all; I’d seen it hurt too many people around me. I led a particularly adventurous early life, and I just didn’t want it catching up with me in the wrong way. So whatever I was going through, I used to tell people about it.
Because the public knows about that unfettered past, don’t you encounter people who are surprised that you’ve settled into happy monogamy with Iman?
I guess I’ve been heterosexual for so many years that most of the people I know now have only known me since, like, the early ’80s or something. They’ve known me just as “the straight guy” who had this kind of dodgy past. So I don’t think it’s any surprise to them. I guess fans wonder what kind of mutated life I must’ve gone through to end up where I am, but I’m just your average joe! [Laughs] I love saying that!
What acting projects do you have lined up at the moment?
I’m not a keen actor. It’s very low on my list of priorities. I’m not enamored of the process; I find it incredibly vegetating. I have all the same ambitions as every other actor when I get onto a set, which is, I take a novel with me and intend to read it, and I never do! I just end up sitting outside the trailer, talking with people about God knows what. And I look up at the end of the day and I say, “What a waste of a f—ing day—just to be standing there for 15 minutes in front of the camera! I could’ve been doing this, this, and this!” I mean, I quite like the idea of being a film star, but I’m not sure if I’m prepared to do all the work that’s necessary to be one. With Basquiat, I was at home in New York, so when they finished with me, I could just wander off and go to a record shop. I did go shopping as Andy a couple of times, just for the hell of it.
It was heart stopping! I shopped in his neighborhood, down in SoHo, so the reactions were so bizarre. People were nearly dropping on the street—especially older people who had seen Andy around the neighborhood a lot. I would walk around the corner and they’d go [gasps], “Oh, my God!” I loved it. I had a couple of days of just feeling like a practical joker.
Considering your lifelong obsession with extraterrestrial life, do you watch The X-Files?
I don’t watch The X-Files, no. I’m pleased to say I’ve got too many things to do. I don’t watch much television, because of that. I do believe in extraterrestrials, but it’s not a significant part of my life.
Do you believe in alien abductions?
[Slipping into a Cockney brogue] Well, I’ve abducted a few people in my time! With their consent, of course.